• Print

    Five Free Things in Memphis | Ducks, river views and plenty of blues

    Adrian Sainz - The Kansas City Star -

    The Mississippi River. The Peabody Hotel. Beale Street.

    These Memphis landmarks are tourist mainstays, typically enjoyed by visitors willing to plunk down cash for a sightseeing cruise on the river, a stay in the fancy Peabody or a raucous night eating barbecue and downing stiff Walk Me Down cocktails on Beale.

    But these attractions can be sampled to some extent for free. While they’re not giving away drinks on Beale Street, soaking up the atmosphere there, along with walking by the river and seeing the Peabody’s famous ducks, are among a number of free things to see and do in Memphis. (Sorry, you can’t tour Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion for free.)

     1. Beale Street: The main tourist attraction in downtown Memphis, Beale Street is home to blues bars, barbecue restaurants, gift shops and dance clubs with a long history of influencing American music. Lyricist and composer W.C. Handy wrote “Beale Street Blues” in 1916, considered one of the earliest blues hits.

     Two blocks of Beale Street are pedestrian-only. You can hear music being played as you walk by clubs like W.C. Handy’s Blues Hall and Rum Boogie Cafe. Most days, a band plays for free at W.C. Handy Park.

    Window-shop at A. Schwab’s Dry Goods Store, a Beale Street mainstay for 135 years, where pink and white sandals are displayed next to an Elvis Zippo lighter.

    Look for names of your favorite musicians and singers, embedded in musical notes in the sidewalk, similar to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

    The Beale Street Flippers, young men with stunning athletic ability, will wow you as they somersault and flip down the street.

    For people-watching, stand outside Silky O’Sullivan’s bar, where on a recent Saturday passersby included fez-wearing Shriners, a bachelorette party of a dozen fun-loving young ladies, and two Elvis look-alikes.

    2. Peabody Hotel ducks: Catch the walk of the ducks in the opulent lobby of the Peabody Hotel, 149 Union Ave. At 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily, a “Duckmaster” tells their story (we won’t spoil it for you), then leads the little birds out of the ornate lobby fountain where they swim, down a red carpet and into an elevator to their pampered life on the top floor.

    Arrive a half-hour early for a good spot. For a bird’s-eye view, watch from the mezzanine.

    3. Tom Lee Park: This free, narrow, mile-long park along the river provides stunning views. You can jog, throw a football or just enjoy a leisurely walk. On clear days, sunsets are spectacular.

    Two monuments here, one old and one new, honor Tom Lee, a black skiff operator who rescued 32 white people when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers steamer M.E. Norman capsized and sank just south of Memphis.

    4. Shelby Farms Park: This free park in east Memphis has 4,500 acres of green space surrounded by trees and dotted with ponds and lakes. It’s great for hiking, biking, picnics and bird-watching. Kids will enjoy the Woodland Discovery Playground.

    5. Levitt Shell: Located at Overton Park, the Levitt Shell offers free concerts and films. Built in 1936, the stage looks like a half-conch shell. Audiences sit on blankets, folding chairs or benches in a grassy area that slopes upward from the stage surrounded by large oak trees.

    The Levitt Shell also has a special place in Elvis history: It’s recognized as the site of his first professional rock ’n’ roll show on June 30, 1954. He was not the headliner (Slim Whitman was), and posters for the show misspelled his name as Ellis Presley.