MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On the afternoon of Aug. 16, 1977, Elvis Presley was found unresponsive at his home, Graceland. He was rushed to Baptist Memorial Hospital, but the doctors there could do nothing for him. He was pronounced dead at 3:30 p.m.
In the days that followed, tens of thousands of people made their way to Memphis in an impromptu pilgrimage of grief. They’ve been returning ever since. Now, 40 years later, the organizers of “Elvis Week” expect the largest crowds ever.
Truthfully, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll shimmied off his mortal coil in an inconvenient season. The middle of August finds Memphis balmy if we’re being charitable. Let’s not mention the language a person could use if he were feeling uncharitable.
Still, it’s a lively time to visit. Elvis fans will no doubt find many events at Graceland moving, particularly the candlelight vigil, beginning at 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 15. Several popular locations are worth a visit, including Sun Studio and Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The National Civil Rights Museum should not be missed, though its somber nature requires ample time to tour and reflect.
Other popular locations can be cut from your itinerary without sacrificing an authentic experience. Specifically, Beale Street should be avoided at all costs. Much like the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Beale Street exists entirely as a kind of live play-act for tourists. The ducks at the Peabody Hotel are cute, but they are simply ducks indoors.
Better to spend your time away from the crowds exploring a bit of the “real” Memphis. Here are some family-friendly activities located throughout the city, although each is easily accessible by car.
The great outdoors
If you simply must get your downtown fix, do it at the Metal Museum. Part art gallery, part resident working studio, part living history, the museum offers sweeping bluff-top views of the Mississippi River. Its main buildings were once part of a hospital complex, and the grounds are filled with metal artwork large and small. It’s free to walk around outside and $6 for adults if you want to check out the exhibitions or poke your head in the metal shop to chat with the artists about their work. Drop by the gift shop for one-of-a-kind items.
If you must roam free, a canoe or kayak trip down the Wolf River is unmatched. It’s a tributary of the Mississippi that meanders through the countryside east of the city before joining its larger cousin downtown. You can find lots of information at the Wolf River Conservancy about the habitat you’ll encounter and companies that offer boats and guides.
You can put in at various points along the river, but the “Ghost River” section is arguably the best. Reserve most of a day to include car travel. The river is lazy and calm, and you should be too — paddling hard will only make you sweaty and grouchy. Drift among the cypress trees, do some bird watching and dodge occasional snakes. (Most aren’t venomous.) There are no rest stops or vending machines along the banks, so pack food and water and practice leave no trace principles. Bring along bug spray and sunscreen.
If you’d like a little less wild in your outdoors, visit the Memphis Botanic Garden. It’s 96 acres of beautifully landscaped flora. Highlights include the Sensory Garden and the Japanese Garden. The Big Backyard encourages kids to get their wiggles out while grownups will enjoy the flower beds (planted inside metal bed frames) and a walk through the butterfly garden. Everyone can hula hoop on the lawn and splash in the scheduled “rainstorms” (rooftop sprinklers with thunder sound effects) that feed the man-made creek.
When you’ve had enough of the heat and humidity outdoors, spend a lazy afternoon at the Rec Room. You’ll find free ping pong, foosball and classic arcade games. But for the real experience, rent a “living room” for access to several generations of Xbox and Playstation consoles — and a large library of games that go with them. Pizza and soft drinks are available when you work up an appetite, and kids are welcome every day until 6 pm.
If screen time isn’t your thing, head over to Billy Hardwick’s for a little friendly ten-pin competition. Hardwick was a hall-of-fame bowler from Memphis who opened the alley when he retired. You can drop in any day, and they offer family deals on lane rentals that include pizza and drinks.
No visit to Memphis is complete without a stop at Gibson’s Donuts. They have all the gooey, glazed, sprinkled and jelly filled creations you’re used to, but these donuts are anything but average. Fresh and made right, the cakes are moist and the glazed are light without being too poofy. And don’t despair if the line spills out the door and onto the sidewalk. The staff is quick and friendly, and the supply is seemingly endless.
But it’s hot and sweltering, and the kids are screaming for one thing: ice cream. The best in town can be had at La Michoacana. Try a sundae, a paleta (a fruit popsicle) or a plain ol’ gigantic cone. Everything is freshly made, and the menu changes daily. Don’t be surprised to find mango or pineapple paired with chili pepper. The ice cream is rich and sweet — a little goes a long way for grownups. Kids will beg for more.
Let’s get two things straight. One, barbecue is not what happens when you cook hamburgers in your backyard; that’s grilling. Two, there is no more delicious and tender barbecue than what can be eaten in Memphis. The good people of Texas, Missouri and the Carolinas will tell you otherwise. Bless their hearts.
Many visitors gravitate to The Rendezvous downtown, which certainly puts on a memorable show. The food is good, but the place is crowded. One feels rushed at the table, instead of invited to linger over succulent ribs. A better choice for a table service is The Bar-B-Q Shop. Order your ribs dry, your pulled-pork topped with slaw and your tea sweet. Spend a while savoring the flavors.
If you’ve got picky eaters to think about, Central BBQ offers smoked turkey, chicken and Portobello mushrooms along with the standard pork options. It’s worth a trip just for their home-cooked potato chips. Grab an extra bag on your way out.
But if you want the absolute gold standard, go to Cozy Corner. This places doesn’t put on airs, but it does make unbeatable ribs. Try the Cornish hen or bologna if you’re feeling adventurous. And if you’re feeling downright reckless, order the Super Hot sauce — just not on the ribs, please!
Geoffrey Redick is a freelance writer and radio producer. He lives in Seattle. He’s on Twitter.