The weekend—48 hours of pure freedom—begs for adventure, not time squandered on the couch. For this year’s Weekend Getaways package we allowed our ears to be our North Star, charting a course to three of America’s music capitals. A quick flight will land you in these hubs of art, culture, food, libations and sound—bold, brash, blissful sound.
When Barrett Strong’s hit song “Money” fills the air at Detroit’s Motown Museum, visitors can’t help themselves. Hips sway. Fingers snap. Every music-loving face lights up. And in a city like Detroit there are a lot of music-loving faces.
When “Money” became a hit in 1960, the song put the Motown label on the map. A host of talented Detroiters found their way to stardom including Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves and Gladys Knight.
Today’s Motown Museum occupies two modest houses just north of downtown. The museum, emblazoned with the old sign “Hitsville U.S.A.,” preserves iconic Studio A with the piano that recorded The Jackson 5’s debut hit “I Want You Back.” The microphone that recorded the sounds of a generation is also on display. Behind it a patch of worn-out linoleum destroyed by the tapping feet of recording artists.
Detroit remains firmly associated with Motown sound, but its musical roots run much deeper. The city’s soundtrack features gospel, jazz, rock, funk, and classical. Homegrown talents include Bob Seger, Iggy Pop, Madonna and Eminem, among others.
Just blocks from the Motown Museum the Midtown neighborhood stands as the centerpiece of a newly revitalized Detroit. Craft brewers Jolly Pumpkin and Motor City Brewing Works fill pint glasses. Restaurants Selden Standard and Maccabees dish up creative plates sourced with the produce of urban gardens. In the heart of it all sits the storefronts of trendy watchmaker Shinola and White Stripes rocker Jack White’s Third Man Records. Midtown is also home to three musically oriented venues all set beneath a single Woodward Avenue roof. The complex once ranked as the nation’s largest vaudeville theater. Today, it houses the Majestic Theater (a live music venue) and Populux (a techno and electronic dance club). Lastly, the Garden Bowl pairs after-hours glow-in-the-dark bowling with live DJs.
Detroit’s jazz clubs offer legendary late night music. Cliff Bell’s jumped to prominence in the 1930s for its line up of top-notch acts in a rare air-conditioned environment. First rate jazz keeps visitors returning, enticed by Cliff Bell’s fine music, the comfortable glow of polished mahogany and brass and a menu that ranges from charcuterie platters to tender wagyu steak. Overnight can be spent at the nearby Aloft Hotel (recently opened in a renovated 1915 skyscraper) or the Book Cadillac Hotel that’s set in a revitalized 1924 Italian Renaissance building.
Downtown Detroit’s Fox Theatre ranks as one of the city’s crown jewels, hosting headliner concerts, musicals and ballets. The Fox opened to the public in 1928 as an over-the-top movie palace. In 1988, it was among the first buildings renovated in Detroit’s much-ballyhooed comeback. The restoration resurrected vibrant Persian, Chinese and Indian motifs as well as a 13-foot-diameter crystal chandelier and glimmering gold accents.
If Detroit’s musical heritage has long been associated with popular music, the city’s classical scene has been no less eminent. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra began entertaining back in 1887, making it the fourth-oldest orchestra in the country. Notable visiting artists like Igor Stravinsky, Richard Strauss and Sergei Rachmaninoff solidified the DSO’s cred.
A casual vibe permeates the atmosphere at Campus Martius Park. The circular green space sits surrounded by gleaming office towers, encircled by the newly unveiled QLine streetcars and busy with lunchtime food trucks and restaurants. In summer, Campus Martius’ retractable stages spring from the underground to offer music and theater. A public ice rink replaces the greenery during the winter. Even when the mercury drops, visitors are still likely to be heralded by holiday carolers or a colorful music festival. A little snow and ice can’t stop the sounds of Motown.
Elvis Presley is Memphis’ most famous son, and saucy barbecue its signature food. Many first-time visitors view the city through these twin prisms, but Memphis is far from a two-dimensional destination. The city is years into a renaissance that has expanded all its offerings from music to attractions to lodging. Music lovers will be bowled over by options. Not to be missed is famed Beale Street, a pedestrianized zone packed with restaurants, shops and live music venues. Rhythms spill out the doorways. So much so, it’s a National Historic Landmark and an act of Congress made it the nation’s official “Home of the Blues.” The best of the many venues include B.B. King’s Blues Club and the Rum Boogie Café.
What sets Memphis apart from its fellow Southern, music-centric cities like Nashville, Austin and New Orleans is the nation’s finest collection of artifacts geared toward music buffs—most famously, Elvis’ former home. Other standouts include The Smithsonian’s Rock N’ Soul Museum and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music that is housed in the former studio that bares its name. Music fans should also tour Sun Studio, where Elvis and the Million Dollar Quartet (Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins) recorded.
These established music sanctuaries were joined by two new high-profile venues in 2015: the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame Museum. A looping shuttle bus connects the Memphis Music Hall with Graceland, Sun Studio and Rock N’ Soul, so visitors can hit them all without a car. In any case, no main attraction or neighborhood is more than a short cab ride away—Memphis is very easily navigated.
Another important stop for music lovers does double duty as a noteworthy dinner destination. Overton Square was the city’s live music and theater epicenter before the advent of Beale Street. The neighborhood is now again the city’s trendiest with new restaurants, shops and brewpubs. In Overton Square’s heyday, up-and-coming acts across the country wanted to play Lafayette’s Music Room. Billy Joel, Styx and KISS all took the stage before making it big. Shuttered for more than three decades, Lafayette’s reopened in its former spot. It features two live bands per night and a full-service menu of traditional Southern soul food.
The Memphis Zoo is a surprisingly big draw. It’s one of only four in the nation with giant pandas and rivals Graceland with the number of visitors it attracts annually. But the Memphis Pyramid is giving them a run for their money. The massive complex set within the former arena of the NBA Grizzlies is now a retail destination complete with an enormous Bass Pro Shop, entertainment complex and boutique hotel. The ground level is covered with 600,000 gallons of ponds and streams containing thousands of live fish, ducks and even alligators. More than a million curious folks poured through the doors in the first year. The 105-room Big Cypress Lodge is certainly the most unique place to stay in Memphis, but the top hotel choice remains the venerable Peabody. The city’s grandest hotel is famous for twice daily red carpet “duck marches” from the lobby fountain to a rooftop aviary and back (all to the strains of John Philip Sousa’s “King Cotton March”).
Touring museums—and pyramids and pandas—by day and soaking in live music by night, it’s easy to work up an appetite. Memphis is deservedly ranked among the barbecue capitals of the world. Central BBQ is the ticket for across the board excellence in the realm of ribs, homemade pork rinds and signature BBQ nachos. There’s also several specialist spots for barbecue junkies: The Cozy Corner is famed for smoked Cornish game hens and Payne’s for its chopped pulled pork sandwiches with iconic mustardy yellow slaw. Smokin’ In the Boys’ Room author and the winning-est woman in the history of competitive barbecue Melissa Cookston’s restaurant Memphis Barbecue Company is well-attended for its superlative take on a distinctive local specialty, BBQ spaghetti.
For many, fall in Cleveland signals the start of another Browns football season. But a better show takes place at Severance Hall. In the summer, the highly regarded Cleveland Orchestra plays under the stars at Blossom Music Center, a picturesque amphitheater in the heart of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The band swaps that bucolic setting for one of the most beautiful and acoustically lush concert halls in the world come September.
Cleveland offers a dizzying array of options for music lovers that range from classical to punk, presented in venues that veer from jazz clubs to gritty, graffiti-covered nightclubs. This is the town that staged the world’s first rock concert (the Moondog Coronation Ball) 65 years ago, after all. This year marks the 100th anniversary season of the aforementioned Cleveland Orchestra. Bank on a matchless calendar of symphonies, operas and cinema with live musical accompaniment.
Those in search of the next big thing should head to down-to-earth clubs like the Grog Shop and Beachland Ballroom & Tavern. Despite its modest dimensions and rough-and-tumble charm (or maybe because of it), the 25-year-old Grog Shop has helped break bands like Bright Eyes, the Flaming Lips and scores of others. The Beachland has been showcasing an eclectic roster of up-and-coming acts destined for larger venues for nearly 20 years. Genres such as blues, country, rock, folk and funk emanate from the boards.
A short stroll from Georgian-styled Severance Hall lands a visitor at the Beaux-Arts-era Cleveland Museum of Art, one of the top repositories of fine art on the globe. Only recently did the iconic arts anchor complete a massive multi-year renovation that improved light and flow, as well as created a 40,000-square-foot atrium capped by sunny skylights. Locals and visitors use this cheery space as an indoor park all year long.
Since opening on Cleveland’s waterfront in 1995, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has firmly established itself as a serious museum of artifacts, memorabilia and ephemera that richly illustrate the story of rock and roll. Its permanent collection is complemented by temporary exhibits that dig deeper into subjects such as the intersection of rock and politics and the music of Elvis.
As arresting as the I.M. Pei-designed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is, the grand West Side Market in nearby Ohio City is just as stunning. The bustling 105-year-old public market boasts soaring barrel-vaulted ceilings, beneath which sit third-, fourth- and fifth-generation vendors selling everything from Polish pierogi to Hungarian smoked kielbasa. Stands like Frank’s Bratwurst, Maha’s Falafel and Crêpes de Luxe offer tasty foods for travelers on the go.
In the leafy 1920s-era streetcar community of Cleveland Heights, Nighttown seems plucked from the Golden Age of jazz in Manhattan. A true supper club, this 50-year-old destination melds the easygoing appeal of a genial Irish pub (right down to the meaty prime rib) with the intimacy of a great, small venue. The red-velvet draped stage has played host to jazz giants like Count Basie, John Pizzarelli, Freddy Cole and John Legend.
Other eateries of note include celebrity chef and Cleveland native Michael Symon’s Mabel’s BBQ (beef brisket and pork ribs are among the top dishes) and urbane bistro Flying Fig, operated by chef Karen Small, a pioneer of Cleveland’s farm-to-table movement. Wash it down with a beer—Ohio City contains the largest concentration of breweries in the state. In the drinks department, there are two very different routes an imbiber can take. For the purist, the Velvet Tango Room has been at the vanguard of the classic cocktail movement since it opened in 1996. Here, Negronis, French 75s and Ramos Gin Fizzes are sipped in hushed elegance. For something a tad wilder, push past the heavy Polynesian doors into dimly lit hideaway Porco Lounge. The tiki bar is a place where boozy tropical drinks are blended by Hawaiian shirt-clad bartenders.
Rest your head at the Schofield by Kimpton. This boutique hotel is beloved for its amenities like loaner bikes and guitars all right in the heart of downtown Cleveland. Drury Plaza Hotel is another great choice for accommodations. A 1930s Beaux-Arts building that long housed the Cleveland Board of Education was recently converted into this well-appointed hotel that is close to all attractions. An elegant column-lined lobby and wide marble-lined hallways evoke the grandeur of another time.