The Memphis Bucket List: 40 Things to Do in Memphis Before You Die

Published On 08/31/2015 Published On 08/31/2015
Courtesy of the Memphis CVB

When it comes to Memphis must-dos, you always have the obvious: Graceland, Beale Street, barbecue, the Mississippi River... However, the last few years have seen a new Memphis experience develop. Luckily for you, we have insider info to help you conquer your modern Memphis bucket list. Be sure to do these 40 things before it’s too late.

St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

1. Run the St. Jude Marathon (or half marathon, or 5K)

Every year, 20,000 runners flock to Memphis to run and raise money for the kids at St. Jude. Running a marathon is incredible enough, but when half the city shuts down and shows up to cheer you on while you support a noble cause, it becomes an absolute bucket list item. Not a runner? Join the thousands of people cheering, holding signs, and volunteering along the entire race route.

2. Order a family meal at Gus's Fried Chicken 

Sure, there are 10 Gus's locations around the country now, but there's nothing quite like a visit to the most famous location on Front Street in Downtown Memphis to devour the spicy, delightfully greasy eight-piece family meal (which comes with white bread, slaw, and beans). Sharing optional.

3. Eat a Pronto Pup at the Cooper-Young Festival

Midtown neighborhood Cooper-Young celebrates its artsiness with an enormous festival every September featuring more than 400 arts & crafts booths, three live music stages, tons of food and beer, and 130,000 people coming and going all day. One must-eat, though, is the Pronto Pup: it may look like just a corn dog, but it's so, so much more.

4. Sweet-talk your way into a tent at "BBQ Fest"

By now, most folks have figured out that the "BBQ Fest" portion of Memphis in May is actually officially the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, and the only way to taste the award-winning pork is to know someone on a cooking team. Your bucket list mission is to befriend one of these team members, score a wristband, and gorge yourself on barbecue and beer until the wee hours of the morning inside an exclusive tent.

5. Make a pilgrimage to the Grindhouse during the playoffs

The home of the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team (officially called FedExForum) is never more energetic, inspiring, and heart pounding than during a home playoff game. Witnessing grit 'n' grind basketball, the best in-game entertainment in the league, and the most badass NBA mascot has to be on your list.

Holly Whitfield/Thrillist

6. Walk the bluffs

Take in sweeping views of the Mississippi River on the Bluff and River Walks. Start with a stop at Mud Island, stroll South through Tom Lee Park (don't forget to climb to the top of Beale Street Landing) all the way to the pedestrian bridge that crosses Riverside Drive and back up along the paved Bluff Walk to make a big circle.

7. Drink all the drinks on Beale Street

Beale Street is full of bars and clubs, and several of them have signature drinks. Make it your goal to try a Silky's Diver (warning: share this or you will surely perish), a Big Ass Beer as you walk down the street, and a Call a Cab from Wet Willie's. Then, actually call a cab.

8. Visit the National Civil Rights Museum

At the site of the former Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the NCRM tells the story of the struggle for civil rights around the world. It's a Memphis must-see for the history and perspective the museum's exhibits provide.

Holly Whitfield/Thrillist

9. Ride the elevator to the top of the Pyramid

Yes, we turned our giant empty glass pyramid into the world's largest single-retail location and it's now a humongous Bass Pro shop. The $10 brightly lit elevator ride is worth it for one of the best views of the city, the Mississippi River, and a stunning sunset.

10. Eat a Soul Burger at Earnestine & Hazel's

Memphis' most infamous dive bar may have permanent residents who aren't exactly alive, but you haven't lived until you've spent the evening wandering Earnestine & Hazel's crumbling hallways and dining on a greasy Soul Burger.  

11. Attend the candlelight vigil at Graceland

A visit to Graceland has to be on the list, and the best night of the year for a pilgrimage is at the end of Elvis Week every August. Join thousands of candle-wielding fans as they march across the grounds to pay their respects. 

12. See at show at the Levitt Shell

Pack a picnic and be prepared for the incredible energy of thousands of music-loving Memphians of all ages and walks of life convening for one of the 50 free shows a year featuring local, national, and international acts. 

13. Play the drums or swing on the pole at Paula & Raiford's Disco

If the neon string lights and smoke-filled, light-up dance floor aren't enough for you, take your turn for a few beats on the drum kit or a few twirls around the pole (like the sign says, "Use Pole at Your Own Risk"!) at one of Memphis' most famous dance clubs.

14. Take a picture at the microphone at Sun Studio

Tour the recording studio and museum, then pretend to belt one out -- at the same mic where Elvis dropped hits like "That's All Right, Mama."

Goner Records

15. Go to Gonerfest

Sure, you know Memphis for rock and blues and even soul, but did you know that every year Goner Records brings internationally known indie, garage, and punk rock bands to fill the dive bars of Midtown with beer-soaked crowds? Pro tip: for the biggest bang for your buck, hit up the Murphy's daytime show.

16. Ride a camel at the Memphis Zoo

It's one of the best zoos in America: see the animals, pet a stingray, ride a camel, go home happy.

17. Get lost in the corn maze at Shelby Farms

Every fall, Shelby Farms opens an enormous corn maze. It's a Mid-South institution that sometimes honors Mid-South heroes (and it's haunted during October weekends).

18. Walk, run, or ride the Greenline

Get a glimpse of Memphis' natural areas like Shelby Farms and the Wolf River by taking a hike or a ride down the protected paved trail that traverses the city.

19. Eat a paleta at La Michoacana

Avocado, mango, pine nut, or strawberries and cream: Summer Avenue's Mexican ice cream and popsicle shop offers infamous can't-skip treats.

20. See a comedy show at the P&H, the Hi-Tone, or Dru's Place

Memphis' dive bars are known for more than their music: our burgeoning comedy scene offers regular stand-up shows and legendary open mics.

21. Tell a story at a Spillit Story Slam

Spillit's spoken-word events have become a Memphis institution in the last year. Attend a Story Slam -- where you drop your name in a bucket on the spot for a chance to your bare your soul to the crowd.

22. Have a photo made in the Amurica photo booth

Climb into the magical, twinkly lit world of the Amurica photo booth -- or find the mobile booth at a local party or event. By now, the bizarre props (headless baby dolls, American flags, life-size plastic goats, and whatever other weird ephemera may find its way inside during an evening) and the distinct interior make this much more than a photo booth.

23. Drink a whole 40 and cut a rug at Wild Bill's

The place only sells 40s, doesn't get going until at least 11pm, and you better believe this blues-and-soul juke joint will make you want to get up and dance.

Holly Whitfield/Thrillist

24. Take an American Dream Safari Tour

Get on the waiting list ahead of time, because Tad Pierson's legendary pink Cadillac tours of Memphis juke joints and blues halls are as popular as they are in-depth. 

25. Take a tour of the Stax Museum

See where the soul sounds of Stax Records were recorded and check out Isaac Hayes' pimped-out car (just don't touch it!) at the Stax Musuem of American Soul Music.

26. Sign the guest book at the Crystal Shrine Grotto

Both strange and beautiful (kind of like Memphis) the Crystal Shrine Grotto at Memorial Park Cemetery in East Memphis is a slice of history, art, and curiosity.

Holly Whitfield/Thrillist

27. Take a picture in front of an "I Love Memphis" mural

Snapping some photos in front of the "I Love Memphis" murals is practically required.

28. Have a supreme sno cone at Jerry's Sno Cones

While the inexplicably red wedding cake supreme is the most popular flavor, you have hundreds to choose from to complete this sugary shaved-ice item on your Memphis bucket list.

29. See Al Green preach at Full Gospel Tabernacle 

You'll be welcomed with open arms at the Full Gospel Tabernacle for a Sunday service -- about half of the congregation is usually made up of guests. While Reverend Green isn't there for every service, you're sure to get a full dose of Memphis soul. 

30. Stumble upon some opera during 30 Days of Opera

During the month of September, Opera Memphis takes it to the streets for 30 days of pop-up performances all around town.

Memphis Botanic Garden

31. Stroll through the Memphis Botanic Garden and the Dixon

First, cross the iconic red bridge and feed the koi at the Memphis Botanic Garden. Then in the spring, be sure to see the Dixon Gallery & Gardens' 150,000 tulips burst into full bloom. Both spots have regular community and live music events, so there are lots of ways to check these off your Memphis bucket list. 

32. See a movie at Indie Memphis Film Festival

For 17 years, the Indie Memphis Film Festival has showcased dozens of film shorts, documentaries, and feature films from around the world. Pick a screening of your choosing, and don't forget to hit up some afterparties and soirees -- you'll have a chance to mingle with actors and filmmakers.

33. Sample the barbecue

While there's no one place that can claim "best barbecue" in town, be sure to cross these off your list: Central BBQ's nachos and sandwiches, a cornish game hen at the Cozy Corner, pulled pork and barbecue spaghetti at the Bar-B-Q Shop, a burger topped with pulled pork at Tops BBQ, a sausage and cheese plate at the Rendezvous, and ribs just about anywhere.

34. Attend a Redbirds game at AutoZone Park

Considered one of the best minor league parks in the country, be sure to cheer on the Cardinals' Triple-A affiliate and catch the fireworks after select weekend home games. 

35. Spend a day at Overton Park and the Brooks Museum

Pay homage to this exquisite urban park which features an ancient forest, paved trails, a public golf course, playgrounds, a dog park, and an adjacent art museum with permanent and visiting exhibits.

36. Eat at a taco truck on Summer Ave, then hit up the drive-in

Yes, people still go to the drive-in in Memphis. We're just sure to grab some of the best food in town from one of the restaurants along Summer Ave beforehand. Pro tip: choose the Los Jarochos truck and pick a night that's part of the Time Warp Drive-In's all-night classic movies series.

Stax Museum

37. Hear the Stax Academy students perform

The Stax Music Academy brings the best and brightest music students to their Soulsville-centric school, and these students bring down the house at literally every show. You'll get goosebumps whether you hear them perform at the Stax Museum, Levitt Shell, or any other venue around town, and it's easy to forget they're just high school kids.

38. See a set at Beale Street Music Festival

If you've never seen a show at Tom Lee Park during the first weekend of Memphis in May, it's something you have to try at least once.

39. Drink a local beer at a brewery (or Boscos)

The three B's of modern Memphis: barbecue, basketball, and beer. Hanging out at a local brewery has become a popular see-and-be-seen activity in the last several years -- try High Cotton, Memphis Made, or Wiseacre -- or head to the original Memphis microbrewery at Boscos brewpub in Overton Square for limited-edition beers and selections from its popular Ghost River brand.

40. Have a milkshake or a sundae at A. Schwab's

A. Schwab general store is the only business on Beale St that never closed during Beale St's inactive days. Honor it with the purchase of a sundae or milkshake at the old-fashioned soda counter and soak in the old-timey atmosphere.

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