While Memphis is best known for Graceland, Sun Studio, and Stax, there's much more to explore that lurks just under the surface. From little-known river-viewing vantage points to creepy abandoned structures to hidden works of beautiful art, there are treasures located all over our fair city. Here's a guide to a few of Memphis' hidden gems.
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Downtown Downtown’s fancy hotels -- the Peabody, the Madison -- advertise sweeping Mississippi River views from their rooftop terraces. But for the most expansive view of the muddy Mississippi, you've got to walk out over the river itself. There are two interstate bridges that lead from Memphis over the river into Arkansas, the older of which follows the path of I-55 and is aptly named the Memphis & Arkansas Bridge (but locals call it the Old Bridge). Unlike the newer I-40 Hernando de Soto Bridge, the Old Bridge has a pedestrian walkway on either side. You can cross from Memphis to Arkansas safely on foot since the walkway is shielded from traffic by a concrete barrier. Once you walk out onto the center of the bridge, stop and take in amazing views of the winding, muddy river. The experience is both peaceful (from the lightly lapping waves of the river) and chaotic (from the constant rumble of semi trucks only a few feet away). For the truly brave, there's a small metal plate about halfway down the bridge. Lift it to reveal a short ladder leading down to a terrace on one of the bridge supports. We're not sure how legal it is, but if you really want a gorgeous river view, you could, in theory, climb down a few rungs to access the terrace.
Crystal Shrine Grotto
East Memphis In the center of Memorial Park Cemetery in East Memphis is a craggy, man-made, hillside cave filled with five tons of quartz crystal and myriad sculptures depicting religious scenes. Some of the artwork was created in 1938 by Mexican artist Dionicio Rodriguez, who had been commissioned to build several sculptures throughout the cemetery. After Rodriguez’ death, sculptors David Day and Luther Hampton contributed to the cave as well. Even if you're not typically into religious iconography, it's hard not to be moved by the sheer beauty of the whole thing. Memorial Park isn't the kind of place you'd expect to find such folk-art treasures. It's a well-maintained, still-in-use burial ground that features modest grave markers rather than some turn-of-the-century cemetery with massive and unique monuments. But that's probably what makes Crystal Shrine Grotto all the more special. The Grotto was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.
Bettis Family Cemetery
Midtown The urban landscape of Memphis has certainly changed over the past century, and the center city area that encompasses Midtown was once considered the the rural outskirts of the city. The Bettis family is believed to be the second family to settle on the bluffs after the 1818 treaty with the Chickasaws that eventually laid the foundation for Memphis to become a city. Tillman and Sally Bettis (and their children) lived on a farm on the land that’s now home to the Cash Saver grocery store -- which, by the way, is best known for its massive craft beer selection and growler shop. When Sally died in 1826, she was buried on the land, and Tillman followed suit when he passed in 1854. Their family plot survived years of urban sprawl and development. The old Piggly Wiggly grocery store (now Cash Saver) built a wall around the plot, and a historical marker tells the Bettis’ story.
Downtown This long-abandoned, three-story hospital on the river bluff would make the perfect setting for a horror film set in an old asylum. It was used to treat US Marines back in the late 1800s, and the campus features an eerie and decrepit main hospital building, a nurse’s building, and a maintenance structure. A local developer owns the property and eventually plans to rehab the hospital and convert it into apartments or condos, so trespassing to explore the grounds is a big no-no... BUT it's worth the drive downtown to snap a few pictures from the sidewalk. And while you're in the neighborhood, check out the National Ornamental Metal Museum next door. The museum's grounds are situated on the river bluff and offer a great place to relax and watch the flow of the muddy Mississippi. Across from the museum is Chickasaw Heritage Park, home to massive, ancient Native American mounds that some say date back to 1000 AD.
Millington Deep in the heart of Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park sits a creepy old campsite that's literally crumbling back into the Earth. Multiple log cabins have busted-out windows, and a few, located on the edges of steep hills, have collapsed as the hillside has eroded over the years. The old dining hall is still in good shape, and because the doors have been left open, anyone can simply walk inside and step back in time to a day when Boy Scouts and other campers likely gathered for evening meals. Most of the cabins are open too, and the adventurous can wander inside for a peek. The Mississippi River Group Camp was closed to campers more than a decade ago, and the state of Tennessee, which maintains the land the camp sits on, simply stopped keeping the property up. The cabins were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and were one of many similar campsites across the country built under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Midtown This 1.7-mile rail-to-trails pedestrian path runs directly through Midtown’s historic Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood. Since it darts along an old rail track, much of the gravel path is positioned behind houses. Many parts of the trail are completely shaded by old trees, and one area is practically a tunnel through a canopy of trees that have grown into one another. Pedestrian bridges cross over Lick Creek in two places along the path, and public art is positioned along the trail. Check out the Blue Men statues -- a set of large cartoon-like blue people with planters on their heads, who unfortunately don’t bang on large plastic jugs -- on the far western end or artist Jeannie Tomlinson Saltmarsh's kinetic fish sculptures near one of the Lick Creek bridges. In the middle point of the path, there's a floral garden, where you’re sure to see butterflies and picnickers on sunny spring days.
Aretha Franklin's House
South Memphis One would think that the childhood home of the Queen of Soul would be kept up regularly, and possibly even converted into a museum. But the modest shotgun house at 406 Lucy Ave in South Memphis has seen no R-E-S-P-E-C-T (sorry not sorry), and it's falling into disrepair. The windows are boarded, and no work has been done on the vacant structure for years. Yet still, it's worth driving by to glimpse the home where Franklin spent the first year of her life. Word has it that a group may be looking into salvaging the home in the near future.
Wolf River on Shelby Farms Greenline
East Memphis The Wolf River runs from Holly Springs, Mississippi up through Memphis and eventually flows into the Mississippi River, but many parts of the Wolf are hidden from view since it tends to snake through more rural and wooded areas of Shelby County. However, the eastern end of the Shelby Farms Greenline, a seven mile, paved bike and pedestrian path, offers a glimpse of the swampy river. A long greenline bridge over the Wolf has multiple lookout points, and at any time, walkers and cyclists may see swimming turtles, various waterfowl, or snakes. The path is just feet from the interstate at some points, but the traffic is mostly shielded from your view by the woods that surround the river.
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Katie Smith is a writer for Thrillist, who spends most weekends turtle-watching from the Wolf River bridge on the Shelby Farms Greenline.