Memphis, Free for All: Experience the City without Spending a Dime

Photo courtesy of MemphisTravel.com
By Sally Walker Davies, Memphis Local Expert

Is it just us, or are things more fun, more entertaining, more memorable when they don't cost a thing?

We love free - free attractions, free hours, free time - and in  Memphis, free equals all of that and more. While a number of museums and other attractions have set days and hours in which no admission is charged, some attractions are just wide-open free, free free. We really like this word, and have listed those absolutely free attractions first, followed by those which usually have an entry fee but offer free admission during select times and days.

Some of the freebies in town are a given - like Beale Street, which you can wander with the family during the day and hear the blues, or head there when the sun goes down for some adult fun (which will cost you - but being on Beale won't). You can watch ducks march at the Peabody Hotel, follow along  a scale model of the Mississippi River at Mud Island, and even explore ancient Egypt at the Art Museum at the  University of Memphis. And you can even get a peek inside the King of Rock 'n' Roll's meditation garden, where Elvis Presley is buried, at his beloved Graceland.

Off you go, to be free in Memphis!

10. Pink Palace Museum
Photo courtesy of Memphis CVB

From 1:00 - 5:00 p.m. on Tuesdays, admission to the Pink Palace Museum is free. Occupying a pink marble mansion that was originally the home Clarence Saunders, founder of the Piggly Wiggle grocery store chain, the museum boasts a fascinating collection Saunders' own art and artifacts (including a shrunken head), as well as exhibits with a local theme. Offerings include a Civil War display, an exhibit on Memphis history, a mechanized, miniature circus, a planetarium, an IMAX theater, multiple stores and a snack bar. The museum also features a science/natural history exhibit on the first level, as well as traveling exhibitions that cover a variety of interests.

9. Dixon Gallery and Gardens
Photo courtesy of MemphisTravel.com

On Saturday mornings, from 10 a.m. until Noon, admission to the Dixon is free. Since 1976, this museum has housed a spectacular Impressionist collection including Degas, Monet and Pisarro, and the collection of art is rivaled only by the gorgeous gardens surrounding what was once one of Memphis' finest estates. The late Hugo and Margaret Dixon willed the house and grounds to the people of Memphis in order to establish this museum. The original Dixon collection included works by French and American Impressionists. Traveling exhibits are usually exquisite collections based on a certain theme or time period, and while small in scope are rich with offerings.

8. Graceland
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Jones

While Graceland is the priciest attraction in Memphis, you can visit the Meditation Garden for free, each morning from 7:30 - 8:30 a.m. Graceland is the second most visited historic home in the United States, hosting more than 600,000 visitors who come to pay homage to the King. The mansion itself is really just a large family home, forever stuck in the design decade of the 70's. Guests are never allowed to roam upstairs to view the Presley family's private quarters. Elvis' grave site in the Meditation Garden is part of the mansion tour. The recorded tour information is quite informative and of course loaded with good Elvis songs; for hardcore fans of the King, the VIP Tour allows access to exclusive exhibits featuring infrequently seen artifacts, and includes priority access to the bus.

7. Art Museum of the University of Memphis
Photo courtesy of Thomas R. Machnitzki

The name "Memphis" belongs not only to a Tennessee city but to Egypt's ancient capital - and the two are sister cities. In tribute to that relationship, a unique display of Egyptian art is exhibited at the University Museum; among the unusual offerings are a loaf of bread made between 2134 and 1786 BC and a 2200-year-old mummy. Visitors can also view a collection of West African artifacts, and exhibits and showings of contemporary art. Free, docent-led tours of the Egyptian and African collections are available, and should be booked at least two weeks in advance. The 20-minute tours are quick but informative, and worth making a plan.

6. Mud Island River Park
Photo courtesy of Mud Island River Park

Taking advantage of an island that sprang up in the Mississippi in the early 20th century, this park offers a variety of attractions - and the River Park and walk over the bridge are both free, from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The museum, however, requires admission fees. Along the island, the River Walk, a scale model of the Mississippi's path, allows visitors to follow the Big Muddy from its start in Minnesota to its final destination, the Gulf of Mexico. The flow of the model river mimics that of the real one. The Mud Island amphitheater attracts top names in music, a monorail offers fun overviews of the area, and bike and pedal boat rentals provide energetic folks the chance to venture further afield.

5. Shelby Farms
Photo courtesy of Shelby Farms Park

At five times larger than New York's Central Park, Shelby Farms is a recreational oasis at the far eastern reaches of the city, adjacent to the suburban communities of Germantown and Cordova. The farms are home to the national headquarters of Ducks Unlimited and offer hike and bike trails, a huge and beautiful playground, outdoor concerts, and other free fun. For a fee, you can indulge in paddle boats and fishing, trail rides and horseback lessons, and a shooting range. The Wolf River Greenway connects to Shelby Farms Greenline, creating a path from far East Memphis all the way to Midtown.

4. Wolf River Greenway
Photo courtesy of Wolf River Conservancy

Wolf River Greenway runs through Memphis and Germantown, and is part of the longer Greater Memphis Greenline that will eventually connect Collierville to downtown Memphis. The Wolf runs along the Wold River, and includes a wide paved path for non-motorized activity. IN east Memphis, access to the greenway is off Walnut Grove Road and Humphreys Boulevard, across from Baptist Hopsital, or from Shady Grove Road / Shelby Farms Park via pedestrian bridge over the Wolf River. Restroom facilities are along the Humphreys Boulevard side of the greenway, and look for benches and other relaxation spaces throughout this well-designed section of the greenway.

3. Beale Street Historic District
Photo courtesy of Lisa Buser Photography

Once the center of black-owned businesses and nightclubs, Beale became the home of the blues at the turn of the 20th century - a waypoint along the trail from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. W.C. Handy lived - and performed - here, and anyone who was anyone on the blues scene has performed in the clubs here, from Blind Mississippi Morris to B.B. King to Robert Johnson. Today, the clubs and restaurants on Beale proper still move to the beat of the blues. The FedEx Forum - home to the NBA's Grizzlies - sits just off Beale, and a variety of hotels, museums and eateries are within a short walk from the famous street. Blues fans can pay homage to W.C. Handy at the home and museum at the east end of the street, or visit the Center for Southern Folklore to explore storytelling and folk art in the South. Also nearby is the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum and Gibson Guitar Factory. In Handy Park, a small stage is home to lunchtime and weekend concerts including some unscheduled jam sessions. For the best blues music, try B.B. King's, Rum Boogie or Alfred's.

2. Levitt Shell
Photo courtesy of The Levitt Shell

With 50 free musical performances, movies under the stars and a smattering of dance and drama performances, the Levitt Shell in Overton Park serves as true common ground for residents of Memphis. The historic shell - Elvis once sang here early on in his career, sharing the stage with Johnny Cash (it was not a success for the future King), the shell fell into disrepair and out of favor in the late 1990's, but was saved from demolition by a local group and has since been renamed the Levitt Shell at Overton Park. It reopened in 2008, offering free performances for all.

1. March of the Peabody Ducks
Photo courtesy of Peabody Hotel

The tradition of the duck march started following a hunting trip in 1932. The story goes that then-general manager of the hotel and his hunting buddies, along with their live decoy ducks, stopped in the Peabody's ornate lobby bar for a glass or three of Jack Daniels. The guys thought it would be a hoot to let the decoys paddle around in the fountain of the lobby bar while they relived the hunt. A tradition was born. Jimmy Ogle, a Memphis icon and historian, is the sixth duck master at the hotel; the job was created in the 1940's when a former Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus animal trainer named Edward Pembroke offered to help deliver the ducks to and from the fountain each day. That delivery soon turned into a full-fledged spectacle, with the ducks marching from their rooftop abode, into the elevator, down to the lobby, and across a red carpet into their watery daytime home. The ducks process at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily. The ducks have appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and Sesame Street and have been featured in numerous publications, from Sports Illustrated to People.