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Glitzy Nashville steals much of the Tennessee spotlight these days, but Memphis has a rich cultural influence that has spread throughout the United States. Tucked on the banks of the Mississippi River, in the southwestern corner of Tennessee, Memphis is a vibrant, historic city full of things to do for the whole family. Whether you are looking for world-class barbecue, wanting to find Live music, searching for the best way to learn about our nation’s Civil Rights history, or wanting a weekend of music and fun in a big city, a weekend trip to Memphis is sure to have all you need.
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Best Outdoor Activities
When we visited Memphis this summer, one of our first stops was Shelby Farms Park. I had heard so much about this 4500-acre park in the middle of suburban Memphis that I had to check it out for myself. We discovered that Shelby Farms is one of the best places that has activities for everyone, including kayak and bike rentals, a sprayground, hiking, horseback riding, and paintball. There’s even a herd of buffalo that wanders through the park!
If you’re looking to go further afield, Meeman-Shelby State Park offers camping and cabins along with hiking, fishing, disc golf, and boating. You can even legitimately wear your Bass Pro Shop hat too! Or, if you’re ready to take on the mighty Mississippi, you can kayak or paddleboard down the river with Kayak Memphis.
Follow the Music
Of course, one of the most famous legacies of Memphis is its music. The steep price of Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, wasn’t in our budget for our recent visit (it’s $75 for adults and $43 for kids). However, we drove by the mansion to see the famous music note gates, and my kids loved the great view of Elvis’s custom jets, which are parked near the street.
Pro-Tip: If you are a devoted Elvis fan but can’t afford Graceland’s entrance fee, you can visit Presley’s grave for free in the Graceland Meditation Garden from 7:30 am-8:30 am most mornings.
Beale Street may be the most recognizable feature of the Memphis music scene. Take a stroll down the street to see Memphis blues bars and enjoy the sounds drifting out onto the sidewalk. (If you have younger kids, go in the daytime. A Memphis native told me the street gets a little “crunk” at night.) The area often has free concerts and is a great place to find souvenir shops. You can even tour the home of W.C. Handy, who is considered the father of blues music.
Within walking distance of Beale Street, music fans can stop by and tour the historic Sun Studio, the recording studio known as the birthplace of rock and roll where legends like Elvis, B.B. King, and Johnny Cash created legend. A few miles down the road, you can also visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music Museum and learn about the record label known for working with Otis Redding, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, and Wilson Pickett.
Aside from Beale Street and the music museums, much of downtown Memphis is quiet and calm. The city sits on the Mississippi River, but don’t look for restaurants and shops taking over the riverfront. Instead, Memphis has lined the river with a system of city parks. Most of the parks offer bike rentals and peaceful, green spaces for enjoying river views. But kid-friendly Mud Island has a splash pad that is a scale model of the Mississippi River. There’s also a nightly light show that spans the Hernando de Soto Bridge.
Ride A Memphis Streetcar
One of my favorite things to do in downtown Memphis is to take vintage street cars around the city. It’s the best way to see downtown and will feel like an adventure for the kids, but it’s also a great way to navigate the area — I found several cool restaurants just by watching out the window as we rode. Each ride is just $1 per person, and the streetcar drivers are experts at keeping tourists from getting lost.
Watch A Game
Don’t forget the sports teams while you’re downtown. Autozone Park is just a couple of blocks from the famous Peabody Memphis Hotel and hosts Memphis Redbirds minor league baseball games and Memphis 901 FC soccer games. The Memphis Grizzlies play at the FedEx Forum, which is located just off of Beale Street. (We once walked down Beale Street and into FedEx Forum decked out in the jerseys of the opposing team. We found out that Memphis locals really are as friendly as they seem, although there was a bit of good-natured ribbing.)
One of the most important stops and historic buildings in Memphis is the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. The outside of the museum is essentially a 24-hour monument remembering one of the leading figures of the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The hotel has been restored to how it looked in 1968. A wreath marks the spot where King was fatally shot. Visiting the hotel and watching people from around the world standing in silent tribute was incredibly moving. If you have to pick one thing to do in Memphis, this is it.
Another essential historical experience is the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, where guests touring the antebellum home can see secret passageways and trapdoors while learning about the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery movement. We have this stop on our list for next time after hearing friends talk about their visit.
Can’t get enough of museums? Learn more about the cultural and natural history of the area at the Museum of Science and History (formerly known as the Pink Palace Museum and still called that by Memphis natives). If you’re traveling with young children, don’t miss the interactive exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Memphis.
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Discover the Memphis Zoo
The Memphis Zoo is what first drew us to the area for our Memphis family vacation this summer. With exhibits including giant pandas, polar bears, and lions, the zoo was definitely the highlight of the trip for my kids. The scale of the zoo is apparent when you walk up and see the giant, Egyptian-style entrance gates, complete with an obelisk. Highlights of our visit included a sea lion show and camel rides for the kids. We especially loved the Animals of the Night building, which reverses nighttime and daytime light patterns so visitors can see nocturnal animals when they are active.
The Memphis Zoo is huge, so plan on it being an all-day experience. With several restaurants filled with good food, a small playground, and a splash pad, there are plenty of areas for young families to take breaks. If you’re a member of your local AZA-accredited zoo, show your membership card for a discount on admission.
When You Go:
The Memphis International Airport offers nonstop flights from Los Angeles on Delta and Allegiant Air. For a truly unique experience, travel to Memphis via The City of New Orleans, an Amtrak route that stretches from Chicago to New Orleans.
When you’re ready to go, use this interactive tool to find the best deals on flights through CheapOAir!
Where to Eat
Walking around downtown Memphis, we stumbled across local pizza place Aldo and enjoyed a couple of yummy slices while watching the streetcars go by. A Memphis foodie friend suggested we try Railgarten and Loflin Yard for trendy, modern restaurants with spacious outdoor seating. Another Memphis friend recommended the original Central BBQ on — what else? — Central Avenue for some classic Memphis barbeque. And Blues City Cafe on Beale Street is the perfect place for families during the daytime hours.
Where to Stay
For a high-end experience, stay in the Peabody Hotel, a historic location known for the famous Peabody ducks that walk a red carpet to their fountain each day. The Central Station Memphis is a lovely mid-range option built inside an old train station. For a budget choice, stay further outside the city center at the Holiday Inn & Suites near Wolfchase Galleria.
Check out this interactive map to see where your stay would be and the current prices of other lodgings and even private homes!
Memphis is a vibrant, historic city full of things to do for families. Whether you are looking for world-class barbecue, learning about our nation’s Civil Rights history, or wanting a weekend of music and fun, a weekend trip to Memphis is sure to have all you need.
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