Free options abound in Memphis for summer family fun

Bt Dr. D. Jackson Maxwell

Each year as summer break for the students begin, I like to dedicate my column to free or nearly free family activities. Here’s what I have found for this summer.

Let’s start with downtown Memphis. A good outing is a visit to see the mighty Mississippi River. Visit the riverside greensward on Mud Island or Tom Lee Park and have a picnic. With the addition of the River Walk and Beale Street Landing, you can stroll the river while viewing the interpretive sights along the way such as the sculpture of river hero Tom Lee. Beale Street Landing offers play areas for kids. Take the path toward the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge and exercise via Riverfit’s soccer fields, volleyball courts, and obstacle course. Then, follow the path to the Big River Crossing — the longest bike/pedestrian/railway in the nation. While downtown, visit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for a self-guided tour of the Danny Thomas/ALSAC Pavilion where you can learn the history of this unique medical center. The pavilion has awards and memorabilia about Thomas, the entertainer and philanthropist, who founded St. Jude. One of Memphis’ greatest treasures is Jimmy Ogle. Ogle regularly offers tours throughout downtown covering historical buildings, local history, sewer covers and just about every other Memphis related topic. You can learn more about his remarkable explorations by visiting his website at

Early in the day, the Beale Street Walk of Fame, with its musical notes of notable Memphis musicians and those who have played the street, makes for informative fun. The statues along the street provide photo ops with the likes of Elvis and W.C. Handy. Handy Park has artwork featuring Rufus Thomas and has free music by local musicians. Goats at Silky O’Sullivan’s as well as A. Schwab’s everything-store provide more leisurely entertainment. Similarly, walk the downtown streets around Court Square (Union, Madison and Monroe) and there you can view over 60 plaques which tell the story of our amazing city. Drop in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel to view the world-famous Peabody ducks walking the red carpet!

Many Memphis museums can also be seen on the cheap. For example, the Pink Palace Museum and Mansion exhibits are free on Tuesdays beginning at 1 p.m. Everything from dinosaurs to a full-size Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store can be enjoyed by visitors. You can learn about America’s history at the recently renovated National Civil Rights Museum. Housed in the former Lorraine Motel, every major Civil Rights leader from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Rosa Parks and even Memphis’ own Benjamin L. Hooks and Maxine Smith are featured. A one-of-a-kind exhibit detailing one of the most important national movements can be seen for free on Wednesdays from 3 p.m. till closing.

Art can be seen for free or nearly so, as well. The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art is pay-what-you-can on Wednesdays. The museum has a revolving collection of visiting art as well as a permanent collection of over 8,000 objects d’art. The Dixon Gallery and Gardens offers free admission on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon plus a pay-what-you-can on Tuesdays. The Dixon features decorative arts and paintings as well as a lovely outdoor garden. If nature is your thing, the Lichterman Nature Center is free after 1 p.m. on Tuesdays. Also on Tuesdays, the Memphis Zoo has free admission from 2-5 p.m. for Tennessee residents. The Memphis Zoo is consistently rated as one of the best small zoos in America. The zoo has over 3,000 animals to view and learn about through zookeeper talks and related activities.

Overton Park has a number of walking paths. Additionally, the park features the newly remodeled Levitt Shell where Elvis played his first professional concert. Catch a show as a part of the Levitt Shell’s free concert series. Statuary around Overton Park honors World War I doughboys, politician Boss Crump, the Memphis Belle, and much more. Plus, check out the Memphis College of Art which hosts shows and events. You can even bring your dog to the Overton Bark Dog Park to frolic with other pooches.

For a day trip, head out east and visit the Morton Museum of Collierville. Rotating exhibits and artifacts tell the history of this railroad town. The museum is free and also has regular programs and speakers. While in Collierville, drop by the square’s gazebo on a Thursday in June or July and listen to some music from local musicians.

I encourage your family to get out and enjoy our city’s many offerings of which a surprising number are free. I am always amazed at the variety of what Memphis has to offer. Also, feel free to send me your favorite free destinations and finds to share in my next summer freebie column!

Dr. D. Jackson Maxwell is an educator and freelance writer. Please forward questions or comments to:

Author: LampLighter

The voice of Cooper-Young, a vibrant, diverse neighborhood to live, work and play, in the heart of Midtown Memphis, Tennessee.

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