As a New Yorker by birth and a Nashvillian by choice, I’ll be the first to tell you: You need to travel to Tennessee stat to experience all that Music City has to offer — you know, before the prices really start to rival NYC’s (*cringe*). But please, don’t just see Nashville. Because if you think Tennessee is only good for country music, hot chicken and Nicole Kidman/Reese Witherspoon/Taylor Swift sightings, think again.
A few short hours’ drive west, and you’ll find yourself in Memphis, Nashville’s cheaper, grittier, funkier, more diverse and arguably more authentic little sister. Here, you’ll find plenty to do, see and definitely eat for travelers young and old — plus, breathtaking history and blues, blues and more blues. From BBQ to B.B. King to the King (FYI that’s Elvis for any toddlers who might be reading this) to MLK and more, Memphis is filled with icons and legends that will awe at any age.
What to see
You cannot go to Memphis without venturing to — you guessed it — Graceland, Elvis’ home from 1957 until his death in 1977. The mansion itself is epic — not necessarily in size but in ostentatious glamour and the baffling range of over-the-top interior design styles (hi, Jungle Room. You’re weird.) Peacocks, jewel tones and furry walls aplenty, folks! The estate is also home to some impressive grounds, Presley’s always-decorated grave and exhibits/music/kitsch/impersonators galore. If your kid isn’t already a fan of the King, they will be after seeing this place.
Next, I would argue that the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is the best thing in Memphis, period — and possibly in the entire state of Tennessee (sorry, Dollywood). This impressive museum is housed in the original Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s tragic assassination in 1968. It provides a comprehensive look at the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States — from slavery to the continuing fights for freedom today — that is at times inspiring, at times terrifying and always powerful. And once you’ve walked through the beautifully curated exhibits, the museum spits you out directly into the actual motel room in which King was shot. It absolutely takes your breath away.
Yes, some of the exhibits are disturbing and come with a warning regarding younger kids. But I brought my 2-year-old here and don’t regret it — and you should too. After all, they’re the future of this movement.
Where to stay
There’s essentially only one icon of Memphis hotels, and it’s The Peabody. Built in 1925 and reflective of everything glitzy, gold-laden Roaring ’20s architecture has to offer (for better or worse), there’s no better place in Memphis to sit in the lobby with a boulevardier cocktail and feel fancy AF. But the true guests of honor at this hotel are the famous (or infamous, depending on your affinity for fowl) Peabody Ducks. These five North American mallards have been making their home at the hotel — namely splashing around in the fountain and taking a daily red carpet pilgrimage in front of grinning kids — since 1933. (I mean, the current five are not 80 years old, but you get the idea.) Don’t let your little ones miss this.
Where to eat
If you’re staying at the Peabody, all you have to do is cross the street for some of the best barbecue in Memphis. Rendezvous doesn’t look like much — it’s dive-y, down some stairs, kitsch-ily decorated and with zero food frills — but it’s delicious and affordable, and its dry rub ribs are unparalleled. And believe it or not, Rendezvous even has a vegetarian BBQ plate that is worth every penny/bite and does not skimp on flavor.
Loflin Yard is the perfect pick for when you have kids in tow but still want to have a solid Sunday (read: boozy) brunch. This beautiful indoor-outdoor space in the South end of downtown Memphis has mini-porches and patios galore, a waterfall (“Loflin Falls” which is technically part of the Gayoso Bayou), a bar within an old carriage house, ring toss yard games (“I want to throw the doughnuts!” exclaimed my son), a smoker churning out delicious fish and meats, and cocktails aplenty. Win-win-win-win and probably five more wins too.
If you’re into fancier fare (and not afraid of heights), head to The Lookout at Big Cypress Lodge for dinner and unbeatable sweeping views of downtown Memphis and the Mississippi River. Yes, I’m talking about the restaurant that’s perched atop Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid, an epic glass-covered Memphis landmark that also includes the Big Cypress Lodge hotel — plus 600,000 gallons of water, 1,800 fish and more duck-hunting/fly-fishing/camo/whatever than you could ever imagine. Because, you know, the South.
Where to play
Head to the trendy Memphis neighborhood of Overton Square to get artsy — and messy — at the amazing invention that is The Art Project. With classes galore (from art journaling to floral painting to slime jars to whatever “baby art” is), any kid can find something they love to make right here. There are also “art-free play” hours where kids — and, FYI, adults… or at least they didn’t stop me — can go live with paint, glitter, glue, chalk and more.
And speaking of playtime for kids and adults alike, there’s no better way to wrap up a day in Memphis than at Railgarten, an indoor-outdoor combo venue that has it all: a diner and a (tiki!) bar on site, ping-pong, tons of live music, lawn games, fire pits, “beach” volleyball and more. It’s exactly the sort of place my son and I could spend every summer Saturday if only it existed where we live… (Are you listening, Nashville? Y’all better catch up, because Memphis is giving you a run for your money.)