Within a day’s drive of Tupelo are some of the Southeast’s greatest travel destinations. Tupelo residents can choose from big cities like Nashville and Atlanta to the food culture of New Orleans, the Gulf Coast and the Smoky Mountains —and all the Florence, Memphis and Birmingham day trips in between. All those options can obscure the fact that tens of thousands of people travel from all over the world to experience Tupelo’s historical heritage.
“We all tend to want to go other places for leisurely activity, but we’re so blessed here in Tupelo with so many things people travel around the world to do,” said Jessica Hollinger, of the Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association and Tupelo Farmer’s Depot. “It becomes a true community event when we engage with each other, and the more time and energy we spend here at home, the better home gets.”
Lee County’s tourism industry generated $245 million from visitors in 2013 while employing 3,750 workers, according to a study from the Mississippi Development Authority. These numbers show Tupelo, and it’s surrounding municipalities, have a lot to offer.
What are Tupelo’s most popular and locally overlooked destinations? The Elvis Birthplace and Museum attracts around 80,000 visitors each year, almost half of those who travel internationally to get to Tupelo. Of those, one percent is made up of hometown visitors.
“The fact that Elvis was a hometown boy means a lot to me and many other people in Tupelo,” said Dick Guyton, executive director of the Elvis Presley Memorial Foundation. “His story tells any of us that with desire and skill, we can accomplish anything.”
Guyton said anyone looking for a relaxing staycation can call ahead and get a personal tour of the museum that tells the story of Elvis as a boy and the city where he grew up. The surrounding park features the tiny, two-bedroom home where Elvis was born, a beautiful campus in the heart of Elvis’s boyhood neighborhood, an interactive church service in the same church where Elvis learned to sing.
The museum, which is always adding new experiences, recently revealed a two-part statue of Elvis the boy dreaming in the shadow of Elvis the legend. The statues top the hill where Elvis was known to go and dream about his future.
After a visit to the museum, residents can find a guided driving tour that points out the historical significance of everyday landmarks through the eyes of Elvis — like Milam Elementary School, where Elvis attended Junior High School and performed for his classmates, or Johnnie’s Drive-In, where Elvis hung out and worked.
A trip to Tupelo Hardware in the heart of Tupelo’s growing downtown will put staycationers in front of the very shop counter where Elvis purchased his first guitar.
George Booth, the great-grandson of the founder of Tupelo Hardware Store, is an ambassador on the city’s tourism website but said he can be just as bad about working and going straight home.
“Most days I just want to get home and hang out there and work on my house,” he said. “But sadly, there are essential Tupelo experiences that I haven’t even seen. Most of my friends in Tupelo could make a recommendation to a tourist for a place to visit or eat, but a lot of us don’t have a personal experience to share about that place.”
When he can convince himself to get out instead of piddling around his house, Booth said he likes to play disc golf at one of the many parks, spend time on the Natchez Trace or take visiting friends to the Elvis Birthplace and the Blue Canoe.
Elvis isn’t Tupelo’s only national sensation. A recent survey and online poll by the website Thrillist named Neon Pig’s Smash Burger the best burger in America.
Chef, butcher and owner of Neon Pig and Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen, Mitch McCamey said Tupelo is in a unique position in America’s farm-to-table food culture.
“We have so many farms around us that we get the best ingredients in the world,” he said. “And it’s special because of the struggle of it. In New York it’s a trend, but here everyone knows a good tomato, everyone has a garden and everyone is a cook.”
Many of the ingredients McCamey and other Tupelo restaurateurs use can be purchased at the Tupelo Farmer’s Depot downtown Thursday and Saturday mornings or Tuesday afternoons.
He said traveling Tupelo is fun for him because when he worked in big-city kitchens or travels to study other restaurants the speed is hectic, “People here are open minded, and the speed is just slower. In most cities, we would turn the K.O.K. dining room over four times. We only do it twice. People would rather move around the restaurant and talk to everyone they know than rush through a meal.”
When McCamey is tired of eating his own food, he grabs lunch at Café 212, where he says owners Jason and Amanda Hayden have mastered their sandwich craft at the same level as any award-winning classical French restaurant in New York, or Blue Canoe, where he recommends pairing the great bar food with live music.
“Tupelo is a very smart and well-traveled town,” McCamey said. “It’s just as important to be well traveled at home so you can build community and generate energy. We have a responsibility, especially as the younger generation, to grow our tradition while evolving. You’ve got to get out in your hometown.”
Photos by Thomas Wells, Adam Robison and Lauren Wood // Story by JB Clark