What’s the first thing you think about when you hear the name Memphis? Okay, besides him (Elvis), I mean. This lovely town is also famous for its music and food as well as its warm and welcoming Southern charm. Only founded in 1819, it is actually the youngest of the state of Tennessee’s major cities, with a population of approximately 654,000 as of 2013.
Known for its participation in the Civil Rights Movement, its tasty Cajun and Creole food, expansive parks and fabulous legacy of all things rock and roll, if you don’t have the music in you when you arrive, you certainly will by the time you leave. Let’s have a look at the best things to do and see in Memphis!
1. Sun Studio
Sun Studio has seen so many famous musicians pass through its doors, it’s hard to know where to start, but let’s try! Opened in 1950 with the first rock and roll single ever (Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’Rocket 88, in case you were wondering) and known as “The Birthplace of Rock and Roll”, Sun Studio made its awesome reputation signing artists such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lew Lewis and Johnny Cash to name but a few.
Take a tour to see fun stuff like the microphone that Elvis used when recording his first song in 1954 and much more, the tours conducted by enthusiastic, friendly and knowledgeable guides willing to take the time to chat about the musicians who have passed through the studio’s legendary doors.
Afterwards, drop by the 50’s style Sun Studio Soda Shop and Record Store to pick up some awesome memorabilia! Kids 5-11 are free, but under 5s not permitted due to the personal nature of the tour performance.
Included in: Big Mojo Sun Studio + Music History 3-Hour Bus Tour
2. National Civil Rights Museum – Lorraine Motel
This museum offers an amazing insight into the struggle for civil rights over five centuries, showcased with over 40 new films, oral histories, 260 artifacts, and interactive media and external listening posts that guide visitors through its history from the beginning of the resistance during slavery, the country’s Civil War, the rise of Jim Crow and so much more, noting the events that shaped and inspired the future.
The exhibitions include programs such as The Rise of Jim Crow, Standing Up by Sitting Down, The Year They Walked, and more, together with the opportunity to stand outside the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. spent his final moments.
This really is a wonderful learning experience for all the family. The Museum is free to Tennessee residents on Mondays from 3pm and active military members anytime. Both require ID.
Were you aware that Graceland was named after a relative of its original owners, the Toof family, whose name was Grace? Nor me! Elvis purchased the home and grounds in 1957 when he was just 22 (after starting his journey to fame the year earlier). The sumptuous property welcomed friends and family members over the 20 years he lived there, and now holds deep meaning for his many fans who visit from all over the world to pay homage to ‘The King’.
Taking a tour of this landmark will be of interest to everyone as it encompasses an unforgettable journey through time, which is guided by an iPad tour, complete with headphones, and narrated by actor John Stamos.
There is also a separate tour guide for the kids. After the in depth tour there is plenty to purchase at the various gift shops, including a large selection of Elvis CD’s, DVDs, t-shirts, jackets, accessories and other themed apparel.
4. Stax Museum of American Soul Music
Here is another music museum for your edification, and what a museum!
As the only one in the world dedicated to the preservation and legacy of American soul music, it pays special tribute to the great artists who have recorded within its walls with an absolutely awesome and rare collection of over 2,000 artifacts, films, galleries and interactive exhibits, including Isaac Hayes’ shiny custom Cadillac Eldorado which is fully equipped with a television, refrigerated mini-bar, 24-carat gold exterior trim and white fur carpeting on the floorboards!
Together with the company’s Wall of Sound, with floor to ceiling cases containing all albums and singles released by Stax and its subsidiary labels from 1957 – 1975 and by seeing how the studio became the true birthplace of soul music, the family will be dancing their way (literally if you wish!) through this fun location.
Book online: Stax Museum of American Soul Music Ticket
5. AutoZone Park
This very family friendly ballpark was actually named the 2009 Minor League Ballpark of the Year by Baseball America for its state-of-the-art classic, neo-traditional styled facility.
Home to the Memphis Redbirds and with a well maintained stadium that offers very decent seats and friendly staff, open air party deck on the third base side club level seating up to 175 fans and The Boardwalk, a family-oriented games and amusement area which includes a playground and end of match awesome firework display, you couldn’t ask for more for your family day outing!
6. Beale Street
Memphis’s Beale Street consists of an eclectic mix of the unique. That’s the only way to describe it, really!
Unique novelty items, kiddies games, original and rare vinyl, clothing, art, and all things Memphis! It’s an absolutely super place to spend a few hours, have a walk, stop by one of the riverside restaurants or cafes for a meal or a drink, and just soak up the friendly, Southern charm atmosphere!
Beale Street takes on a slightly different persona at night, however, morphing into a busy, lively spot with sites like the Rum Boogie Café, BB King’s Blues Club and Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall for the adults to enjoy. All in all, this famous street has something for everyone.
Recommended tour: Beale Street Guided Walking Tour
7. The Peabody Ducks
The sight of these renowned ducks waddling along the path, performing their famous ‘Duck March’ is guaranteed to put a smile on all the family’s faces. The duckies have come a long way since their role in 1933, when the GM of Peabody, Frank Schutt, had decided it would be amusing to put them (in those days acting as live decoys) into the gorgeous Peabody fountain for a quick paddle.
Well, they loved it, what can I say! With the help of Bellman Pembroke, a former circus animal trainer, the start of the twice daily march to the lobby fountain at 11am and 5pm began, and still continues to this day. The Duckmaster gives a brief history talk before the show, which lasts about half an hour.
Your kids will love the sight of these special ducks trotting confidently down the red carpet from the elevator to the fountain!
8. Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum
If you’re interested in learning about the birth of rock and soul music, this is the place to go. Opened in 2000, the museum offers a vast amount of information, telling the story of the musical pioneers who overcame racial and economic barriers to create the music that is firmly with us today.
The story begins from the rural fields of the 1930s, through the exciting inception of Sun, Stax, Hi Records and Memphis’ musical heyday in the 70s to the current day, with a wonderful digital audio tour guide packed with over 300 minutes of information that includes over 100 songs.
Go at your own pace to enjoy the seven galleries that feature 3 audio visual programs, 40 costumes, more than 30 instruments and many more musical treasures. This is a great experience for all the music lovers of the family. There is a well stocked gift shop to visit, too.
Book online: Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum with Audio Tour
FedExForum is the home of the Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA, and the NCAA Division I men’s basketball program of the University of Memphis, both teams previously playing their home games at the Pyramid Arena.
The arena doesn’t only host games for these popular teams but also has the capability of putting on ice hockey games, family shows and concerts. This is a popular venue all round, having great hospitality and entertainment opportunities with a clean and easily navigated arena and staff who are well known for their genuine friendliness and helpfulness.
And just as important of course, the great variety of food available which includes chef prepared shrimp and grits, BBQ items, popcorn and plenty of soft drink and craft beer options, all this adding to a really fun family visit.
10. Mud Island River Park
This is fun for all the family and a must do while you’re visiting this lovely city. Mud Island is a small peninsula surrounded by the mighty Mississippi River, with Wolf River Harbor lying to the east of it. Wolf River was diverted in 1960 and now flows into the Mississippi, with River Park being created in 1982.
Easily accessible by foot via its pedestrian bridge that connects the island with the Civic Center Plaza, the island also has an amphitheatre for outdoor concerts and is home to a museum dedicated to the Mississippi River.
This is a really super site for everyone – especially on a hot day. – with the river to cool off in, and offering other enjoyable options like pedal boats, walking and biking trails to enjoy. And if you’re not in the mood to rent a pedal boat, the gift shop nearby sells toy boats the kids can then float along the river.
11. Belz Museum of Asian & Judaic Art
This fascinating museum is definitely one with a difference, as it showcases two separate cultures. It all began when Mr. and Mrs. Belz decided to display their large collection of treasures for the enjoyment of others, later turning the collection into a museum (originally named the Peabody Place Museum).
The whole family will be awestruck by the intricate collection (the Gian Carriage and Monkey King is especially popular with the kids.) and the museum’s impressive collection of Jade sculptures.
There is a huge variety of both Asian and Judaic art as well as a room dedicated to the Holocaust, together with photos of Memphian survivors and their bios, with another room displaying photos of Oriental Jews.
12. Shelby Farms Park
With 4,500 acres of spacious greenery and six and a half miles of urban trail, this park, situated in the center of Shelby County, is treasured by the entire local community. Having recently been awarded protection against commercial development, the park is now free to expand.
Already offering opportunities to bike ride and horseback ride, hike and fish, and with a clean recycled playground that offers lots of activities to children of all ages with plenty of climbing nets, swings and three separate large play areas with adequate turf stuff underneath to help with falls, there is plenty here to keep the whole family busy.
And best of all, there is always a food truck parked adjacent to the play areas that stocks tasty burgers, hot dogs, turkey sandwiches, nachos, soft drinks and shaved ice.
13. Elmwood Cemetery
This is possibly an unusual venue but really worth a visit. Elmwood Cemetery is the oldest active cemetery in Memphis, established in 1852 as one of the first rural garden cemeteries in the South. In fact, you may even recognize it if you are fans of crime writer John Grisham, as a funeral scene in Paramount’s 1993 legal thriller The Firm was filmed here.
The historic area includes the dramatic Entry Bridge, and the Carpenter-Gothic Office Cottage. In fact, the entire 80 acre cemetery is all on the National Register of Historic Places. Elmwood, by the way, is also an official Bird Sanctuary and Arboretum. The whole family can enjoy strolling beneath the cemetery’s ancient oaks, elms, and stately magnolias.
Take a tour to see some of its very interesting ‘residents’, from generals and senators to mayors and governors from every American conflict, including the Revolutionary War.
14. Pink Palace Museum
What an amazing learning center with loads of science and history attractions to keep everyone member of the family interested – not forgetting the attached IMAX theater & planetarium. One of the venue’s great attractions has to be its size, being one of the biggest facilities of its kind in the Southeast.
This means you’ve got loads of things on offer which includes anything from a walk through a replica of the first self-service grocery store in the country, Clarence Saunders’ Piggly Wiggly, to the opportunity of exploring the cultural and natural history of the mid South through the museum’s dioramas, exhibits, and exciting audio-visuals.
The museum is also home a number of touring exhibits throughout the year. This is fun for all ages and a chance to learn all about the history of Memphis.
15. Slave Haven / Burkle Estate Museum
This is an amazing learning experience for all the family as you can find out in depth the story of slavery when cotton was ‘king’ in Memphis in the mid 1800’s, the city then becoming Tennessee’s biggest slave trading area.
One brave individual, a German immigrant by the name of Jacob Burkle, belonged to the anti slavery movement, many members of which had risked their lives helping Africans to escape by hiding them in their own homes and then assisting them on their journey to freedom.
As you tour through the house and descend into the dark, damp cellars and look through the hidden passages and trap doors that hid the slaves, your knowledgeable guide will tell you all about the history of slavery. A moving experience for all.
16. Bass Pro Shop
No, you won’t be in Egypt but you’ll certainly feel as if you’ve stepped into a different world when you visit this colossal building. The Pyramid is a fabulous and what is known as an immersive retail experience, with the family guaranteed enjoyment whether purchasing something or just simply being outdoor enthusiasts.
The 535,000 sq ft Pyramid offers everything from a hotel, a 600,000 gallon water feature, an 84,000 gallon alligator water habitat, a cypress swamp complete with 100 ft tall trees, 13 lane ocean themed bowling alley, lively food outlets, a fascinating underwater ecosystem aquarium packed with over 1,800 fish as well as the country’s tallest 28 story freestanding glass elevator.
And all that before you even begin to shop. Everyone is guaranteed to find something of interest in this amazing outlet.
17. Tom Lee Park
Situated along Riverside Drive on the bluff of the Mississippi River, this lovely park offers plenty of options for a relaxing family fun day.
The 30 acre park is used by walkers, cyclists and joggers, and is well known besides for being the location of one of Memphis’ most fun events, Memphis in May, which includes the Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, the Big Hog Run, Miss Piggy Idol contest (don’t ask), and live entertainment.
Even out of season the park is a super location to stroll along the river bank and, if you keep walking south, find yourselves walking across a bridge until you reach the top of the bluff. There are stairs at the top which will bring you back down into the park.
18. Memphis Riverboats
Want to see Memphis the authentic way, and learn a little about the history of the Mississippi in the meantime? Take the family for a slow, relaxing ride on a Paddlewheeler, that journeys up and down this famous river and where you’ll be having fun at the same time.
This popular sightseeing cruise lasts about 90 minutes with an amusing and informative historical commentary to go with it, the narrative telling you all about past and present Mississippi River life.
As you meander down the river on the Memphis side and then back up in Arkansas waters, you’ll certainly get to understand the meaning of the expression ‘How to relax, Memphis fashion’.
19. Tastin’ ‘Round Town
And for a real taste (literally) of Memphis, a food tasting tour is a great idea.
Tastin’ ‘Round Town offers a variety of unique food tasting at what is describe as the birthplace of the blues and the soul of barbeque. Pick your tour, from modern award winning Chefs offerings to delicious and historic family owned local restaurants.
Each tour, lasting three hours and offering a taster in four to six restaurants, gives you the opportunity to glimpse into the culture, history, architecture and entertainment in this awesome Mississippi Delta city with amusing and very informative tour guides leading the way.
20. Children’s Museum of Memphis
This is a wonderful clean and hygienic venue for all the kids to enjoy, with over 30 permanent exhibits for them to choose from as well as a constant traveling host of fun, hands on exhibits and programs. The museum’s mission has always been to create memorable learning experiences through the joy of play.
Your kids will certainly be spoilt for choice with all the hands on activities on offer, from the authentic looking supermarket and Lego to construct, with airplanes to fly, and a vacuum tube system as well as a fire truck and police cruiser to play in, together with a “garage” to work on a car.
There is plenty to keep them busy both inside and outside, dependent on the weather. You can also purchase juices, sandwiches and salads here.
21. The Memphis Zoo
This is a delightful zoo and a visit here would make for a really fun time for all the family. The zoo was created in 1906 and is now home to over 3,500 animals that represent more than 500 different species.
One of the zoo’s highlights has to be its resident pandas. The Memphis zoo is only one of four American zoos to have these cuddly looking creatures and are, as you can imagine, a very popular attraction as well as the petting zoo. The zoo is clean with very friendly and helpful staff to assist when needed.
There are many concessions throughout the venue or, alternatively, why not pack a picnic instead, as there are plenty of places for you to relax and enjoy lunch.
22. The National Ornamental Metal Museum
This is a museum with a twist – a metal twist if we’re going to be literal about it. This venue deals with the preservation, collection and exhibition of historical and contemporary metalwork. It is the only institution of its kind and worth a visit while you’re here.
The museum also serves as a learning facility and training ground and you will probably have the chance to chat with some of the apprentices. There is a smithy and foundry building at the back to explore and, after your visit, relax by the river and watch it rolling by while you laze under the old oak trees.
Interesting enough, there is also an ancient Cherokee burial mound right across the street.
23. Fire Museum of Memphis
As you approach the Museum you will see the Memorial Wall on the outside; an inspiring, high relief brick sculpture, twenty two feet high and twenty five feet wide dedicated to all the Memphis fire fighters who had lost their lives while fighting a fire.
There are 53 names carved in stone, the names of every fire fighter killed in the line of duty in Memphis since 1880. A very moving experience.
The Museum itself is a great hit with all the kids in the family, especially those under 10, with interesting interactive displays including a Fireman Sam, dressing up in full gear, a room with a simulated kitchen fire (the room actually heating up.), “driving” to a fire in a 1967 LaFrance pumper, putting out a virtual fire in the arcade, an escape maze, plus lots of large and small-scale displays with everything from fire brigade buckets to rows.
24. Blues City Cafe
Drop into the Blues City Cafe for some serious food and, after 9pm, even more serious music. Opened in 1991 and developing a menu that would appeal to everyone, the Café welcomes hungry tourists and locals alike who come to enjoy their famous ribs, steaks, catfish, tamales and mouth watering desserts.
In fact, Blues City Café prides itself on being the ‘No.1 business at the No. 1 tourist attraction in Tennessee’. And not to overly boast (oh, go on then) some of the musicians to have graced the café’s stage include BB King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner, Richie Havens, Kid Rock and Queen Latifah to name but a few.
All the family can enjoy the café’s culinary delights in the Band Box and then at 9pm the kids can relocate to the Cadillac Room while the adults remain where they are to soak up some live music (there is no cover charge, either).
25. Cotton Exchange Building
Back to the cotton theme – but this is what put Memphis on the map, after all. A visit to the Cotton Exchange Building will reveal everything about the way cotton traders would barter and trade their wares, with only the elite members allowed to enter.
The public can now learn all about this once highly valuable commodity that at one time created empires and even altered American culture. A tour around the Museum will make you feel like you have stepped back in time and will be of great interest for everyone.
With friendly, helpful staff, some super hands on activities for the kids and a nice little gift shop stocking interesting items, this is a fun and informative family time for all.