photography by Kimberly Baker
My children are becoming downtown explorers. At ages 5 and 8, they can give a pretty good tour of the area. We view downtown Memphis as our playground; why not come out and explore it with us.
See Tom Lee Park
Tom Lee Park is a wonderful point of departure. Just south of Beale Street on Riverside Drive, you’ll find ample parking and bathrooms. Tom Lee Park has loads of green space, too, perfect for playing Frisbee, turning cartwheels, or simply watching the barges ply the river. We love this park because of its dramatic setting, with the Mississippi River, its bluffs, and the city skyline all within view.
One of our favorite spots is the Tom Lee statue. My children can tell you the story of this Memphis hero and how he risked his own life to save the lives of others. In 1925, Lee witnessed the M.E. Norman capsize downriver from Memphis. He managed to rescue 32 people even though he could not swim. Learning about Tom Lee’s bravery allows children to develop a sense of pride in this place we call home.
South Bluffs & the River Walk
You might want to explore the walking path inside the park that takes you along the river. Head south on the path and walk the length of Tom Lee Park. Go up the hill to Ashburn-Coppock Park to see the river from its observation area. There’s plenty of shade here, and a great climbing tree.
Veer left to the pedestrian bridge over Riverside Drive and you’ll be in the pretty South Bluffs neighborhood. Follow the River Walk signs and you’ll eventually stroll along the bluff. Several sets of stairs take you back to Tom Lee Park.
Another itinerary from Tom Lee Park takes you into the area of tall buildings and trolleys. Look for the stairs across the street. Depending on which set you take, you’ll end up at the Spaghetti Warehouse restaurant or tiny Butler Park. As you face the Spaghetti Warehouse, there’s a trolley stop to your left. This takes you on the Riverfront Loop trolley ride. If you end up at Butler Park, just walk north up Tennessee Street until you reach the Spaghetti Warehouse.
Main Street has two trolley lines, but I highly recommend catching the Riverfront Loop. It runs north up Main Street; then curves around the Pyramid to travel south, paralleling the river until it enters South Main Street. Here you’ll find shops several restaurants, the National Civil Rights Museum, and the Memphis Train and Trolley Museum at Central Station, perfect for young kids.
Riding the trolley is fun on its own but there are many places worth exploring if you decide to disembark. The Cotton Museum, AutoZone Park, and The Peabody are all on Union and within walking distance from the Union Avenue Station as you travel east. From the west end of Union, walk to the river’s historic cobblestone landing and enjoy a riverboat excursion on the Memphis Queen Line. Finally, return to the trolley or the River Walk and make your way back to Tom Lee Park.
One of our favorite ways to end our explorations is with a meal or dessert inside the dining trolley car at the Spaghetti Warehouse. If we’re lucky, we just might catch a stunning sunset from atop the bluffs before returning to the car. And if we’re really lucky, the children might be tired enough for bed by the time we arrive home — all set to dream about their day of exploring downtown.