Memphis Downtown Walking Tour, Memphis

Memphis Downtown Walking Tour (Self Guided), Memphis

Downtown Memphis is the oldest part of the “blues city” located on the Mississippi River. To acquaint yourself fully with this neighborhood and in the shortest possible time, take this self-guided tour starting at the Fire Museum of Memphis, then head to the Peabody Hotel to see the "Peabody Ducks", visit an iconic movie palace, and then make way to other prominent highlights of Memphis' downtown!
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Memphis Downtown Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Memphis Downtown Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » Memphis (See other walking tours in Memphis)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 13
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.1 Km or 1.9 Miles
Author: val
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Fire House Museum of Memphis
  • Calvary Episcopal Church
  • Burch, Porter & Johnson's Historic Location
  • Peabody Hotel
  • Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange
  • Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art
  • Orpheum Theatre
  • Beale Street
  • Mr. Handy's Blues Hall
  • Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum
  • National Civil Rights Museum
  • Blues Hall of Fame
  • Arcade Restaurant
Fire House Museum of Memphis

1) Fire House Museum of Memphis

The Fire House Museum of Memphis is an interactive museum dedicated to displaying the history of Memphis’ first fire station. The museum collection contains items that date back to the early 1900s. The Hale Water Tower, the 1929 American LaFrance Pumper, helmets, badges, lanterns, a display of the station as it appeared in 1910, and desks of fire chiefs from the past are some of the many items that you will find here.

Whether you want to fight a simulated fire from a snorkel basket, or feel the heat from the fire room, there is something for everyone at the Fire House. The Memorial Wall pays homage to local firefighters who died in the line of duty, and there is an oil painting depicting scenes of actual fires. In addition, the first class of black fire fighters is honored via a set of photographs and paintings. Even children will have the opportunity to have fun by exploring an ambulance unit or the cabin of a fire truck.

The museum shop sells jewelry, toys, souvenirs, clothing, and other items that promote fire safety. In addition, they offer fire safety field trips and workshops.

Operation Hours:
Monday through Saturday, from 9 am to 4:30 pm.
Calvary Episcopal Church

2) Calvary Episcopal Church

Located at the intersection of North Second Street and Adams Avenue, the Calvary Episcopal Church is part of the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee. It is the oldest public building in continuous use in the city of Memphis. It was founded in 1832 and is considered the “Mother Parish” of Memphis and Shelby County. The church also founded additional congregations, Grace Church, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and the Church of the Holy Communion. The building was designed by the Reverend Philip Alston. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

Serving the community is what the church strives to do. They offer a Calvary Place Child Care Center for working parents and a Waffle Shop that provides weekday meals during Lent. Their Soup Sunday program sells soup at an affordable price and the proceeds are used to feed Memphis’ hungry. The church offers grants to further its mission. They also have a Community Service Ministry that helps to support the needs of those within the area.

Faith formation classes are offered for adults and children.

Worship Hours:
7:45 am for the traditional service and 9 am for the Eucharist service. Weekday services are at 6:15 pm on Wednesdays.
Burch, Porter & Johnson's Historic Location

3) Burch, Porter & Johnson's Historic Location

One important landmark in Memphis is the Burch, Porter & Johnson's Law Firm. Located on Court Avenue, the building has played a significant part in Memphis history. The firm is composed of two buildings, the Tennessee Club Building and the Goodbar Building. Construction joined the two together in 1982.

The firm represented Dr. Martin Luther King during the Memphis Sanitation March in 1968, and was in court representing him when they heard of the assassination attempt that took his life.

The Tennessee Club Building was erected in 1890 by Edward Terrell, and functioned as an art gallery, library and social club. Carrie Nation gave a speech on the club’s front stairs and William H. Taft and Teddy Roosevelt visited the building. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since April 22, 1982.
Peabody Hotel

4) Peabody Hotel (must see)

The Peabody Hotel is a four star hotel best known for its most famous residents, the Peabody Ducks. Each day at 11 am, the ducks march into the hotel lobby for a swim in the fountain. They are accompanied by the duck master and the King Cotton March by John Phillip Sousa. The ducks are a popular attraction and hundreds of people line up to see them every day. In addition, many celebrities have acted as an honorary duck master throughout the years.

The duck tradition began in 1932 when the general manager and his friend placed live decoy ducks in the hotel lobby fountain as a joke. The public liked it and the tradition continued with five mallard ducks, one male and four female. The ducks work an average of three months before they are retired.

The original Peabody Hotel was built by Robert Campbell Brinkley in 1869 and was located on the corner of Main and Monroe Streets. Its most famous resident was Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederacy.

The current hotel was designed by Walter W. Ahlschlager and opened in 1925. In 1965, the hotel went bankrupt and was sold to the Sheraton Hotels, renamed the Sheraton–Peabody Hotel. After the Sheraton closed in 1973, Isadore Edwin Hanover bought the hotel and sold it to his son-in-law, Jack A. Belz. After years of restoration work, the building reopened in 1981.

The Peabody Skyway, a top floor that contains a lounge, bar, and ballroom, was a popular hangout during the 1940s. The hotel Plantation Roof offers great views of the Memphis skyline and is the site of the famous Thursday night "Rooftop Parties.”

Bernard Lansky's store, located in the hotel's lobby, is legendary. Elvis used to called him "Mr. Lansky," while faithful customers call him "Mr. B.", and the world knows him as "Clothier to the Stars". Elvis collaborated with Mr Lansky throughout the course of his career. When he first bought a shirt from Lansky it the 1950s, it cost just $3.95. As Elvis became more famous, Lansky was named his PR man all over the world. Frank Sinatra, Carl Perkins, and B.B. King have also shopped at Lansky at the Peabody.

***Elvis Presley Walk***
This hotel is where Elvis went for his senior prom. He is rumored to have told his date that he didn’t dance and was incredibly nervous the whole night – a hard to believe line from a man who swayed his hips and made the girls swoon.

In the Hotel's Memorabilia Room one can still see the contract signed by Elvis Presley in the hotel lobby when he left the Sun Records for RCA.
Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange

5) Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange

The Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange is an exhibition hall that tells you everything you ever wanted to know about cotton. Located on the corner of Front Street and Union Avenue, the building is where cotton farmers would bring their bounty to sell to traders who would sell their purchases to textile manufacturers around the world. The museum gives patrons a glimpse into the history of the cotton industry in Memphis from the 1920s to present times.

Memphis is and was one of the biggest spot-cotton markets in the world. In 1874, the Memphis Cotton Exchange was established to help regulate that market. Some of the items visitors will see are cotton gins, bales of cotton, a 135-foot custom mural by Memphis artist David Mah, a Western Union telegraph, the trading board used to make transactions, and a display featuring clothing from the Cotton Carnivals of the days long gone by.

It is highly recommended to take the Legends of Cotton Row tour that shows visitors to downtown Memphis where many cotton transactions occurred. The museum also offers brown bag lunch lectures on the third Thursday of each month.

Operation Hours:
Monday through Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm, and on Sunday from 12 pm to 5 pm.
Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art

6) Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art (must see)

Located on South Main Street, the Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art contains the largest collection of Chinese art (tapestries, furniture, carvings, and other artifacts from the Qing period) in the southern United States and an impressive collection of items related to Judaism, totaling over 1,000. The exhibition hall was established in 1998.

Most of the artifacts come from the private collection of Jack and Marilyn Betz. Among these are the works by Ofra Friedland, Daniel Kafr, Marc Chagall, Mane Katz. Of special interest are the 32 bronze sculptures created by Daniel Kafri.

Tours are available Tuesday through Friday from 10 am to 4 pm. Docent tours are also available to the public upon request. In addition, there are tours specifically targeted towards educating students. Photography and movie and video cameras are not allowed in the galleries. The museum’s Dynasty room is available for rental for groups of 25 or more who wish to experience a Chinese feast with tea. The museum shop sells cards, gifts, and other accessories reflecting a Judaic or Asian theme.

Operation Hours:
From 10 am to 5:30 pm Tuesday through Friday, and Saturday and Sunday from 12 pm to 5 pm. Closed on Mondays and major holidays.
Orpheum Theatre

7) Orpheum Theatre (must see)

Located on South Main Street, the Orpheum Theatre is one of the last movie palaces from the 1920s still in existence. Originally built in 1890, it was known as the Grand Opera House. Today it is a home to the Ballet Memphis and Opera Memphis troupes.

Broadway, film, and concerts are staged here on a regular basis. Cats, Mamma Mia, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat are just a few of the shows that have graced the Orpheum’s stage over the years.

The theater has staying power. It survived a 1923 fire, bankruptcy, demolition, and the decline of the city. Through all of its trials, the Orpheum has rebounded and today remains one of the “South’s Finest Theatres.” In 1976, it underwent a $5 million renovation that restored the theater to its former 1928 glory.

It is rumored that the building is haunted by two ghosts. One of the ghosts is a nine year old girl named Mary and the other is a masked figure who lives in the air ducts above the house. Mary likes to slam doors and make lights flicker. The ghost with no name likes to wave at audience members.

The theater is available for rental and offers many programs to educate the public about the arts. In addition, tours are available for groups at different times throughout the year.
Beale Street

8) Beale Street (must see)

Known as the "Home of the Blues" and one of America's most famous streets, Beale Street is the very gist of entertainment in Memphis. This is the place where in 1909, W. C. Handy wrote "Mr. Crump" as a campaign song for political machine leader E. H. Crump, later renamed "The Memphis Blues." Handy also wrote a song called "Beale Street Blues" in 1916 which influenced the change of the street's name from Beale Avenue to Beale Street.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Memphis Minnie, B. B. King, Rufus Thomas, Rosco Gordon and other blues and jazz legends played on Beale Street and helped develop the style known as Memphis Blues. As a young man, B. B. King was billed as "the Beale Street Blues Boy."

A significant location in the city's history and that of blues music, the part of the street from Main to 4th was declared a National Historic Landmark on May 23, 1966. Today, the blues clubs and restaurants lining the Beale are major tourist attractions in Memphis. Festivals and outdoor concerts frequently bring large crowds to the street and its surrounding areas. There are more than 25 clubs and shops selling Memphis souvenirs here.

Why You Should Visit:
To enjoy authentic Memphis soul food, listen to live music, or party!

***Elvis Presley Walk***

The young Elvis used to spend a lot of time with the musicians gathered on Beale street. The music and the vibe of the street had a great influence on him. Today, his name can be spotted on one of the brass notes on the Beale Street Brass Notes Walk of Fame.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Mr. Handy's Blues Hall

9) Mr. Handy's Blues Hall

Mr. Handy's Blues Hall is the last standing real juke joint on the Beal. Located next door to and connected with Rum Boogie Café, this storied honky-tonk hosts some of the best blues artists in town, who play live music "8 days a week!". Filled with rock memorabilia, The Handy refers to W.C. Handy, the father of the blues.

Smaller than most of the other clubs on the street, the walls here – adorned with random stuff and historic photos of the W.C. Handy family and other blues memorabilia – evoke the real feel of a juke joint, with tables crammed into the tiny space, worn wood floors and, of course, real blues being played. The latter is the main draw to the Blues Hall, so be sure to stop in, grab a seat (if you can find one), enjoy a Beale St. Big Ass Beer, and listen to the best blues in Memphis!

Why You Should Visit:
To listen to blues, blues and more blues! To experience the real thing at the only authentic juke joint left on Beale Street. To enjoy local bands playing the Memphis blues, both classics and originals, during the week and on weekends!

The place also serves up Southern grub, in case you are hungry for something more than just pure entertainment, with barbecue being one of the customer favorites.
There are no bathrooms within Mr. Handy's, but there's a door connecting the club to Rum Boogie, which is full-service in that regard.

Open for dinner 7 pm-midnight, seven days a week.
Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum

10) Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum (must see)

Located on the famous Beale Street, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum tells the story of Memphis music from its early beginnings to the present. Educating the masses about the music is the central theme of the museum and the seven galleries herein showcase a wide variety of genres, from the music sung in the fields to gospel, blues, country, rhythm and blues, and rock ‘n’ roll.

The museum was created by the Smithsonian Institution in 2000 as a research project. Visitors will enjoy the videos, recordings, photographs of artists such as, Otis Redding, Al Green, and Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Three recommended tour stops are the Bravo Gallery that honors artists who made an impact on the world music, the Soul Music exhibit that features the works of legendary record labels such as STAX, HI Records and Sun Records, and the Youth Culture exhibit that features artifacts from the record company that helped Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis get their start.

The on-site Levy Restaurants offers catering services for a variety of functions at the exhibition hall. The museum and gift shop open daily from 9:30 am to 7 pm.
National Civil Rights Museum

11) National Civil Rights Museum (must see)

The National Civil Rights Museum is located at the former Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. It also includes the Canipe’s Amusement Store located next to the rooming house where James Earl Ray, the man who shot Dr. King, stayed and the Young and Morrow Building where Mr. Ray confessed. The museum officially opened in 1991.

The Lorraine Motel was one of the few comfortable places where black people could safely stay during segregation. The museum tells the history of the African American struggle from the 17th century to the present. In addition, police and evidence files from the assassination are on display.

Visitors can purchase civil rights-related materials at the museum bookstore.

In addition to serving as a civil rights museum, several rooms are available for seminars, meetings, or events. Room size varies, with the largest room accommodating up to 276 people.
Blues Hall of Fame

12) Blues Hall of Fame

The Blues Hall of Fame is a music museum that is a Memphis gem for both serious blues fans and casual visitors. Initially, the "Blues Hall of Fame" was not a physical building, but a listing of people who have significantly contributed to blues music. Started in 1980 by the Blues Foundation, it honors those who have performed, recorded, or documented blues. The actual building for the hall opened to the public on May 8, 2015.

Currently, the museum features robust exhibits and in-depth history, exposing, educating, and entertaining visitors with all that is blues culture. Overall, it highlights more than 400 inductees in five key categories: Performer, Individual, Album, Single, and Literature.

There are in total 10 individualized galleries with interactive touchscreens along with three master databases where visitors can hear the music, watch videos, and read the stories of each of the inductees honored herein. Each gallery also houses one-of-a-kind memorabilia, such as Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica, hard to find album covers, tour jackets, Mavis Staples’ Grammy gown, Otis Spann’s piano and other iconic pieces. Upstairs, guests can enjoy traveling exhibits that rotate every four months.

The museum was built through the generosity and support of Blues fans so that it would serve all four components of The Blues Foundation’s mission: preserving history, celebrating excellence, supporting education, and ensuring the future of the music.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Arcade Restaurant

13) Arcade Restaurant

Located in the middle of historic Memphis, the Arcade Restaurant is honored for being the oldest eatery in the city. Speros Zepatos, a Greek immigrant, founded the diner in 1919 in what was then a small, wood-framed building. Food was cooked on potbelly stoves! In 1925, Speros, who gave the Arcade its original name, rebuilt it in Greek revival style, complete with retail stores to signify the “Arcade” title.

Nowadays, this third-generation family-owned restaurant serves generous portions of southern-style breakfast which made them a featured restaurant on The Food Network and The Travel Channel. Their signature sweet potato pancakes alone have put the Arcade on the map – that and the Elvis booth in which “The King” used to order his beloved fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. Lunchtime at the Arcade will give you the choice of a meat and two daily special, salads, sandwiches and the like. But, you must try their pizza for which they use fresh ingredients and great toppings served on a crispy crust.

The longevity, great food and the fact that that Elvis was a regular here has made the Arcade a firm favorite of locals and the media alike. The restaurant has always attracted famous guests and been featured in a number of movies, such as Mystery Train, 21 Grams, Elizabethtown, The Client, The Firm, and Walk the Line, to name but a few.

The evenings are reserved for private functions except for Trolley Nights (last Friday of the month) when they serve dinner until 11 pm.

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