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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Memphis Revitalized

Beyond Elvis, this southern city’s star continues to rise.

Elvis Presley, Graceland, and anything related to the King of Rock ‘n Roll have drawn me to Memphis six times over the past 35 years. But since my last visit nearly seven years ago, Memphis has gotten pretty buzzy – it was proclaimed “the hottest destination in Tennessee” by Conde Nast Traveler editors, who in 2023 named it among the 23 best places to visit in the country and the world.

This is due not only to the city’s unique history and long-standing appeal, but to billions of dollars in revitalization projects over several years. Long known as the Birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll, Home of the Blues, and Barbecue Capital of the World, Memphis is adopting a new moniker — River City on the Rise.

Tennessee’s second-largest city (behind Nashville) welcomed more than 12 million visitors in 2023, and that number is expected to grow. While continuing to embrace its rich heritage, Memphis now has new hotels, restaurants, and a revitalized riverfront offering more reasons to plan a visit — even if, like me, you’ve been there before.


Central Station Hotel photo provided by source

The Central Station Hotel, which opened in October 2019 as part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, was an ideal location to begin exploring the downtown area, along with several other travel writers.

The 123-room luxury hotel in the South Main Arts District was part of a $55 million project, undertaken more than 100 years after a train station first opened on South Main Street in 1914. Along with the hotel, a new Amtrak ticket office and waiting area were added.

Many of the main sights are quite walkable, a mile or two at most from the Central Station Hotel. You can also take the Main Street Trolley from the hotel to the Beale Street Entertainment District and other points of interest in the downtown area.

The Arcade Restaurant, Memphis’ oldest café, is across the street from the hotel. Ask to see the booth where Elvis liked to sit and, if time allows, stay for a cup of coffee or Elvis’ favorite deep-fried peanut butter banana sandwich.


Civil Rights Museum photo by Debbra Dunning Brouillette

The National Civil Rights Museum, a five-minute walk from our hotel, is positioned at the former Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968.

The museum opened in 1991 to honor his legacy. Exhibits cover five centuries of civil rights history, from the beginning of the resistance during slavery, through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, and related events of the late 20th century.

Particularly poignant to me was the final exhibit, “King’s Last Hours.” Visitors slowly shuffled past Room 306, viewed through a glass window, in hushed silence. It remains just as King left it before he walked onto the balcony, where his life was taken by an assassin.


The city’s reputation as the Barbecue Capital of the World is well-known, with its more than 100 barbecue restaurants. The annual four-day World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is a popular event held during the Memphis in May Festival.

We had lunch at Central BBQ, often ranked the No. 1 spot for barbecue in Memphis. The restaurant’s motto is “smoke is our sauce.” A secret combination of dry-rub spices and a 24-hour marinade is used to prepare its award-winning ribs, pork, chicken, turkey, and beef brisket for the smoker. The meat and poultry are slow smoked over hickory and pecan wood and served with Central BBQ’s signature sauces.


The history and heritage of Memphis, named for the ancient capital of Egypt on the River Nile, have been strongly tied to the Mississippi River since its founding in 1819.

Tom Lee Park along the Mississippi River photo by Julian Harper

Our group’s experience of the River City on the Rise came during several hours in 30-foot, multi-person Voyageur canoes, with a trained guide directing us. Halfway through, we stopped for snacks and then paddled under the river bridge to our ending point.

Mississippi River Expeditions offers river adventures including micro-cruises, half- and full-day trips, and multi-day camping trips.

The following morning, we strolled along the riverfront through Tom Lee Park, which underwent a $61 million facelift in 2023. It was named for a Black Memphian who rescued 32 people from a steamship disaster on the Mississippi River in 1925. The riverfront park is connected to downtown via a canopy walkway.


For me, no visit to Memphis would be complete without another nostalgic walk through Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. It is the second most visited home in the U.S. after the White House, attracting more than 650,000 visitors annually. This time, visiting the Meditation Garden, which includes the graves of Presley and his family, was even more significant since his daughter, Lisa Marie, and his grandson, Benjamin, have been laid to rest there as well.

Across from the mansion is Elvis Presley’s Memphis entertainment complex, which opened in 2017. His planes, cars, and other exhibits highlighting his musical and movie career are on display, along with an eye-popping “Dressed to Rock” exhibit of more than 100 jumpsuits, capes, belts, and pieces of jewelry worn by the King from 1969 to 1977.


Memphis has the distinction of being included in the lyrics of more recorded songs than any other city on the planet — more than 1,000. Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” may be one of the most iconic. The line “walking in Memphis, with my feet 10 feet off of Beale …” ran through my head as we walked through the Beale Street Entertainment District on our last evening.

The official Home of the Blues is a three-block pedestrian-only stretch of clubs, restaurants, and shops in the heart of downtown, between Second and Fourth streets. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966, Beale Street also is the location of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum. Known as the Father of the Blues, Handy is familiar to Tri-State residents, since he spent a decade in Henderson, Kentucky. Henderson’s W.C. Handy Blues and Barbecue Festival is held annually in mid-June.

Itta Bena, a fine dining restaurant with a speakeasy vibe, was the perfect choice for our last evening meal. To access the hidden entrance, guests climb the fire escape stairs on the side of the building. (At this time, that’s the only way inside Itta Bena.)

From a third-floor vantage point above B.B. King’s Blues Club, diners overlook Beale Street through blue-tinted windows. Soft jazz adds to the ambiance but doesn’t intrude on conversation.

Menu items like jumbo shrimp and grits and Cajun pasta are examples of its Southern-inspired cuisine with a Delta twist. Start with the crab-stuffed avocado and she-crab soup. Named for the Mississippi town where B.B. King was born, Itta Bena is well worth seeking out.


Memphis is a four-and-a-half-hour drive south of Evansville (approximately 300 miles). If you choose to fly, as I did, Delta Airlines has daily flights from Evansville Regional Airport to Atlanta, Georgia, with a connection to Memphis.

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Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti joined Tucker Publishing Group in September 2022 as a staff writer. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2020 with a bachelors degree in English. A Connecticut native, Maggie has ridden horses for 15 years and has hunt seat competition experience on the East Coast.

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