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Located in the heart of downtown Memphis, Beale Street features two blocks of more than 30 nightclubs, restaurants and retail shops.
By Memphis Convention & Vistors Bureau/Vasha Hunt | SUBMITTED
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The many sides of Memphis
By Tara McClellan McAndrew

Like an old blues singer, Memphis sometimes shows it age, but it still has appeal. 

What draws many people to this midsize city at the gateway to the South are its blues, barbecue, Graceland and the National Civil Rights Museum.

There are other attractions, too, but probably not enough to warrant a long stay. A few days will suffice for most.

Memphis' greatest appeal for central Illinoisans is its proximity - it's a straight six-hour drive south on Interstate 55. One disadvantage during peak tourist season (May through September) is the heat, which rivals our dog days of summer. 

Since spicy food is said to cool the body, a remedy is never far away. Memphis has more barbecue joints than Springfield has politicians. Whether prepared by rub or sauce, "'cue" is a religion there. 

One highly recommended barbecue joint is Charles Vergos' Rendezvous, which specializes in ribs.

"I loved the dry rub ribs," says Dennis Rendleman of Springfield. The restaurant is in a basement. "It's a catacomb; there are all sorts of rooms and things you roam through." 

Masochists will enjoy the scale where they can weigh before and after their meal. (Really? On vacation?) 

Part-time Memphian Scott Simpson, a Taylorville musician who busks in Memphis on weekends, recommends Central Barbecue in midtown Memphis, "an artisans' area with a cool record shop called Goner Records," and Germantown Commissary in east Memphis.

If you're a pizza aficionado, try Bosco's in midtown. "It's a nice little microbrewery and wood-fired pizza place. It was delicious," Rendleman says.

The King's castle
Memphis has become synonymous with Graceland, Elvis Presley's mansion and estate there. About 600,000 visitors from around the world visit it annually. Even if you're not a big Elvis fan, Graceland is interesting. Its kitschy, '70s decor is nostalgic for those of a certain age and comical for others. It's easy to picture Elvis in the green-shag-carpeted "jungle room" or the opulent, glass-and-mirrored living room. All tours include the mansion, some of the estate and Elvis's former racquetball court. Pricier tours include his autos, planes and more.

Tickets range from $31 to $70 for adults. According to sales personnel at Graceland, they never sell out, so there's no need to order in advance unless you want to avoid ticket lines at Graceland. Ordering tickets by phone costs an extra $5. 

Not surprisingly, Graceland presents a sanitized version of the King. There's no evidence of his bloated days or playboy ways. There's also no mention of the fact that Elvis died at the mansion, in the bathroom above the entryway; the second floor isn't on the tour. 

Civil Rights
Another famous death in Memphis, as well as its history of racial strife, led to the creation of the city's National Civil Rights Museum, located in the former Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. While the motel's interior has been renovated for the museum, its facade looks the same as the day King was shot. It is chilling.

"You get a real sense of place," Rendleman says. The tour ends at King's room and the exact spot where he was killed. Springfield also has a spot in the museum's exhibitions: the 1908 race riots resulted in the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

The museum, which marks its 20th anniversary this year, "had some wonderful stuff," Rendleman adds. There's a replica of the bus Rosa Parks rode and the cell where King was temporarily imprisoned, along with a truck from the sanitation workers' strike that brought King to Memphis. Also open is the boarding house across the street where King's assassin, James Earl Ray, stood to shoot him. It includes an exhibition about the shooting, investigation and findings. 

Get your groove on
Lighter fare awaits at Beale Street, Memphis' two-block downtown strip of blues clubs, bars, an Irish beer garden, barbecue joints and funky shops (like Tater Red's, which sells voodoo paraphernalia). On weekend nights during the tourist season, when Simpson performs as a one-man band on Beale, it's like "a small circus, a Mardi Gras atmosphere," he says. "You get all kinds. Where else can you go and see a housewife from Waukegan dancing with a crack dealer from Memphis?"

Beale Street has a split personality. During the day, Simpson says, it attracts families. "Then things get a little juicier after 8 p.m., and locals don't even come down until 11 p.m.," he says. That juiciness can draw less attractive elements, too, including numerous nighttime panhandlers.

While some visitors rave about Beale Street, Rendleman, a part-time Chicagoan (a city also known for its blues), says he was "underwhelmed" by it.

"It was like a (New Orleans) Bourbon Street wannabe, and not in a good way," he says. "... We didn't come across any of the blues type of places that we thought we might, compared to what we could find in Chicago." 

Both Beale Street and the National Civil Rights Museum are downtown, which is within easy walking distance if you stay in that area. However, downtown Memphis is a patchwork quilt of areas that are safer than others, so know where you're going before you head out, and don't venture into deserted areas. Simpson recommends staying in groups, keeping your valuables out of sight and locking your doors. Best of all, take the cheap ($1 or less fares) trolley, which loops through downtown and the riverfront. Pricier horse-drawn carriages also are available to transport you downtown.

One famous, elegant place to stay downtown is the Peabody Memphis ($229 and up). This historic, Forbes four-star hotel is known for its resident ducks, which live on the rooftop and parade each morning to the lobby's fountain, where they stay all day. Even if you don't stay there, go see the ducks parade in the morning or evening. (Call the hotel for exact times - it's free.) Kids especially love it as the quackers waddle down their special red carpet. 

Another downtown accommodation is the Madison Hotel; it's small, chic and luxurious ($185 and up). It made Conde Nast's Top 75 U.S. Hotels list and has a restaurant and martini lounge. If you'd like to stay away from downtown, consider the River Inn of Harbor Town, which isn't far away. This boutique hotel ($223 and up) is located in a bucolic, planned community with nature trails and received AAA's Four Diamonds rating. It overlooks the Mississippi and the price includes breakfast and parking. It's home to the Memphis Culinary School, which offers two-day cooking "retreats." 

Music to animals
If you're into music, visit Sun Record Company and Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Sun Records, as it was originally called, launched Elvis, who paid $4 in 1953 to make a demo there. It has propelled many other stars, including Roy Orbison, Roger Miller, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. You can take a tour of the facility, which still functions as a recording studio. (Kids from 5 to 11 are free, kids younger than 5 aren't allowed.)

Stax Records was an "unsung musical hero," Simpson says. "Everybody knows about Motown in Detroit, but Stax had Isaac Hayes, Solomon Burke, Rufus Thomas and others, and cranked out strings of hits." The museum has exhibits about soul's history, a dance floor, recording studio and more. 

Mud Island is great for river and nature lovers. It's home to the Mississippi River Museum, Mud Island River Park and an amphitheater which offers live concerts (Bob Dylan played there in July). A monorail zips you across the Mississippi to the park. At the Adventure Center you can rent a kayak, canoe or bike to cruise on or alongside the water. 

Kids and animal lovers will want to see the Memphis Zoo, a popular attraction nestled in a lovely old neighborhood. Its baby elk (born June 21), hippos, polar bears, grizzlies, big cats and giant pandas are big crowd pleasers. And three Komodo dragons give you an idea of what dinosaurs were like. Go early in the day for the smallest crowds. A reasonably priced tram takes you around the zoo when you're too tired to walk. Many people spend a half to whole day there.



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Story published Friday, September 2, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 5 )

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