En Route: Graceland
Updated: May 31, 2020
I remember the moment quite clearly. There I sat, on the floor, just a little me watching TV, when a man came on the screen wearing all black and sporting a puckish grin. Now, I knew
the man was Elvis Presley, I mean I wasn’t raised under a rock- I’d seen him before.
But that was the first time I remember thinking, "Well, what have we here?"
Fast forward to grown up me, now a full-fledged adult who has seen and done a lot in this crazy world, and one thing remains the same- when Elvis comes on the screen, I’m still All In. And that’s exactly why I chose to start this little En Route series of mine at Graceland. To me, it’s the greatest of all the Lands.
Every two years or so, I get that old familiar itch, and as Elvis is the only one who can scratch it, I know it’s time to head for Graceland. But to get to Graceland, you have to first get to Memphis, so let’s begin there, shall we?
Now, let me interject here- if your only interest in visiting Memphis lies in seeing the Holy Triumvirate of all things E.A.P.- Graceland, Sun Studios, and Tupelo, you can fly right in, stay next door to the mansion at the superbly appointed Guesthouse at Graceland, have shuttles and charter buses at your disposal, and pretty much get your fill without having to bother much with the rest of the city. But let’s assume you’re reading this because you’re like me, and require a little more from your travels. If that’s the case, let’s press on.
When it comes to Memphis, getting there is all about the usual suspects- planes, trains, and automobiles. And ok, so there is also a bus depot near the airport, but you probably won’t catch me recommending Greyhound any time soon. Not at least, until I can be assured that my last driver, the one who left a man at that store in the middle of nowhere, and talked to the rest of us the entire time like idiot children, receives another round of customer service training. But I digress.
I’ve used all of the methods above, and while train travel is possibly my all-time favorite mode of transport- I mean, why not let someone else do the work, I always say?- let’s face it folks, we’re no Switzerland here. Our trains can be expensive and untimely. Or at least, not-on-timely. And that goes for the Memphis route as well, which only runs north and south between New Orleans and Chicago. So taking the train really only makes sense if you happen to already be in one or the other. I’ve happened to be in both, so for me it worked out great, and a pleasant ride ensued every time. Amtrak has some of the friendliest workers in the biz, and bonus- you get to skip the whole ‘remove your belt, shoes, and dignity’ TSA rigamarole. Just be aware that depending on which route you choose, you’re going to arrive in Memphis at either the crack of dawn or the edge of midnight.
By the way, if you do travel to Memphis by train, please don’t make the same mistake I first did, and think that you can walk to your accommodations, just because they’re close. Memphis is a town that tends to contradict itself from one block to the next. One moment you’re admiring a clean street with a beautiful array of spring flowers, and the next, you’re dragging your suitcase down the middle of the road, shying away from boarded up doorways, and considering calling your Mother to see if she’ll come get you. Just call an Uber instead from the station.
I’ve made the drive a few times as well, but unless you’re already in say Tennessee or Arkansas, Memphis is a haul and a half from pretty much anywhere else in the great US of A. And there’s not much stimulating scenery to be had around those parts, so the drive stretches on and on. There is one upside to driving though- if you’re feeling extra frisky and want to make a real road trip out of it, you can stop off at the neon streets of Nashville, just 3 hrs east, and have a boot-scootin good time of it. But alas, time is not always at our disposal, so driving just isn’t always feasible.
All things considered, I usually fly. It’s a straight shot for me, whether I start in Charlotte or Raleigh. Several small carriers fly routes in and out of Memphis, so hopefully it can be an easy straight shot for you as well. Memphis International Airport is like a microcosm of the city itself. That is to say- small, amiable, and proud. Right away you’ll know you’ve arrived in
Blues City. After the flight, for me it’s a quick shuttle ride to pick up a rental car, and then straight on to the mansion.
Graceland lies just around the corner from the airport. Convenient, yes, but the area is, shall we say- blighted. Shockingly so. The Graceland folks do a fantastic job of maintaining the grounds, but considering the landmark is visited by 600,000+ people a year, 2nd only to the White House, you’d think the powers that be would take a little care in revitalizing the area around it too. But unfortunately, no one consults me on these matters. Basically, that area ain’t pretty, and it ain’t walkable, so unless I’m staying at the Guesthouse, once I’ve had my fill of wandering the halls and shopping the shops, I’m outta there like a shot.
While the Guesthouse is quite possibly my favorite hotel on earth, I usually start off my stay
downtown. I like downtown Memphis- it keeps you on your toes. I once had a
security guard stop m from continuing to the next block, saying it just wasn't a safe place to be. It wasn't even dark out yet, and the block I was on seemed harmless enough, but ya know what? I believed him. Because that's jut how Memphis rolls. You'll be strolling past office buildings, sidestepping food carts and the buttoned-up khaki crowd one minute, make one turn, and find yourself breathing in the bluesy, barbecue smoke-filled air that permeates Beale St. the next. Every block is a surprise. Downtown Memphis is gentile, and it's gritty, and it makes no apologies for either. I quite like that about it.
There are several perfectly amiable chain hotels downtown, along with a few posher spots like the Hu and The Peabody. The Hu offers a rooftop bar and a view of the Bridge to Arkansas, along with the mighty Mississippi, while the Peabody is in a great location, and of course has that cute little duck parade. No matter where you stay though, there’s a sweet little $1 trolley zooming around downtown, so you really can’t go wrong. It’s all connected.
On a side note here, since we’re talking hotels: Memphis is a great place to hone your blind booking skills. You know what I mean by that, right? When you score a cheaper rate in exchange for not knowing the name of the particular hotel until after you’ve paid? Well, I just checked rates and The Peabody is $227 a night, while the blind booking for The Peabody is $127. That’s a pretty sweet deal for a hotel that packs in both luxury and tradition, but hey, if lux isn’t a prerequisite, you can do even better. I’ve never paid more than a hundred bucks a night using the blind method in downtown Memphis. Granted, I know going the blind route can seem a nerve-wracking prospect for some folks, but there’s really no need to worry. Compare the features, location, and ratings, use your powers of deduction, and make your move. You’ll be fine.
Recently, I’ve started going the AirBnB route. Mind you, a few years ago that thought
wouldn’t even have crossed my mind, but the revitalization of downtown Memphis has
begun, and a lot of the old buildings have now been converted into apartments and lofts. Many of which are for rent. The streets have been cleaned up as well, so homegrown accommodations are now an entirely viable option. Convenient too, because usually these places have a washed and dryer, and there’s a City Market right on Main St., where you can stock up on provisions and save a few bucks by putting your rental kitchen to work for you. My last rental was right around the corner from Gus’s Fried Chicken- yum-o- and the Old Dominick Distillery, where you can do a tour which includes a seven-liquor sampling at the end. All for $12. I think that’s a nice price to pay for some info and a buzz.
When staying downtown, I usually head over to Beale St. for my evening’s entertainment. For me, a night of Bbq, beer, and blues is just the thing. But if Bbq isn’t your bag and you’ve got a hankering for say pizza, gastropub, Thai, take your pick- another plus for staying downtown, you’ll find it all within a few block radius. I like Sunrise for breakfast, Gus’s for fried anything, and Blues City for Bbq. Or maybe try The Majestic, if a sit-down dinner is what you fancy. There are plenty of options, so go ahead, take a stroll, and find your jam. And if you’re ever in doubt, just head towards Beale.
I’ve made some great friends on Beale St.. Two of which- Sandra and Sandra, I’m still in touch with. The Sandras were visiting from England when we met and struck up a chat at the tall tables outside of B.B. King’s Blues Club. This was during Dec., so we were lucky to have mild weather at the time. January and February though? Fuhgetaboutit. No lingering
outside during those months. Anyway, later on that night I drove the three of us to Graceland so we could ooh and aah over the mansion, all lit up for Christmas. The next morning, I loaded up the Sandras once again, and together we headed for church.
Now, I can’t recommend visiting the Full Gospel Tabernacle enough, but I will say this- eat a snack before you go. Because FGT is a quintessential Southern black church experience, and by that I mean- it’s long. 3 hours long. It’s worth it though. I promise. Al Green of ‘Let’s Stay Together’ fame is the preacher, so you can just imagine how good the music is. Almost in direct contrast to how bad the wall art is, yeesh. When Preacher Green is there, he holds court from the pulpit, waving his arms all fire and brimstone-like, until he leads us into song, and soon you’ll be tapping your feet and swaying to the beat while church members dance and hallelujah in the aisles. It’s simply wonderful. It is out of the way though. You’ll need either a rental car or ride share for this one.
I can also highly recommend visiting Sun Studios. It’s located downtown on Union Ave, just a few blocks over from Beale, and while there’s minimal parking, you get there by trolley, cab, or ride share easy enough. The building is small and completely unassuming, but inside is chockful of so much music history- Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Carl Perkins, etc., that I swear it makes you downright proud to be an American. The booth upstairs is where DJ Dewey Phillips played Elvis’s debut song, ‘That’s All Right’ over a dozen times during his 3 hour ‘Red, Hot, & Blue’ radio show on July 8, 1954, and the landscape of music was changed forever. Adult tour tickets are 14$, which also includes a free shuttle to and from Graceland. That, my friends, is what I call a bargain.
Which brings us back around to Graceland. Elvis’s home sits on a hill above Elvis Presley Blvd., and while you can see it from the road, you’ll start your visit across the street, where the ticket counters, shops, planes, car museum, etc, are all located.
When I first started visiting Graceland, the mansion, shops, and museums were unchanged since it first opened its doors to the public back in 1982. Basically what you had was the mansion, and a big ol’ tacky souvenir stand full of bedazzled tchotchkes across the street. Which I couldn’t get enough of. Then in May 2017, a $137 million-dollar renovation took place, and now what you have is the mansion, and a state-of-the-art souvenir stand full of bedazzled tchotchkes across the street. Which I still can’t get enough of. I’m kidding here, because the renovation was a major upgrade, and the merchandise was improved right along with it. I never wrap up my visit with less than an armload of hoodies, shirts, notepads, coasters, magnets, wall art, etc. to take home. Feel free and take a moment here to imagine the state of my apartment, and wardrobe…
The full tour is not cheap, so while I usually just buy the mansion ticket nowadays, I highly recommend ponying up for the whole shabang on your first go. I mean, you don’t want to miss anything. Take the Lisa Marie, for instance- the bigger of Elvis’s planes, which was customized by the same team who decked out Air Force One. The sinks are gold, for goodness sakes. Gold, I tell ya!
You’ll also get to see the hall of records, Elvis’s customized cars
the '68 leather ensemble, and a dazzling array of his finest jumpsuits. The list goes on and on. Take a break here, grab yourself a flavored coffee from the snack bar, and get ready to head across Elvis Presley Blvd. for the main event.
It’s time to tour Elvis’s home. The mansion tour itself is one of the best around, and I can state that with confidence. I like to nerd-out on my travels, and I’ve done a boatload of tours, all of which I firmly believe would be wise to take a page out of G-Land’s playbook.
First, you hop on a shuttle for the ride over with about a dozen strangers. This is when you pop on the provided earphones, and from there, the voice of John Stamos guides your way. I liked the former narrator as well- he had a real Tennessee twang going on, so I was wary of the newcomer. But Uncle Jessie makes a fine job of it too. You’re also given an I-Pad to carry, but who wants to stare down at a screen when you’ve got such glories as the upholstered ceilings, peacock-stained interior windows, and Jungle Room waterfall to behold? Now, I’m sure back in the day all of this was considered flashy af, but surprisingly, even with all of the above, nowadays Elvis’s home comes off as downright modest.
After touring the guts of the mansion, you’ll cruise to the outer buildings, where the history of Memphis unfolds, intertwined with Elvis’s own. Pictures galore- Elvis as a young pup, but still with that pompadour, as a delivery driver, greeting fans at the Gates, recording at Sun Studios, zooming across the grounds on horses and golf carts alike- it’s all there. You’ll see Vernon’s office, the racquetball court, the firing range, the horse pastures- there’s almost too much to take in.
In the racquetball court is where you’ll be treated to a few songs from the Aloha From Hawaii Special, playing on a loop on a big screen. Take as long as you like here, and don’t worry,
everyone else will be doing the same. There’s just something about that performance- it’s a crowd stopper. When that Aloha Special originally aired back in 1973, it drew a bigger audience than the moon landing had done. Can you imagine? Even without social media, Elvis was more popular than the moon. Yeesh!
The tour ends outside, behind the pool, in the Meditation Gardens. The King’s final resting place. Invariably, a hush falls over the crowd here, as folks take a moment to pay their respects, and absorb the gravity of his demise. Elvis started off his everafter at Forest Hill Cemetery down the road, but after a thwarted attempt by grave robbers to steal his remains and hold them for ransom- how gruesome is that- they moved the King right back to his castle. Seriously, what the F is wrong with people?
One morning I was standing outside the Gardens, waiting for a shuttle out, when an ambulance pulled up to the front steps of the mansion. An older woman had twisted an ankle, that’s all, but still I couldn’t help to imagine what that August morning in 1977 must have felt like. When a different ambulance pulled up to those same set of steps, and the world would soon find out that the King really had, once and for all, left the building.
I’m always downright blue when it comes time to leave Graceland. What I wouldn’t give to just curl up in a corner chair with a book for the rest of the afternoon. I wouldn’t disturb anything, like make myself a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich in the kitchen, or even try for a peek upstairs, I promise. I just always want to stay on a little longer.
But alas, life moves on, and if we’re lucky, we get to move along with it. So it’s goodbye to G-Land for now.
If you have any questions or other key Memphis tips to offer, go ahead and chime in below. Otherwise, I’ll see ya next time in Key West!