The Home of the Blues, the Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Memphis is a soulful city that’s defined by what it’s given to the musical world. And one of the best ways to dig into this city – the music, of course, but also its place in civil rights history – is to explore a few of the museums in Memphis.
When we were planning our 4-month USA road trip, it wasn’t hard to decide on our first stop: it had to be Memphis. We spent a few days here and – along with the food, the music, the history, the friendly people – I quickly discovered just how fantastic all the Memphis museums are and what makes this city one of the coolest places to visit in the US.
Whether you’re into music, history or art, there’s a museum in Memphis to tickle your fancy. Here’s a rundown of some of the best Memphis museums – put one or all of them on your list for when you visit!
This blog post may contain affiliate links, meaning if you book or buy something through one of these links, I may earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you).
Music museums in Memphis
On a blistering hot summer day in August 1953, a handsome young man walked through the doorway of Sun Studio in Memphis. His plan was to record a couple of songs and make it big, but it took a while for the owner, Sam Phillips, to warm up to the dashing singer who didn’t “sound like nobody”. It wasn’t until a year later that they found their hit, and the singer’s career launched in a spectacular way, changing the trajectory of music forever.
That young man was, of course, Elvis Presley.
Elvis Presley wasn’t Sun Studio’s only big-name star: before Presley, the recording studio discovered stars B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner, and later drew Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis into the recording booth.
While it’s still an operational recording studio, you can visit Sun Studio during the day to see where these household musical names recorded and learn more stories about some of music’s biggest legends – including that famous Million Dollar Quartet jam session.
You can only visit on a 45-minute tour, which is led by guides with fantastic story-telling skills and who have access to original recordings. You’ll hear about the rise and demise of Sun Studios, and get to stand in the very spot where Elvis first recorded.
Whether you’re a music lover or not, Sun Studio is a must on any Memphis itinerary.
Address: 706 Union Avenue, Memphis
Details: Sun Studio offers guided tours (the only way to visit) on the bottom half of every hour from 10.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. (Friday and Saturday) and 10.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. (Sunday to Thursday). Tickets are on a first-come first-served basis, and because it’s one of the most popular Memphis attractions, so I recommend aiming to get here earlier in the day. Adult tickets cost $15, youth (12-18 years) tickets are $13 and kids aged 5 to 11 are free. Free parking behind the building.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
Located in the Memphis neighbourhood of Soulsville, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music pays tribute to some of the biggest names in soul music history, as well as many of the social and racial events playing out when soul music was growing in popularity.
The museum is housed on the original site of the Stax Records studio in Memphis, through whose doors walked Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas and Booker T. & the M.G.’s.
After decades of success, the studio went bankrupt and the building sat vacant until the early 1980s when it was sold to the Church of God in Christ for a mere $10. The building was later razed. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the community banded together to revitalise the area, opening the Stax Museum of American Soul Museum to tell the Stax story and celebrate soul music.
Visiting this essential Memphis museum, you’ll start off with a guided introduction to the history of the building, before watching a video that takes you through the history of Stax Records. Visitors then begin in a real, early 1900s Mississippi Delta church – the true birthplace of soul music. After that, you can dance to some tracks on the Express Yourself dance floor (a fun thing to do in Memphis!), stand in a replica of Studio A, listen to some classic tracks at the museum’s listening station and then pop your eyes at Isaac Hayes’ custom Cadillac Eldorado (peep the 24-carat gold trim and white fur carpeting!).
Address: 926 E. McLemore Ave, Memphis
Details: Open six days a week (closed Mondays) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (also closed Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day). Adult tickets are $13, tickets for seniors (62+), active military and students with ID cost $12, children aged 9 to 12 are $10 and children 8 and under can enter for free.
Elvis Presley features heavily at many museums in Memphis, but none more so than at his former home, Graceland, now open to the public. This isn’t a cheap museum to visit, but Elvis worshippers will feel like they’ve landed at Mecca.
Fun fact: this is the second most-visited home in the United States (after the White House).
The tour starts with an interactive iPad tour of the Graceland mansion (hosted by none other than John Stamos). The mansion is incredible – the décor of some rooms is completely outrageous (including the famous Jungle Room) and the money spent to build the home of Presley’s dreams will blow your mind.
The mansion tour ends in the Meditation Garden where Elvis and his beloved parents are buried.
The exhibits conveniently skip over Elvis’s problems with addiction and womanising, but do highlight his humble beginnings and how he gave back to people in need.
As well as the mansion, there are several exhibitions that showcase Elvis’s cars, motorbikes and planes, his time in the army, and cases and cases filled with his extravagant signature stage costumes. The wall showing his awards will dazzle you.
Graceland is busy – it’s one of the most popular Memphis attractions, so come during the week if you can. It’ll still be busy but quieter than weekends.
Address: Elvis Presley Blvd, Memphis
Details: Graceland is open throughout the year, but opening hours vary so check the website for the latest. There are a variety of ticket packages available with different inclusions: the Ultimate VIP Tour starts at $195, the Elvis Entourage VIP starts at $135 and the Elvis Experience Tour starts at $79.75.
Blues Hall of Fame Museum
The Blues Hall of Fame Museum highlights inductees and shares a tonne of cool memorabilia as well as information about the history of blues music. While a small museum, it has amassed a huge collection from the world’s most famous blues music performers, including Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica, one of Muddy Waters’ jackets and a Koko Taylor dress.
This museum will be most interesting to serious blues fans who will pore over every detail behind the glass exhibits – although people with little knowledge of blues music will still find it interesting.
Up top, in the entry area, there’s a space with a revolving exhibit. When we visited this Memphis museum, there was a photography exhibit showcasing the photographer’s trip through the Mississippi Delta blues trail – the Delta blues trail was next on our list, so looking through the photos gave us a taste of what was to come on our road trip.
Address: 421 S. Main Street, Memphis
Details: Open Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Adults cost $10, students $8, military and children 12 and under free.
Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. This Smithsonian Institution museum shares the story of the birth of rock and soul music, as well as the racial and socioeconomic obstacles musicians faced as they passionately shared their music with the world.
It touches on the history shared in some of the other music museums in Memphis – Sun Studio, the rise and fall of Stax Records – and you can listen to more than 100 songs throughout the whole museum.
Address: 191 Beale St, Memphis
Details: Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day). Admission is $13 for adults, $10 for kids and free for kids aged 4 and under.
Memphis history museums
National Civil Rights Museum
If there’s one museum in Memphis that I think everyone should visit, it’s the National Civil Rights Museum. I was incredibly moved by this museum, which educated me on five centuries of oppression and violence toward African Americans in the United States.
The museum is built in and around the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on April 4, 1968.
Start in the main exhibit area where you’ll do a self-guided visit through the key moments in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, including slavery and the brave resistance of slaves, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the student sit-ins and the Freedom Rides. The last exhibit is the hotel room that Martin Luther King was staying in when he was tragically assassinated, carefully preserved as it was that night.
For me, it was overwhelming, seeing the violence and terror that has been perpetrated against African Americans – much of it so recent – and the struggles that people have gone through to ensure their voices were heard and rights recognised. But it was also highly educational, especially as an Australian who had only the slightest understanding of these historical events.
Bring tissues – you will need them.
Across the road is the Legacy Building, the former boarding house from where King’s assassin is believed to have shot him.
Address: 450 Mulberry St, Memphis
Details: Open daily (except Tuesday) 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adult admission costs $18, seniors and student $16, children 5 to 17 years $15 and kids 4 and under are free. Active U.S. military also free.
Slave Haven Underground Museum
It wasn’t until I’d done a lot of digging around on the internet for things to do in Memphis that I came across the Slave Haven Underground Museum.
We visited one afternoon to learn more about this unassuming house that had a significant role in helping escaped slaves.
Our guide, Asia, first guided us through the beginnings of slavery and how slaves arrived in the United States. This included several disturbing images of the way in which slaves were transported in ships.
She also shared with us information about the brave abolitionists who helped the equally brave runaways escape on the so-called Underground Railroad.
Which is where this house comes into play. It was originally owned by a German immigrant named Jacob Burkle in the mid-1800s. He risked his life harbouring escaped slaves in his home as they made their way to freedom in the North.
We were invited to descend the steps into the damp, dark cellar where many – no one knows for sure how many – slaves waited until the cover of darkness to sprint to the Mississippi River to begin the journey. It was hard to imagine how terrified these people would have been, waiting here for hours, or days, or weeks, not knowing whether they would get away to safety.
Address: 826 North Second St, Memphis
Details: Tours are hourly Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. From June to August, closing is 5 p.m. Entrance is $12 for adults, $10 for students (aged 4 to 17), $11 for college students and seniors (65+). No photos allowed (except for outside the house).
Other Memphis museums to visit
There were several other museums in Memphis we just didn’t have time to get to – but there may be a few here that pique your interest!
Pink Palace Museum
Located inside a huge pink mansion once owned by Clarence Saunders (he’s the guy behind the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain – that name always makes me giggle!), the Memphis Museum of Science and History (previously the Pink Palace Museum) has exhibits on dinosaurs and Native American history. It even has a replica Piggly Wiggly store inside!
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
The oldest and largest art museum in Tennessee, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art has both indoor and outdoor exhibits.
National Ornamental Metal Museum
A museum devoted to the art and craft of metalwork? Yep, it exists in Memphis! Check out this unique Memphis museum, the Metal Museum, if you’re a lover of art.
Mud Island River Park and Mississippi River Museum
Mud Island has a scale model of the Mississippi River, as well as a museum exploring the 10,000-year history of this important river.
Where to stay in Memphis
While you’re choosing a few museums in Memphis to visit on your trip, make sure you book your accommodation – Memphis accommodation can sell out well in advance, especially if there are big-name concerts or events on. Check out some Memphis hotels via Booking.com or HotelsCombined.
Many thanks to Memphis Travel for providing me with complimentary tickets to the National Civil Rights Museum, Stax Records Museum and Sun Studio during our stay in Memphis. As always, I’ve offered my honest opinion in reviewing these Memphis museums!
Have you visited any museums in Memphis? Which are your favourites?
Looking for more USA city break ideas? You might like these articles!
USA TRIP ESSENTIALS
- Book flights to and around the USA online with Skyscanner or Kayak. I usually compare flights on the two sites to find the best deals.
- Find a great hotel in the USA. Check prices on Booking.com and HotelsCombined online.
- Check out the huge range of day tours throughout the USA on GetYourGuide or Viator. There’s something for everyone.
- A copy of the Lonely Planet guide to the USA will be handy.
- One thing I always purchase is travel insurance. World Nomads offers simple and flexible travel insurance. Buy at home or while traveling and claim online from anywhere in the world.
PIN IT FOR LATER:
Save this guide to the best Memphis museums to Pinterest so you can plan your trip later!