Memphis, Tennessee, the "Birthplace of Rock and Roll" is also known as The Bluff City, The River City, The Barbeque Capital of the World and The Home of the Blues. It's a distinctly Southern medley of Elvis and Graceland, our nation's civil rights movement, soul music, soul food, and our modern world, all set along the banks of the Mississippi River. It's also bicycle-friendly, so bring your wheels, and download the Memphis bicycle route map.
If thinking of swinging your hips in Graceland or walking the footsteps of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. then check out our GET.com guide to getting more for your money in Memphis, Tennessee.
Finding Cheap Flights
Wednesdays are typically a good day for low fares, but we always keep a window 1 day prior and after our target dates, searching for nonstop round trips about 6 weeks in advance. Using Minneapolis-St. Paul International as base, we found Delta morning nonstop 2-hour flights for $357. When we checked Delta's site, we were able to beat that deal, paying $320 for the same flights. Upgrading to the main cabin would have cost $349, and first class was $571.
From Newark Liberty International, we could take nonstop afternoon 3-hour United flights for $330. On United's site, we could pick up the same flights for $328. However, as seats filled, fares could have easily cost us a minimum $430 for basic economy or $500 for Economy Plus. Economy Plus Enhanced was $600 but available only for the departure flight.
From Denver International, Wednesday morning 2½-hour flights on United totaled just $279, but flying on Tuesdays instead cut the bill to $239; Thursdays would have upped it to nearly $350. Booking directly through United, we could travel for $227 total on basic economy. Economy Plus would have cost us about $385, possibly a little more, while Economy Plus Enhanced ranged from $518 to $752. Many of the Economy Plus seats – basically flexible coach tickets – started with $900 fares, so book early.
From Los Angeles' LAX, flying on Tuesdays or Wednesdays again was our best value – just $304 round trip nonstop on Delta; Thursdays would have cost $20 more. Departure was an evening flight while the return was still an early 5 a.m. takeoff. Again, however, checking Delta's site paid off. Our same flights were just $264 for the main cabin or $897 for first class. Had our chosen flight been full, our trip might have easily cost $400 to $700 for our nonrefundable coach seat.
If you use a credit card to pay for flights, check if your card gives you free travel insurance, free checked baggage and other saving benefits.
Finding Cheap Hotels
We wanted to stay near Beale Street, within easy walking distance of attractions. At three-star Holiday Inn Downtown Beale, a king room was $158 a night – $1,313 a week; regularly, the room went for $193 plus tax. It had free Wi-Fi and fitness amenities but no breakfast, and private parking needed to be reserved for $20 a day. DoubleTree by Hilton Downtown had a $219 room for just $134 a night – $1,114 for the week. The queen room came with free Internet, but breakfast and parking still had surcharges. Courtyard and Sheraton had similar deals, and rooms at Hampton Inn started at $219 a night for a king room with all amenities – even public parking and free breakfast.
Cheaper rooms were available: $59 at the Motel 6, $70 at the two-star Quality Inn and Rodeway Inn, or $118 at the Holiday Inn Express. While those are technically downtown, they're also in the Medical District, a more urban area beyond walking distance but relatively still accessible by trolley.
On Airbnb, we found a number of entire flats in the Beale area. Prices started as low as $80 and went up from there. Trying to stay under $150 a night, we found a number of convenient two-bedroom, one-bath apartments with kitchen and laundry in historic buildings. Parking was often an issue, so read reviews or contact the host about concerns prior to booking.
Check out our guide to getting cheap hotel stays for more money-saving ideas.
Downtown, Gus's World Famous Hot & Spicy Fried Chicken started in nearby tiny Mason. The chicken and sides are so good, however, that the restaurant on South Front Street is just one of 13 expanding in eight different states. For something lighter – signature coffee and tea creations, craft beers, gourmet sandwiches on housemade brioche or a kale salad with "green chile walnuts" – Tamp & Tap on Gayoso Avenue serves foodie combinations without breaking the bank.
On Main Street, Maciel's Tortas and Tacos is small and relatively new but turning out huaraches, quesadillas, tacos and more stuffed with your choice of meat as well as truly fresh guacamole. Nearby, The Little Tea Shop on Monroe Avenue serves old-fashioned Southern comfort food – real mashed potatoes and gravy, turnip greens, corn sticks, and peach cobbler and ice cream. It's a long-standing Memphis local favorite.
A bit further out, on Midtown's Madison Avenue, Pho Binh offers both a buffet and individual choices for Vietnamese, Cantonese and vegetarian. They've mastered the art of tofu, and portions are large and loaded. Mot & Ed's Southern Eatery has a soul food menu: custom-stuffed turkey or Angus burgers on buttery buns, fried catfish, sweet potato fries and "sweet-n-spicy corn on the cob." Everything is "made with love," so remember that love takes time.
In the Medical District, on Washington Avenue, Sabrosura Mexican & Cuban Restaurant is fairly new, but if you're looking for baby churrasco, ropa vieja, chicharron de pollo, empanadas or sweet plantains, this may be the place. Also in the district, Payne's Bar-B-Que is on Lamar Avenue. Don't let appearances deceive. They're cash-only, but if you're looking for Tennessee barbequed pig, try the ribs – if any are left.
For the cheapest deals on the tastiest food, be sure to carry some cash along with your restaurant credit card.
Some attractions offer free days or additional discounts, so double-check their websites:
- The Memphis Zoo is one of four U.S. zoos with giant pandas. Tennessee residents can enjoy free admission on Tuesdays after 2 p.m. The zoo also accepts requests from worthy registered nonprofits at least 1 month in advance for up to four general admission passes. Even without discounts, entry is $15 per adult, $10 per child and $5 for parking – a comparative bargain.
- The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is free for Tennessee residents on Mondays after 3 p.m. Admission is also free any time for active military.
- The Pink Palace Family of Museums offers free admission to the Pink Palace Museum and the Lichterman Nature Center on Tuesdays after 1 p.m. Shows still cost extra, however.
- The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art will reopen on April 29, 2016, celebrating its 100th anniversary. It will continue its "Pay-as-You-Can Wednesdays." It also is a Blue Star Museum, with "free entry for all active duty, National Guard and Reserve military personnel and their families all year long." Admission is also always free for St. Jude patients and families, all teachers and ArtsAccess members.
- Dixon Gallery & Gardens offers free Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. to noon and "Pay-as-You-Wish Tuesdays." Dixon also participates in the Bank of America credit card Museums on Us program, which grants card holders free entry on First Weekends. Dixon is also a Blue Star Museum.
Some attractions, however, are always free:
- The Mud Island River Park Riverwalk is a five-block scale model of the 1,000-mile Mississippi journey, featuring 20 cities and the area's geology.
- Elmwood Cemetery on South Dudley Street is on the National Register of Historic Places and a bird sanctuary and arboretum; pick up a map at the visitor center.
- Also at a cemetery, the Memorial Park Crystal Shrine Grotto sits by a pool. Inside, natural rock and crystals are background for nine scenes from the life of Christ.
- The Art Museum of the University of Memphis will reopen in spring of 2016 following renovations.
- Shelby Farms Park is an urban park with a 6½-mile trail linking it to Midtown. It has free activities like disc golf, picnicking and playgrounds as well as paid activities like paintball or horseback riding.
Memphis also has two state parks. Within city limits, T. O. Fuller State Park has more than 8 miles of hiking trails and an Olympic-sized pool. Just 13 miles north of Memphis, Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park offers 20 miles of hiking trails and 5 miles of intermediate biking trails along the Mississippi River. You can fish, boat or play a 36-hole game of disc golf. You can also camp or even rent a two-bedroom, full-amenity cabin for $85 to $100 a night.
More Ways To Save
Memphis boasts the Bass Pro Shop at the Pyramid, "the largest single retail location in the world." Admittedly, it's an indoor outdoor wonder, housing the Big Cypress Lodge, amazing water features and absorbing nature experiences. It also has a 28-story free-standing elevator and glass observation deck, for which visitors pay $10 each to stand in line and ride to the top for a city view. If you must do it, children can ride for $5 before 4 p.m.
If you want to tour Sun Studio, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Memphis Rock ‘n' Soul Museum and Elvis' Graceland, check calendars, websites and coupon options carefully before buying Viator's Memphis Music Attraction Discount Pass. The pass runs about $81 per adult ($40 per child). Compared with regular individual admissions, the pass saved us $2 at most; with coupons, we did a bit better and bypassed the pass' cumbersome voucher system. By the way, a free shuttle runs between Sun Studio, the Rock ‘n' Soul Museum and Graceland.
The Beale Street Historic District is introducing its Beale Street Fast Pass for the 2016 tourist season, April through October. Passes run $160 and provide the pass holder and one guest red carpet entrance on Third and Beale Streets, immediate Beale access after a "quick security check-in," no club entry lines or cover charges at participating venues, discounted parking at the 250 Peabody lot, a monthly e-newsletter and special periodic incentives from participating venues. If that sounds like your scene, it could be worth investigating.