On most years, we visit Memphis at least biannually, if not more frequently. My cousin, who is akin to another sister to me, and her clan live there, and we have a large network of friends and other family who call Tennessee’s second largest city home. Due to how things have transpired globally this year, most of our trips have been halted due to safety precautions, but when we realized how many outdoor activities in Memphis there are—and space to get out and enjoy fresh air safely—we planned a long weekend to see Rebecca and the kids after four months of lockdown, as well as investigate how the city is handling the pandemic.
Before you travel this summer
Before traveling anywhere this summer, I advise you to read the CDC’s guidelines on social distancing, which are updated regularly. We were traveling to Memphis with my family, and out of an abundance of caution, we all took COVID-19 tests before we left, not because we were exposed (that we knew of) or had any symptoms, but in case we were asymptomatic carriers. Testing in Tennessee is free, and it took us less than 10 minutes to wait in the outdoor line at our local health department and drive up to get swabbed; it was also easy and painless.
Our test results came back negative on the fourth day, though testing now is delayed in Tennessee with some locations taking weeks to return results. My cousins in Memphis were able to get their results the same day, so it’s all dependent on where you live; plan in advance.
Next, be sure you know the local health ordinances in the city where you’re visiting. Shelby County already had a city-wide mask mandate for everyone over two years old that went into effect in early July, which is why I felt comfortable traveling there.
When packing, we made sure we had a minimum of one clean, pressed mask a day, plus ample hand sanitizer and wipes. Once we arrived in the city, we were also happy to see that there was signage everywhere reminding of the mask mandate, as well as the need to space out and virtually everyone we saw was covered up. Additionally, many restaurants that were open required both a reservation to dine in and a temperature check before entering. Do you catch my drift? Memphis is doing all the things right and it felt safe.
Where to stay in Memphis
Prior to crashing at my cousins’ house for several days, we stayed in a hotel just to check things out; it was our first time at a hotel since early March, when we coincidentally were also in Memphis, and I’ve been wanting to check out the Central Station Hotel ever since I heard it was transitioning from an Amtrak station to an Amtrak station with a hotel component.
And my mind was blown how this building has been transformed since the last time I was in it six years ago. Part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, the Central Station is far from a chain hotel. Towering magnificently over South Main Street, Memphis Central Station opened in 1914 and was built on the site of a former station known as Calhoun Street Station; it currently services Amtrak’s City of New Orleans route and the MATA Trolley system. Meaning? You can bop up from New Orleans or down from Chicago, get off at the stop, walk a few feet and check into the hotel! What a cool new offering in Memphis, right?
I love how the hotel kept some of the same elements in the design process while maintaining an open, airy vibe. The central lounge area, Eight & Sand bar boasts live music each night and a one-of-a-kind, Memphis-inspired vinyl record collection, as well as a listening lounge in a room that connects to the bar. The hotel is just blocks from the Blues Hall of Fame and DittyTV—not to mention, Beale Street—and that musical influence is very much alive throughout the hotel’s many winding corridors.
The rooms themselves felt quite spacious with vaulted ceilings, bright overhead lighting and plenty of midcentury-modern character.
The on-site French brasserie, Bishop, is a partnership with two of my favorite food figures in Memphis, Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman. We took our food to go, but Bishop currently requires reservations if you’re dining in and temperature checks at the door. Inside the restaurant, they space all diners at a very safe distance.
Visiting the Memphis Zoo
One of the most delightful things we did during our time in West Tennessee was visit the Memphis Zoo. My cousins have had a family membership for years, so this wasn’t my first visit, but who knew that during a pandemic would be the perfect time to have the zoo to ourselves? Currently, Memphis Zoo is operating at a max of 25 percent capacity, but there’s a people counter live on the site at any given time so you can see how many people are actually at the zoo. During our visit, there were only 369 of an allowed 5,000 people, meaning we hardly saw anyone the entire time we were there.
This 70-acre zoo has been around since 1906 and houses more than 4,500 animals, including the semi-rare red pandas who reside in the China exhibit. Masks are required on all visitors over the age of two when indoors and in animal encounters, but we also all kept our masks on at all times outside, other than when we were eating.
I’ll admit this Memphis Zoo trip selfishly allowed me to check the box of “be there when Charlotte has her first zoo experience,” as my niece, my mom, my sister and baby Mac tagged along for the weekend. I was thrilled to finally get to introduce Charlotte to animals she’s only read about in books and when I asked the precocious two years old what she was most excited to see prior to our visit, she very matter-of-factly told me: “dinosaurs and BIG cows.” Funny enough, we saw both.
Memphis Zoo’s Dinosaurs exhibit ($5 per person) runs through Oct. 31 and is akin to walking through Jurassic Park, only without rogue raptors and of course these dinosaurs are animatronic (or so they told us…). It was a wee bit scary for our dinosaur-loving toddler, but she did appreciate the dinos from afar. She can name at least a dozen different species, which is double the number of dinosaurs I know by sight.
But the highlight of the day, no doubt, was meeting Angela the giraffe and feeding her leafy greens. From March through October, twice a day, any zoo visitors can participate in the giraffe feedings at $5 per person. You get to get very close to the giraffes—just ask my cousin Margaret who got an unexpected smooch from Angela.
Following the giraffe feeding, we stopped for lunch. Cat House Café has upped its food game with a menu that includes what you would expect (burgers, hot dogs, chicken fingers) with healthier options like a Thai chicken wrap and vegetarian dishes; the meal also came with an impromptu animal encounter for Charlotte Rose.
Cat House Café is near Stingray Cove, a temporary exhibit that houses both rays and sharks in a pool. It’s $2 to visit and $2 to feed them. As an avid diver, I was excited to introduce Charlotte to the wonders of marine life, and she watched in awe as they glided around beneath her. She was even brave enough to feed a ray and give him a pat!
Across from Stingray Cove is another opportunity to get close to the wildlife and feed the birds in the Budgie House. This was the attraction where we stuck around the longest, as it’s hard to leave when a tropical bird is perched just feet away from your nose!
At the end of the day, we all convened at the outdoor snack bar where the kiddos had ice cream and the big kids older than 21 all had adult beverages (craft beer and spiked seltzer). A zoo with rewards for the adults—does it get any better than that?
The Memphis Zoo with our extended family was, hands down, the most fun I’ve had all summer, and I’d say the little ones agreed, too. If your summer vacation was canceled due to the virus, I ensure you that a day at the Memphis Zoo with all the animal feedings and specialty exhibits is a great fill-in—your kids will love it, and you’ll create memories for years to come.
Taking small, guided tours in Memphis
If culture is what you’re after, Memphis won’t disappoint. We went on a few guided tours while in Memphis, starting with Slave Haven, where Civil Rights activist Ms. Elaine Turner told us all about the Underground Railroad and even showed us the cellar beneath the Burkle Estate where runaways escaping the shackles of ownership used to hide before fleeing up the Mississippi River into the free states.
I learned so much from her about that period of U.S. history, in particular how both African and Southern slaves communicated through quilt patterns, hymns (like “When the Saints Go Marching In”) and drum beats. There is so much about our country’s dark past that I don’t know, and I’m grateful as an adult to be able to learn and honor the tragedy of human suffering that built this nation and has been shoved under the rug for far too long.
Speaking of which, we went even more in depth into Black history with a 2.5-hour caravan tour with a Tour of Possibilities. Ms. Jackie guided us around Memphis by Zoom audio; we followed in our car so there was no contact, and she illustrated Memphis’ storied history through words, sermons and songs belted out while she was driving. I was so blown away by this tour, I’ll be writing a separate post dedicated to what we learned during our afternoon with Ms. Jackie.
If you’ve been waiting for years to visit Graceland when it’s devoid of crowds as I have, now is the perfect time to go. All Graceland associates are wearing masks, and guests are encouraged to, as well; there are also temperature checks plus social distancing markers spaced out six feet throughout the property, in addition to enhanced sanitization procedures featuring commercial-grade continuous cleaning, hand sanitization stations and touch-less payment options.
We toured Graceland in March right before the pandemic hit, and the current capacity only allows for 10 people per tour, all of whom are quite spaced out. So it’s almost like you’re getting a VIP tour of the King’s splashy former digs!
Other outdoor activities in Memphis
On our first night in town, we met up with our friend Leah, rented Explore Bike Share bikes and took a ride over the Big River Crossing; at nearly a mile, it’s the longest pedestrian bridge that crosses the Mississippi and the only one you can bike, hike, or run over from Memphis to Arkansas.
The Arkansas state line is right in the middle of the bridge, and there’s a great spot to stop, take a breather and snap photos of the Memphis skyline before you. On the Arkansas side of the Big River Crossing, you can wind your way back down under the bridge and to the riverfront before cycling uphill back.
For more serious cyclists, the Big River Crossing is a 10-mile, multi-modal corridor that also features the Big River Trail System, creating ties to attractions throughout the Memphis. The city itself has more than 60 miles of bike trails, including the wildly popular, 10-mile Shelby Farms Greenline. My cousin’s husband and many of our Memphis friends use this handy trail system to get to work.
We also ventured out to one of Greater Memphis’ two state parks, Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park. This 12,539-acre sprawl borders the mighty Mississippi River and is just 13 miles north of downtown Memphis, featuring mature Bald Cypress and Tupelo swamp. While there are various campsites throughout the park, we were there for one reason: to go for a paddle on Poplar Tree Lake.
As seemed the trend while in Memphis, we were the only ones on the lake, other than a young girl and her mom who had rented a paddleboat. Other Meeman-Shelby activities include hiking, biking, birding, boating, disc golf, fishing and horseback riding—all safe, distanced activities.
After our kayak adventure, we swung by the iconic Shelby Forest General Store for burgers, fries and popsicles on the patio. This self-declared “Mom and Pop shop” is equal parts charming and quirky (see: the taxidermy wall); the owners, Kristin and Doug, are delightful and will glean your life story from you before you even realize what’s happening.
The restaurant is currently operating on limited hours, so check before you go.
Shelby Farms is also another must-do in Memphis. At 4,500 acres, it’s more than five times the size of Central Park. It’s also conveniently located near my cousins’ house where we stayed the final nights, so I was able to slip away from the little kids and take the big girls out for a morning of fun.
While we couldn’t get in on a horseback riding tour as they were booked solid that day, McKayla, Margaret, and I were able to rent a paddleboat and pedal our way around a small pond. Those with their own SUP boards, kayaks or non-motorized boats can bring their gear and make the best of all this space throughout the park; if you don’t own any of the above, there are rentals available on site at Pine Lake Boat House (advanced reservations are currently required).
The paddleboat lake goes right beneath the GoApe! zipline, so after we were done paddling around, we stopped by Go Ape to see what options they offered. On the petite side for her age, Margaret was just shy of tall enough to do the three-hour zipline Treetop Adventure, but there was one activity that had no height limit, only an age requirement.
Axe-throwing! While none of us had ever done it before, Margaret was a natural. I thought there was no way we’d use up our entire hour on the lane, but we stayed the entire time and duked it out in several darts-type games. Margie won them all.
I highly recommend axe-throwing at Go Ape for adults with older children. It’s such a fun way to get outdoors in a game of friendly competition! I had kind of turned up my nose at the thought of axe-throwing in the past, but I’m fully willing to admit when I was wrong, and this is one of those times. I’m a new convert and hope to challenge SVV to a duel soon!
How to drink and dine in Memphis
Dining indoors is tricky no matter where you’re traveling right now, so we’ve been defaulting to taking food to go. We did eat indoors at Bedrock Eats & Sweets, which is one of my new favorite restaurants in Memphis, and they had tables spaced out (we were actually the only ones dining in on a weekday), as well as served all food in to-go boxes should you decide to take it with you.
Our hotel restaurant, Bishop, was allowing diners in on a reservation-only basis. We wound up ordering food to go and taking it down to the riverfront for dinner one night.
I highly advise picnicking outdoors on a balmy Southern evening at the one-acre River Garden very close to Tom Lee Park, as it has tables and chairs where you can dine as you watch the Hernando De Soto Bridge light up over the Mississippi. Mighty Lights runs every half hour each night from sundown till 10:30pm. Just don’t forget your bug spray!
While the taprooms of Memphis breweries are not currently open, we were able to stop into Wiseacre Brewing Co. to pick up some to-go goodies. Our long-time family friend Kellan Bartosch and his brother Davin own this brewery, the biggest in the state of Tennessee, and in the middle of the pandemic, they opened a fancy new facility right in the heart of Memphis’ South Main district and within a stone’s throw of the National Civil Rights Museum.
It is a massive, minimalistic space that just begs for sharing a couple brews with friends, and if you get a chance for a backstage tour of the brewing equipment once the brewery is fully open again, take it. The equipment itself is a work of art, as are the specially designed cans for each individual brew.
And just because you can’t enjoy draft beer in these fancy new digs right now doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy Wiseacre products as a whole (we’re living proof, as we’ve been Gotta Get Up to Get Down and Tiny Bomb loyalists since Wiseacre launched seven years ago!). Both the OG outpost on Broad Avenue and the HQ location downtown are open for packaged beer pick-up, pre-orders and walk-ups, as well as delivery for locals.
Rounding out our culinary adventures, we grabbed coffee and pastries to go from Comeback Coffee on our final morning in town, as well as barbecue from Germantown Commissary—a family tradition—which ties Central BBQ as my favorite pulled pork in town.
All in all, our visit was magical despite the pandemic—thanks in part to the many outdoor activities in Memphis and everyone following the rules—and I’m happy to see a city offering ways to safely experience it in times as weird as these.
This post is in partnership with Memphis Travel. All opinions are our own.
For other Memphis travel inspiration, start here:
- Murals in Memphis: Why Street Art Lovers Flock to West Tennessee
- The Memphis Metamorphosis: A New Generation of Soul
- Eat, Drink + Explore Memphis: A Weekend Guide to the Bluff City
- Sip Whiskey at Memphis’ Only Distillery