Memphis, Tennessee is a city known for its rich musical history, civil rights heritage, and amazing BBQ. This town on the Mississippi River beats with a distinctly American heart. Many people regard it as the birthplace of rock n’ roll: Legendary artists like Johnny Cash, Otis Redding, and Elvis Presley all recorded hit songs in Memphis. But you don’t have to be a music aficionado or history buff to love the “Bluff City.” Like the city of Nashville, there are so many things to do in Memphis, TN with kids, such as great museums, gorgeous parks and gardens, and delicious food. (Did I mention BBQ?)
Here are 25 things to do in Memphis with kids, including Memphis restaurants kids will love and the best family-friendly hotels in Memphis, TN. For more awesome family vacation ideas, check out our Family Travel Guide.
2. Sun Studio
Continue your musical journey at Sun Studio, the first record label to record Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others. Visitors can check out priceless rock n’ roll memorabilia while hearing insider stories and outtakes from legendary recording sessions. The studio is quite small, and tours usually take about 45 minutes. (Important note for parents: Kids under 5 are not permitted on the guided tours.) Taking a selfie in front of the Sun Studio sign is a Memphis must.
While Sun Studio was putting rock n’ roll on the map, Stax Records was pioneering the creation of American soul music by recording artists like Otis Redding and Booker T. & the M.G.’s. This museum, which sits on the site of the former Stax Records building, features interactive exhibits having to do with that time period. Highlights include a listening station where visitors can hear Stax hits and view the incredible album artwork. Be sure to check out Isaac Hayes’ super-fly custom Cadillac Eldorado, complete with 24-karat gold exterior trim. Bonus: Kids eight and under are free with a paying adult.
Visit the site of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination, which looks the same as it did in 1968.
This museum features 260 artifacts and 40 videos exploring the civil rights movement in America from the 17th century to the present. Among them are exhibits highlighting the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycotts and the student-led lunch counter protests of the 1960s. Both are extremely moving. The museum is housed at the former Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. The motel’s exterior has been kept to look just as it did in 1968, so visitors can really see where Dr. King spent his final hours. My daughters and I found this detail to be very poignant.
There are plenty of interactive displays at this fire museum, which is located in the historic Fire Engine House Number 1 in downtown Memphis. Kids love donning helmets and coats to get behind the wheel of a fire truck cab or explore the back of an ambulance. Guests can also test their knowledge about fire safety at an “arcade” with computer games and puzzles, plus experience what it’s like to be inside a burning house in a theater that features 4-D special effects. The highlight for my girls was seeing Ol’ Billy, a talking animatronic horse who tells stories about local fire history (and cracks some corny jokes, too).
Nature-loving kids will definitely want to check out the MOSH, formerly known as the Pink Palace Mansion. Rare rocks, prehistoric fossils, and Civil War relics are just a few of the items on display. The museum has its own IMAX theater and planetarium, with excellent educational programming (my kids and I enjoyed an inspiring film about modern space exploration). The MOSH is open Wednesday through Sunday, with cool science demonstrations on the weekends. A family can easily spend most of the day at this museum.
Take a spin on an indoor carousel at the Children’s Museum of Memphis.
I have been to a lot of children’s museums in my day and I must say that this Memphis offering is one of the best. My daughters and I spent five hours (!) at this museum building with giant blocks, riding the indoor carousel, playing at the playground and splash pad, and crafting inside the art room. My kids loved climbing the Skyscraper, a 22-foot-tall vertical maze of wood and wire. And I had to rip them away from the FedEx plane display, where they loaded boxes on a conveyor belt, then watched on a live screen as their packages were “delivered” down a slide. Staff members are especially friendly, and the on-site vending machines offer healthy choices. Bonus: Babies under 1 are free.
Got an art lover in house? Take your little Van Gogh to the Brooks Museum, where they can view works by Picasso and Rodin as well as contemporary artists. There are more than 10,000 objects in the museum’s permanent collection, including paintings, sculptures, photographs, and video art. The Brooks is very family-friendly, offering free Community Days where kids can make their own art and take in a musical performance or storytime. The museum is always free for kids under 7, and is free for everyone on Wednesdays!
Take a stroll through this gorgeous 96-acre property which boasts a rose garden, a sculpture garden, and an urban home garden (complete with its own chicken coop). The highlight for families is My Big Backyard, a children’s garden where kids are encouraged to dig, jump, build, and just enjoy themselves in nature. There are tunnels, slides, play houses, swings, and mazes to explore. On a hot day, you can’t beat cooling off in the garden’s water features. It’s a truly magical place!
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“Why do I get the feeling I’m being watched?”
10. Memphis Zoo
One of the largest zoos I’ve ever visited, the Memphis Zoo is home to more than 4,500 animals, from lions and penguins to polar bears to pandas. A family can easily spend the whole day at this zoo, which has its own splash pad and playground, as well as a cafe next to the monkey enclosure (making for a very entertaining lunch). Visitors can pay extra for experiences like giraffe feeding. We opted to try the KangaZoo adventure, and I highly recommend it (though there is a small fee for non-members). Never before have I been so close to kangaroos, including babies! There is also a small on-site aquarium and plenty of free daily animal chats with zookeepers.
11. AutoZone Park
Got a family of sports fans? Head to this downtown venue to catch a game with the Memphis Redbirds, the city’s Minor League Baseball team. Tickets are cheap and the park really caters to families. Grab a photo with mascot Rockey the Redbird or enjoy a postgame fireworks shows on Saturdays. There are also tons of giveaways for spectators, and some home games even feature bouncy houses and batting cages.
Fun Free Things To Do in Memphis, TN with Kids
Did you know Memphis is home to one of the largest urban parks in the world, more than five times as big as Central Park in New York? Not only does Shelby Farms have a giant award-winning playground and splash zone, it also features more than 40 miles of trails, both paved and unpaved, as well as 20 bodies of water. Families can rent kayaks, paddleboards, and canoes, or line up a horseback ride. Shelby Farms is also home to Go Ape Adventures, which offers ziplining, a ropes course, and mini golf. Of course, the stars of the park are its buffalo. A large herd can be seen roaming Shelby Farms’ 4,500 acres.
13. Memphis Greenline & Greenway
Running through Shelby Farms is a 10-mile portion of the Memphis Greenline, a set of citywide trails that are perfect for hikes, bikes, strollers and the likes (sorry, couldn’t help myself). The Greenline project is a cool endeavor; the organization turns unused railway easements into trails. Another great place for getting exercise with the kids is the Wolf River Greenway, which seeks to connect 22 Memphis neighborhoods with more than 800 acres of green space along a 26-mile trail. Both the Greenline and the Greenway have several access points throughout the city.
Bass Pro Shops’ observation deck offers sweeping views of downtown Memphis.
The Pyramid is probably the most iconic building in Memphis’ skyline (it once housed the city’s NBA team, the Memphis Grizzlies). After sitting dormant for years, the area got a big economic boost when Bass Pro moved in, turning it into a popular local attraction, as well as an outdoor equipment shop. There are now two restaurants and an underwater-themed bowling alley inside. Visitors can check out a large aquarium with native fish, where staffers do free demonstrations and fish feedings (be sure to check the shop’s calendar). Looking for an impressive photo op? Take the 28-story elevator up to the observation deck, where you can get a stunning view of downtown Memphis and the Mississippi River.
15. Beale Street
Though Beale Street is definitely more booze-friendly than baby-friendly, it’s still fun to take a stroll down this legendary road with your family. Even in the early afternoon, you are likely to hear amazing live music wafting out from inside the area’s numerous bars and restaurants. Kids love seeing the Beale Street Flippers, a troupe of young acrobats who became a national sensation on America’s Got Talent and still perform on the street where they got their start.
Mud Island Park features a scale replica of the Mississippi River.
16. Mud Island Park
Though many of the features of Mud Island Park remained closed at press time (like its museum and monorail) it is still fun to explore the Riverwalk, a scale replica of the Mississippi River. Kids can walk alongside it (or splash in it when the water is turned on), passing through six states and maybe getting a geography lesson in the process. The Riverwalk ends at a giant pool representing the Gulf of Mexico, surrounded by views of the actual Mississippi River and the 50-foot Memphis sign (a great spot for taking family pics). It’s about a half-mile walk on the Skybridge to reach Mud Island Park, and the experience is entirely free.
Participate in a funny Memphis tradition that started nearly 100 years ago. Twice a day every day, the ducks who live at this historic downtown hotel march through its lobby to swim around in its indoor fountain. They are led there by a regal “duck master.” Visitors can line up along the hotel’s red carpet to watch the action (I recommend getting there at least 30 minutes early). Can’t make it to the lobby show? Guests can also get a peek at the ducks’ hotel home—a penthouse on the Peabody rooftop with gorgeous views of the city. Note: The Duck March is open only to hotel guests on Saturdays.
Memphis Restaurants and Food for Families
18. Fried Chicken
While the BBQ might get all the glory, Memphis’ fried chicken offerings are not to be missed. Visitors wait for hours (hours!) in line at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in downtown Memphis, the restaurant’s flagship location. One taste of its crispy skin and tender, spicy meat and you’ll understand why. Another favorite is Alcenia’s, a soul-food spot where everything is made from scratch, including the fried chicken and biscuits and gravy. Jack Pirtle’s Chicken, which has drive-thrus around the city, is technically fast food, but locals say the fried chicken tastes especially fresh.
Treat yourself to world-class BBQ in Memphis. Photo courtesy of Charlie Vergo’s Rendevous
19. BBQ Joints
Cookouts are a way of life for Memphis residents, so it’s no surprise that you can find some world-class BBQ in this city. Local chain Corky’s Ribs and BBQ is a favorite for its pulled-pork sandwiches and sides (think southern staples like hush puppies and baked beans). Foodies love the ribs, sausages, and chicken at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, a no-frills downtown restaurant that counts Prince William as one of its many fans.
20. Lighter Fare that Locals Love
After all that comfort food, you may be yearning for something lighter (Memphis-style, of course). Pearl’s Oyster House has great seafood, including crab and shrimp buckets and oysters served just about every way possible. Housed inside a large warehouse, it’s also a fun, casual spot to dine in. For lunch, Swanky’s Taco Shop will satisfy your hunger for Mexican food. The restaurant, beloved by locals, has three locations around the city. If your family likes Mediterranean food, Petra Cafe is sure to please. This hidden gem has some of the best hummus I’ve ever tasted.
Hotels in Memphis, TN for Families
Stay at the legendary Peabody Hotel and meet its resident ducks. Photo courtesy of the hotel
21. Peabody Hotel
Though pricey, this legendary hotel is really special and located right in the heart of downtown Memphis. Aside from the ducks, kids love the Peabody’s grand lobby where on most nights, families can enjoy live piano music before dining at one of the hotel’s restaurants. And it’s fun to get dressed up for afternoon tea at the Peabody, where children can indulge in sweet treats along with caffeine-free tea.
Spacious and stylish, Elvis would approve of this 430-room hotel located steps away from the Graceland mansion. Visitors love the hotel’s large outdoor pool (open May through October) and its live entertainment venue, where concerts and shows are held year-round. The highlight at the Guest House is its stunning rock n’ roll decor. Even the custom toiletries are inspired by Elvis!
Kids (and adults) who love trains will love the Central Station. The building began its life as a train station in the early 1900s and serves as a trolley stop today. An on-site railroad museum, with toy models and cool old-timey photos, celebrates that history. Families also love the lobby’s chic art-deco style and south Main Street location.
Families can walk to many of Memphis’ downtown attractions from this recently renovated and affordable hotel. The Hampton Inn Beale Street also has many of the amenities busy parents are looking for including free breakfast, pet-friendly rooms, a fitness center, and an indoor pool.
The Big Cypress Lodge has a rustic, outdoorsy theme. Photo courtesy of the lodge
Get into the spirit of the great outdoors at this rustic hotel, located inside the Bass Pro Memphis Pyramid shop. Big Cypress Lodge offers more than 100 rooms, including tree house retreats and cabins. A stay here means you can easily access the shop’s cool amenities, including like its indoor aquarium and ponds. Guests also get complimentary Sky High Ride tickets up to the store’s popular rooftop.
All photos courtesy of the author unless otherwise indicated