Walking in Memphis | 

The music mecca, with half a million visitors to Presley’s Graceland alone, is thriving as tourists flood back to home of the blues

Sunset on Beale Street

Graceland Mansion

Hyatt Hotel

Gus’s famous fried chicken

Isabel Conway

A place of pilgrimage where die-hard fans from all over the world descend for a near religious experience while others are motivated by curiosity in this shrine to an American trailblazer for pop culture.

Over half a million visitors annually flocked to Graceland the home of Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tennessee, one of the world’s great music cities, home to Soul and the Blues as well as Rock ‘n’ Roll until the Covid pandemic locked down US borders to international travel.

But now Elvis Presley’s Graceland is back with a bang, marking the 45th anniversary of the King’s death through special events, concerts, museum exhibits and record giveaways (including the Jailhouse Rock single) throughout 2022.

Graceland Mansion

This is a double celebration, points out glamorous octogenarian Aileen Alexander, Graceland’s Ambassador who is greeting VIP ticket holders in the vast entrance hall.

Forty years have passed since she was hired as a visitor guide at Graceland, Elvis Presley’s former home, on the very day it was opened to the public on June 17, 1982.

With her upswept champagne-coloured hair and brightly coloured tight sweater Aileen is something of a throwback to the Elvis era. “I was 16 in 1957 when Elvis burst into our lives, he was such a handsome pin-up, we went crazy for him and he changed our lives,” she recalls, in her treacly southern drawl.

“I met him once, I was driving past Graceland and he was down at the gates where fans used to leave him love letters and presents so I jumped out and ran over for his autograph. He was always approachable, so adored by his fans”.

Top of the tours is one for nearly $200 that offers a glimpse of Presley archives, with participants donning white gloves to handle some of his prized possessions.

These include capes, rings and a solid gold belt weighing over 20 pounds which Elvis wore during his meeting with then President Richard Nixon at the White House.

The King promised ‘Tricky Dicky’ that he’d help to clean up drugs and other crime in his role as an honorary police lieutenant. He treasured the large collection of police badges and citations displayed at Graceland.

I wander past evidence of his lavish spending, from customised airplanes like the Lisa Marie with its gold-plated seatbelts and 24-karat gold toilet accessories to the smaller Lockheed Jetstar ‘the Hound Dog’.

The King’s fleet of favourite limos and motorbikes occupies a complete hall. Another is filled with his embroidered and rhinestone-encrusted jump suits.

Hyatt Hotel

Beyond Graceland, Memphis lays claim to world famous Beale Street ‘Home of the Blues’ as well as Rock and Soul, featuring the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and the Smithsonian-curated Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum.

In downtown Memphis Beale Street bills itself as “home of the blues and the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll” with two blocks of places to enjoy Memphis barbecue, cool beers and live music. Memphis — whose colloquial nicknames are ‘River City’ and ‘Bluff City’ — is spread out on the shores of the Mississippi River which has defined much of the city’s history and economy.

You can take to the water on a vintage steamboat cruise or rent a kayak to view the city. Be sure to take in the city skyline while enjoying stunning sunsets above the Mississippi on Big River Crossing, the pedestrian walkway that joins up the state line between Tennessee and Arkansas.

Memphis highlights

The National Civil Rights Museum (civilrightsmuseum.org) located on the assassination site of Dr Martin Luther King, which chronicles key episodes in the American civil rights movement. The façade of the Lorraine Motel has been preserved and Room 306 where King was staying hasn’t been touched since his death in 1968.

The evils of slavery in the American South are laid bare at Slave Haven (slavehavenundergroundrailroadmuseum.org) near the Memphis slave market district close to the banks of the Mississippi River.

Stax Museum of American Soul Music (staxmuseum.com) traces the history of soul music from its roots in blues and gospel and provides a fascinating window into American pop-culture and when the likes of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Booker T, the Staples singers and Rufus Thomas used to record chart-busting numbers.

Memphis is famous for barbecue restaurants serving ribs and spicy and sweet southern-style chicken wings.

Gus’s famous fried chicken

Memphis in May, one of the best festivals in the South, hosts the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Super Bowl. Soul food is another interesting option and the authentic fill is found at the historic Four Way Grill, a legendary haunt of civil rights activists back in the day, serving turkey with stuffing, cornbread and black eyed beans, a spot where African American and white musicians recording at Stax Studios used to socialise at the height of racial intolerance.

Overton Square entertainment district in mid-town Memphis has upscale restaurants, including the fantastic Porch and Parlor on Madison Avenue, reputedly serving the best prime steaks in the city (porchandparlor.com), funky retail shops, theatres and galleries.

See memphistravel.com ■ Isabel flew Dublin-Newark with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and onward to Memphis with United Airlines (united.com). ■ The Hyatt Centric (hyatt.com) is located on central Beale Street in Memphis. There’s a Memphis vintage trolley bus stop right outside Arrive Memphis Hotel (arrivehotels.com) a stylish boutique property. Doubles from €137.

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