Weekend Itinerary: Memphis in May
May is definitely the time to visit Memphis. Even if you don't love barbecue, you'll revel in the other fabulous seasonal events that take place in this rock-and-roll wonderland.
Memphis In May BBQ World Championship
May is the Month to Visit Memphis
As one thrilled griller succinctly sums up the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (third weekend of month), “This is NASCAR with sauce.”
Even if you don’t love barbecue (wait, you don’t love barbecue?!), you’ll revel in the other fabulous seasonal events that take place in this rock-and-roll wonderland. It all starts with the Beale Street Music Festival (first weekend of month), with 60 bands playing on four stages in Tom Lee Park, located on the banks of the Mississippi River. Blues, rock, gospel, soul, and R & B ring out to all who love the tuneful sounds of the South.
The Memphis in May festivities also focus on a different country each year, such as Chile and Tunisia (second weekend of month), with exhibits, performances, and chef demonstrations.
photo: Monorail between Front Street and Mud Island River Park
Places to Stay in Memphis
While still on Main Street, check out the shopping in Muse and Gestures, both of which feature cutting-edge women’s gifts and clothing. Then give your feet a break, taking the Main Street Trolley for $1; it stops at the Tennessee Welcome Center and Pyramid area. On the last Friday of each month, a trolley tour takes visitors to galleries along the South Main Arts District.
And when Memphis culture comes into play, you can’t pass up Beale Street. Go during the day for an uncrowded stroll. Poke around in A. Schwab, and plow through rare blues CDs in Memphis Music.
Take it from me, when you’ve walked the Barbecue Festival, shopped, and explored all day, you’re ready for a peaceful haven. You’ll find it across the river on Mud Island. Mud Island River Park, which you can reach by monorail from Front Street, gives you breathtaking views of the Mississippi River. A five-block-long scale model of that river is a main attraction of the park, as are the museum and the pedal boats you can rent.
photo: Mud Island River Park
The Carnival Atmosphere
Then move on to the grill of your dreams. Just $4 pays for five samples of barbecue and a chance to judge in the People’s Choice Tent. You can also sign up for the Cooker Caravan, which is a free guided tour of the teams. You’ll learn tips, see specialty grills, and get swept up in this most esteemed of contests. The midway-style lemonade, grilled corn, and funnel cakes add to the carnival atmosphere.
Editor’s Tip: Wear comfortable shoes and do most of your visiting on Friday. It’s the more casual, party-style day. Saturday is when the teams do their serious preparation for the judges, and they tend to buckle down to the burning issues at hand.
photo: World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest winners
Things to do in Memphis
Stop by the Memphis Greek Food Festival and the Memphis Italian Festival, and you have an internationally flavored month of fun and food that just can’t be beat.
Head downtown to Main Street, where the Center for Southern Folklore is an imposing name for a really cool spot. Walk in the front door to a colorful store, with everything from a prime selection of regional books and music CDs to original artwork.
Farther inside, you’ll find the performance hall, where folk art and photography galleries hold true treasures for sale. Don’t miss Memphian Frank Lilly’s paintings, which incorporate old newspapers and other found objects. In this same maze of buildings, you’ll see the Belz Museum, which holds an incredible display of ancient Asian artifacts, including jade and ivory pieces.
photo: Frank Lilly’s Sun Flowers at the Center for Southern Folklore
A Touch of Class
For a touch of class, make reservations at The Peabody Hotel’s Chez Philippe for tea. Yes, it’s $32, but you’ll never feel as pampered as when you are sitting in that grand restaurant. A tiered tray of dainty sandwiches and one of sweets completes the lady-perfect experience. Editor's Tip: For an elegant dinner, far from the grilling crowd, you’ll find quiet little Itta Bena directly above bustling Beale Street’s B.B. King Blues Club. It’s not marked out on the street; you need to know it’s there. There’s no elevator. But go up the stairs and into another world. The windows, made up of blue glass, give everything a mysterious ambience. Skillet shrimp, great fillet, grandma-worthy yeast rolls, and she-crab soup are all fabulous. Entrées average in the $20 range.
photo: Tea at The Peabody Hotel’s Chez Philippe
Even after all the barbecue sampling and funnel cake nibbling, you will get hungry again. So here’s what you do. In Midtown go to Molly’s La Casita, a constant favorite of all margarita lovers. If you want a burger, Huey’s offers the city’s favorite, as well as some seriously savory fries. Flying Fish serves up great fried catfish at a bargain price―only $3.99 for one fillet, fries, and a hush puppy.
The end of the month fills the air with magical notes from the Memphis Symphony Orchestra―which also takes place in Tom Lee Park―with sun-sinking splendor and fireworks over the Mississippi River. Pack a picnic to add a tasty food fugue to the experience.
photo: Fresh seafood at the Flying Fish
For More Information
When the feet just won’t walk anymore, you’ll find a great place to stay nearby. The River Inn of Harbor Town is the first hotel on the island, and it’s a doozy. Fresh roses grown in the owner’s garden adorn the hotel. An old-world charm meets modern amenities, and the hotel’s award-winning restaurant, Currents, serves such perfectly prepared menu items as Dover sole.
Before retiring for the night, walk across the road to the park by the river to watch the barges and boats make their way up and down the big, watery highway. No matter who wins the Barbecue Cooking Contest, you’ll win just by being in Memphis.
For More Information
Memphis in May: www.memphisinmay.org
River Inn of Harbor Town: 50 Harbor Town Square; www.riverinnmemphis.com or (901) 260-3333. Rates: start at $245.
Less expensive accommodations can be found in Southaven, Mississippi, just south of Memphis.
Comfort Inn: 8792 Hamilton Road; (662) 342-5847. Rates: start at $79.
photo: The highly coveted world championship barbecue trophy