Family Vacations to Memphis, Tennessee

Beale Street Memphis, Tennessee
Beale Street (courtesy, Memphis CVB)

Memphis Family Travel Tips

  • Discover Memphis' rich music heritage at the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum.
  • Pay homage to Elvis at Graceland.
  • Dance and groove to soul sounds at the STAX Museum of American Soul Music.
  • Learn about the Civil Rights struggle and see the room where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
  • Cruise the Mississippi on a riverboat.
  • See giant pandas and polar bears at the Memphis Zoo.

Two distinct and equally powerful forces shaped Memphis: the Mississippi River and music. The river and its fertile banks first drew Chickasaw Indians, followed by French and British settlers. Cotton, goods, and slaves were sold in the city's port and traded up and down the iconic riverway. Music took root in Memphis, too, eventually morphing into the Memphis blues and, in the 1950s, blooming as rock 'n' roll. That makes Memphis an especially interesting destination for families with tuned-in gradeschoolers and teens.

Start your musical odyssey at the Memphis Rock 'N' Soul Museum, developed by the Smithsonian Institution. Tour seven galleries hooked up with an MP3 player loaded with 300 minutes of information including 100 songs. Find out how "field hollers" sung by slaves and sharecroppers mixed with "porch music," the country ditties thrummed by farmers. Learn how this mix blended with traditional African-American church and gospel music to create the Memphis blues. Kids also learn how Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, U2, and other contemporary musicians have been inspired by the Memphis legacy. At nearby Gibson Guitar Factory, see how these instruments are created, buffed, and tuned.

While your kids may have heard of Elvis Presley, they may not know why he's dubbed "The King of Rock 'n' Roll." After a tour of Graceland, Elvis' mansion and home to his gold and platinum records, teens will get it. To see what rock money buys, visit Presley's car collection and board his two private planes, the Lisa Marie and the Hounddog.

Sun Studio is where producer Sam Phillips claimed to have recorded the first rock 'n' roll single, the 1951 "Rocket 88," sung by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. You can hear Elvis' unimpressive audition as well as his 1954 winner "That's Alright, Mama." STAX Museum of American Soul Music focuses on Memphis' soul sound. View Studio A where Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and others recorded, and get funky on the dance floor as clips play from Soul Train, a '70s music show.

Memphis is also known for the Lorraine Motel where on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The property, now converted into the National Civil Rights Museum, explores the Civil War as well as many aspects of the 20th-century Civil Rights struggle. On view, too, is the room where Dr. King was shot.

What else to do? Cruise the Mississippi on a riverboat or visit the Memphis Zoo, home to giant pandas and to sea lions, harbor seals, and polar bears at the new Northwest Passage exhibit. Also take the monorail across the harbor to Mud Island River Park to canoe and kayak. Learn about the Mississippi by browsing the museum and by strolling the River Walk, a five-block-long re-creation of the waterway that features information about historical and geological occurrences.

Tips: Beale Street, the former African-American neighborhood that gave birth to the blues, is known now for its after-dark club scene, not an activity for those under 21. However, check out the New Daisy Theatre for performances that may interest 'tweens and teens. During the day, kids can browse shops such as Memphis Music for blues, rock, and jazz CDs and tapes (remember those?) and eat at the kid-friendly Hard Rock Café or the Blues City Café, famous for its barbequed ribs.

Recommended Side Trips: Nashville, Little Rock (Arkansas)'s resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 3 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 23 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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