An old wooden bar with black and chrome bar stools with a picture of Elvis and other singers at the historic Sun Studio in Memphis.

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9 Best Museums In Memphis For Music, History, & Civil Rights

While Memphis may be best known for its toe-tapping music, finger-licking barbecue, and craft beer there’s a whole other side to this gritty city that often gets overlooked. I’m talking about the museums in Memphis!

I was pleasantly surprised at how many unique Memphis museums there are to visit. And not just Elvis related memorabilia (although there’s plenty of that too).

Whether it’s diving into Rock ‘n’ Roll history or learning how the Civil Rights movement here changed not only Memphis but the entire country, you’re bound to find a museum that spark’s your interest.

In this post, you’ll explore the best museums in Memphis, learn all kinds of fascinating facts, see quirky exhibits, and discover a ton of history you never learned in school.

An art mural in downtown Memphis of people standing united with signs saying "I am a Man", representing civil rights and one of the top themes in the museums in Memphis.

For easier reading, I’ve broken down all the museums into categories from music museums in Memphis to history, and art.

With so many top choices, it can be hard to decide which museums are worth visiting. Personally, I think all of these are worth visiting at some point, but what should you not miss in Memphis in regards to museums?

If you are short on time and can only pick 3 from this list, I would choose:

  • National Civil Rights Museum At The Lorraine Motel
  • STAX Studios
  • Graceland

Top Museums In Memphis, Tennessee

Music Museums In Memphis

1. Sun Studio Memphis

Did you know Rock ‘n’ Roll originated in Memphis? If you have a love for music history, then head to Sun Studio as it was a pivotal player in bringing Rock ‘n’ Roll to the public.

In 1950 Sam Phillips opened up a recording studio to pursue his passion of making music.

Although he recorded some hits for Ike Turner and B.B. King it wasn’t until a young teenage boy walked into his studio in 1953 that changed everything.

The young man was Elvis Presley!

Sam knew he had a star on his hands once he heard Elvis sing. Elvis had it all, incredible talent, charisma, and good looks.

Elvis could move and sing like the black musicians yet his physical appearance as a white man would be the bridge Sam needed to introduce this new style of music in a way the entire population would embrace.

The front exterior of Sun Studio in red brick and with a huge guitar hanging in front, one of the top music museums in Memphis, Tennessee.
Holding a ticket to Sun Studio where the Million Dollar quartet recorded music with the black and white tiled floor and cool vintage bar at Sun Studio in Memphis.
The stand up and old school microphone that Elvis Presley used to hold when recording songs at Sun Studio in Memphis.
A huge photo of the Million Dollar Quartet including Elvis hanging over the piano they used to play on at Sun Studio.

From that point, Elvis Presley recorded several songs with Sam at Sun Studio before Sam realized he didn’t have the capabilities to take Elvis to become the star he knew he was.

He decided to sign over Presley’s contract over to RCA. As a major national label, RCA could promote Elvis to the next level and beyond.

Other famous singers who recorded at Sun Studio were Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins.

In the large photograph above the piano, you’ll see Elvis with the three singers which famously became known as the “Million Dollar Quartet” for the millions they each generated.

All guided tours take 45 minutes to see the studio and a small museum.

Note: Sun Studio is still an active recording studio used by many famous singers today.

Hours: Open Sunday – Thursday from 10:00 am to 5:15 pm and Friday & Saturday from 10:00 am to 6:15 pm.

Book A Music History Tour + Sun Studio!

Go On A City Tour Plus Sun Studio!

2. Graceland Mansion

Graceland mansion might be one of the most famous homes and museums in the country as it’s the home where Elvis Presley lived up until he passed away in 1977.

Back in 1957, Elvis purchased the mansion on a 500-acre farm at the young age of 22 years old.

But in 1982, his home known as Graceland opened to the public as a museum showcasing Elvis’ life, music and film career, family, and personal life.

The decision to open his home to the public was made by his wife Priscilla Presley so that fans could see where he lived and visit his grave onsite.

The front view of the Graceland mansion where Elvis Presley lived in Memphis, TN all in white, with pillars at the entrance and lion statues at the base of the steps.
The front living room in the Graceland mansion all in white from the floor, to chairs, and decor with the exception of blue and yellow stained glass in the entryway in Memphis.

Initially, he was buried at a cemetery but due to vandalism, he was moved to Graceland.

Today, Graceland is much more than just the home he lived in. It has expanded to include an entire museum and entertainment complex across the street from the mansion.

After entering the Graceland complex and purchasing your ticket, get a small shuttle bus that takes you across the street to the mansion.

Included with your ticket, you get an audio guide which has a number for every room or point of interest at the mansion.

After visiting Elvis’s home, get on to the next shuttle and make your way back to the main complex.

Inside the dark billiard room at Graceland mansion where Elvis used to play with stained glass light fixtures over the pool table and folded cloth ceiling and walls in a yellow and multi colored print.
A pale pink Cadillac car that Elvis used to drive, one of his many cars in the collection seen at Graceland in Memphis.

There is a lot to see but the highlights are seeing his planes and cars! And I’m not even a car person…

I really liked learning all about the life and career Elvis had although sadly a very short one.

Tip: Leave a message on the wall in front of his estate if you want but bring a sharpie marker with you.

Hours: Open daily from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm.

How Long To Spend? 3 to 4 hours on average

This Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Stops At Graceland!

3. STAX Museum Of American Soul Music

Overall, I’ve never been super interested in music history but my trip to Memphis completely changed that!

There are several music museums in Memphis that really do an excellent job of teaching you about music history as so much was born here.

One Memphis museum that does this exceptionally well is STAX Museum of American Soul Music previously STAX Records.

The layout of the museum to the exhibits, videos, and information provided is impressive as it takes you on a journey discovering how soul music evolved.

The front exterior of STAX Museum with the marquee from when it used to be a theatre at one time, one of the best Memphis museums to visit.
Walking through a room with the walls lined with record albums that have been recorded at STAX Museum in Memphis, TN.
The old school control panel for recording music looking into the recording studio with musical instruments at STAX Museum in Memphis.

I am embarrassed to admit that I had no idea soul music originated in Memphis.

If you aren’t familiar, soul music is a mix of gospel, jazz, and country music creating a very distinctive sound.

Although soul music began forming in the late 1950s, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that soul music exploded.

Before becoming a museum, STAX started out as a small recording studio and record store.

The record store helped bring in cash to sustain the recording side and the main way the owners found talented singers to record.

A beautiful guitar in a glass case in brown, rust, and black colors at the STAX Museum.
A big screen inside of STAX Museum showing old footage of the music show Soul Train.
An old and huge vintage car in avocado green and with gold fixtures including the grill on a rotating base in the STAX Museum, Memphis.

It was a place where singers looking to break through could socialize, sing, and for many get noticed by the owners Sam Stewart and Estelle Axton.

Some of the bigger names to record at STAX were Rufus and Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, and Booker T. and the MGs.

STAX Museum does an phenomenal job at displaying how soul music transformed music as a whole in America.

Fun Fact: STAX was the combination of the first two letters of the owners last names.

Hours: Open Tuesday – Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and closed on Tuesday.

How Long To Spend? 1.5 to 2.5 hours on average

Get Your STAX Museum Tickets Here!

4. Memphis Rock n’ Soul Museum

If you are staying in downtown Memphis, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum is one of the easiest to get to as it is on Beale Street.

Right next to the FedEx Forum where the Grizzlies (basketball) play is this music museum dedicated to how both Rock ‘n’ Roll and Soul music came to be.

Even if you aren’t super into music origins, I recommend visiting as there is so much interesting history, facts, and exhibits worth checking out.

And since both rock and soul music originated in Memphis, this is the best place to learn about them.

Holding a ticket to the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum that says Memphis music starts here.
An exhibit showing how rock and soul music started with African Americans playing on a porch or the cotton fields in Memphis.
An exhibit in the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Music Museum showing how there were two entrances, one for white and one for blacks at establishments on Beale Street in Memphis.
An exhibit showing the significance and history of music in Memphis was created by African Americans.

Before you go off exploring the museum, your visit begins with a short movie recapping what you will learn as you make your way through the museum.

The exhibits span from the 1930s up to present day, sharing the story of how the sounds of rock and soul music began on the rural cotton fields.

Each section has an area dedicated to the history, social segregation, and evolution of how sounds we know today formed.

Hours: Open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.

How Long To Spend? 1.5 to 2.5 hours on average

Get Your Rock ‘n’ Soul & Music Hall Of Fame Combo Ticket!

Memphis History Museums

5. National Civil Rights Museum At Lorraine Motel

If you are searching for the best Memphis black history museum, the National Civil Rights Museum is it.

One of the biggest events in the Civil Rights movement was the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

The heinous act of taking his life occurred on April 4th, 1968. He was shot while standing on the balcony in front of his room, Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel.

A close up view of the old vintage sign for the Lorraine Motel in yellow, red, white, and turquoise colors in front of the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
The brick walkway in front of the Lorraine Motel and National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
Two vintage cars from the 1960s parked in front of the Lorraine Motel and the room Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, TN.

At the time, the Lorraine Motel was the only motel in the area that allowed black guests to stay including prominent civil rights leaders, talented musicians, and baseball players.

Some of the most notable people to stay were Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, and Martin Luther King Jr.

What makes this the most unique museum in Memphis is that they turned the motel into a museum. It only seems fitting that it would become the National Civil Rights Museum.

Located just a short distance from Beale Street, expansion behind the motel created enough space to house all the exhibits providing in-depth information on the timeline of slavery and the Civil Rights movement including the killing of Martin Luther.

An actual vintage bus inside the Civil Rights Museum with a statue of Rosa Parks sitting in a seat in the front.
An exhibit of African Americans holding signs in protest demanding better rights and pay inside the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
The preserved motel room where Martin Luther King Jr. was staying in when he was murdered in 1968 at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis.

In fact, the room he stayed in frequently has been preserved for you to see and marked with a wreath in front.

This is one of the top Memphis museums that I highly recommend visiting and not to be missed during your stay.

Hours: Open Wednesday – Monday from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm and closed on Tuesday.

How Long To Spend? 1.5 to 2.5 hours on average

Book A Spot On A Memphis History & Civil Rights Tour!

6. Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum

Another top black history museum in Memphis to visit is the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum.

The museum is located inside a historic antebellum home also known as the Burkle Estate.

Named after its owner, Jacob Burkle a German immigrant who built the home in 1849 was secretly an advocate in helping African American slaves escape to freedom.

The secret of his role in helping the fight against slavery was hidden for over 100 years and wasn’t until 1997 when the museum opened that this info came to light.

If you aren’t familiar with the Underground Railroad in the United States, there wasn’t an actual underground railroad.

The Underground Railroad was a hidden network of places and people that worked in secrecy to move slaves from one spot to another until they were free in the northern states.

Although small, the home provides an in-depth look at the history and how the underground railroad functioned.

During your tour, the key part to see is the dark cellar which was a way station for slaves to hide for a few days until they were on the move to the next destination north.

It is hard to imagine the fear and dehumanization the slaves must have felt hiding in the darkness.

It was a huge risk for both the slaves and the people helping them to embark on this difficult journey.

During the 1800s, Memphis was sadly the biggest slave market in all of Tennessee so you can imagine the number of slaves who needed help out of enslavement.

Visits to Slave Haven are only by tour that start each hour so get there at least 10 to 15 minutes before.

Hours: Open June – August from 10:00 to 5:00 pm and September – May from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.

How Long To Spend? Tour is 1 hour

7. Mud Island River Walk Park Museum

Mud Island is a manmade peninsula running parallel to the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis.

The “island” was built up using mud, sand, and gravel hence its name… The easiest way to get there is walking across the skybridge.

Round trip it is about 2-3 miles so if that isn’t appealing you can always take an Uber there. As you walk across, you’ll be rewarded with awesome views of the Bass Pro Shop pyramid and the Memphis skyline.

On Mud Island you’ll find 52-acres of green space and a residential area known as Harbor Town.

Opposite direction from Harbor Town is the Mud Island Riverwalk Park and Mississippi River Museum.

Walking across the skybridge over to Mud Island looking out at Mississippi River, the Bass Pro Pyramid and a row of red chairs on the bridge in Memphis.
The outdoor smaller scale replica of the Mississippi River carved into stone on Mud Island in Memphis.
Huge "MEMPHIS" letters standing in the grass on Mud Island with the Memphis skyline behind.

Inside the museum there are several galleries with artifacts and interesting exhibits displaying the history of the Mississippi River and its importance to the region.

At the time of my visit the indoor museum section was closed indefinitely but I really enjoyed exploring the scaled replica of the Mississippi River outside. Plus, the outdoor section is one of the free museums in Memphis to visit.

The replica is 2,000 feet long and has signs explaining info and history of why the Mississippi River has played such a significant role over the years.

Oh, and don’t forget to walk a little further south to get a photo of the huge “MEMPHIS” letters with the Memphis city skyline behind it!

Note: To access the skybridge, enter at 125 N. Front Street. Or you can get off at the Tennessee Welcome Center stop using the Memphis Hop-On Hop-Off bus and walk from there.

Science And Art Museums In Memphis

8. Pink Palace Museum

I bet you have never been to a museum in a pink palace! The Memphis Museum of Science & History is located in the historic Pink Palace Mansion.

The Pink Palace Mansion had been the home to Clarence Saunders who founded Piggly Wiggly, a chain of self-service grocery stores in 1916.

The pink pig logo inspired the mansion’s exterior to be covered in pink Georgian marble.

During the 1930s market crash, Saunders lost his fortune resulting in bankruptcy. The city of Memphis purchased the mansion and soon after it became the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, with exhibits focusing on science and history.

In addition to numerous exhibits, the museum includes a planetarium, a nature center, and a Piggly Wiggly replica.

Hours: Open Wednesday – Sunday from 10:30 am to 5:00 pm. Closed on Monday and Tuesday.

How Long To Spend? 2 to 4 hours on average

9. Memphis Brooks Museum of Art

The Brooks Museum of Art is the top art museum in Memphis with art spanning from the Age of Antiquity to the present day and everything in between.

You can wander through time and 29 galleries to see an assortment of paintings, sculptures, photography, and textiles.

Located in Overton Park next to the Memphis Zoo in Midtown Memphis (east of downtown), it is the oldest and largest art museum in Tennessee.

If you are searching for another great art gallery in Memphis, make sure to visit Crosstown Concourse!

Hours: Open Wednesday from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm, Thursday & Friday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, Saturday 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, and Sunday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm. Closed on Monday and Tuesday.

Note: In 2025, the museum will officially change its name to the Memphis Art Museum and move to a new downtown location, but dates are TBD.

How Long To Spend? 2 hours on average

An art mural in downtown Memphis of a black woman with pink and purple flowers as hair, whimsical design, and a bird on her hand.

Where To Stay In Memphis

The best place to stay in Memphis is in the downtown area around Beale Street and Main Street.

Each of the following hotels are in walking distance or a short trolley ride from most of the Memphis museums listed in this post and other top attractions.

The Peabody Memphis

Hyatt Centric Beale Street Memphis

Hotel Napoleon

Moxy Memphis Downtown

Sheraton Memphis Downtown Hotel – the is directly across the street from the Renasant Convention Center

Several small records with the STAX label on them behind a display case inside of STAX Museum.

Best Memphis Tours

I think I went on more tours in Memphis than I have in any other city. There are so many great tours from history, museums, food, and beer! Here are some of the top tours in Memphis beyond visiting museums…

Food Tour Of Downtown Memphis – There is no better way to get to know a city than by going on a food tour!

Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour – This hop-on hop-off bus is a great way to get around to all the top attractions in Memphis.

Memphis City Tour – Take a tour with a local guide to the top Memphis attractions and the option to add on a riverboat cruise and tour to Sun Studio.

Historical Tour of Beale Street – Beale Street is one of the most famous streets in Memphis and in America. Learn all about the history of this fascinating area!

Elvis Presley’s Upbringing Tour – Take a tour to the hometown and birthplace of Elvis Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi on a full day trip!

An exhibit of 4 men lined up holding signs saying "I am a Man" inside of the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

How To Get Around Memphis

If you are staying in downtown Memphis, you can get around by foot, the trolley, or even an Uber/Lyft.

Some of the museums listed in this post are too far to walk, so you would need to take an Uber/Lyft.

Or you can rent a car for the day and see all the places outside of downtown in that one day.

Another great way to get around to most of the museums listed and other top things to do in Memphis is by getting a ticket for the Memphis Hop-On Hop-Off bus.

You can get on and off at your leisure and not worry about needing a car.

Four beautiful guitars hanging in a row on a wall inside the Rock 'n' Soul Museum in Memphis.

Map Of Memphis Museums

But Before You Go…

Besides visiting all of these great museums in Memphis, explore the best places to enjoy Memphis style BBQ! Without question, Memphis knows barbecue…

FAQ On Visiting Memphis

Is Memphis Worth Visiting?

Yes! There is so much history, culture, incredible food, great music, museums, and things to do in Memphis that it is worth adding to your bucket list.

When Is The Best Time To Visit Memphis?

Memphis is a town that you can visit any time of the year but if you want to be able to walk around and enjoy outside venues, spring through fall months are the best. Always carry a small travel rain jacket or umbrella just in case it rains!

The summer months will get up into the 90’s so if that is too hot for you then stick to spring and fall months.

What Is Memphis Known For?

Memphis is known for many things, most notably great hospitality, awesome BBQ, Beale Street, home of the blues, and Elvis Presley’s Graceland.

Is Memphis Safe?

The quick answer is yes, but there are pockets of Memphis that I would not feel comfortable visiting.

I traveled solo and did not have any issues feeling completely safe at all times. For areas that I was unsure, I took and Uber/Lyft as the status of a neighborhood can change quickly.

And like any big city, trust your intuition and don’t go out alone at night in areas you aren’t familiar with.

Got Travel Insurance?

Don’t leave home without travel insurance as you never know what might happen on a trip! It is always when you least expect it that something can go wrong like getting sick, in an accident or cancellation of some sort.

Get a no-obligation quote from two trusted travel insurance companies for peace of mind on your next trip!

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Vanessa Shields

Vanessa Shields is the founder of Traveling Ness helping people with trip ideas, itineraries, travel planning, and boosting confidence for female travelers to take a solo trip. She has been a travel writer and content creator since 2019.

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