36 Hours in Memphis – Urban Vanlife Adventures

Just a few days ago, we dropped into Memphis for 36 hours as part of our road trip from Canada to Baja, Mexico. I’m sheepish to admit that I knew very little about Memphis before arriving (basically Memphis = Elvis + Graceland). Armed with a minimal amount of research and a whole lot of enthusiasm, we set out on a day of urban exploration and were so pleasantly surprised to discover a city brimming with culture and history. In this blog post, we share with you our favourite parts of downtown Memphis and why it makes an excellent destination for an urban vanlife adventure.

Sally basking in the lights of the City

“Camping” at the Pyramid

As we pulled into our “campsite” for the night, we stared up in awe at one of the most distinctive landmarks in Memphis – a gigantic Giza-esque pyramid – American style.  Our iOverlander app had assured us that overnight parking was permitted at the pyramid, but a “no trespassing after 10:00 pm” sign suggested otherwise. And where were the other vans, RVs, and the hustle/bustle that everyone on the crowd-sourced app had mentioned? I was suddenly concerned that perhaps the overnight parking rules had changed. Feeling uncertain, we squeezed Sally tight to an island, behind an evergreen tree – as if there was any chance of hiding our fat, beluga-like, van behind a tiny tree. It made me feel better anyway.  As I prepared dinner, Marc took Walter for a walk to explore the grounds.  It turned out that all the other RVs and vans were parked on the other side of the pyramid. A helpful security guard confirmed that yes, we could park the van here for a couple of nights while we explored. Phew.

If you’re like us, you’re wondering, so what’s with the enormous 32-storey pyramid? It was originally built in 1991 as a 20,000-seat sports arena and entertainment complex but after struggling for years, it was taken over by Bass Pro Shops in 2015 and built out as a Mega Store. It’s now a bustling destination and a perfect place to camp in your van or RV for several reasons:

  • It’s within easy walking distance of all the downtown attractions.
  • There’s 24-hr security and no one has reported robbery issues on iOverlander.
  • The pyramid houses a Bass Pro shop – a perfect place to pick up any forgotten camping or outdoor gear.
  • We read that there’s also a museum, restaurant, archery range, bowling alley, and hotel in the pyramid – worth visiting if it’s a rainy day or you have extra time in the city.

Strolling Through the Riverside Parks

There are a series of parks and pathways that extend along the Mississippi River from the pyramid to (and past) the downtown core. We decided that the riverside pathways would be the perfect route to get from our “campsite” to our first destination of the day – the South Main Historic Art District. We walked down Bass Pro Drive, past the Tennessee Welcome Centre, and into the park system. There were endless views of the Mississippi and many interesting little features to explore – birdfeeders, picnic areas, play structures, and decorative grasses (Walter’s favourite).  Unfortunately, Tom Lee Park – one of the biggest riverfront parks – was under construction so we had to detour into the downtown core earlier than planned.  I imagine that once this $60M park project is complete in 2023, the waterfront will be truly stunning.

Exploring the South Main District

The South Main District is known for its architecture, art, and innovation. We’re a sucker for mainstreet architecture and unique streetscape so it was the number one destination on our list. Ready for refueling by the time we got there, we secured an outdoor table at Bluff City Coffee. The lattes were good, the muffins were delicious (highly recommend the blueberry), and it was a perfect place to people watch, admire the adorable streetcars and soak in the culture. 

South Main is home to the National Civil Rights Museum. It’s located in the old Lorraine Hotel, which back in the day was a haven for black travellers and eventually, the site of Marin Luther King JR’s assassination. Because we had Walter with us, we just visited the museum from the outside, which is exceptional.  Apparently, those who do the full tour are blown away by the experience.

Lorraine Hotel – Now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum

It’s worth noting that we met a couple of homeless people begging on the street in this part of the city. We learned from a discussion with them that some of the local shelters change $6/night to stay in the shelter, after a handful of free stays (confirmed by Google). Charging for nightly stays is a somewhat controversial practice and we don’t know enough about it to form an opinion. But we did make a small contribution to each of the people we met, in hopes that it will help them get into a shelter for the night if they need it.

Soaking in Beale Street & Surrounds

Beale Street is the most visited attraction in Memphis so naturally, it was on our list. It’s known for its nightlife, live music, restaurants, and shops. We are not ones for the nightlife so I can’t comment on the venues or nighttime vibes but even on a Monday afternoon, the street was full of energy. 

The photo that every tourist just has to take

We loved the almost tacky but addictively colourful signs, the blues music floating out into the street, the characters making conversation as we passed by and all the pets for Walter. The nearby Orpheum Theatre and Peabody Hotel were irresistibly photogenic and worth a visit as well.

Eating Barbeque

Memphis is world-famous for its Barbeque – especially ribs and pulled pork.  We eat mostly vegetarian but there was no way we were going to pass up this opportunity for a delicious local specialty. An article in Forbes recommended Central Barbecue for a no-frills, authentic barbeque experience. When we discovered that the restaurant has a dog-friendly patio, we were sold.  Our pulled pork sandwiches were to die for, and they had a great selection of local beer on tap.  The prices were reasonable too… enough to justify a side of BBQ Chicken Nachos. The walk back to Sally from Central was just long enough to burn off a few calories before settling in for the night.  

Finding Elvis

So, at this point, you’re probably wondering – what about Elvis?! Much to the disappointment of many friends, we didn’t go to Graceland. It’s a little ironic that we didn’t visit the one attraction we were aware of prior to our visit. Dogs aren’t allowed on the Graceland property and for those of you who know us, we basically only go where Walter can go. Also, it’s about a 15-minute drive outside of downtown, so we would have needed to make a special trip and spend at least an extra day in the area.  BUT, if you’re an Elvis fan and you don’t have a dog in tow, Graceland gets 4.5/5 stars on Google and I’m sure it would be a perfect addition to our list.  

Helpful Resources

  • iOverlander App – for camping/overnight parking options
  • Memphis Travel website – information about the city’s history, attractions, restaurants, etc.
  • Forbes – an article about Memphis as a great weekend escape (dated but the recommendations are still spot-on)

3 thoughts on “36 Hours in Memphis – Urban Vanlife Adventures

  1. Hello Marc and Nat My cousine Isabelle Gagnon lives in Cabo Are you going down that far?

    Sylvie

    Sent from my iPhone

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    1. Hi Sylvie! We likely won’t be going all the way to Cabo. It’s pretty hot there and we did visit it 6 years ago. That said, our plans are pretty loose so it is possible…

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