There's no lack of things to entertain you in Memphis, but one of the best parts about a visit here is that so much of the fun in town is free of cost! Even a trip to Graceland can be done on the cheap. Cool history, natural beauty, quirky activities, fascinating museums, and tons more all await you on this tour through some of the city’s free fun experiences.
Established in 1852, Elmwood Cemetery is the oldest, active cemetery in Memphis, and one of the South’s first rural garden cemeteries. Garden cemeteries are notable for their pastoral landscaping, scenic viewpoints, ancient trees, and beautiful memorials. Between 75,000 and 85,000 souls have been laid to rest in the cemetery, including some who fought in the American Revolution, brothel madams, suffragists, civil rights leaders, and blues singers. When you first arrive at Elmwood, stop by the Office at the front entrance and pick up a $5 map/pamphlet, so you can navigate your way around.
Nearly 1,000 Confederate soldiers are buried in the section named “Confederate Soldiers Rest”. During the 1870s there were several devastating outbreaks of Yellow Fever, which terrorized the people of Memphis and resulted in over 5,000 victims. Half of these are buried over four lots in the cemetery. It’s reported that some of the victims were nuns, doctors, and even prostitutes who contracted the virus while tending to the afflicted. Sadly, during the plague, nearly 1,500 bodies were left unnamed, these are interred in a mass grave known as “No Man’s Land.” There’s also a mass grave comprised of about 1,000 Confederate Soldiers, marked with simple block-shaped stones. You’ll also come across a granite monument in the cemetery which marks the mass grave of hundreds of slaves.
The Miller Circle section of Elmwood features a nondescript row of three grave markers that are in the shape of bathtubs. These are often referred to as the “bathtub graves”. However, they are simply oval ringed gravesites that mark the final resting place of Jules Rozier, Elizabeth Rozier Archer, and James Swearengen (no, not the bartender from the HBO series “Deadwood,” though that would be pretty cool). In addition the University of Tennessee maintains an area in the cemetery that’s a memorial to people who have donated their bodies to science. Historic cemeteries are often under explored, but they can be particularly compelling places of interest when traveling and exploring the local heritage.
Graceland is the most famed attraction in all of Memphis, but a visit here isn't exactly cheap... and with the additional airplane tour and various VIP experiences (which are totally worth it, especially if you're a fan of Elvis Presley), you could easily wind up spending the better part of a day and a good chunk of money here. But, if you're short on time or looking to just dip your toes in the Elvis experience, there's a little-known trick to seeing Graceland for free. Between 7:30 A.M. and 8:30 A.M. the gates to the Meditation Garden are open to visitors who want to walk up to the graves of Elvis and his family. As long as you're done by the time the first tour starts, you're welcome to spend some time enjoying the inspiration in Presley’s garden.
The Peabody Memphis hotel is a gorgeous place to stay during a trip to the Bluff City, but the coolest feature of the place is free for anyone to enjoy: the daily Duck Marches. It's been a tradition since the 1930s to have a group of ducks march down the hallway, into the elevator, through the lobby and into the fountain, where they swim for a good part of the day before they return to their rooftop penthouse for the evening. Even though it's quite the ceremony now, it started off as a gag, when the hotel's general manager and a friend thought it would be funny to put their live decoy ducks into the fountain after a hunting trip. The march happens at 11 a.m. every morning and again at 5 p.m., so stop by and watch the trained ducks (and duckmaster!) do their thing.
Part concert venue, part shop, part museum and part restaurant – the Center for Southern Folklore is dedicated to the full experience of Southern culture. While concerts and performances sometimes cost a few dollars (usually around $5 or so), it's free to browse the exhibits and displays, which are dedicated to the art, soul and history of the South – with emphasis on Memphis. If you have time, sit down in the restaurant and enjoy some Southern cookin'... you don't want to miss out on the peach cobbler.
Cool off with a splash at Mud Island River Park. The most interesting feature here is the scale replica of the Lower Mississippi River as it flows from its meeting with the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois 954 miles south into the Gulf of Mexico. As the stream twists and winds its way below bridges and past markers designating cities, you can feel free to hop in the water and splash around. The Gulf of Mexico is represented by a 1-acre pool where you can rent paddle boats! The park is free to visit and offers some pretty stellar views of the Memphis skyline as well.
You can't visit Memphis without seeing some live music, and one of the best places to catch a free show is the Levitt Shell. Over 50 free concerts occur at the Shell every year, ranging from jazz and blues to country and rock. The Shell even hosts performances, film screenings, and other events. The gorgeous, 1930s-era stage has a pretty awesome history to boot: this is where Elvis Presley gave his first paid concert!
Memphis is also home to one of the country's largest urban parks, Shelby Farms Park. At 4,500 acres, it's a whopping five times bigger than Central Park and filled with all kinds of fun to be had! Paths and trails are great for exploring the green space on foot or on a bike; lakes and ponds make for excellent fishing; the playgrounds are kid-approved and incredibly fun; and there's even a 50-acre pasture for the resident buffalo herd! If you're looking to add some extra adventure, you can rent canoes or stand-up paddleboards, play a round of paintball, and explore the forest with a zipline adventure course.
Memphis is one of those rare cities that's so packed with culture and excitement that you don't need to go far or pay much to experience it. Even just walking down Beale or exploring the different parks and neighborhoods, you can get an incredible sense of what is so inspirational about Memphis. You won't need to spend much to have a fulfilling experience in Memphis, and that's incredibly special.