A Family Vacation Guide to Memphis

By Jeff and Stephanie Sylva

Family-friendly resorts and amusement parks often immediately come to mind when families begin to plan their next family vacation, but cities are excellent family travel destinations, too. Family travel to major cities can be highly rewarding – not just for the entertainment value, but also for the cultural and educational benefits as well.  A city that offers families all of these options for family vacation enjoyment is Memphis, Tennessee.

Memphis is known as the “Home of the Blues” and “Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”  This emphasis on music is what makes Memphis a great choice for families, especially for teens and pre-teens. After all, their lives are constantly focused on music – just consider MTV, VH-1, American Idol, and the ubiquitous iPods. Additionally some of the most significant chapters in American history, particularly African American history, unfolded in Memphis. A trip to Memphis will have a great multi-generational appeal. Parents will have their memories sparked and kids of all ages will enjoy learning about where rock ‘n’ roll all started.

Memphis Attractions

Graceland: The most visited attraction in Memphis is Graceland, Elvis Presley’s 14-acre estate, which allows visitors to view where and how the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll lived. Now a historical landmark, Graceland is the second most visited private residence in America, after the White House. We suggest opting for the Platinum Tour which includes the audio-guided tour of Graceland Mansion and Grounds; access to Elvis’ two custom airplanes; Elvis’ Automobile Museum; the exhibition Sincerely Elvis, which is a display of the numerous elaborate jumpsuits Elvis made so famous; and a new exhibit, Private Presley, which chronicles the period of Elvis’ life during which he served in the Army and met his future wife, Priscilla Beaulieu.

Other Musical Meccas:  Is Memphis truly “The Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll?” Actually, no one knows for sure just where and when this happened. Most rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasts, and all Memphians, however, point to July 5, 1954. This was the day that a 19-year-old Elvis Presley recorded “That’s All Right” at Sun Studio. Literally packed with memories and memorabilia, Sam Phillips’ famous recording studio offers a tour that explains the history of how the blending of Blues and Country music came together to create the earth-shattering sound of rock ‘n’ roll. The tour enables visitors to stand on the very spot and touch the microphone that Elvis used on that momentous day in 1954. The tour includes audio outtakes from recorded sessions and a wealth of information about the launching of such famous careers as Elvis, Johnny Cash, Rufus Thomas, Charlie Rich, B.B. King, Howlin Wolf, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis.

While most people call to mind Detroit and the Motown sound when they think of soul music, Memphis shares an important place in the development and legacy of American soul music. On the original site of Stax Records stands Soulsville: Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Begun as Satellite Records in 1957, Stax was home to such recording artists as Otis Redding, Booker T & the MG’s, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, and the Staple Singers. The museum houses more than 2000 cultural artifacts and includes a wealth of video clips, as well as Isaac Hayes’ blue and gold Cadillac.

The story of Memphis music is about people connecting: black, white; rich, poor; country folk and city folk. The best place to experience this connection is the Smithsonian Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum. This museum presents an in-depth study of the cultural and social ramifications of Memphis’ musical connection to the world. Through film clips, interviews with artists, music and displays -- including Ike Turner’s piano and B.B. King’s guitar “Lucille,” the museum traces the history of Memphis music.

Another stop on this musical caravan is the Gibson Guitar Factory. This guided factory tour is a must for anyone who plays a guitar and would fascinate anyone who appreciates the craftsmanship that goes into the making of a fine musical instrument. The tour takes visitors through the Gibson workshop and traces the steps that take about 4 weeks to produce a hand-assembled, painted and polished guitar.

And just where is the best place to experience some of the music that made Memphis a musical Mecca? It’s on one of America’s most famous musical streets – Beale Street. Parents can take the kids to Beale St. during the day or early evening and experience the excitement of this musical street that is second in popularity only to Bourbon Street. Many of the clubs will have a blues, R & B or rock group playing early, and there are plenty of cafes and restaurants to sample some of the foods that make Memphis famous. Two blocks of Beale are cordoned off for pedestrian-only traffic, and throngs of people wander the worn cobblestones in the bright lights of neon signs relishing the smell of hickory smoke and the rhapsody of a blues guitar riff emanating from one of the clubs.

National Civil Rights Museum: Housed in the Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the National Civil Rights Museum presents a comprehensive and compelling look at the movement with Dr. King as its central figure, focusing on milestone events like the Montgomery bus boycott, the Memphis sanitation strike and much more. We felt the most moving exhibits were the actual room that Dr. King stayed in during his final days and the balcony where an assassin’s bullet ended the life of this monumental figure and dealt a blow to the American civil rights movement. Families will find the museum’s “Living History” programs especially interesting. Presented on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 9:30 AM to 12:30 PM, actors role play many of the various figures that played such prominent parts in African American history and the civil rights movement and bring to life a number of the museum’s exhibits.

Slave Haven: Another Memphis site associated with black history is Slave Haven – The Burkle Estate, which was a stop on the famous Underground Railroad.  A guided walk through this home gives a revealing history of the slave trade that prospered in Memphis and the daring exploits of those that risked their lives to undermine this inhumane institution. This ante-bellum home still has the hidden passages and trap doors where fugitives were harbored during their dangerous flight to freedom in the North.

Memphis Riverboats: More Memphis history can be learned on the Historical Sightseeing Tour given by Memphis Riverboats. This one and a half-hour river cruise offers a great view of the Memphis riverfront and live historical commentary.

Mud Island River Park: Another historical and recreational attraction in Memphis is Mud Island River Park and the Mississippi River Museum. During the day a monorail (fee charged) takes visitors over to the museum, where they can see genuine Civil War garb and gunboat reproductions. A live concert is available in the amphitheater on many warm weather nights. Families can rent bikes, canoes, kayaks or paddleboats; picnic areas, swings and other public park amenities are also available.

Memphis Zoo: The Zoo, one of the nation’s finest, has some 3,500 animals with the main attractions being the giant pandas Ya Ya and Le Le. The new Northwest Passage exhibit features swimming polar bears, bald eagles and a sea lion show.

Children’s Museum: The Children’s Museum brings science, math, health, and art to life in ways that both stimulate and educate children of all ages. Kids can experience the thrill of piloting their own airplane, designing their own home, or managing their own bank account.

Memphis Sports: During the summer months, families can take in a minor league baseball game at AutoZone Park, home of the Memphis Redbirds, a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate. Memphis Motorsports Park hosts a variety of events including NHRA’s Mid-South Nationals, as well as NASCAR Busch Series and NASCAR Truck Series races. Motorsports Park also boasts the Race-On Driving Experience, where race fans can ride along or even climb behind the wheel of their own NASCAR-style stock car and crank it up to over 100mph on the ¾-mile oval. Other family-friendly attractions include Golf and Games Family Park, which has a mini-golf course, driving range, batting cages, and a go-cart track.

Family Friendly Places To Stay

The Peabody: Memphis’ only historic hotel, The Peabody, has a reputation for being synonymous with Southern hospitality. With a long history of hosting many of the world’s notables including presidents, generals, and movie stars, The Peabody has attained a reputation as the place to be, not only in Memphis, but throughout the mid-South. Despite its impressive guest list, The Peabody’s most famous residents are actually a group of feathered friends – the world-famous Peabody Marching Ducks. Every day at 11:00 a.m., the hotel’s Duckmaster leads the ducks from their “Royal Duck Palace” on the hotel’s roof, down the elevator to the fountain in the Grand Lobby. A red carpet is unfurled and the ducks march through the crowd to John Philip Sousa’s King Cotton March. The ducks remain in the lobby fountain until 5:00 p.m., when the ceremony is reversed and the ducks retire to their rooftop penthouse for the evening. Although they have appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Sesame Street, The Oprah Winfrey Show and in People magazine, it isn’t simply the renown of the ducks that has helped The Peabody amass a wealth of awards and distinctions including an AAA Four-Diamond Award. The hotel has well-deserved places in the National Trust Historic Hotels of America and the prestigious Preferred Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Association.

The Madison: This stylish luxury boutique hotel opened in 2002 and quickly gained a reputation for excellence in catering to both business and leisure travelers. The focus at this hotel is on quality service, unique rooms and modern amenities -- all in a chic setting. Like the Peabody, The Madison is just a few blocks from Beale St. and simply steps away from a large selection of shops and restaurants in the revitalized Downtown area. Families will love the hotel’s majestic view of the Mississippi River and its bridges from the rooftop terrace. The hotel is an interesting study in contrast, as the contemporary, sophisticated design, which pays tribute to the city’s rich musical history, blends artfully with the classic structure of the building, a turn-of-the-century bank building. The Madison has also garnered its share of prestigious awards and distinctions including an AAA Four-Diamond Award and the designation as a “Connoisseur’s Choice” from Resorts and Great Hotels.

The Heartbreak Hotel: Another interesting choice of accommodations is the Heartbreak Hotel, located adjacent to Graceland. Also a boutique hotel with a style that is musically inspired, the hotel has Elvis-accented rooms and four Elvis-themed suites. Apart from being able to walk next door to Graceland and view some Elvis photos on the walls, the Heartbreak Hotel is a typical moderately priced hotel (unless you choose one of the themed suites), and you lose the convenience of staying in downtown Memphis. For more information call 1-877-777-0606 or visit www.Elvis.com

The downtown area of Memphis also has a number of choices for chain hotels, most of which are moderately priced, some of which are more economical. The best choices of these are the Hampton Inn and Suites, the Westin, and the Doubletree. The best place to search for hotels is Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau web site at www.memphistravel.com.

Where to Eat

Rendezvous: The first thing you think about when it comes to eating in Memphis is BBQ – and that means ribs. And the best place to go for ribs is Rendezvous. Ribs are in the typical Memphis-style, slow-cooked and dry-rubbed. Prices are reasonable with dinners generally ranging from $10 to $19. Service is fast and efficient – the wait staff have a lot of experience, as many of them have worked at Rendezvous for over 25 years.

The Arcade: The Arcade Restaurant on S. Main St has the distinction of being Memphis’ oldest café and site of numerous movie scenes. The décor is hip, 50’s diner-style, and the menu is varied and creative. Whether it is for breakfast, lunch or dinner, be sure to make the Arcade one of your choices for dining. However, be prepared to wait; it’s that popular.

Capriccio Grill at The Peabody is a great Italian steakhouse offering the best of two worlds, a prime steakhouse and the flavors and aromas of Italy. Located at The Madison Hotel, Grill 83 features classic and new American cuisine in an intimate setting. This restaurant has an elegant yet understated décor. Not for kids? Both of these Peabody restaurants welcome families and cater to their meal requests. While on Beale St., try the Blues City Café for some authentic BBQ ribs, Southern fried catfish, and their World’s Best Homemade Tamales. Blues City is funky and fun and serves good food at reasonable prices.

If You Go:

Graceland: The busiest times at Graceland are during the summer months, and the busiest week is the August week of the anniversary of his death on August 16. For information on tour hours and prices, visit www.elvis.com or call 1-800-238-2000.

Sun Studio:
The studio runs a free shuttle bus service between the Heartbreak Hotel/Graceland, Sun Studios, and The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum/Beale St. For more information visit www.sunstudio.com or call1-800-441-6249. Price for Sun Studio is $9.50 with kids under 12 free. No kids 3 and under.

National Civil Rights Museum: Call the museum to see if the “Living History” demonstration is scheduled. There is no information on web site. Call 901-521-9699 or visit www.civilrightsmuseum.org for other information. Admission rates are $12 adults and $8.50 children 4-17. Museum is closed on Tuesdays.

Slave Haven: Admission rates are $6 adults; $4 students. For more information call 901-527-3427.

Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau: A wealth of information about hotels, restaurants, and attractions can be obtained by visiting the CVB’s website at www.memphistravel.com, or by calling 1-888-633-9099.

The Peabody: The march of the ducks is extremely popular, so it is advised to get to the Grand Lobby about a half hour before the march in order to stake out your spot. Current rates begin at $245 per night for a traditional guest room, and $350 per night for a Club Level room. For more information on The Peabody, as well as for current rates and specials, call 1-800-PEABODY or visit www.peabodymemphis.com.

The Madison Hotel: Current rates start at $235 per room and $350 for a suite.For more information on The Madison, as well as for current rates and specials, call 1-866-44-MEMPHIS or visit www.madisonhotelmemphis.com.

Getting Around: Driving around Memphis is easy and most of the sites in the downtown area are within walking distance. Memphis also runs a vintage trolley serving many of the attractions in the vicinity of Main Street. Visit www.matatransit.com for more information.

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