Iowa State has once again made it to a bowl game and this time around will be playing in a city I used to call home. However, due to an upcoming wedding that needs financing, I won’t be able to make the trek—which is a shame, because of all the places I’ve been, Memphis is one of my favorites.
Here’s what I’m going to do though. Below you’re going to find an insider’s guide of sorts. I’m going to tell you the things that travel guides and even some locals may not tell you. Memphis is full of history, barbecue, and blues—that much is true. But I’m going to tell you the best places to get all three and being that I’ve lived in Iowa 28 years out of my 30 (the other two were spent in Memphis)—you know I’m going to give it to you straight.
The Liberty Bowl
Let’s address one thing here quick that some people may not realize. The Liberty Bowl, the bowl game we are playing in, is played in the Liberty Bowl. So it’s not only the name of the bowl game, but it’s the name of the stadium the bowl game is played in. (Technically it’s referred to as Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium—but that’s a mouthful). If you really want to impress people tell them that it holds 62,000, and is used 8-9 other times a year for all University of Memphis home football games and for the Southern Heritage Classic.
Let’s get one other thing out of the way right off the bat. Yes, Memphis has crime and has bad parts—just like any other big city. It seems to have invisible boundaries that the crime doesn’t cross though. Never at any point during my two years there did I feel as though I were in danger. Just be aware of your surroundings and if you find yourself downtown, try not to venture too far north of Union Avenue. When I first moved there I was told with the exception of Madison, streets named after presidents were not streets you frequented.
Secondly, barbecue. You should know right now Memphians think there is no other barbecue besides their own. Don’t even think about comparing it to Carolina barbecue, which is nowhere near the same. If you haven’t already, you’re probably going to have people tell you to go to Rendezvous. This place is all about the experience—it’s in an alley (it’s safe, don’t worry) and when you walk in it feels like you’re stepping back in time. It’s good, but in my opinion the best barbecue can be found at two other places. The first being Central BBQ (2249 Central), which luckily for you guys isn’t too far away from the Liberty Bowl. Make sure to get a sausage and cheese plate and the BBQ nachos! The second place, Blues City Café, sits on the corner of Beale Street and S. 2nd St., right across from B.B. Kings. This place wins my vote for best ribs in Memphis (and best chicken strips if ribs aren’t your thing).
*Tip: In Memphis, a pulled pork sandwich will come with coleslaw on top of it. Make sure to ask for it without if coleslaw isn’t your thing!
That takes us to Beale Street, which I’m sure ALL of you have heard of. Stretching about 4 blocks long, it’s reminiscent of a mini Bourbon Street. There will be live music on the street, you may see the Beale Street Flippers who were made even more famous on America’s Got Talent, and there are walk-up windows at some bars. You have some of your chain places like Hard Rock, but besides Blues City Café, there are 4 places on Beale Street you HAVE to visit.
- B.B. Kings. And contrary to popular belief, B.B. really does make appearances there. The music is out of this world and it’s not uncommon for famous visitors to jump up and join the band to do songs.
- Beale Street Tap Room. Being a Memphis transplant by way of a small town in Iowa, this bar became my favorite. It’s small and cozy and doesn’t feel like a big city bar at all. Iowans will feel right at home here.
- Silky O’Sullivans. Kitty corner from the Tap Room, this is a piano bar made famous by what they call their “Diver Buckets,” which is a pretty decent sized bucket full of…well…no one quite knows—but it’s delicious. You’re going to want to share it though!
- Dyer’s. On the same side of the street as Silky’s, but about a block east, Dyer’s is a burger joint that’s been around for almost 100 years. It’s appeared on both the Cooking Channel and the Food Network and is known for deep fat frying their burgers. It sounds a little odd, but I promise you it’s one of the best burgers you’ll ever have—just don’t worry about calories that day.
- A few places to avoid: The Black Diamond is a little scary, but also stays open until about 5am, making it the place the other Beale Street bartenders and the diehards go. Alfred’s and Club 152 are big time clubs–so if you’re not much for that atmosphere don’t waste your time. They charge the most for cover too.
When people hear ‘Memphis,’ another thing that may come to mind is Elvis and if you’re an Elvis fan, this is definitely your city. However, even if you don’t know much about him, go to Graceland. It’s absolutely worth it. Only do the mansion tour though—unless you’re willing to spend quite a bit more money to tour the cars and the planes. I don’t think seeing those things are worth the extra money—but to a die-hard Elvis fan, it may be. Going along with that, definitely go to Sun Studios. It’s one of the places Elvis recorded and is dubbed the birthplace of rock ‘n roll—there are free shuttles between Graceland and Sun Studios, so definitely take advantage.
I’d also consider visiting the National Civil Rights Museum located at the Lorraine Motel (450 Mulberry) about 5 blocks southwest of Beale Street. Seems funny to have a museum at a motel, but you history buffs should see the significance. Among the things you’ll see at the museum? Room 306. The room Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed in the night before his assassination. The balcony outside that room is the very place he was shot.
Check out the ducks at the Peabody Hotel also–I promise you’ve never seen anything like it. The Peabody (149 Union Avenue) has been at its present locations since 1930, but has been a Memphis staple since the late 1860′s. Back in 1930 the general manager who was a big hunter thought it would be funny to leave some of their live duck decoys in the fountain in the main lobby. Guests loved it and it stuck. Now, every day an official Duckmaster leads ducks from their home atop the Peabody, down to the lobby, and marches them to the fountain. It’s definitely picture worthy.
Just a few more things that you may find helpful…
- The City of Memphis has no snow plows due to the fact that it snows so infrequently. Should it snow while you’re there, give yourself plenty of time to get to where you’re going. Memphians have NO idea how to drive in even a half inch of snow.
- The Liberty Bowl sits pretty much smack dab in the middle of Memphis, so if you have yet to book a hotel know that if you stay on the west side of Memphis or the east side of Memphis—travel time is going to be about the same.
- If you’re looking to do some shopping, visit Wolfchase Galleria (2670 N. Germantown Parkway) in Bartlett or Carriage Crossing (4674 Merchants Park Circle) in Collierville (both suburbs of Memphis). Don’t waste your time at the Oak Court Mall which is much closer to the stadium.
- Midtown Memphis is blocks away from the Liberty Bowl if you’re not interested in doing the whole downtown thing. It doesn’t have quite as much history, but it does have just as many great bars and restaurants. I’d recommend the following:
- Celtic Crossing (903 S. Cooper)—a great little Irish pub with fantastic food
- Huey’s (1927 Madison)—great burgers, best steak fries I’ve ever had, and it’s cheap
- Young Avenue Deli (2119 Young)—not just your normal deli, they also serve beer and have live music
- Bosco’s (2120 Madison)—a little bit pricier, but a nice sit down place that brews its own beer
As far as I’m concerned, Memphis is one of the best places to have a bowl game—but obviously I’m bias. In fact, pretty much everything I’ve told you in here is just based on my own personal preferences. Know this though. Memphis really is a great city with a rich history, some of the best food you’ll ever eat, and some of the nicest people you’ll ever encounter—treat the city and her people with respect and I promise she won’t let you down.