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Battle of the Southern Belles

It’s Memphis vs. Nashville in a destination face-off.

Few states can lay claim to two world-famous cities — both of which have made lists of 2018’s top travel destinations — but Tennessee can. Memphis and Nashville both offer superlative culture, food, scenic beauty and, of course, Southern hospitality, but they maintain distinct personalities. 

Their friendly in-state rivalry poses a dilemma for Tennessee-bound travelers: Which to choose? The good news is that with just 200 miles between them, the answer could definitely be both.

On the banks of the Mississippi River, in the humid lowlands of Tennessee’s southwest corner, Memphis is a small city with a big personality. It’s most famous for music, the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock ‘n roll. That heritage remains alive on iconic Beale Street, buzzing with the bright neon lights from dozens of bars and clubs. Strains of jazz, rock ‘n roll and R&B can be heard even on the sidewalk, where brass musical notes embedded in the concrete memorialize Memphis music legends. 

Memphis’s most popular attraction is also music related: the former estate of Elvis Presley. Graceland is a monument to a cultural phenomenon and a bygone era, with its green shag carpeted floors and ceiling and extensive collection of jumpsuits. Elvis died in the house, and his grave is outside, which throngs of fans pile high with flowers and cards. 

For more Memphis history, head to the recently renovated National Civil Rights Museum. One of the museum buildings is housed in the former Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The museum traces the civil rights movement through films, oral histories and artifacts.

The Mississippi River forms Memphis’s western border and gives Memphis its nickname, “River City.” The scenic riverbanks provide miles of recreation in Memphis’s riverfront parks, including Mud Island River Park. Get out on the river aboard a riverboat cruise, in a kayak or a canoe; walk or pedal across it on the Big River Crossing, the country’s longest active rail/bicycle/pedestrian bridge, illuminated before sunrise and after sunset with more than 100,000 lights.

Stop for cocktails at The Peabody Memphis, a historic hotel with a stained-glass ceiling and a marble mezzanine; order a drink in the lobby and await a unique Memphis tradition. Since the 1930s, each day at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., five ducks walk a red carpet between the elevator and the lobby fountain, accompanied by a John Philip Sousa march. 

Next, it’s time to partake of another Memphis claim to fame: barbecue. Plates mounded with tender pork (almost always pork) smoked slowly over a low hickory fire — these are the hallmarks of the Memphis style. You can order it “wet” or “dry”: with or without a liquid barbecue sauce. If you can’t choose, many restaurants offer “muddy” — a middle ground.

Near Tennessee’s center, the state capital of Nashville is also known as “Music City,” thanks to its vibrant music scene. It’s home to the Grand Ole Opry, which began in 1925 as a simple radio barn dance radio broadcast and over the years became an internationally-known iconic country music phenomenon. Today, the Opry’s weekly performance is staged primarily at Opryland, a sprawling Nashville resort. 

In the city’s downtown, Ryman Auditorium is a favorite Nashville site. The building opened in 1892, after Tom Ryman, a wealthy riverboat captain, helped finance its construction following his religious conversion. It was home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974 and still hosts live music of all genres. 

Experience more musical history at the Country Music Hall of Fame, home to over two million musical artifacts. Make time for some of the smaller museums dedicated to individual artists — maybe the Johnny Cash Museum, the Patsy Cline Museum or the George Jones Museum.

Get outside into the Nashville scenery on foot or bike along its network of more than 80 miles of greenways that connects the city’s parks. In Centennial Park is a unique Nashville sight: a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. Built in 1897 for Tennessee's Centennial Exposition, it includes plaster replicas of the Parthenon Marbles and a 42-foot statue of Athena. It was built to pay homage to Nashville’s first nickname, “Athens of the South,” given for the city’s focus on university education.

Further exploration of Nashville requires getting to know its different neighborhoods, filled with small shops, coffeehouses and breweries. The Gulch is known for its restaurants and renovated warehouses, while low-key East Nashville attracts the city's artists and musicians. 8th Avenue South is the destination for antiques shops; small but lively 12th Avenue South offers some of the city’s best boutiques and specialty stores.  

Nashville has also become a bona fide culinary destination. Make sure to sample the hot chicken, a Nashville specialty: chicken fried in a cayenne pepper paste. Biscuits are another staple, likely to appear at every meal. Wash it all down with a glass of sweet tea and surrender to Tennessee’s Southern charms.  

Can’t decide between the two? Visit both! Call your AAA Travel Agent at 800-750-5386 and book your stay today.