Soul food... B.B. King's Blues Club is at the centre of the entertainment district. Photo: AFP
Katrina Lobley explores the lively city on the Mississippi with the blues and the nation's civil rights struggle at its heart.
He left the building decades ago, yet more than 500,000 Elvis fans still flock to Memphis each year. This Tennessee city is home to Graceland and Sun Studio (where Elvis made his first recordings), but it's no musical mausoleum. It rocks hard, with a vibrant live-music scene along Beale Street and beyond.
Memphis entered modern-history books when the civil rights leader Martin Luther King jnr was assassinated here in 1968. The facade and parking lot of the Lorraine Motel, where King was murdered, forms a compelling centrepiece of the city's National Civil Rights Museum.
Elvis Presley lives on in Beale Street. Photo: AFP
No one should spend just 24 hours in Memphis but, if that's all the time you have, give thanks for "soul" food. It'll keep the motor running during an intense day.
Wake under a black-and-white Presley portrait in the Heartbreak Hotel; switch on the Elvis movie channel to warm up for Graceland. With King Creole or Viva Las Vegas playing in your head, check the hotel's gift shop (where there's no such thing as a fat Elvis). Swagger to the Graceland ticket office next door to catch the shuttle that travels a few hundred metres to the front door of Graceland, on the other side of Elvis Presley Boulevard. Upstairs is off-limits but the mansion's ground levels include a living room with peacock stained-glass windows, Presley's parents' bedroom, the pool room with its pleated fabric ceiling, and the famously over-the-top Jungle Room. To the rear of the 5.6-hectare estate, visitors can wander between the office of Presley's father, Vernon, Lisa Marie's swing set, the trophy room with its wall of gold and platinum records, stage outfits and Elvis and Priscilla's wedding regalia, and a racquetball court used as more exhibition space. Final stop is the Meditation Garden holding the graves of Presley, his twin brother, mother, father and grandmother (who outlived them all). Don't be surprised to see visitors in tears here. Near the ticket office, board Elvis's custom jets (including the Lisa Marie, with a double bed and one very wide seatbelt) and his collection of luxury cars.
Graceland is open daily from 9am, May 21 to September 2; see elvis.com.Platinum ticket $US36 ($35), VIP ticket $US70. Rooms at the Heartbreak Hotel on Elvis Presley Boulevard cost from $78 a person a night, twin share; see creativeholidays.com.
Catch the free hourly shuttle from Graceland to Sun Studio. A 45-minute tour starts with the memorabilia and finishes in the studio where Elvis recorded from 1953 to 1955 (a black cross on the floor marks "the spot"). Pose for photos holding the microphone Elvis once used.
Sun Studio, 706 Union Avenue; tours run hourly 10.30am-5.30pm, $US12; see sunstudio.com.
Take a taxi (or drive) to the Arcade Restaurant where the King ate in a corner booth below a large mirror he reportedly used to keep tabs on comings and goings. The 1950s-style diner is Memphis's oldest restaurant (evolving from a 1919 eatery where meals were cooked on potbelly stoves); its handsome retro looks have featured in such films as The Firm, 21 Grams and Walk the Line. Order a cheeseburger, pizza or that old Elvis favourite - a fried peanut butter 'n' banana sandwich ($US7.95).
The Arcade Restaurant, 540 Main Street, open daily 7am-3pm; see arcaderestaurant.com.
Near the Arcade is the National Civil Rights Museum, built around the facade and parking lot of the Lorraine Motel. Exhibits detail the history of the black struggle in the US and include the Rosa Parks bus; visitors can climb aboard to snap a picture with a statue of the civil rights pioneer who refused to give up her seat to a white man. File past the Lorraine Motel's Room 306, where Martin Luther King spent his last hours before being shot on the balcony (a wreath marks the spot). Via a tunnel, enter the rooming house across the road from the museum where King's assassin, James Earl Ray, took aim through the window of a grubby bathroom.
National Civil Rights Museum, 450 Mulberry Street, entry $US13, closed Tuesdays; see civilrightsmuseum.org.
Catch a Main Street trolley ($US1 a ride) downtown and head to the Peabody Hotel in time for the 5pm duck march, in which five North American mallards who spend their days splashing in the hotel foyer's fountain are escorted to their rooftop roost.
The Peabody, 149 Union Avenue; see peabodymemphis.com.
Memphis is on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. The riverside has sweeping views of the Hernando de Soto Bridge's graceful arches and of Mud Island (musician Jeff Buckley drowned near here in 1997). Memphis has never made much of its waterfront - annual river fluctuations average 17 metres - but that's changing. The almost-complete Beale Street Landing, with its grassed, gently curved roof, is the home dock of the American Queen, a majestic paddle steamer that hosts overnight cruises.
Head a few blocks south to Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken eatery. From the outside it doesn't look like much; inside there are pressed-metal ceilings, checked plastic tablecloths and locals buzzing with happiness while hoeing into spicy deep-fried chicken with beans and 'slaw.
Gus's, 310 S Front Street, 11am-9pm weekdays, 11am-10pm weekends; +1 901 527 4877.
Hop into a horse-drawn carriage for a tour of downtown's highlights, including the opulent, 1928-built Orpheum Theatre. Many carriages have fairy lights, are shaped like pumpkins and look as though they've lobbed straight from the pages of a classic children's fairytale. Some drivers have the added attraction of a four-legged companion (cat, dog, wolf) riding shotgun.
Meet at the intersection of Beale and S Main streets, or near The Peabody's Union Avenue entrance. A 30-minute ride is $US45 a carriage; one-hour tour $US75.
Beale Street may be buzzing by now. Famed as the home of the blues, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Memphis Minnie and B. B. King have appeared here. To enter the heart of this entertainment district, join the queue (security staff will want to see ID and check guests for weapons). Grab a drink (Wet Willie's features a wall of candy-coloured pre-mixed daiquiris; flavours include Catch a Cab, Shock Treatment and Attitude Improvement) and wander from club to club until something catches your ear. More intimate, low-key options can be found in surrounding streets, such as at the Centre for Southern Folklore, which hosts gigs Thursday to Saturday.
From downtown, take a 10-minute cab ride into a parallel universe. Wild Bill's is a juke joint that doesn't start jumping until after midnight; musicians often play on Beale Street before heading here. Patriarch "Wild Bill" Storey died in 2007 but his authentic suburban soul and blues club lives on. Grab a seat and order chicken wings; they'll help soak up the 40-ounce (1.2-litre) cans of beer on sale (or BYO hard liquor). When the band starts cranking out classics such as Proud Mary and Crosscut Saw, get ready to hit the dance floor.
Wild Bill's, 1580 Vollintine Avenue, open Friday-Saturday until 3am, $US10 cover charge; +1 901 603 5314.
If you're leaving town on Amtrak's 6.50am City of New Orleans service, channel a "thank ya ... thank ya, very much" to Elvis and Wild Bill and congratulate yourself on the foresight to book a bed on the train. After breakfast in the dining car (the meal is included in sleeping-car fares), have the attendant unfold that bed as the train rocks and rolls towards that other musical mecca: New Orleans.
A one-way seat from Memphis to New Orleans costs from $UA54; a roomette costs from US$48 extra; see amtrak.com.
Katrina Lobley travelled courtesy of Creative Holidays, Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau and Amtrak.
Qantas has a fare to Memphis from Sydney for about $1990 low-season return including tax. Fly to Dallas (15hr 10min), then Memphis (1hr 25min). Melbourne passengers pay about the same and fly to Sydney to connect; see qantas.com.au. Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.