1. Where to Stay
Sleep in a former art conservatory at the five-room James Lee House (from $245 per night). Once home to the arts academy that became Memphis College for the Arts, the 1848 farmhouse turned mansion was vacant until March 2014, when Jose Velázquez and his wife completed restoration on the inn. Original Victorian era details remain—a frescoed ceiling, intricate moldings, ornate golden Victorian cornices and mirrors, and elegantly distressed fireplaces—but the rooms are outfitted with plenty of modern touches like adjustable TempurPedic mattresses, flat-screen TVs, and rain showers. With your complimentary breakfast, expect homemade granola, blood-orange marmalade, and fresh-squeezed orange juice, plus made-to-order eggs.
Take advantage of some southern hospitality with Airbnb. Two couples and friends, Wes Riddle and Mary Phillips, and Nathanial Owen and Chad Standish, each offer homey yet stylish alternatives to the city’s big chain hotels. Chad and Nathanial’s 1929 apartment complex is across the street from Overton Park and the Brooks Museum of Art; their roomy guest bedroom is immaculate, and the penny tile in the bathroom is charmingly weathered (from $55 per night). Wes and Mary run an urban farm academy and usually offer guests locally roasted Ugly Mug coffee, a light breakfast featuring veggies from the farm, and comforting homemade fare like cheese grits. Their energy-efficient home, filled with traveler-centric décor like huge wall maps and wooden packing crates, offers two guest rooms: Ask for the larger one, with a double bed and old-fashioned bee skep (from $54 per night).
Banish any notion of the stuffy Old South at the Madison Hotel (from $183). Though housed in a former bank, the 110-room space feels decidedly contemporary, with bold, graphic-printed walls, splashes of purple, coral, and teal amid the room décor, and unconventionally shaped furnishings, like the tall-armed and semicircular demi-sofas. Through its Memphis Artists Spotlight partnership, the hotel exhibits contemporary works from local painters and photographers, like the colorful abstracts of Janice Nabors Raiteri currently on display in the ground-floor restaurant. Be sure to squeeze in a workout in the subterranean gym—it’s built out of the 100-year-old bank vault, and the nuts and bolts in the original steel walls are still visible—and head up to the Twilight Sky Terrace in the afternoon (when it’s guests only) for transfixing rooftop views of the Mississippi.
2. Where to Eat
Chow on po’boys at chef Kelly English’s laid-back new spot, the Second Line. Housed inside a small early-20th-century home, the restaurant shares a kitchen with English’s more formal (and impossible to get into) Restaurant Iris. But rustic, authentic New Orleans fare is the focus here, from the plump, frittered Gulf oysters and catfish on fresh Leidenheimer Baking Company baguettes ($12-$15) to the real-deal roast beef po’boy, with juice trickling out the side ($13). Save room for English’s gooey, south of the Mason-Dixon take on disco fries, topped with pimiento cheese, Andouille sausage, and chunks of crawfish ($12).
Hopscotch between Dixie and Il Bel Paese at Hog & Hominy, where frizzled-on-the-spot pork rinds ($2) share table space with guanciale-laced meatballs ($12) on the made-to-share menu. Dining in the converted one-story home feels like a civilized frat party: There’s a bocce court and a galvanized-steel beer tub bar out back, plus good-time Charlie food fests, like Sunday afternoon crawfish boils. But you’ll find no Jell-O shots behind the bar—only well-crafted cocktails, like the Homage to Antoine, a mix of Prichard’s double-barreled bourbon, maurin quina, Pernod, and pine bitters ($12). Dig into buttermilk-biscuit gnocchi in a ham brodo with field peas (or whatever’s seasonal at the farms the owners patronize), and be sure to order a slice of the pilgrimage-worthy peanut-butter-and-banana-pudding pie ($7). Bonus for foodies: Ask your waiter for a printout of the staff’s hand-drawn map of favorite Memphis eats.
Wallow in Low Country goodness at Sweet Grass. Chef Ryan Trimm, a Food & Wine Best Chef nominee in 2011, delivers the bounty of southern farmland through hearty but elegantly composed plates inspired by his Italian grandmother, as in a wintertime pork riff on osso bucco ($28). Have a go at the plate of housemade charcuterie, with kielbasa, pork tongue pâté with dried figs, Cajun ham, and liver loaf ($15), paired with an even-tempered glass of Marchesi di Barolo Maraia Barbera ($9.50). The simple dining room is decorated with rotating works by local artists, but the best seats in the house are on the sidewalk patio.
3. What to Do
Gallery-hop Memphis’s midtown. Start at Marshall Arts, the working studio and alternative art space run by painter Pinkney Herbert and his wife, Janice, out of a former garage (periodically, the couple will roll open the doors so guests can drive through). The colorful geometric mural outside is by Anthony Lee, who paints large abstract canvases in the basement of the gallery. Across the street, check out the billboard on the west side of Greely Myatt’s studio, currently featuring a swath of Virginia Overton’s “Untitled (juniperus virginiana).” Zip downtown for one standout: the new subterranean TOPS Gallery. Use the side entrance of the 19th century industrial building and pick your way through the working basement to find the tiny gallery housed in what used to be a coal storage room. There, Matt Ducklo curates exhibits like Protoplastic, a study in biodegradable and acrylic plastics sculpted by Croatia-born architect and artist Igor Siddiqui.
Visit Crosstown Arts, a retro strip-mall now filled with creative spaces of varying purposes. Artist and organizer Christopher Miner oversees the whole operation, including the anchor gallery, which puts on ten contemporary exhibits per year (like the group show Inspired Resistance) as a pilot program for his plan to repopulate the abandoned 1927 Sears distribution center across the street with artists’ studios. Pop your head into the performance space next door to the main gallery, where the acts range from bluegrass bands to all-drag dance shows. Drop in on Jamie Harmon’s vintage wallpaper-lined studio and snap a selfie in the 1950 Daniel Boone teardrop trailer photo booth that serves as the centerpiece of his Amurica project. Outside, look up at the whimsical Beacon, a 30-foot pole topped by 51 bicycle wheels that spin and glisten in the sun.
Treasure-hunt for the dozens of renegade murals around town. When the city of Memphis painted a simple I Love Memphis mural in 2011, it set off a rash of street art all over town. French artist Guillaume Alby (a.k.a. REMED) was brought in to paint “This Is We” on Broad Street and “You Are the Universe” in Overton Square. Now Memphis even has its own Bansky in Brandon Marshall, who creates under-the-radar mural masterpieces, like an animal skeleton painted on the wall of a drainage canal. Use social media to pick and track down favorites—just search “Memphis Murals” and you’ll find images, addresses, and intersections.
4. Insider’s Tip
Some of the greatest artists in Memphis aren’t in galleries right now, but you can still see their work. Arrange a time to check out the Scandinavian-inspired pottery of Brit McDaniel, the ceramic artisan behind Paper & Clay, at her Art Factory studio (email her through her Etsy page). Call painter Jared Small if you want to drop by his in-home studio, or visit one of his bad-dream images of run-down Memphis homes, where it’s displayed at the Brooks Museum. Email Gino Pambianchi to plan a drop-in at the work space where he draws animals with unnatural irregularities, like bats with poppy flowers for heads.
5. Oddball Day
Take a break from aesthetic pursuits and try out the traditional southern sporting life. Rise early and grab a sackful of breakfast treats at Gibson Donuts, where the blackberry-jelly-filled doughnuts are particularly tasty (from 69 cents). Drive 15 minutes north on I-40 to the 24-hour Walmart to purchase a couple of discount fishing rods (starting at $15). Head west on Frayser Raleigh Road and north on Watkins Street to the Shelby Forest General Store by 7 a.m., in time to pick up your fishing license ($8), some bait (minnows are $2/dozen), and fresh-from-the-oven biscuits (from $1.29) from owners Doug and Kristin Ammons. Pull onto the winding roads of Shelby Forest State Park and park at the banks of Piersol Lake. Fish for bass and catfish where they feed—in the crevices and folds of the shoreline—until about 9 a.m., when they retreat to the middle of the lake to keep cool. Once you’ve filled your bucket, stop back at the general store for fried bologna sandwiches ($4) and sweet corn fritters ($3), and take home some deep-fried cherry pies made by the nearby Amish community ($1.99). Pay close attention to posted catch-and-release rules—you’ll get nabbed for taking out too-small specimens. If you’re feeling particularly proud of your catch (and flush), stop down the road at Shelby Forest Taxidermy, where Chris Knight will stuff and mount your most impressive fish (from $250). Travel northeast into Millington and learn to safely fire a hunting rifle at Top Brass, where the staff will patiently guide you through the shooting-range lanes (from $20 per hour). Cruise down Route 51 back to town and make a beeline for the midtown location of Soul Fish Café, where the catfish will be nearly as fresh as the ones you caught earlier ($13.75). Wind down your day with some blues at Wild Bill’s—an urban take on the juke joints that once populated the South. Order a 40-ounce Bud or Bud Light (your only options) and settle in for a night of wailing guitars and vocals from a roster of megatalented bands, but most often the uproarious sounds of Ms. Nikki and the Memphis Soul Survivors.
Keep tabs on new murals through Holly Whitfield’s thorough accounting of all-things-MemphianI Love Memphis Blog. If you can’t find what you need, ask Holly: She’ll take to the Twitterverse to deliver your answer.
Get advice on what exhibits to catch from fine-art expert and curator John Weeden’s blog, Weeden Arts Watch.
Track all art happenings in Tennessee (plus Mississippi and Arkansas) at Number, Inc.