Most people know Memphis as the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock and roll. And for good reason, music is kind of our thing. But few people understand that Memphis is also a city of neighborhoods. It’s a city with layers and layers of experience just waiting for people to discover. And our neighborhoods play a big part in that.
The South Main Arts District is one such neighborhood worth exploring.
With its authentic blend of dining, shopping, history, creative class residents and, of course, nightlife, the South Main Arts District is a shining example of Memphis’ downtown revitalization. Over the past decade, warehouses and storefronts have transformed into chic loft spaces, hip restaurants and eclectic boutiques. South Main is no longer where the Beale Street Entertainment District ends. It’s a destination in its own right, and a must-see neighborhood for any visitor.
If you’re traveling to Memphis and you want to spend a day on foot exploring South Main, we suggest you start off with a strong cup of espresso at Bluff City Coffee. With an artisanal espresso-only approach to the morning start, Bluff City Coffee has been serving residents since 2006, providing pastries, donuts and hearty breakfast sandwiches. However, If you’re in Memphis between April and October, you can skip Bluff City’s shop on South Main and hit their coffee stand at the Memphis Farmer’s Market. A weekly marketplace, the Memphis Farmer’s Market features local farmers and artisans, as well as kitchen and garden arts and crafts from the greater Mid-South region.
Both Bluff City Coffee and the Farmer’s Market are both a short walk away from one of the city’s most important historical attractions: The National Civil Rights Museum. Designed around the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the National Civil Rights Museum literally traces the civil rights movement from the dawn of slavery to the present. With a recent infusion of more than $27 million, the walking tour through history is visually driven and emotionally complex.
A parallel history to the civil rights movement can be found directly across the street at 421 South Main in the brand new Blues Hall of Fame. Though officially started in 1980 by the Blues Foundation, the new building gives the organization’s efforts a permanent home people can visit. Using clothing, paintings, records, artifacts and rare memorabilia, the Blues Hall of Fame creates an immersive and interactive experience that not only honors artists like B.B. King, Robert Johnson, and Dr. John, but gives visitors a deeper understanding of the role the blues played in shaping American culture.
After spending a few hours at these museums, you’ll probably need to clear your head and unwind with a bite or two to eat. A few blocks south on South Main, you’ll find another historical landmark, the Arcade Restaurant. A classic diner in every respect, the Arcade Restaurant offers your traditional biscuit breakfasts, patty melt fare, fries, shakes and daily specials. But its calling card is its connection to Elvis. Yes, there are many spots in Memphis claiming Elvis as a patron, but the Arcade was a regular stop for The King. He had his regular booth, which you can sit in, and his regular meal, a fried peanut butter ‘n’ banana sandwich. Another great spot for lunch in the South Main Arts District is Gus’s World Famous Hot & Spicy Fried Chicken. A hole-in-the-wall joint on South Front Street, Gus’s hot birds have gained recent notoriety from being featured in a number of different food and travel shows, including the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”
There’s a good chance that no matter where you grab lunch in Memphis, you’ll need to walk it off. South Main Arts District is a great place to do just that, especially with its many locally owned boutiques and shops. You can check out the Downtown Candle Company, which offers candles made with 100% soybeans and carefully selected botanical oils. Or if you’re looking for some new digs be sure to hit Hoot + Louise for some vintage gear or cutting edge designer wear and furniture from Stock + Belle.
Art and creativity have played a big role in making South Main a destination within Memphis. In fact, since 2000 the monthly Trolley Night has a galvanizing event for both locals and visitors. Organized around the trolley stops, the Trolley Night unites the district’s galleries, restaurants and shops in one big block party featuring dining and drink specials, live performances, and sales.
Some of the South Main restaurants featured on the tour are also popular destinations in their own right. South of Beale, aka SOB, is an easy-going gastro-pub with a focus on “chef-driven” food and expertly crafted cocktails, while Pearl’s Oyster House is a fun family atmosphere featuring their famous grilled Gulf Coast oysters. And Café Pontotoc is the perfect place to nosh on wine, craft beers and small plates before hitting a show at the historic Orpheum Theatre.
And finally, for those who like to burn the midnight oil, your day in South Main will find no better ending than with a stop at Earnestine and Hazel’s. Once a brothel house, Earnestine and Hazel’s is now known for its eclectic jukebox, long list of beers, and late-night favorite snack the Soul Burger.