Make the most of a brief visit.
By Hope S. Philbrick
We spent just 19 hours in Elvis’ birthplace—eight of them asleep.
Though a longer visit is in order, if your road trip from Point A to Point B passes through Tupelo, Mississippi, heed our advice to make the most of an overnight layover.
Welcome to Tupelo!
Stop by the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau to pick up information including the guitar trail brochure and driving tour maps, see some Elvis memorabilia and get answers to any questions you may have from a helpful local.
Take a self-guided tour of the Tupelo Automobile Museum. The official State of Mississippi automobile museum has a collection of 150 antique, classic and collectible automobiles. Cars are displayed in chronological order spanning 120 years—which makes it easy to spot trends and, sometimes, see that certain designs and features touted as innovative today actually first appeared much earlier. Founded by Frank Spain in 1974, the museum houses his 28-year obsession, which is currently valued at over $6 million. “For me it’s about the journeys,” says Jane Spain, who accompanied her husband on trips to transport the cars home from various locales in North America and Europe, and now keeps the museum operating in his honor. “When I see the cars, memories keep coming back,” she says. “It’s been an eye-opener for me that visitors’ stories come out—like ‘I had my first date in this car,’ or ‘My grandpa took me fishing in that car’ and so on.” The collection includes an 1886 Benz, a never-driven 1994 Dodge Viper, a DeLorean, a NASCAR, a Lincoln previously owned by Elvis Presley, a 1982 Barrister Corvette previously owned by Liberace, a Duesenberg, five Packards, a 1915 Studebaker Runabout, a 1936 Bentley, and many more rare brands and collectible favorites.
Head on over to Tupelo Hardware. (Note: If you’re visiting on Saturday, visit tomorrow morning before 7 a.m. instead; and the shop is closed on Sundays). Stand in the spot where Elvis Presley bought his first guitar. “We like to think musical history took place right there,” says Howard Hite, pointing to a tape X on the wooden floor in front of the glass display case that held that famed guitar. The story goes that a ten-year-old Elvis and his mother Gladys entered the store in January 1945 to buy the boy a birthday present. Elvis was initially interested in a rifle, but his mother persuaded him to buy the guitar instead. Hite says that Elvis is not the only celebrity who’s shopped at Tupelo Hardware: Prince Albert of Monaco, Aerosmith and one of the survivors of the Chilean mining accident in 2010 have also stepped into the store. Whether you just look around or buy a guitar, T-shirt, yard stick, hammer or another tool, the Tupelo Hardware store is a slice of Americana.
Take note of the guitar on the sidewalk outside the store. In 2010, 14 Elvis-themed guitars were placed as permanent works of art throughout downtown Tupelo. In 2011, 16 more were added and there are plans for still more to come. For details, refer to that guitar trail brochure you picked up at the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Visit Fairpark District which is home to Elvis’ Homecoming Statue, created by Mississippi sculptor Bill Beckwith based on a famous photograph called “the Hands” by Roger Marshutz. The statue commemorates Elvis’ 1956 Homecoming Concert at the former Tupelo Fairgrounds and is located where the concert took place. It was placed in August 2012 facing toward his birthplace. Snap a photo of yourself with Elvis—the trick is to pose such that Tupelo City Hall appears behind his right shoulder and Tupelo Hardware is visible over his left shoulder.
If you prefer to postpone dinner, take time for the Elvis driving tour, comprised of ten stops all identified with bronze markers. Download the “Let’s Go To Tupelo” app for details if you didn’t pick up a map at the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau.
It’s dinner time at Romie’s Grocery. (Note: The restaurant is open for dinner Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.) The menu features Mississsippi-style Southern classics like fried pickles—don’t knock ‘em ‘til you’ve tried ‘em—fried catfish, pimento cheese bacon burger, hushpuppies, oysters and more plus American standards like burgers, steaks, pork chops, spinach salad and more, all reasonably priced. My advice: Order whatever sounds good. And pair your meal with a Southern Pecan beer ($4), a delicious made-in-Mississippi brew. Relax in the dining room, at the bar or on the new patio. Live music is performed every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night by folks who would love to follow in Elvis’ footsteps—many of whom offer convincing evidence that they’re on their way. Relax until you’re ready to leave, the bar is open to Midnight.
Check in at Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott. This is a franchise where the owners clearly have warm hearts, so whether you favor the consistency of chain hotel or appreciate the individuality of independents, the clean, cozy comfort and friendly, attentive service here will make you feel welcome. The hotel opened July 2011 and still has that clean “new hotel smell.” A nice grownup surprise: Enjoy complimentary beer, wine or soda and appetizers each evening. Whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure, this hotel provides everything you need for a comfortable overnight stay.
- Staff available 24 hours a day
- Complimentary high-speed Internet
- Plush mattresses and fluffy pillows
- Indoor pool and exercise room
- 24-hour Market with snacks and travel items
- Work desk and ergonomic chair
- Flat-screen HDTV with Japanese and Spanish television channels
- Executive King Suites offer separate living and bedroom areas
- Bathtubs standard
- Rates from $99/night
- Odds of Encountering Children: Children are welcome at the hotel, but during the workweek the property primarily attracts business travelers and couples. Note that in 2014 a new aquatic center will open in Tupelo, one of only four in Mississippi that will be large enough to host meets, so the odds of youth sport groups booking blocks of rooms will rise dramatically in hotels all over town.
Enjoy complimentary breakfast at the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott. This isn’t just a continental breakfast—though you can have that, if you prefer. The buffet features a variety of hot items plus fresh fruit, yogurt and more.
Check out of Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott
Whether you consider yourself to be a fan or not, the Elvis Presley Birthplace is a must-see destination. It’s likely where you’ll re-discover Elvis and very likely the place where you’ll realize that you sort of love Tupelo. Because it’s the sort of community every American kid deserves to grow up in, where good manners endure and politeness is sincere, where people are so friendly that even the new kid in town—no matter how brief the stay—is welcomed with open arms, and where the American Dream—however unattainable it seems—can be nurtured and thrive.
Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935 in a two-room house. It does not take long to thoroughly tour that house, and yet it leaves a lasting impression. Elvis and his parents did not have an easy start. Other buildings on the grounds include a museum, gift store—where you can buy sunglasses with Elvis sideburns, among other trinkets—and the church where Elvis sang his first song. There’s an “Elvis at 13” statue, depicting him at the age he was when his family moved to Memphis, Tenn. There’s also an Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel, fountain, theatre and more to come (placards detailing expansion plans are on display in the theatre lobby).
Folks in Tupelo say that you can’t really “know” Elvis until you understand where he came from. I agree that a visit to Tupelo does shine a positive light on the boy who really did live the American Dream (before his story took a tragic turn to become a cautionary tale). Tupelo is thus the perfect place to celebrate Elvis’ life—and find some inspiration for the possibilities of your own.
Depart Tupelo, Mississippi—preferably while playing some Elvis tunes on your car stereo.
And, as a reminder from the staff of the Tupelo Automobile Museum, “remember to drive carefully.”
Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau
399 E. Main St.
Tupelo MS 38802
-Photos Courtesy Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau