Within America’s vast wealth of national treasures, Graceland stands out as a timeless icon of rock and roll. Sure, Memphis, Tennessee has a lot of things to see and do, but those in the know head straight to Elvis country. Of course, to really experience this amazing piece of national history in all of its glory, you’ll need a first-hand baby boomer guide to Graceland.
Thankfully, My Itchy Travel Feet featured contributor Debi Lander from ByLanderSea, is here to tell us all about her recent time exploring Elvis Presley’s famous home as well as staying in the luxurious Graceland Guest House, which opened in 2016. Read on to discover her tips for visiting Graceland.
Baby Boomer Guide to Graceland
I, however, was battling traffic on a drive west from Nashville toward Memphis. I kept hearing the lyrics of Paul Simon’s Graceland playing in my head, “I’m going to Graceland, Graceland—in Memphis, Tennessee, I’m going to Graceland.”
Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935, in a two-room house built by his father, grandfather and uncle. They were very poor. Many are surprised to learn Elvis had a twin brother, but unfortunately, he was stillborn.
When Elvis turned 13, his father moved the family to Memphis in hopes of securing a better job. But, Elvis had even bigger dreams, he intended to become a legend. Armed with his guitar and influenced by Captain Marvel in the comic books, Elvis envisioned himself with the character’s signature lightning bolt, hairdo and cape.
In 1953, after graduating from high school, Elvis used his own money to cut a demo record. In 1954, he recorded again, this time at the renowned Sun Studios in Memphis.
By 1955, RCA signed him into a contract, and in 1957, the young star, at age 22, bought himself a house and named it Graceland. He made sure to include a bedroom on the first floor for his parents.
I have to admit, I wasn’t a huge Elvis fan, but I was curious. Those lyrics in the Graceland song seemed to get it right again, “For reasons I cannot explain, there’s some part of me wants to see Graceland.” On top of the curiosity, I’d heard about a 2017, $45 million, 200,000-square foot state-of-the-art Elvis Entertainment complex across the street from the Gates of Graceland.
Staying at the Guest House at Graceland
So, it was afternoon by the time my friend, Judy and I arrived in Memphis. We went directly to our hotel, the Guest House at Graceland. Another new project, this 450-room luxury resort adjacent to the Presley home, opened in 2016.
The hotel plays an Elvis theme through colors, style, and small details. I was afraid the place might be tacky, but the facility looms tasteful—and fun.
The outdoor heart-shaped firepit is called the Hunka Burning Love. TCB logos are discreetly tucked around, Elvis’ motto for taking care of business.
High-backed chairs in the lobby are designed to resemble the collars on Elvis’ capes. And peanut butter and banana sandwiches are served at 10 pm – his favorite nighttime snack.
For dinner, we’d wanted to go to downtown Memphis, but our reservations went missing, and plans got changed. Judy and I took the concierge’s advice and climbed into a pink Cadillac that took us to dinner at Marlowe’s, a BBQ joint nearby.Fun!
Evenings at the Graceland Guest House feature live music. We watched a performance from a guy who sounded exactly like Elvis, but in no way looked the part. He pulled us listeners into the songs and had many dancing.
Afterward, we enjoyed a leisurely night of watching Elvis on TV. If you want the full Elvis experience, this is the place to stay.
Guide to Graceland Tours
Tours of the Colonial Revival-Style home begin at the Welcome Center in the massive complex. Those staying at the Guest House take a shuttle.
Your budget might get rattled when you see the admission prices, but based on a full day’s entertainment, the tour and exhibits, just roll with it!
We took the VIP tour that included no waiting in lines, worth considering if you visit during busy times. (FYI—It’s almost always crowded, about 21 million have toured Graceland since it opened to the public in 1982.) Purchasing VIP tickets in advance is a good idea.
After watching an introductory movie, you hop a shuttle over to the mansion and begin the house tour. Instead of a guide, you’re loaned an iPad and headset, available in many languages.
You listen as John Stamos and Lisa Marie (Elvis’ daughter) provide information for a self-guided tour. Enter through the front door, flanked by stained glass panels. Upon entering, I felt I was in a pretty normal home.
Then, I walked around the first floor seeing the living room, music room, parent’s bedroom, dining room and kitchen before going downstairs. Here you stop in a billiard room where the walls are lined with hundreds of yards of folded fabric. The TV room sports three televisions – so Elvis could watch the major networks just like President Johnson.
You proceed back up to view the infamous Jungle Room, really just an animal-themed space. The public cannot visit the bedrooms on the second floor, so you exit to the rear of the property. If at any time, you want additional details, you can push a button to hear more.
The tour then winds through Vernon’s office, Elvis’ Dad, who handled his business affairs after Col. Tom Parker, the stables, handball court, trophy room and small museum. The path ends at the graves of Elvis and his parents. By the time you get there, you have embraced the King.
I was somewhat surprised to find the memorials emotional; do I dare say I couldn’t help falling in love? I now understand why devoted fans make the pilgrimage. (FYI—Before the massive expansion project, tours ended here, but trust me, your visit is far from over.)
By today’s standards Graceland remains a lovely but dated home, indeed not an extravagant showplace. That’s the thing, you do feel welcomed into Graceland as if Elvis himself were inviting you to sit and talk.
It’s the humbler side of the performer with deep family roots. I think that’s why visiting Graceland in person is memorable.
The Elvis Entertainment Complex
When you are ready, a bus shuttles you back across the street. Browse your way through the Presley Motors Automobile Museum, The Entertainer Career Museum and Elvis Discovery Exhibits. Here, you discover the flamboyant entertainer, the on-stage Elvis, as if he dons the costumes and becomes that superhero from his childhood comic books.
Most folks begin strolling around the car displays, including the legendary pink Cadillac that Elvis gave to his mother a year after his purchase. Other notables include a 1975 Dino Ferrari, 1973 Stutz Blackhawk, and cars from his movies. (Ladies, if you are having trouble convincing your man to go to Graceland, this area may change his mind.)
The glass-encased costumes, displayed in chronological order, show off the star’s ostentatious outfits; nearly all are the jumpsuit style with large jeweled belts and capes. Often a video of the concert plays in the background, so you see Elvis wearing it during a performance. Also displayed are the military uniforms Elvis wore while stationed in Germany. Still, another room shows the influence Elvis made on other performers and their outfit designs.
The space devoted to gold and platinum records and numerous awards truly overwhelms. The walls soar high overhead and are lined with glittering records and memorabilia.
The collection strengthens the validity of Elvis’ successful career and his impact on the entertainment community during his rather short life. Elvis is the story of a true rags to riches American dream.
If you have enough energy left, you can tour his two airplanes. We did not as our feet were dragging. Plan on a full day to take everything in.
Should you become hungry while browsing the exhibits, you can eat at a few themed restaurants within the complex and, of course, linger in the souvenir shops bursting with everything Elvis.
Visit Tupelo, Mississippi to see Elvis’ birthplace
The next day we drove two hours south to Tupelo, Mississippi, to complete the Elvis story. We pulled into Johnny’s Drive-In for lunch. It’s a burger joint, unchanged since the days Elvis ate there. You’ll find a lot of Elvis memorabilia on the walls.
Next, we visited Tupelo’s homage to its hometown boy: the Elvis Presley Birthplace Park. The 15-acre setting features the wooden, two-room shotgun house where Elvis was born.
The museum is so small, it only takes about five minutes to tour. Each room had just one lightbulb. His family moved around a few times, losing the house, but Elvis grew up in this neighborhood, playing in the surrounding hills.
Of course, the museum is dedicated to the stories and memorabilia from Elvis’ early years. Presley’s childhood church, the place where he was introduced to gospel music, was moved to this site.
Inside, visitors experience a short multimedia presentation of the Assembly of God Pentecostal services of the 1940s. The memorial chapel next door, built after his death, was closed for repairs.
We strolled the paved Walk of Life Trail, noting events in the Presley family. One stop includes a life-size bronze statue of Elvis at 13, the age he left Tupelo.
Climb or drive up the hill to the Overlook, but don’t miss the two figures up there. The pair are entitled Becoming. They symbolize the transformation from Elvis, The Boy, to Elvis, The Entertainer. Well done!
We then drove downtown and stopped by Tupelo Hardware, a surprisingly huge store. This is where Elvis’ Mama bought him his first guitar, a present for his 11th birthday. Apparently, when trying it out in the store, she asked him what he thought.
Elvis replied, “That’s alright Mama.” Who knew then that the guitar would set him on a path to fame and fortune?
Tips for Touring Graceland
- Carefully read the difference between the various tour options. Buy your tickets online and print them out at home to save time.
- Tours of the mansion take about an hour to an hour and a half while the exhibits take at least two more hours. Many make it an entire day, stopping for lunch.
- There is a free activity book for children at Guest Services.
- There is a special time for free-admission walk-up visits to the Meditation Garden at Graceland, where the gravesites of Elvis and his family are located. Visitor walk-up times are daily from 7:30 a.m. – 8:30 a.m. All guests must enter the gates by 8:30 a.m. to walk up, and guests must leave the mansion grounds before Graceland tours start. There are no walk-ups on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
Tips for Visiting Tupelo
- Don’t miss the murals of Elvis and painted guitar-shaped artworks throughout the downtown area.
- The Visitor Center (free) includes a painting of the inspirational Captain Marvel comic book that many believe inspired Elvis’ extravagant looks.
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