Tennessee : Safety by CityUnited States - safety as a country Tennessee - state review
Memphis, Tennessee, sits on the western side of Tennessee along the eastern banks of the Mississippi River.
This area is known as the Mid-South, and Memphis is called The Bluff City since it sits on the bluffs of the river.
This is Elvis’ hometown and the home where he lived, Graceland, is one of the most visited places in the South.
Beale Street brings crowds for live music, Southern dining, and bars galore.
Beale Street is kind of like a smaller version of Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
If you’ve heard the song “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn, you’ll get a sample of what the city has to offer and some of its history.
You’ll likely be humming it by the time you leave if you can get Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” out of your head.
The city also was a powerful influence on the Civil Rights Movement, but sadly it was the same city where Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.
The Lorraine Motel is now part of a larger museum that honors civil rights advocates while educating people on how to stop systemic racism and hope for a more peaceful future.
The Peabody Hotel is a popular place to stay or visit, but this historical building gets upstaged daily by ducks walking through the lobby as a cultural trend woven into the culture of Memphis.
Memphis is more than an urban core; its boundaries stretch to the east to include the family-friendly Shelby Farms.
True story – I lived in Memphis and worked a 4th of July event at Shely Farms.
Eddie Money was the headliner, and his tour van almost slipped into the lake.
We did what little we could to help out.
Warnings & Dangers in Memphis
OVERALL RISK: HIGH
Memphis comes with a high risk, which isn't a ranking we give lightly. Not all of Memphis is a high risk either, but it's such a "block by block" danger in some neighborhoods, you deserve to be aware of the higher crime rates here. Memphis has long been one of the most dangerous cities in America, and in 2021 it had violent crime rates more than six times the national average. It is also a city you shouldn't avoid because of that - you just need to know the information you're researching now.
TRANSPORT & TAXIS RISK: LOW
Memphis has a public transportation system called MATA. The buses will take you throughout the city, but you're more likely to consider using the trolley that goes around downtown and to the riverfront. The trolley is safer because it's in tourist areas, whereas the buses can go through some rough neighborhoods. Taxis, rideshares, and rental cars are available.
PICKPOCKETS RISK: MEDIUM
With more than 24,000 thefts in Memphis in 2021, it's surprising that just 128 of those were pickpockets or purse snatchings. While the risk from the data looks low, it's smart to consider it a medium risk, especially if you're going to "Walking in Memphis" and enjoying the nightlife in the crowded bars and streets.
NATURAL DISASTERS RISK: MEDIUM
Memphis faces a risk throughout the year of different varieties. There are severe thunderstorms and tornadoes possible, with spring being the highest risk season. Flooding can happen with the banks of the Mississippi so close by. Winters can bring blizzards or ice storms. There's also an ongoing risk of an earthquake - and a major quake on the New Madrid Fault line could do major damage in Memphis.
MUGGING RISK: MEDIUM
The robbery rate is four times higher than the national average, but it's more likely a home or business will be robbed than a tourist on the street. Just 16% of the robberies in 2021 were related to public street confrontations. As someone who lived in Memphis for several years, I must tell you - do NOT walk in dark streets and alleys. If you are on Beale Street, stay on Beale Street and don't wander block by block. Have someone walk you to your car if you're out at night. Stay away from any kind of confrontation and nicely say "No" to the homeless people who ask for money.
TERRORISM RISK: LOW
While any big city like Memphis will have an elevated risk, there's a much bigger concern about criminals in the city leading to historical violent crime and homicide records than a terror group on the other side of the world.
SCAMS RISK: LOW
I'd worry less about being scammed and more about being hustled. Especially in the tourist areas like Beale Street, you'll see street performers or gymnasts doing flips and playing music. Tipping is just an inch away from expected if you stopped to enjoy any of the shows. You might be approached to buy items out of the trunk of a car at a "discount." Don't be a sucker. Mind your own business, and be polite and firm as you walk away from someone trying to hustle you.
WOMEN TRAVELERS RISK: LOW
Women statistically have a lower risk of being violent crime victims than a man, and a good chunk of the crime here against women is domestic. Women should definitely use caution when out on Beale Street at night. There are a lot of drunk people letting loose and crowded bars where it's not always easy to cover your drink. Use common sense and the buddy system to lower your risk here. Never go to a house party if you are invited - you don't want to walk into a dangerous situation.
TAP WATER RISK: LOW
The tap water provided by Memphis Light, Gas, and Water meets all standards and is in full compliance, according to the 2021 Annual Water Quality Report. If you are staying in an older hotel, let your tap water run for a minute or two before drinking it in case lead or copper pipes are still being used.
Safest Places to Visit in Memphis
Memphistravel.com is the official website for the tourism bureau in Memphis and Shelby County.
Using official tourism sites helps you avoid viruses and phishing for the personal information you can find on third-party websites.
You can also be assured the tourism bureau won’t send you somewhere dangerous.
It might be beneficial to start your Memphis visit with a historical tour.
You can find various walking, trolley, and bus tours on the tourism website.
You can focus on African American history, musical legends, or even a foodie or brew tour.
You can also take a ride on the Mississippi River and the tourism website lists all the options.
Some cruises are just sightseeing for an hour, while others offer several days on the river and take you to different destinations along the way.
It’s a great way to see the city of Memphis from the river and soak in the awesome skyline.
NOTE: In late 2022, the Mississippi River reached historic lows due to a drought in the Midwest. As of this publication, the water levels were not impacting cruises along the Memphis stretch of the river, but check with the tourism bureau or vendor of choice before making plans.
There are some staples of Memphis tourism that first-timers will want to see:
- Elvis Presley’s Graceland: (Even if you don’t visit the museum, you can sign the stone wall outside of Graceland where millions of other fans have done the same thing)
- National Civil Rights Museum: An expansive museum built around the location where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. There are interactive exhibits, historical displays, re-enactments, movies, and inspiration for a better future.
- Stax Museum of American Soul Music
- Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum
- Memphis Music Hall of Fame
- Blues Hall of Fame
The Peabody Hotel is a historical landmark that went through a major renovation in 2019.
This is true Southern elegance.
Set your alarms for 11:00 am and 5:00 pm, because that’s when the resident Mallard ducks take their scheduled treks through the lobby to play in the fountain.
You can even pay a little extra to be the Duckmaster for the day.
Midtown Memphis is home to Overton Square, an entertainment district with theaters, bars, and restaurants in a charming setting.
Midtown neighborhoods can be hit or miss when it comes to safety concerns, so be sure to stick to main roads when you’re driving here.
Just west of downtown, you can head over to Mud Island Park.
This is a green space along the river with a riverfront walk that goes from one side of the island to the other.
There are great Instagram moments – like the massive MEMPHIS sign and perfect views of the skyline.
Shelby Farms Park is a 4,500-acre open space on the east side of Memphis.
You can walk or run along nearly 11 miles of trails and two lakes where you can paddle or canoe.
Anglers can explore 20 fishing holes in the park, but some lakes have different rules so check the Shelby Farm Park website before you cast a line.
NOTE: Shelby Farms is not the same thing as Shelby Forest State Park. The latter is north of Memphis in Millington.
Big River Crossing offers an opportunity to walk or bike across the Mississippi River.
It’s more than a mile across and the lanes are specifically reserved for pedestrians and cyclists – you won’t have to worry about cars zooming right by you.
The bridge has emergency call boxes and is under surveillance 24/7.
Places to Avoid in Memphis
As someone who lived in Memphis for two years, worked in Midtown, and enjoyed downtown’s entertainment district, I will admit I lived in nearby Germantown because the crime rates were lower.
Memphis – more so than many other cities I’ve visited – is a block-by-block risk.
You can have stately Southern homes on one block and drive two blocks over to see small “shotgun” homes (the houses that are basic and long, as if a “shotgun blast” could go straight through it) and suspicious activity on the streets.
Memphis also has a homeless problem, and I can’t tell you how many times I went to grab dinner at a fast food drive-thru to see homeless people begging me for money while I was trapped in the drive-thru line.
They weren’t aggressive, but it was uncomfortable.
A lot about the crime risk in Memphis is what you are used to at home.
That said, then neighborhoods east of the airport and north of downtown can have more crime.
If you don’t have business being in a certain neighborhood – do not go there.
Unfortunately in 2022, the city saw even more crime creep into some of the neighborhoods that were deemed safe.
A woman out for a morning jog near the University of Memphis was pulled into a car, sexually assaulted, and killed.
A few days later, a mass shooter randomly drove around shooting people and stealing cars in a crime spree that led to lockdowns, a freeze on mass transportation, and a citywide call to stay inside.
The Mississippi River is not good for swimming, and seeing it at a historic low can give a false sense of safety.
The river is still very muddy.
It still has a strong current.
It still has high levels of pollution.
Don’t touch the water and certainly don’t swim in it.
Safety Tips for Traveling to Memphis
- Store this number in your contact list now – 901-545-2677 (COPS). That’s the non-emergency number for the police department. Do not hesitate to use it if you feel threatened in any way or notice suspicious activity. For urgent matters, you should still call 911.
- Use the “Find My Station” tool on the Memphis Police Department website to find the closest station to where you’ll be staying or visiting. You can call or stop by to ask about recent crime trends and safety advice, as crime trends can quickly change in different neighborhoods.
- Almost half of the thefts in Memphis are due to car break-ins. Don’t leave any personal belongings in your car – not even your GPS stand, which can indicate a valuable item inside. Lock your doors while driving and when you park. Keep the windows rolled up.
- Nobody understands how fun Beale Street can be more than the person writing this article. I spent many nights at Silky O’Sullivans or B.B. Kings. It’s easy to get caught up in the party atmosphere and drink too much or lose your common sense as you dance the night away. Don’t go to Beale Street alone, park in well-lit areas and you can always ask a security guard or police officer to escort you to the car. Always be on the lookout for someone trying to hustle you. If there’s any kind of altercation, don’t get closer to see what is happening. Go the other way.
- If you are visiting Memphis in May, you might see a lot of hotels booked up and higher prices. That’s because the annual Memphis in May festival happens, with a different event each week that brings a lot of tourists to the area. Be especially aware of pickpockets during this time and know that downtown is going to be busier than ever with traffic and pedestrians.
- Download the Memphis 311 app to have a direct line of contact with the city. You can make anonymous reports, but if you want to use some functions of the app you’ll need an account. Just use your hotel address as your local address. This is a great way to report potholes or fallen tree limbs after a storm. You can also get a list of all city departments and contact information.
- StaySafeShelby.us is the emergency management website for Memphis and Shelby County. You can learn about natural disaster risks there and sign up for emergency notifications. Weather risks exist all year long, so you can’t afford to miss warnings about tornadoes or dangerous storms.
- Use the website Go901transit.com to buy passes for the public bus system or trolley. You can pay in cash when you board a bus or trolley, but it must be exact change and you really don’t want to be pulling out a wallet in front of people here.
- There is a special Cyber Watch crime reporting form on the police department’s website used for an activity specifically related to drug crimes and gang activity. Part of what makes these criminals so hard to find is that neighbors don’t want to be targeted by criminals for reporting information. As a tourist, you’ll have a great opportunity to share info without giving your name and not having to worry about long-term implications.
- If you are not familiar with this area and you see the map shows West Memphis in Arkansas and think “That’s a cheaper place to stay and so close!” – don’t stay there. It’s a very dangerous area with little to do for an average tourist. You don’t want to stand out as a potential victim. Read our article about West Memphis, Arkansas for more information about that.
So... How Safe Is Memphis Really?
Memphis has long struggled with violent crimes, generally in minority communities caught in a cycle of poverty.
The poverty rate here was nearly 25% in 2020.
Many big cities are seeing violent crime surge across America.
Memphis was already a dangerous city and now it’s getting worse and covering a more broad area.
The stench of civil rights injustices still lingers in the air, and there’s as much affluence as there is poverty in a minority community – sometimes in the same zip code.
In October 2022 a former police officer was sentenced to 12 years behind bars for violating civil rights during an arrest.
Until the community and police can work in tandem to fight crime, and heal the wounds of decades, it’s going to be an uphill battle here.
One thing about Memphis is the tenacity of its people and the love of Memphis.
The people who live here see the crime, but also the history and beautiful opportunities that exist.
The city might look a little gritty in places and dynamic in others.
It’s important to stay in places designated for tourists and keep a low profile while being confident in your movements.
Don’t get into verbal altercations and don’t go looking for recreational drugs.
Not only is that dangerous, but there’s also a Fentanyl outbreak that causes overdoses and deaths at an alarming rate.
Some Fentanyl tablets are now made to look like candy.
By the number from 2021, here are some of the risks in Memphis:
- 24% of robberies were “highway robberies,” meaning they happened on a public street.
- 23% of violent crimes were against strangers, suggesting a large majority of violent crimes are among people who know each other. Despite the recent headlines, there isn’t a huge problem with random acts of violence against strangers.
- 67% of violent crimes happen in public places, and 78% percent of robberies happen outside homes, so use caution when you choose a place to get food, get gas, or stop to check directions. You just don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Memphis has too much history to be considered too dangerous to visit, but you need to have all your safety skills, awareness of the crime issues, and common sense at every step.
How Does Memphis Compare?
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You can use the U.S. State Department's Visa Wizard program to tell you the type of Visa you'll need (ie. Work, Travel) and you should start the process several months ahead of time. It can take weeks to get an appointment at the embassy. You can get through Customs at the airport without a visa and passport.
You can only use the U.S. Dollar here and avoid using cash if you can. Don't use public ATMs either. I've mentioned several great apps and websites where you can purchase things in advance to avoid having to pull out your wallet while visiting here.
You'll need to dress seasonally appropriate. Winters might require a thick coat, but generally, a regular coat will be fine. Spring and fall can have fluctuating temperatures, so pack layers of clothing. Avoid high heels or sandals, as you'll be doing a lot of walking. Beale Street is also pretty grimy and you should wash your feet and shoes when you return from a night there. Bring bug spray in the summer and use a citrus-based cologne or perfume to help keep the mosquitoes away.
Memphis International Airport is just south of I-240 and 12 miles from downtown. If you are returning a rental car, fill up before you get to the airport neighborhoods, which can be more dangerous.
We always suggest travel insurance to protect against unforeseeable issues. Severe weather can cancel or delay flights, and even a health visit is going to cost you a lot of money out of pocket if you don't have insurance in the U.S.
Memphis Weather Averages (Temperatures)
Average High/Low Temperature
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Tennessee - Safety by City