Memphis is no stranger to the limelight. After all, it’s the place that birthed the careers of such musical icons as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. But sometimes a city’s best-kept secrets are what makes it worth exploring, and Memphis is good at remaining tight-lipped about some of its finest bits.
Here are just a few offbeat traits that make the 901 worth exploring.
The Eerie Side
Memphis’ past was laced with tragedy, including a brutal yellow fever plague that swept through the area in the 1800s and claimed 5,000 lives. Therefore, many parts of town are said to be haunted — from the old homes lining Victorian Village (formerly Millionaire’s Row) to the Orpheum Theatre and Earnestine & Hazel’s.
A dive bar for the past 25 years, the space that houses Earnestine & Hazel’s has also been home to a pharmacy, brothel, dance hall, movie set and a blues joint, but perhaps most important are its resident spooks.
The bar is known for harboring a number of fugitives of the ghostly variety. Those who stop in for the famed Soul Burger have long reported spying apparitions (or maybe it’s the booze talking … ), and even the jukebox is said to move to its own tune, often playing what it “overhears” bar patrons saying. The occurrences became so frequent that management even started giving ghost tours.
Roughly half of the aforementioned yellow fever victims were laid to rest in the 80-acre Elmwood Cemetery, along with more than 1,000 Confederate soldiers. There are public walking tours (of the non-haunted variety) on select Saturdays.
About 15 miles east of there and deep within Memorial Park Cemetery lies another marvel, one less eerie but equally as gasp-worthy: Crystal Shrine Grotto. Thought to be the only man-made crystal cave in the world, this quirky spot is encased in foliage — complete with a (fake) “oak” tree that you can walk through — and feels a bit like setting foot onto a movie set.
Flanked by the mighty Mississippi River, Memphis is awash in parks and other urban spaces, from Mud Island Riverwalk to the Lichterman Nature Center. But if you want to find the locals, head for the 4,500-acre Shelby Farms Park, whose recent $52 million expansion included an enlargement of Hyde Lake, new trails, a playground, the Go Ape adventure course, a lakeside events stage and boat house, a high-end restaurant and a number of new rental facilities, from boats to paddleboards.
Want to experience Memphis like a local? Rent a bike from the Park and then make your way through the city via the Shelby Farms Greenline. This popular 10.65-mile paved running and biking trail — unveiled in 2010 and being constantly expanded — has changed the way residents move around the sprawling city; it’s also a great way for visitors to see Memphis in a different light.
Reuse of Old Buildings
What was once a prominent Sears distribution center sat abandoned and in disarray for more than 20 years after closing its retail operation in 1983 and distribution a decade after that. It remained shuttered until a group of visionaries reimagined it as a multipurpose complex, to the tune of $200 million, with a focus on contemporary arts.
Originally opened in 1927, the 10-story, 1.1-million-square-foot Crosstown Concourse reopened in August, under the mantra “better together,” with a uniquely designed space meant to unite its residents and office tenants and inspire community.
The upper levels are apartments, while the ground floor is filled with businesses, eateries and small, locally owned shops. Eventually, Crosstown Concourse will also host its own brewery.
The City’s Spirit(s)
In summer 2017 Memphis welcomed its first distillery since before Prohibition — or perhaps saying “welcomed back” is more accurate. On the heels of a major legislation change, Old Dominick Distillery became the first in Memphis to capitalize on Senate Bill No. 1955, which legalized the manufacture of distilled spirits in counties that already had drink and retail package sales.
The Canale family stepped in to revive its family legacy, which had thrived under founder Domenico Canale from 1866 until Prohibition halted all production nearly a century ago. They did so by bringing back Old Dominick, the sole West Tennessee member of the 26-stop Tennessee Whiskey Trail, in the form of a 50,000-square-foot facility by the river with a bar, large retail area, rooftop patio and plenty of room for private events.
Not a whiskey fan? Memphis has beer, too. If you’re in a rush and want a quick overview of the beer scene in one stop, look no further than Railgarten, an adult fun zone that spans 1.5 acres of a former rail yard with pingpong, volleyball, live music, a diner, an ice-cream parlor and plenty of beer on tap.