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Rock and roll was never merely about music: When it started, we were obsessed with the freedom and counterculture it stood for. The catchy tunes were only half the story. Rock was a gateway to a new way of life where the sky’s the limit—we watched as everyday people transformed into celebrities and turned things upside down.
There’s a constant evolution in the musical style and the story songs tell. Watch the story unfold at these seven American destinations, each with a connection to rock and roll that will reinforce your love for the music.
Formerly known as the Experience Music Project, the Museum of Pop Culture has an incredible collection of exhibits dedicated to music. There’s an understandable focus on musicians with a Seattle connection, including Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but that’s hardly all you’ll find. A new exhibit “Heroes & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume” opens in June. There’s also a permanent exhibit known as the Sound Lab (temporarily closed due to the pandemic) that is full of hands-on activities to let visitors try out samplers, mixing consoles and more.
Don’t stop your rock tour after a day at the museum. Hit up landmarks like the Paramount Theatre and Easy Street Records before calling it a night at the Edgewater Hotel, which has hosted legendary musicians including the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Visitors can still stay in these famous rooms which are right on the water near Pier 66.
Memphis is a mecca for blues lovers, but it just might be the place rock and roll was born. Home to Sun Studios, this is where “Rocket 88,” credited by some as the first rock song, was recorded. Legends like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded there, as well. Tours tell the stories of recording throughout history and include the chance to listen to recording outtakes or create a recording yourself after hours.
A few miles from downtown, a visit to Graceland is more than a quick walk-through of Elvis’ former home. See his iconic pink Cadillac, the famous jungle room and all manner of memorabilia. When you’re done walking through the house and exhibits, try out the interactive experiences launched in 2020. You can virtually dress in one of the king’s over-the-top jumpsuits for a unique photo opportunity or take a seat at a virtual concert.
Prince fans should flock to Minneapolis, a city he called home and that still showcases numerous highlights from his life and career. With nothing more than a rental car—or in some cases, your own two feet—you’ll find everything from his childhood home to music video filming locations.
Of all the sights, Paisley Park is one you absolutely can’t miss. Tours take you through the studios where he recorded, into the concert hall he used for rehearsals and private events and to the NPG Music Club, which often doubled as a party space. Along the way, you’ll see thousands of Prince’s personal items, including guitars, handwritten song lyrics and his epic shoe collection.
If you’re planning a visit, make sure to block out an entire day for Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a massive collection of instruments, handwritten lyrics and quirky possessions. Permanent exhibitions tell stories of who’s who in the industry (including producers, engineers and others involved behind the scenes) and how rock has changed over the years. Best of all, it’s great for fans of all ages: you’ll find musical stories that stretch from the ‘50s through today.
As you head through exhibits and galleries, guests are encouraged to dig deeper with videos, interactive kiosks and—of course—music clips. One entire level of the museum is dedicated to the hall of fame, which currently honors 338 inductees.
Los Angeles, California
You can’t talk about rock and roll without mentioning Los Angeles. In West Hollywood, you’ll still find the “Riot” House, now known as the Andaz West Hollywood, known for tall tale events like when Axl Rose threw steaks to fans on the street after firefighters ordered him to stop barbecuing on the balcony. Down Sunset Boulevard, you have to order a drink at Whisky a Go Go, the club that helped launch careers for bands like Mötley Crüe. The club is temporarily closed because of the pandemic, but has begun advertising performances beginning in July.
For a more educational approach to rock music in L.A., you’ll want to visit the GRAMMY Museum. Special exhibits ensure there’s always something new to check out while permanent exhibitions walk you through musical history, the intersection of music and culture and, as you may expect, an inside look at the awards themselves.
Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Northwest Alabama might not be the first place that crosses your mind as the center of rock and roll, but in the 1960s and 1970s, the town of Muscle Shoals was home to two rival studios. With accomplished staff, stars like Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan were attracted to town to record.
Tourists can visit FAME Recording Studios and learn more about its 60 years of recording history. For more music history, visit the former studios at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield or Cypress Moon Studios as well. Before you leave the region, round out your trip with a stop at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, which showcases memorabilia and other musical treasures.
New York City
Walk the same streets as your favorite artists. Rock Junket walking tours lead you through Manhattan, past notable stops you’d probably miss on your own. Seek out former musicians’ homes and find locations that were used in album cover photographs. Or simply enjoy the stories that bring these places to life and give you an extra glimpse into what life was like for the Ramones or Rolling Stones.
If you’re touring on your own, you won’t want to miss Greenwich Village. You’ll find Electric Lady Studios, where you can experience the magic by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Wonder. They still record today with artists like The Weeknd. Further uptown, rock and roll devotees will also want to stop in Central Park. John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Memorial is one of the most visited spots in the city.