Sometimes you find yourself just needing to getaway. The travel urge hits and you have to go somewhere. It’s been too long since your last trip, and cabin fever is starting to set in. You don’t want to wait until you leave on your next big vacation, but time and money are limited.
That’s exactly how I felt not too long ago when a long weekend at work was coming up. We didn’t have a lot of money for a random vacation, but I was feeling stir crazy. I seem to get the travel itch if I go for three months without traveling. So where could we go that would get us out seeing a new place without a hefty price tag?
The first thing you cut to save money is a flight, so I knew wherever we went we’d need to road trip there. When I’m dreaming of a new road trip destination, I open up my phone’s maps, start at my city and scroll in any direction seeing what’s close by and piques my interest. I started looking at all the big cities within driving distance, and one stood out above the rest – Memphis, the home of blues, BBQ, and Elvis.
We love BBQ, and who doesn’t enjoy a good live band, but my husband and I aren’t big Elvis fans. We knew we wouldn’t be interested in going to Graceland or Sun Studios. So is there that much to do in Memphis if you aren’t planning your trip around Graceland? The short answer is yes!
I’m going to lay out for you the nine most exciting experiences we had in Memphis, none of which you have to be an Elvis fan to enjoy.
1. Peabody Hotel Duck March
The Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis has a long-standing tradition, the daily march of the Peabody ducks. The ducks live in the penthouse on the rooftop of the hotel. Led by the Duckmaster, they exit the elevator and march to the center of the lobby into a large fountain to play at 11 a.m. every day. There they splash around until they journey back to their penthouse at 5 p.m.
You might be thinking that a duck march is an odd tradition, and you would be right. However, there is a story behind it that adds a little more context. Back in the 1930’s, the hotel’s general manager and his friend returned from a hunting trip. They decided to celebrate the success of their hunt with some whiskey. After the whiskey did its work, they thought it would be funny to put their live duck decoys in the hotel lobby fountain. The ducks so entertained the guests of the hotel; it was decided to make them a permanent addition.
We got into Memphis around 10:50 a.m. just in time to see the ducks march. We actually ran from the parking garage to the hotel to make it in time. The hotel lobby was completely packed! Most of the people around us said they’d been waiting an hour or more to get their spot. From where we were standing, we could see the red carpet that was laid out between the elevator and the large lobby fountain.
Right on cue, the elevator opened and out came the Duckmaster leading the ducks down the red carpet. Our view wasn’t the best, but I still got to see them jump into the fountain. The march only lasted a few minutes. Then the crowd started to leave, and we went to get a closer look at the ducks.
You do have to get there in advance if you want to see the entire march, but we weren’t willing to wait hours for this. So if you have young kids or it’s vital to you to see the ducks march out of the elevator, you should get there early to claim your spot.
2. Daytime Beale Street
Beale Street is the Bourbon Street of Memphis, at night, that is. During the day, it’s a whole different atmosphere with plenty of shops to browse and a few restaurants where you can grab a bite at lunch.
By the time we headed over to Beale Street to check out the shops, the sun was beating down, and it was hot. Not surprisingly, there weren’t that many people on the street during the day. It was the middle of the summer after all, and Beale Street’s main appeal is its nightlife.
As it is with many sought after travel destinations, there were several touristy shops on Beale Street. We chose to skip going into them, but they would be a great place to pick up a cheap souvenir for someone back home.
The most fascinating place on the street was A. Schwab, the oldest store on Beale Street. It has been on Beale since 1876 and is the only original business still standing. On the second floor landing, they have a mini-museum where you can read about the history of A. Schwab’s and see how their products have changed over the years.
We walked around looking at all the old-fashioned toys and quirky trinkets. They even have a photo booth and props, so make sure you have some cash on hand for it.
If you’re visiting Beale during the day, there isn’t much to do besides shopping, but I recommend going even if that isn’t one of your favorite activities. It was worth the daytime trek out to Beale Street to see A. Schwab. It’s such an old store with a lot of history and unique merchandise.
3. Bowl At A Small, Local Alley
We initially planned to go bowling in the Bass Pro Pyramid at Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl and Grill, an ocean-themed bowling alley. The concept seemed fun – “underwater” bowling. Apparently, a lot of other people thought so too. When we arrived, the line was way out the door. The wait time was around an hour to get a lane.
We decided underwater bowling wasn’t worth an hour wait, so we hopped on Google to find another bowling alley close to us. A place called Winchester Bowl wasn’t too far and had some very positive reviews.
We got there right when they opened at 1 p.m. and had the entire place to ourselves! Winchester Bowl was honestly one of the highlights of our trip. Not only was the bowling very affordable, twenty-seven dollars for shoe rentals and three games, but the place had charm. We felt like we were really experiencing Memphis instead of just seeing the tourist side of things.
While we were there, we got lunch from their concession stand. The two ladies working it had thick, Memphis accents and made the most delicious food. We feasted on mozzarella sticks, hot dogs, onion rings, and more. I would never have thought concession stand food could taste so flavorful.
Unfortunately, Winchester Bowl has permanently closed. Our experience here was unique because it was a small, local bowling alley and not a tourist hotspot like the Bass Pro Pyramid. Although you can’t visit this exact place, I recommend going to a different local alley to get a similar experience.
4. Shelby Farms Park
We went to Shelby Farms Park to do the Go Ape treetop obstacle course and zip line. Go Ape is an adventure venue that has a series of obstacles you climb through between platforms in the trees. These platforms are anywhere between 20 and 40 feet off the ground. At the end of each set of obstacles, you zip line down to the next part of the course. During the course, you’re harnessed in and attached to the line the entire time so you can’t fall.
I had done a Go Ape course before in Williamsburg, Virginia, and absolutely loved it! However, my husband never had, so we were both looking forward to it. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans, and you can’t climb a natural lightning rod connected by metal cables when it’s thundering.
While we were waiting it out to see if the weather was going to clear up, we walked around Shelby Farms Park and came to a water ice truck. It was hot, and something cold sounded refreshing. I had no idea what water ice was, but the people passing by with one in their hands seemed to be enjoying theirs.
It was very similar to Italian ice. I chose the strawberry flavor, and it was so delicious that getting it made the trip to Shelby Farms worth it even though we didn’t get to Go Ape.
Although we didn’t stay longer in Shelby Farms Park, it was apparent they had a lot more to offer by way of outdoor activities besides the Go Ape course. If you want to get out in the fresh air and escape from the busy downtown Memphis, Shelby Farms is your best bet. They have biking and hiking trails, horseback riding, and an off-leash dog park. If you’re more into a day on the lake, you can rent a kayak, canoe or paddleboard for a few hours.
5. Cycle Downtown Memphis
Like many larger cities that are popular with tourists, Memphis has a bike share system. Bike shares are a great way for travelers to explore a city on a budget. Rather than pay for a ride share, you can rent a bike at any station and, once you’re finished exploring, drop it off at the most convenient location.
Memphis uses Explore Bike Share, and there are many bike rack locations throughout downtown and the main tourist areas. You can choose to pay as you go, rent daily, or go with a weekly, monthly, or yearly plan.
We rented Explore city bikes with the pay as you go plan and rode for an hour around downtown. Make sure you have your phone on you because the bikes are much easier to operate if you download Explore Bike Share’s B Cycle app than if you try to use the kiosk near the bike racks.
It was later at night when we rented our bikes, so I wasn’t expecting to see anything spectacular with it being so dark, but Memphis proved me wrong.
We rode up and down the trolley line where blue Christmas lights wrapped the lampposts and created a twinkling canopy over our heads. That wasn’t the only surprise our bike ride had for us. As we cycled past the AutoZone Park stadium, fireworks began to explode. We pulled over and had a perfect view of the entire show from our spot on the sidewalk. It was a special Memorial day fireworks celebration that we happened to stumble across.
6. Nightlife On Beale Street
We docked our bike rentals at a station close to Beale and walked a block to see what all the hype was around Beale Street nightlife. When we got closer, we could see all entrances and exits were gated, and there was a line to get in. Police were at every gate. Every person let in was carded and wanded.
We were taken by surprise since we’ve been to Bourbon Street several times and never encountered this level of precaution. However, it was comforting to know the city wanted to create an environment for tourists that was as safe as possible.
People packed the street. The noise of the crowd was so loud you had to yell to hear the person next to you. It was certainly a lively atmosphere!
After some people watching, we ducked into Kings Palace Cafe’s Tap Room to have a quieter place to sit, drink, and talk. It was a welcome escape from the crowd, and we got to try the local craft beers.
We took our last beers to go to continue exploring the busy Beale Street nightlife. Walking the length of Beale, we finished our drinks, and were satisfied we’d seen all we had wanted to see. We aren’t party people but were glad we got to experience the scene. If you like nightlife more than we do, you’ll want to allot more time for Beale Street at night and maybe plan for a morning of sleeping in.
7. Flight Restaurant And Wine Bar
When I first heard about the Flight Restaurant and Wine Bar, I thought the idea sounded intriguing. Just like a beer flight gives you a sampling of several beers, this restaurant has its entire menu centered around flights – appetizers, entrees, wine, and desserts. This concept is fantastic because they let you get a little taste of everything. You can also get a single appetizer or entree if flights aren’t your thing or you have a favorite dish.
Let me say that this was a splurge meal, and if you’re doing Memphis on a strict budget you’ll want to skip this stop. However, if you’re going to spend a little more on a nice restaurant one night, have dinner here.
We went all out. We skipped the flight option for our appetizer and got the deviled eggs and crispy Gulf oysters. It was not a combination I expected to like, but surprisingly deviled eggs and fried oysters taste great together. The soup flight consisting of lobster bisque, seafood gumbo, and crab bisque was beyond delicious. For our entree, we both got the steak flight which was elk tenderloin, Boursin stuffed filet, and bison ribeye. We were so full by the time we got to the entree that we only ate a few bites and took the rest back to our Airbnb for dinner the next night.
This, by far, was the most incredible meal we had all weekend. I would make a trip back to Memphis just to eat at the Flight Restaurant and Wine Bar. Not only was their food outstanding, but their wine selection was expansive. I chose to get the Wonders of the World wine flight, which let me sample Côtes du Rhône, Chianti Classico, and Shiraz, some of my favorites.
8. Arcade Restaurant
The Arcade Restaurant is famous for several reasons. It’s known for being frequented by Elvis. There’s a booth towards the back known as Elvis’ booth that you can sit in to eat if you’re lucky enough to arrive when it’s available.
It’s also known for being the oldest restaurant in Memphis, which is why we decided to grab breakfast there. Imagine an old, 1950’s style diner that hasn’t let time change it with home-cooked Southern food and fresh coffee always brewing. That was the atmosphere in the Arcade Restaurant.
Their menu is extensive with both breakfast and lunch items, so no matter your taste, you can always find something to suit you. We took our time sipping coffee and eating our breakfast while soaking in the feel of Memphis.
9. Central BBQ
What is a trip to Memphis without BBQ? The bigger question is: how do you decide which BBQ place to try? If you ask the online world, the overwhelming response is Charlie Vergos Rendezvous.
But there’s a better way to find the real best restaurants in a city – ask a local. After our failed attempt to zip line the Go Ape course, we asked the locals working there to point us to their most recommended BBQ spot. In their opinion, Charlie Vergos Rendezvous was delicious BBQ, but the wait in line was long. Their recommendation was Central BBQ. Great BBQ without the wait.
It did not disappoint!
While traveling, we love trying the local food and atmosphere usually plays a big part in our impression of a place. Central BBQ got points for both.
They have a big outdoor deck for their seating area, which we opted for since there were no seats left inside and it was overcast. They also have a window you can walk up to on the outside to get another craft beer, so you don’t have to wait in the long line with other people ordering.
My husband jokes with me because I always order a half chicken at BBQ restaurants. In his opinion, to know if a place has good BBQ, you have to try the ribs. I got the smoked half chicken plate, as I always do, and he got the half rack of ribs — Central BBQ delivered by both our standards of good BBQ.
Next time the cabin fever hits, and you’re thinking of a new city to explore, consider Memphis. There is much more to do there than visit Graceland or other Elvis-themed attractions.
I hope this post has inspired you with all that Memphis has to offer should your next adventure find you there.
If there are any other hidden gems you know about that I didn’t mention, please comment below. I’d love new suggestions for our next trip to the Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll.