Odds are, Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, is on your bucket list. Beale is Tennessee’s most-visited attraction, and, according to USA TODAY’s 10Best, America’s most iconic street. With music streaming from every open door, memorials to music legends, and history everywhere you look, the street packs a lot to see and do.
Follow these tips, including recommendations for five of the best places to go on Beale Street, to make your visit rock.
1. Soak up the vibe
Half the allure is the street itself, so before committing to any Beale Street bars and clubs, just walk. I like to start around 7 p.m. on a weekend evening outside Hard Rock Café (in its swanky new digs near the west end of Beale).
Continue east and order a go-cup at any walk-up bar. Watch the Beale Street Flippers turn the cobblestone street into a runway for aerial somersaults. Check out the brass music notes memorializing Memphis music legends on the sidewalks.
Listen for accents indicating travelers from Texas, Australia, and everywhere in between – the ultimate reminder that you’re walking the street that revolutionized the world’s soundtrack. Use the walk to chat with promoters outside each club to determine where you’ll return for live music and/or food.
2. Hail the queen
Finalize your agenda over drinks in Silky O’Sullivan’s open-air courtyard. Look for Silky’s resident goats and make sure to order the bar’s signature “Diver,” a gallon-sized cocktail served in a bucket.
They’re all accessories to Barbara Blue, who commands the bar with her powerhouse vocals during funky, soulful, blues-y sets. (Later, dueling pianos take over.)
3. Dance with the locals
As long as the night isn’t too cold, locals gather ’round the W.C Handy statue in his namesake park – across from a Beale Street saloon where he used to compose – for free concerts. The experience is electric.
When we joined the crowd last Saturday around 8:30 p.m., an ensemble of older men was covering “Downhome Blues” and everyone was moving – from a child to a woman grooving solo to a Memphis man with the tourist he’d coaxed off her feet. (Friday nights June through July, Memphis bands present a genre-bending mix of styles from rock to punk in the park.)
4. Make yourself at home
A nominal cover gets you into Blues Hall. Inside the narrow room, strands of white lights drape along the ceiling and framed paintings hang on the walls, giving it the feel of someone’s living room. The bands that play here strip down their soul and blues sounds for intimate sets – a cozy warm-up to what comes next . . .
5. Groove on out
Blues Hall is connected to Rum Boogie Café, so you get two experiences for one cover charge. Walk through the adjoining door for a sight- and soundscape that’s altogether different.
Inside Rum Boogie, neon lights spelling STAX glow red, illuminating a collection of guitars – each one suspended from the ceiling and name-dropping its association, from Bobby Rush to The Black Crowes.
Several nights a week around 9 p.m., Vince Johnson and the Boogie Blues Band take the stage – harmonica, sax, Hammond organ and all – so when they groove out to “Green Onions” or “Walking the Dog,” it sounds to me like Beale Street live music should.
If you go
On Friday and Saturday nights, there are a few restrictions you’ll want to note: At 9 p.m., a security checkpoint goes up, ensuring that guests coming onto the street are 21 or older. Minors already on the street at this time are permitted to stay, accompanied by a parent, until 11 p.m. After 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, Beale goes 21 and up.