Memphis, Tennessee is widely known as the Home of Blues, Soul, and Rock & Roll. Located on on the Mississippi River, in southwestern Tennessee, the downtown area is filled with plenty of chances to sample barbecue and a wide variety of music, making it a popular destination for couples and groups of friends looking to have a good time. However, as I planned for a summer road trip stopping in Tennessee, I quickly discovered that Memphis also has a lot to offer for families.
Start by going to memphistravel.com. It’s full of helpful suggestions for where to go, what to do, and where to stay. They’ve even categorized lists such as “Weird Things to Do” and “Best Barbecue.” I found the website incredibly useful in planning our visit. Here are some of our suggestions:
Top Ten Things to Do with Kids in Memphis:
1. Explore Shelby Farms Park: The entire complex is over 4,000 acres of green space, located less than twenty minutes from downtown Memphis. You can walk, run, or bike (there’s 40 miles of trails), canoe, kayak or paddle a boat (in one of the 12 lakes) cool off in the Splash Park ($5 for for one hour), exercise on the Woodland Discovery Playground, play a round of frisbee golf, zipline across Pine Lake, or search for the buffalo that roam a 45 acre range. Start at the First Tennessee Foundation Visitor Center, which is staffed during the day and has restrooms and a gift shop. Also on property is the Kitchen Bistro, which had a very tempting menu, but we ran out of time. The park is beautiful, with well manicured greens and is well marked with signage.
2. Walk across the pedestrian bridge to Mud Island River Park. For $6 you can park at 125 North Main Street and walk the half mile pedestrian bridge. You’ll get beautiful views of the city, the former Pyramid Arena turned Bass Pro Shops, and the Mississippi River. You can also opt to take the 180 person cabin monorail (which takes less than two minutes). Tickets for the monorail include admission to the Mississippi River Museum on the island. There are elevators, escalators and stairs to go up the four flights from the ground to the pedestrian bridge and restrooms are located both ends of the bridge. You can rent pedal boats at one end of the island and there is an ampitheater for concerts. Our favorite part was the Mississippi Riverwalk, a scaled model of the 1,000 mile journey of the lower Mississippi reproduced in a half mile scale. (Every thirty inches is equivalent to one mile.) Over one million gallons of water flow through the system. Our kids loved taking off their shoes and dipping their feet in the water; Watch for uneven ridges. Head’s up: Mud Island River Park is closed on Monday and Tuesday.
3. Watch the famous duck parade at the Peabody Hotel. The five North American mallard ducks come down from the penthouse at 11am each day, spend the afternoon in the lobby fountain, and return to the penthouse at 5pm. I would get there a good 45 minutes ahead of time for optimal viewing. We arrived at 4:15pm and snagged just about the last front row spot on the ground level. They rope off areas and the staff is great about keeping everyone safe, organized, and making sure little children get the best spots! You can be up close and personal on the lobby floor or grab an aerial shot from the mezzanine. About fifteen minutes before the parade, they roll out the (literal) red carpet and the Duckmaster tells the history of the history of the ducks. After the parade (it’s literally about one minute long, set to music) head up to the penthouse floor and check out the Ducks’ Royal Palace. It’s located behind the rooftop stage and bar space. They have a miniature fountain and their own version of the Peabody Hotel to rest at night. Before you leave the hotel (or perhaps you’re lucky enough to stay the night), check out the Lucky Duck gift shop for a cute memento of your visit. Check out the sidewalks as you leave the hotel- they’ve immortalized past ducks with their own version of the Walk of Fame.
4. Learn about the history of American civil rights at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. The museum opened in 1991 and there are over 20 distinct exhibits in chronological order highlighting important steps in the Civil Rights Movement, culminating in a walk across the street and through a tunnel to the where the shooter fired the fatal shot from a boarding house. Gift shops and restroom are located in both buildings. I’d plan on at least 2-3 hours to fully explore the museum. In my opinion, this museum is best suited for older children. In addition to needing to be able to read information throughout the exhibits, there are some violent film footage (starting with the introductory film) and very sensitive topics younger children might not understand or be ready to process. There is a large parking lot next to the museum.
5. Visit the home of the King of Rock n Roll, Elvis Presley. Until last year, you could “only” tour Presley’s home, Graceland. But in early 2017, a 200,000 square foot entertainment complex opened, showcasing thousands of memorabilia belonging to Presley and his family. I recommend purchasing tickets ahead of time, and get the Elvis Experience tour to get the full experience. Plan on spending at least three to four hours tour Graceland (the mansion tour takes at least an hour itself), the exhibition halls, which showcase dozens of Presley’s cars and motorcycles, and thousands of Presley’s personal possessions, costumes, and gold records. Have kids choose their favorite themed room, favorite car, and best costume worn by “the King.” Kids will also enjoy having their own iPad, headphones, and choice of adult or youth narrated tour of the mansion and grounds. There are plenty of gift shops and restrooms spread out throughout the exhibits, and four dining options ranging from Minnie Mae’s Sweets for a quick snack to Vernon’s Smokehouse for a full meal. Leave a few minutes to walk through Presley’s two airplanes, displayed on property. Graceland is a short ten minute drive from downtown Memphis.
6. Check out the Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid (a former sports arena) next to the Mud Island River Park entrance. It’s massive: 535,000 square feet with a Big Cypress Hotel and Spa, a 100+ room hotel located inside the store. In addition to free family activities offered every Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, you can shoot in the arcade, bowl at Uncle Buck’s, explore the Ducks Unlimited National Waterflowing Heritage Center, check out the fish and alligators (!) in the ponds, sample homemade fudge (and other old fashioned treats) in the General Store, toss a penny for good luck in the waterfalls, take the world’s tallest free standing elevator up 28 stories to an observation deck (and stay for lunch or dinner at The Lookout), or have a meal at Uncle Buck’s. Of course, if you still have time after all that, you can shop for just about anything an outdoorsman would ever need, from apparel and gear to a variety of boats.
Bonuses (aka things we’re saving for our next visit):
7. I heard great things about the Memphis Zoo. We did not get a chance to visit, if you have animal lovers in your family, you’ll surely want to visit the pandas, giraffes, camels, and various sea life.
8. Hop on (and off) the Memphis Trolley– there are three routes and it cost $1. If you’re in town at the end of the month, check out South Main’s Friday Trolley Night with all sorts of celebrations and special events.
9. The Children’s Museum of Memphis looks like a lot of fun with exhibits like a grocery store, fire station, Skyscraper, and tornado inside and a splash park, playspace, and basketball hoops outside.
10. Walk through the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Reflection Park. It just opened this year to honor the 50th anniversary of Dr King’s assassination. Depending on where you’re coming from, you’ll pass it on your way to the Civil Rights Museum. There is a bronze statue, several photo collages, and quotes by Dr. King. There are also benches to rest and reflect.
Eating with the Locals: There were so many choices- we ran out of time! Here are a few spot we visited, based on tips from the locals:
Lisa’s Lunchbox: for breakfast or lunch, get the BLT. And one of the yummy salads.
The Arcade: the oldest restaurant in Memphis is still serving plenty of hearty breakfasts all day and great sandwiches and entrees.
Huey’s: for burgers. And be sure to check out the ceilings and attempt to “add your mark.”
The Peabody: for an elegant cocktail in the lobby bar or at Capriccio Grill for surf and turf
Beale Street is the most (arguably) popular street in town with dozens of options for live music, cold drinks, and good food.
Staying Locally: We stayed at the Residence Inn Memphis Downtown. We always prefer to stay at Marriott properties (read about why here) and this location was in the heart of Memphis. We walked just about everywhere except for Graceland.
Disclaimer: I was given a media pass to visit the National Civil Rights Museum and Graceland. All opinions are my own.