The ultimate guide to visiting Memphis
Updated: Aug 10, 2021
Memphis is known around the world for the famous mansion where Elvis lived, the birthplace of Blues Music on Beale Street, and the world’s best barbecue, but there is so much more to be found here! While bucket list travel to hotspots in Europe is slightly confusing to say the least, people are still looking for road trip ideas to replace summer trips abroad. Until things return to "full normal", it’s more important than ever to become a tourist in your own back yard. If you live anywhere in the South, or the Midwest for that matter, Memphis is most likely just a one day road trip away!
While it’s true that Memphis comes alive at night with live music and a pretty kickin’ party scene, I’m here to tell you that it’s an awesome place to bring your kids too! History, museums, art, sports, music, and outdoor activities abound in the Bluff City on the banks of the Mississippi River. Whether you come to Memphis as a family, a couple, or on your own, read on to learn about all the best activities to do in Memphis!
Top 4 Activities you MUST do
1. March of the Peabody Ducks
No trip to Memphis is complete without witnessing the marching of the ducks at the historic Peabody Hotel. Ducks in a hotel? That’s right!
Each day at 11:00 a.m. the five most pampered ducks in Memphis take the elevator from their rooftop suite down to the grand lobby and proceed to march down a bright red carpet to hang out in the fountain for the rest of the day. Promptly at 5:00 p.m. they reverse the march, with all the necessary pomp and flair, back to the elevator and up to their Royal Duck Palace on the rooftop of the hotel.
This fantastically fun experience is a tradition that dates back to the 1930’s, and is one that should not be missed when visiting Memphis. Who needs Hollywood when you’ve got this red carpet? Make sure you arrive at least 30 minutes before marching time to get a good spot along the edge of the carpet for the best views in the house!
The music of Elvis is timeless, and so is the famous mansion in Memphis he called home. If your kids don’t know who Elvis is, shame on you! In all seriousness though, when you come to visit Memphis don’t miss out on a chance to see where the King of Rock n’ Roll lived. It's cheesy and touristy, but that's what makes it so fabulous!
The extravagance and quirkiness of Graceland perfectly captures the spirit of Elvis and is a fun experience for kids of all ages. I highly recommend that you take the audio tour here, it gives lots of fun facts and great information.
Tour the mansion, car museum and private jet, see some of his most flamboyant performance outfits, and visit the grave and memorial where he's buried next to his parents. Kick up the heels of your blue suede shoes and get ready to be all shook up by a visit to Graceland!
3. Memphis Pyramid/Bass Pro Shop
You may ask yourself, “Why would I want to go to a hunting and fishing store when I’m sightseeing in downtown Memphis?” I have to admit I resisted at first also. I remember the Pyramid as an arena and event forum, the place where I walked in my college graduation commencement ceremony, saw the Dixie Chicks in concert, and cheered on the Memphis State Tigers basketball team (true Memphis fans will always think of the University of Memphis as Memphis State).
After sitting vacant for years, the city of Memphis negotiated with Bass Pro Shops to inject new life into this iconic piece of the Memphis skyline by creating a Sportsman’s Paradise, complete with a wilderness themed hotel, full spa, 13 lane bowling alley with a restaurant and bar, pistol and archery range, freshwater and saltwater aquariums, and a wetlands conservation museum.
If that’s not enough to tempt you, take a ride 28 stories high in the country's tallest free-standing elevator! Even if you don’t like hunting or fishing, you will love exploring this swamp themed piece of urban paradise.
The views of downtown Memphis and the Mississippi River are absolutely spectacular from the glass observation deck. If you head over to the pyramid after the Peabody duck evening march, you can even have dinner and watch the sun set from 300 feet up!
4. National Civil Rights Museum
If you have kids, you’ll have to make a judgment call on the appropriateness of this based on their ages. A visit here is a heavy and emotional experience; however, I absolutely stand by this as a place everyone should go at least once in their lives.
Standing on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the National Civil Rights Museum provides an in-depth history of the Civil Rights movement, the events leading up to Dr. King’s murder, and the many theories surrounding its investigation.
Not only is a visit here a living monument to the legacy of a great leader, but it can be a wonderfully educational way to start a conversation with your children about the lessons we can learn from our history, and the responsibility we have as parents to raise compassionate and caring individuals.
There are a number of other sites in Memphis that tell the stories of black history, slavery, and civil rights in the area. Follow the Civil Rights trail with stops at the Clayborn Temple and "I Am A Man" Plaza, or the Mason Temple where Dr. King gave his famous “Mountaintop” speech.
You can even visit an antebellum house that was part of the Underground Railroad. At the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum you can take a walk back in time to learn about the history of slavery in Memphis, and feel what it was like to go through trapdoors and hidden tunnels used to help slaves find their way to freedom.
Another educational site you might enjoy is Elmwood Cemetery, the oldest active cemetery in Memphis with graves dating as far back as the 1850’s. This historic cemetery was also used as a filming location for the Tom Cruise movie "The Firm". You can go back even further in time and learn about the Native American history of the area at either the Chucalissa Archaeological Museum or Chickasaw Heritage Park. To learn more about these and other historic sites in Memphis, read my guide here.
Museums for Kids
While we’re talking about history, an awesome museum that your kids will love is the Museum of Science and History at the Pink Palace. This huge pink colored mansion was originally designed by the founder of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain in the 1920's, as what would be his home. Sadly, he lost his fortune and the mansion was taken over by the bank. It was later donated to the city of Memphis and became a Natural History and Industrial Arts Museum. Over the years, they’ve added on additional exhibits and a Planetarium! A visit here is like taking a trip in time from the age of the dinosaurs all the way to the modern ages!
The Children’s Museum of Memphis is another fun one! I would say the Children's Museum is geared more towards kids 10 and under, but the younger kiddos absolutely love this place. It’s like an indoor learning playground, full of interactive exhibits that get kids’ minds thinking, creativity flowing, and bodies moving! With the addition of the 100 year old Grand Carousel, it’s a visit your kids will not soon forget.
Another special attraction kids always love is the Fire Museum of Memphis. Who doesn’t like to climb into the driver’s seat of an old fire truck and pretend to be a hero?Housed in the original Fire Station #1 in downtown Memphis, the Fire Museum is a blast!
A visit here is fun and educational, and fully supported by donations which they use to fund community programs for fire prevention and safety. Before you leave, be sure to visit the Memorial Wall that honors Memphis firefighters who have died in the line of duty, going as far back as 1880.
Memphis is famous for its musical history. If ever a place held music royalty, it would be Memphis. Boasting the King of Rock n’ Roll AND the King of the Blues, there is no better place to immerse yourself in music history than to visit the hallowed grounds where legends were made.
First stop, Beale Street. Some people will tell you that Beale Street isn’t safe. It’s in a downtown area, and there is crime in every city. That being said, Beale Street is perfectly safe to go during the day. I wouldn’t take kids there at night, for the same reasons I wouldn’t take my kids to a bar. It’s a party scene. But you can’t come to Memphis and not walk down the famed Beale Street, lined with blues clubs where musicians the likes of B.B. King, W.C. Handy, Louis Armstrong and Muddy Waters played.
As you walk, you might get lucky and find the Beale Street Flippers showing off their gymnastic talents right down the middle of the street! You’ll find the the best souvenirs in Memphis on Beale Street, too. My favorite is one called Memphis Music, but there are plenty of others to choose from.
Stop by A. Schwab for unique souvenirs, local crafts, and an old fashioned soda fountain with the best ice cream sundaes around! If you have time, take a walk upstairs and browse around the Beale Street Museum. This place has been around since 1876, and it has some really cool memorabilia and antiques!
The food on Beale is amazing too! Eat at the world famous Dyer’s Burgers and see what it’s like to eat burgers that have been deep fried in the same grease for over 100 years! Not brave enough? Don't worry, there are plenty of other places to eat on Beale Street. Blues City Cafe, B.B. King Blues Club, Alfred’s on Beale, and the Rum Boogie Cafe all have amazing food, and if you go in the late afternoon or early evening you might be able to catch some live music before the party gets started.
If you're looking for a way to lure your kids down to Beale, we've got just what you need. Beale Sweets Sugar Shack and Insomnia Cookies will satisfy any sweet tooth you've got! For more restaurant suggestions on and off Beale Street, check out my article about the Best Eats in Memphis.
Alas, talking about food always distracts me! Let's get back to music. If you’re on Beale Street then you’re close to the Rock n’ Soul Museum in front of the FedEx Forum. This is a cool place to learn all about the history of music in Memphis.
Another option is the Blues Hall of Fame. You can walk up to Main Street from Beale and be there in about 10 minutes, or catch the Main Street Trolley. A trolley ride around downtown Memphis is a great way to give your feet a rest if you’ve been doing a lot of walking around. The trolley will take you in a loop up Main Street, down to the Mississippi River and along Riverside Drive, then back up to Main Street on the south end. You’ll find stops convenient for the Civil Rights Museum, the Blues Hall of Fame, Beale Street, and the pedestrian section of Main Street.
Two of the very best places to learn about the history of music in Memphis are Sun Studios and Stax Records. I would highly recommend taking a tour in either of these historic recording studios. These are both true Memphis treasures, and will have you dancing and singing along to songs recorded by some of the greatest artists in musical history. For more details on these studios and everything else you need to know about the best music in Memphis, read here!
Looking for activities that will get you outside and enjoying the southern sunshine? You’ve got lots of choices! With the rejuvenation of downtown, Memphis has really revitalized the city’s green spaces, especially along the Mississippi River.
My first choice would be the Big River Crossing over the Mississippi River. The Big River Crossing is a pedestrian walkway on what Memphis natives call “The Old Bridge”. You can walk the mile long bridge that stretches across the river into Arkansas and back again, catching some pretty spectacular views of downtown Memphis along the way.
There are quite a few other parks along the Mississippi River, the largest of which is Tom Lee Park, a large green space with walking paths that is usually quiet with not much going on. But come to Memphis during the month of May and you’ll find this area transformed into a festival site jam-packed with barbecue teams and music lovers. Memphis is home to the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and the Beale Street Music Fest, both of which are held at Tom Lee Park.
Walk just a bit further up Riverside Drive and you’ll find Beale Street Landing, where you can catch a cruise down the Mighty Mississippi on an authentic riverboat. This is a truly special experience. You'll feel like you’ve stepped back in time when you ride on one of these old fashioned wooden paddlewheel boats up and down the river.
If you do take one of the Memphis Riverboat cruises, I would recommend a daytime cruise over the night time cruise with dinner and music. I think it's a better experience when you can see the river, view some wildlife, and watch the paddlewheel turning in the water!
For more fun along the river, head over to the Mud Island River Park. At Mud Island, half the fun is taking the monorail over the water to get there. There’s also a pedestrian bridge, but the kids really love the monorail! Once you’re on the “island”, you can learn about the history of the area at the Mississippi River Museum, or explore the scaled down replica of the entire Mississippi River that’s built right into a walking path from one end of the island to the other. Follow this all the way to the end, so you can see where the river empties out into a gigantic pool representing the Gulf of Mexico. Also down at the south end of the island, there’s a super cool photo spot with gigantic letters spelling out the word MEMPHIS.
You can even got ON the river in the harbor between Mud Island and the downtown river bank. Rent a kayak with Kayak Memphis or take a stand up paddle board tour of the harbor with SUP901.
If you're looking for more structured outdoor experiences to entertain the younger members of your family, popular outdoor excursions in the Midtown and East Memphis area that kids love are the Memphis Zoo, Botanic Gardens, Lichterman Nature Center, and Dixon Gallery and Gardens.
Where do locals go to get fresh air and exercise? Head out east to Shelby Farms and find out. A former penal farm turned public park, Shelby Farms has everything you could ask for when it comes to outdoor fun.
Not only are there walking and biking paths galore, but there are multiple playgrounds, a spray park, dog park, picnic areas, and over 20 small lakes!
Try your hand at fishing, or get out on the water with a kayak, canoe, or paddle board. Better yet, pack your hammocks so you can take an afternoon break in the cool shade along the shore of one of the tree-lined lakes.
There’s even a BMX track, horseback riding stable and a Go Apes ropes course and zip-line park. With a newly designed visitor center and gift shop, a wheel house and two boat houses, you can rent a bike, board or boat and have an outdoor play day just outside the city!
Are your kids sports fans? Memphis has that covered too! With a semi-professional baseball team, an NBA team, professional men's soccer, and the University of Memphis all in town, we've got all the bases covered! Pun intended.
Catch a Memphis Redbirds baseball game or Memphis 901 FC soccer match, score tickets to a Memphis Grizzlies or University of Memphis basketball game at the FedEx Forum, or root for the U of M football team at the Liberty Bowl Stadium.
Oh, and if you go to a University of Memphis game, be sure to pack your blue…no University of Tennessee orange allowed here!
What to Eat
There is so much amazing food in Memphis, it’s hard to know where to start! If you’re sightseeing downtown and looking for great food, you won’t have to look very far.
For the absolute best ribs in town, you have to go to the Rendezvous. For pulled pork and barbecue nachos, hit up Central BBQ right next to the Civil Rights Museum. If you’re walking around in the South Main area, head on over to the Arcade Restaurant to sit in Elvis’s favorite booth and have a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich and a boozy milkshake. Just a few blocks off of main you can treat yourself to some of Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken.
There are really outstanding restaurants all along South Main Street, as well as the pedestrian section of Main Street. One of my favorites is Aldo’s Pizza Pies, which has a nice outdoor patio with a great view of Main Street. And it just happens to be right down the street from Margie’s 901 Homemade Ice Cream shop.
Speaking of sweets, please don’t leave Memphis without treating yourself to Jerry’s Sno Cones ,whether you're here with kids or not. You think you know what a snow cone should taste like until you go to Jerry’s. Classic or “Supreme” with layers of ice cream mixed in, this is snow cone heaven. It's about a 10 minute drive from downtown, but it's worth it! Unfortunately I always eat mine too fast to take pictures. You'll just have to come see them for yourself! For my complete local guide to all the best food in Memphis, see here.
Where to stay
If you want to be close to all the downtown sights, staying downtown makes it so easy and there are lots of great hotel options, as well as AirBNB’s! If you’re looking for uniquely Memphis locations downtown, stay at the historic Peabody Hotel, the Big Cyprus Lodge at the Pyramid, or the brand new Hyatt Centric on Beale Street. Elvis fans can sleep right on the iconic mansion's property at the Guest House at Graceland, which is about 10 -15 minutes from downtown.
Another option is to find an AirBNB in Midtown, which is about 10 minutes from downtown, or East Memphis which will be a 15-20 minute drive.There are also hotel options in East Memphis along Poplar Avenue or near Poplar & I-240. These are great areas with tons of restaurants, but it will take you about 15 - 20 minutes to get downtown. The good thing about East Memphis is that it’s close to some of the non-downtown attractions and not too far if you decide to go to Shelby Farms. A final option is to stay in the Wolfchase area. This is the furthest away from all of the sightseeing, but it is convenient to I-40 if you’re coming from the east. Staying out here will take you 25-30 minutes to get downtown, depending on traffic.
These awesome activities are just a few of the reasons I love Memphis so much! What are you waiting for? Grab your kids, a couple of hammocks and your blue suede shoes, and hop in the car for a road trip!
If you liked this article and want to read more of my local guides to all the best of Memphis, check these out!
A Local Guide to Memphis: Best Eats
A Local Guide to Memphis: Best Bars, Breweries and Patios
A Local Guide to Memphis Music