5 free things: Memphis

What tourists can do in the Home of the Blues


Associated Press

The Mississippi River, The Peabody Hotel, Beale Street — all tourist mainstays, typically enjoyed by visitors willing to plunk down cash for a sightseeing cruise on the river, a stay in the fancy yet comfortable Peabody, or a raucous night eating barbecue and downing stiff cocktails on Beale. But these attractions can be sampled to some extent for free. While they’re not giving away drinks on Beale Street, soaking up the atmosphere there, along with walking by the river and seeing the Peabody’s famous ducks, are among a number of free things to see and do in Memphis.

•  Beale Street: The main tourist attraction in downtown Memphis, Beale Street is home to blues bars, barbecue restaurants, gift shops and dance clubs with a long history of influencing American music. Two blocks of Beale Street are pedestrian-only. You can hear music being played as you walk by clubs like W.C. Handy’s Blues Hall and Rum Boogie Cafe. Most days, a band plays for free at W.C. Handy Park.

Window-shop. Look for names of your favorite musicians and singers, embedded with their own musical notes in the sidewalk. The Beale Street Flippers, young men with stunning athletic ability, will wow you as they somersault and flip down the street. For people-watching, stand outside Silky O’Sullivan’s bar.

•  The Peabody Hotel ducks: Catch the walk of the ducks in the opulent lobby of the Peabody Hotel, 149 Union Ave. At 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily, a “Duckmaster” tells their story, then leads the little birds out of the ornate lobby fountain where they swim, down a red carpet and into an elevator to their pampered life on the top floor. Arrive a half-hour early for a good spot. For a bird’s-eye view, watch from the mezzanine.

•  Tom Lee Park: This free, narrow, mile-long park along the river provides stunning views. You can jog, throw a football or just enjoy a leisurely walk. On clear days, sunsets are spectacular. Two monuments here, one old and one new, honor Tom Lee, a black skiff operator who rescued 32 white people when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers steamer M.E. Norman capsized and sank just south of Memphis. In a glimpse of Memphis’ past, the inscription on the older monument reads “a very worthy Negro.”

•  Shelby Farms Park: This free park in east Memphis has 4,500 acres of green space surrounded by trees and dotted with ponds and lakes. It’s great for hiking, biking, picnics and bird-watching. Kids will enjoy the Woodland Discovery Playground.

•  Levitt Shell: Located at Overton Park, the Levitt Shell offers free concerts and films. Built in 1936, the stage looks like a conch shell half. Audiences sit on blankets, folding chairs or benches in a grassy area that slopes upward from the stage surrounded by large oak trees. It’s mostly a local hangout, so tourists who show up can get some “street cred” from Memphians in attendance. The Levitt Shell is recognized as the site of Elvis’ first professional rock ’n’ roll show on June 30, 1954. He was not the headliner (Slim Whitman was).

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