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15 free things to do in Memphis

Walk the streets of Memphis and you can almost feel the bones of this mid-size city rise up from the pavement. There’s a reason this place has an outsized impact on American culture. It was from Memphis that the first echoes of rock n’ roll radiated out across the southern airwaves before going on to change the world. Decades earlier, it was in Memphis that the Delta Blues began to migrate north towards a date with electricity and destiny in Chicago.

And it was in Memphis where the sounds of Stax Records helped define the Civil Rights era, belting out hits with a frequency and quality rivaled only by Motown. The city has been a diamond in the rough for blue-collar tourists for generations, and though the seeds of gentrification are taking the edges off of some of its gritty areas, Bluff City remains one of the best bang for your buck cities in the country. 

Here are the best free activities you can enjoy in Memphis – with no shortage of American history tugging at their seams.

Editor's note: During COVID-19, please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and always follow government health advice. Events may be subject to change.

I AM A MAN PLAZA sign up close wall sweeping away from viewer in the background you can see the I AM MAN statue

I AM A MAN PLAZA 

Music may dominate the identity of Memphis, but the shadow of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final days looms large over the city. I AM A MAN PLAZA opened in 2018, one day after the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination on a Bluff City balcony in 1968. 

The plaza features a memorial to King along with other heroes of the Civil Rights movement and is located within walking distance of Beale Street. Look for it on the south side of Clayborn Temple, an enormous church – that now sits partially abandoned – that served as a rallying point for the sanitation strikes that brought King to Memphis during that fateful week.

National Civil Rights Museum Plaza 

No visit to Memphis is complete without a tour of the National Civil Rights Museum located off of South Main Street. The museum, which charges admission, is located inside of the Lorraine Motel. However, those traveling on a budget or passing through after hours can still visit the museum’s plaza free of charge. Here, visitors can pay respects to Dr. King in front of the balcony where the final moments of his life transpired.

A wreath permanently marks the location where he was standing when an assassin’s bullet took his life.

Handy Park 

Visitors to Beale Street don’t have to spend a dime to soak in live music at Handy Park. This plaza located on the eastern end of Beale Street is named for W.C. Handy, an early 20th-century composer dubbed “Father of the Blues.” Long before six strings and electricity defined the sound of the blues we know today, Handy’s trumpet reverberated around Beale Street’s clubs in a 12-bar blues that became a cornerstone of modern music.

A century after Handy was topping the charts, modern blues bands play beside his statue on weekend nights.

Elvis Presley statue on Beale Street

Memphis statues 

Handy’s statue isn’t the only reminder of bygone sounds. In fact, a 30-minute tour of downtown and midtown could put you face-to-face with Handy, Elvis Presley, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Little Melton and Johnny Cash. Every artist but Cash is located on either Beale Street or South Main Street, while Cash can be found surveyed midtown’s Cooper-Young district.

Tom Lee Park

For generations, the Memphis riverfront was a hub of commercial activity clamoring with the sounds of steamboats and cotton bales. These days, it’s a well-groomed green space along the banks of the Mississippi River. You can learn the remarkable story of a shipwreck, a river rescue and the local hero for which the park is named and deserves national fame. 

Score bonus points for the gigantic statues of Elvis and B.B. King located at the visitor center on the north end of the park. 

There are also basketball and volleyball courts, a small waterpark and unbeatable sunset views of the Big Muddy – all free of charge.

Big River Crossing 

The meandering sidewalks of Tom Lee Park lead visitors south, up the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff and towards Big River Crossing. This landmark rails-to-trail project connects Memphis to Arkansas over the historic Harahan Bridge. Big River Crossing itself reaches over a mile across the Mississippi River while connecting to a 10-mile corridor of bike paths that meander through the tranquil fields of Arkansas.

Big River Crossing offers photographers a perfect backdrop of the Memphis skyline across the river and doubles as an after-dark light show for visitors to Tom Lee Park.

The sun rises over a lake at a large urban park at Shelby Farms in Memphis, Tennessee.

Shelby Farms Greenline

This 10.6-mile rails-to-trails path connects the old-growth forest in Midtown Memphis to one of the largest urban parks in the country. Beginning in Overton Park, cyclists can connect to the Shelby Farms Greenline via the Hampline and continue on through cypress swamps and rolling pastures. 

The ride passes by local watering holes like Wiseacre Brewing Company, Hampline Brewing Company, Cheffies and High Point Pizza before taking riders past a roaming buffalo herd at Shelby Farms. 

From there, riders can choose to continue on towards the suburbs of Germantown or Cordova or make their way back to Midtown. Enterprising cyclists can even connect to the Greenline from the Big River Crossing by taking the city’s newly-established bike lanes from downtown.

Wolf River Greenway

The Mississippi River isn’t the only waterway defining Bluff City. Its smaller tributary, the Wolf River, slices a path of wilderness from the eastern suburbs to its outlet into the Mississippi River just north of Mud Island. 

Local conservation organizations have taken advantage of this natural resource by establishing the Wolf River Greenway, an in-progress cycling path that takes visitors along the banks of the Wolf River. Cyclists looking for a shorter ride can explore open phases of the Wolf River Greenway, which will eventually connect to the Greenline.

Blues Hall of Fame Museum  

The city offers no shortage of top-notch music museums. Both the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Memphis Rock N’ Soul Museum are world-class attractions in their own right. However, the Blues Hall of Fame is no slouch.  

This free museum within sight of the National Civil Rights Museum pays homage to the musicians that paved the way for one of the most revered genres of self-expression on the planet. You’ll find the door next to the statue of Little Milton.

Decorative wrought iron front gate at National Ornamental Metal Museum, Memphis, TN

Metal Museum 

Formerly known as the National Ornamental Metal Museum, these days the Metal Museum located south of downtown Memphis has simplified its name. Entry to its indoor exhibits costs $8 for adults; however, the museum’s 3.2-acres of riverside property are free to roam. There’s more to this terrain than captivating artwork, though.

The Metal Museum sits on the former site of Fort Pickering, a Civil War-era bastion built on the site of an 18th-century French fort that itself was built on the ruins of a Mississippian cultural settlement said to date back 1000 years. Its chief earthwork, Chisca mound, still stands beside the Metal Museum and bears the scars of its use as both a Union and Confederate stronghold during the Civil War.

Elmwood Cemetery

Not far from the Metal Museum, visitors can take a fascinating, macabre tour through Elmwood Cemetery. This sprawling, 80-acre compound is littered with Victorian-era monuments to the dead and is home to some of the city’s most tragic tales. 

Elmwood serves as the final resting place for veterans from every American war, along with local legends and the sobering, unmarked tomb of yellow fever victims. That area, known as “no man’s land,” holds thousands of Memphis who perished during an 1878 epidemic so deadly that it cost the city its charter.

Free tours information is available at the cemetery offices located just inside of the entrance.

The University of Memphis art museum 

Memphis is named for the ancient capital of Egypt, allegedly because the Mississippi River reminded early pioneers of the Nile. Regardless of origin, the city has a long connection with Egypt, and its flagship university has come along for the ride.

The University of Memphis is home to one of the most respected Egyptian Art and Archaeology programs in the world. The school has been instrumental in several of the most significant historical finds in Egypt over the last decade, and its art museum houses a permanent collection from ancient Egypt that houses antiquities dating back nearly 5000 years. 

That collection includes the mummy of Irtw-irw, a nearly three millennia-old burial that has been terrifying area school children for decades.

The Hernando de Soto bridge in Memphis glows with red and green lights

Mighty Lights Show

Every hour from sundown to 10:30 pm., visitors along the riverfront can view a light show of dueling bridges. To the north, the Hernando DeSoto Bridge pulses and oscillates in a revolving set of patterns and colors as the Harahan Bridge to the south answers in return. Dubbed Mighty Lights, this show has been an ongoing Memphis tradition since 2018 and frequently includes nods to local music and sports teams as well as national events.

For the best views, head to Tom Lee Park or find a perch on the bluffs above Riverside Drive.

Skateparks 

Memphis is an underrated city for skateboarders. The area is home to 10 established skateparks, highlighted by projects in midtown at Tobey Park and in Raleigh on the site of a former shopping mall. 

The sites include bowls, rails, stairs and ramps that give street skaters a place to hone their skills for free. On weeknights, the city’s low volume of downtown traffic leaves many of its side streets open for adventurous urban explorers and skaters alike.

Mud Island

When its gates opened in the 1980s, Mud Island Riverpark was intended to be the crown jewel of the Memphis riverfront. The park contains a scale model of the Mississippi River that leads to an enormous wading pool overlooking downtown. These days, the old river park serves as a public green space offering some of the best views for picnicking. When the water is low, visitors might also find a secluded beach near Joe Curtis Point that’s tailor-made for lounging.

Access the park via a skybridge from Front Street or by driving across the A.W. Willis Bridge near Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid. 

You might also like: 

Not just BBQ and blues: inclusive places to visit in Memphis
From Neon shoves to crystal skulls - the wild history of the Memphis Pyramid
Historical haunts of Memphis

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Memphis day trips that celebrate the state's musical roots

Road in downtown Memphis

Memphis may be famous for its music, but the city’s storied history owes as much to the small towns at its doorstep as it does to the talent in its streets.

These day trips from Memphis will transport you from the production studio to the roots of some of music’s brightest stars. Along the way, you’ll be transported into a natural landscape that formed the foundation of the hard times, hard labor and hard memories that forged the sounds of blues, soul and rock n’ roll.

Blues musicians playing under red lights at the Reds Lounge in Clarksdale, Tennessee

Hear the blues in Clarksdale, Mississippi

An air of mystique still hovers over this ramshackle Mississippi town that’s said to be the root of one the Delta’s most haunting tales. Clarksdale claims to be home to the legendary crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to learn the blues.

Today, the town is still home to the densest concentration of juke joints in the Mississippi Delta, from the tourist-friendly Ground Zero Blues Club to a hole-in-the-wall beside the town graveyard, Red's Lounge. But Clarksdale is more than just a space for late nights, the town has a bustling food scene built on culinary traditions blended from Memphis, New Orleans and the Delta that surrounds it.

How to get to Clarksdale: B.B. King Boulevard becomes U.S. Highway 61 as you head south from downtown Memphis. Follow the old blues highway for about an hour and a half until you hit Clarksdale. Consider making time to stop at the Hollywood Cafe near Tunica about halfway into the journey.

15 free things to do in Memphis

Tina Turner holds a microphone will performing on stage in a silver dress.

Celebrate Tina Turner in Brownsville, Tennessee

The small towns surrounding Memphis are littered with music history that extends beyond the blues and Elvis Presley. In Brownsville, visitors can come face-to-face with another music icon – Tina Turner.

Turner’s one-room schoolhouse has been transported from nearby Nutbush, Tennessee, to the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Museum on the outskirts of Brownsville. Inside, you’ll find a world-class collection of Turner memorabilia from the Queen of Rock n’ Roll herself. Turner’s school sits adjacent to the former home of blues pioneer Sleepy John Estes, another former area resident.

How to get to Brownsville: An hour’s drive east of Memphis on I-40 will put you at exit 56, where you can dive into the museums or choose to venture a further ten minutes into town. Take time to swing by Helen’s BBQ for a small-town feast that’s been featured on Food Network.

Johnny Cash's restored boyhood home

Tour Johnny Cash's hometown of Walk Dyess, Arkansas

A short hop across the Mississippi River will take you to the birthplace of The Man in Black. A young Johnny Cash spent his childhood working the fields of Dyess, Arkansas. Cash’s childhood home has been preserved at Historic Dyess Colony, a site administered by Arkansas State University. Inside, you’ll find permanent exhibits as well as a photographic exhibition taken from eyewitnesses at Cash’s famous 1968 Folsom Prison concert.

How to get to Dyess: Take I-55 north for about 45 minutes and venture off onto exit 41. From there, a left on Arkansas Highway 14W, travel five miles and take another left onto Highway 297. Nearby Wilson Cafe offers souped up soul food a few minutes west of the museum.

Carl Perkins U.S. rock and roll singer-songwriter and guitarist, playing the guitar during a live concert performance at the International Festival of Country Music, at Wembley Arena, London

Jam to Rockabilly in Jackson, Tennessee

The small city of Jackson sits perched almost midway between Memphis and Nashville, and its most famous son reflects that blend perfectly. Carl Perkins – the King of Rockabilly – sat alongside Cash, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis in the Million Dollar Quartet.

Perkins' impact in music history looms so large that Paul McCartney gave him credit for inspiring the creation of The Beatles. In Jackson, visitors can dive into rockabilly history at the Legends of Tennessee Music Museum, a collection that leans heavy on Perkins while incorporating the background of local legends that all paved the way for the sound that overtook the world.

How to get to Jackson: Take I-40 east towards Nashville and take exit 79 towards the city’s old Carnegie Library. For local eats, check out The Blacksmith or Rock N’ Dough Pizza.

Explore US Civil Rights history in Glendora, Mississippi

Glendora is a focal point of the Mississippi Freedom Trail, a section of the US Civil Rights Trail established in 2011 that chronicles some of the most harrowing events of the fight for American civil rights. In Glendora, visitors can confront the tragic events leading to the murder of Emmet Till in 1955.

The Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center is housed in the former cotton gin where is killers took supplies to weigh his body down before throwing it into the Tallahatchie River – a grim reminder that difficult truths can be just as worthy of a trip as lighthearted joy rides.

How to get to Glendora: Glendora sits about 30 miles south of Clarksdale along US Highway 61. A Mississippi Blues Trail marker halfway between the two towns commemorates the spot where W.C. Handy, “The Father of the Blues,” is said to have first encountered the blues at a Tutwiler, Mississippi railway station.

Exterior shot of the large white building of the Discovery Center at the Discovery Park of America

Head to Discovery Park in Union City, Tennessee

In 2013, a $100 million interactive science museum opened in the middle of nowhere. That nowhere is Union City, Tennessee, a 10,000-person hamlet that sits about two hours north of Memphis.

While Main Street Union City offers a quaint reprieve from city life, the main attraction here is Discovery Park of America. Among other oddities, this 100,000 sq ft facility houses a replica of the Rosetta Stone, a 12,000-year-old mammoth skeleton, a simulator for The Big Bang, and an intercontinental ballistic missile.

How to get to Union City: Take US Highway 51 north through Millington, Ripley and Dyersburg. You’ll find Union City about five miles from the Kentucky state line. Los Portales is the area go-to for a quick fix of Mexican food.

The sun rises over Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee. There is a wooden pier jutting into the lake and trees dotting the shores.

Get away from it all at Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee

In 1812, a massive earthquake shook the Memphis area so hard that it caused church bells to ring in Philadelphia. That event forced the Mississippi River to flow backwards into what is now Reelfoot Lake, creating a massive haven for wildlife and outdoor recreation.

The lake was a major tourist attraction in the early 20th century, but gradually faded into relative obscurity as boaters and beach-goers flocked to larger, deeper reservoirs constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Today, visitors can rent canoes, kayaks and fishing boats at the lake, and they can still take pontoon boat tours through the swampland that made the area a popular filming location for Hollywood films – including a 1967 Oscar winner, In the Heat of the Night.

How to get to Reelfoot Lake: Take I-55 north, across the Mississippi River and jump back into Tennessee at Caruthersville, Missouri. Follow the Great River Road to TN-78 towards Carl Perkins’ birthplace of Tiptonville. Try the catfish at Boyettes.

Replica of White House's Oval Office in William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Library in Little Rock, Arkansas

Live out your presidential dreams in Little Rock, Arkansas

History hounds and outdoor enthusiasts will find lots to love in Little Rock. The Clinton Presidential Library is the nearest presidential library to Memphis. It offers insight into The White House from 1993-2001, alongside a replica Oval Office and President Clinton’s limousine.

Outside, the Arkansas River Trail provides a 15.6-mile loop through hardwood forests and meadows that’s crowned by the Big Dam Bridge, the longest pedestrian and bicycle bridge in North America.

How to get to Little Rock: Take I-40 west for two hours and take your pick of exits. The Clinton Museum is located downtown off of President Clinton Avenue. The Fourth Quarter in North Little Rock serves up one of the top-rated burgers in Arkansas.

A closeup of a sign showing the birthplace of Elvis Presley in the Mississippi town of Tupelo.

Stop by the birthplace of the King Tupelo, Mississippi

In Memphis, there’s no escaping the shadow of the King of Rock N’ Roll. But before Elvis Presley was crowned, he was a boy living in the Mississippi farm town of Tupelo.

There, Presley’s birthplace has been preserved alongside his childhood church and a part of his story that is often overshadowed by the glitz of Graceland. Visitors to Tupelo can view the two-room house where it all started at the Elvis Presley Birthplace – all within an easy drive of the mansion where Presley’s career came to an unexpected end.

How to get to Tupelo: Take Lamar Avenue south towards Byhalia. This becomes Highway 78 and carries you all the way to Tupelo in just under two hours.

You might also like:
Not just BBQ and blues: inclusive places to visit in Memphis
I've been everywhere (at least in Arkansas and Tennessee): A Johnny Cash road trip
From neon shovels to crystal skulls - the wild history of the Memphis Pyramid

This article was originally published on March 25, 2021. 

This article was first published on March 25, 2021 and updated on October 1, 2021

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Lonely Planet Experiences: Private Walking Tour of Memphis with Entrance to National Civil Rights MuseumPrivate Tour

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Learn the heritage of this historic city and visit the National Civil Rights Museum, with tickets include.

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Duration:

3 hrs 30 mins

Suitable for:

Couples, Culture Vulture, Family, History Buffs

Private Tour:

You and our own professional guide. 100% exclusive

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Walking tour – no transport costs are included. Your guide will help you get around on the day.

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- Tickets to the "National Civil Rights Museum"
- A light taste of Memphis BBQ and a drink 

Other inclusions:

Gratuities, extra food & drink are not included. 

Meeting points: "Beale Street Landing" at 251 Riverside Dr, Memphis, TN 38103, United States

What makes this tour special

Jump into the music, flavours, and history of Memphis. On your private walking tour, you will: 

  • Begin your tour at the Mississippi River and learn how green spaces and geography have defined the city. 
  • Pop into The Peabody Hotel to see the iconic Peabody ducks, if the timing is right! 
  • Stroll down Beale Street - an iconic street one of the historic centres of African-American culture for nearly two centuries. 
  • Learn about the heritage of the historic Orpheum Theatre
  • Enjoy a small taste of Memphis barbecue at a local stop, recommended by your expert guide. Find out the best places to continue your taste of Memphis after the tour ends. 
  • Visit the National Center for Civil Rights, and enjoy an hour tour by your guide. 

Your tour begins at the heartbeat of Memphis’s origin story: The Mississippi River. Like cities, the world over, the history of Memphis is one best understood by knowing the lay of the land, the geography which shaped it. As you walk through the city, your guide will explain how the city’s features have defined and shaped the institutions and culture of Memphis. 


Visit historic Beale Street - where nightclubs, pawnshops, restaurants, and theatres have been playing the blues for over a century. Learn about the street’s history dating back to the mid-19th century, where Black commerce thrived in spite of the odds. Hear tales of Ida B Wells, 'Beale Street Blues', B.B. King, and Dr King. 

Then, enter into the heart of the American story at the National Center for Civil Rights Museum, where your guide will take you on an hour tour. Learn about the legacy of Memphis in the struggle for Civil Rights, and see the Lorraine Motel - now part of the museum - where Dr King was assassinated in 1968. Hear how the centre continues to play a central role in moving forward the push for civil rights nationwide. Should you wish to stay beyond the hour to experience the rest of the museum, please do at your own leisure. 

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Memphis Vacation Travel Guide - Expedia

Lonely Planet puts this Tennessee city at No. 3 on its 'Best in the U.S.' places to see

Chattanooga is No. 3 on Lonely Planet's "Best in the U.S." places to see.

Want to see the destination Lonely Planet calls No. 3 in the nation?

You won't have to drive very far.

Only California's Redwood Coast and Boise, Idaho, beat out Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the travel guide's 2018 "Best in the U.S."

"Once little more than a pit stop between Atlanta and Nashville, the nature-centric 'Noog has transformed itself into a bastion of elevated Southern living," Lonely Planet said. "Outdoor enthusiasts flock to Chattanooga for some of the best rock climbing in the country, myriad hiking and mountain biking trails and wild rides on the Ocoee River — one of America's top spots for whitewater rafting."

► Travel:The top 10 family-friendly destinations in Tennessee

► 48 hours in Chattanooga:River walks, vistas and a veritable wonderland of activities

Sure, it doesn't have the "scene-stealing backdrops" of Redwood National Park, or the "spirited arts community," "explosion of award-winning wineries and craft breweries" and "socially responsible shopping district" of Boise, but Lonely Planet saves plenty of praise for Chattanooga's downtown, with "New Southern cuisine" and the Songbirds Guitar Museum.

(Lonely Planet doesn't bother to mention the Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga Choo Choo or International Towing Museum, to say nothing of the scores of military monuments and battlefields you could see.)

Chattanooga's high-speed internet might be what blasted it off into the slot in front of No. 4, Florida's Space Coast.

Also on the list and within easy driving distance: Kentucky's Bourbon Country; Richmond, Virginia; and Cincinnati, Ohio.

More travel

► 48 hours in Knoxville: Tradition meets trend in East Tennessee

► 48 hours in Nashville: Music City is white hot

► 48 hours in Memphis: Your guide to the birthplace of rock 'n' roll

Sours: https://www.knoxnews.com/story/life/2018/02/06/chattanooga-tennessee-lonely-planet-best-us-travel-places/312396002/

Memphis lonely planet

Memphis

Memphis doesn't just attract tourists; it draws pilgrims. Music-lovers lose themselves to the throb of blues guitar on Beale St. Barbecue connoisseurs descend to stuff themselves silly on smoky pulled pork and dry-rubbed ribs. Elvis fanatics fly in to pay their respects at Graceland. You could spend days hopping from one museum or historic site to another, stopping only for barbecue, and leave happy.

Celebrating its bicentennial in 2019, Memphis has long been marked by a certain baroque, ruined quality both sad and beguiling. But the city these days feels re-energized. Neighborhoods once downtrodden and abandoned – South Main, Binghampton, Crosstown and others – are being reinvented with kitschy boutiques, hipster lofts, daring restaurants, welcoming microbreweries and design-minded revamps of old buildings, all dripping with Memphis' wild river-town spirit. Poverty is still prevalent, and some neighborhoods are considered unsafe at night, but the vibe overall is one of optimism and local pride.

Sours: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/usa/memphis
Top 10 reasons why you SHOULD move to Memphis

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