There are many places worth visiting in the US, and it can be overwhelming to try and settle on one. Still, an under-the-radar destination becoming trendier by the day is Nashville. The rightful home of country music, the state capital of Tennessee got its place in the spotlight with an eponymous TV show that ran until last year, and is a city fast turning into a tourist hotspot.
If you’re a country music fan, you’ll know that the likes of Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and pretty much everyone else made their careers in Nashville, and their shadows are visible across the city. This doesn’t mean that it lives in the past, however; as it is keen to point out, Nashville is still home to most of the songwriters behind this decade’s most famous pop songs, recorded by Britney Spears, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus and many others.
Every year, the city celebrates its love of songwriting with the Tin Pan South festival, the largest of its kind in the world, which is held in March and brings songwriters to the stage so they can showcase the hits they have written for others.
If you can’t make it then, don’t worry; there is still a lot to do in town at any time of the year. In fact, I headed down to Nashville last month to check out everything from the main tourist spots to the hidden gems of Music City; here is what I’d recommend…
What to do in Nashville (if you’re a music fan)…
Nicknamed “the Mother Church of country music”, the Ryman Auditorium has been the heart and soul of Nashville for over 125 years. It is known for its exceptional acoustics and for having hosted pretty much every artist and band you’ve ever heard of at one point or another. Get yourself down there for a gig if you can, but if not the afternoon tours are also worth their salt.
116 5th Avenue North, Nashville, TN 37219
You’ll already know about this place if you’re a White Stripes fan, and if you’re not this record store may well turn you into one. Third Man Records was created by Jack White and sells all of his and his label’s work, and is also house to a hidden venue where bands play and get recorded live. The shop itself is quirky and stylish, and for 20 dollars you can step inside their tiny recording booth and make your own record on the day.
623 7th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37203
One of the largest museums in the USA, the Country Music Hall of Fame offers 350,000 square feet of pictures, videos, historical and recent artefacts on – well, you can guess. From the earliest days of country music to more recent acts like Carrie Underwood, it is both an ideal introduction to the genre for novices and a pilgrimage site for aficionados.
222 5th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37203
The oldest music studio in Nashville, and perhaps one of the most important ones in the world. Hop on the bus from the Hall of Fame and walk through the rooms where hits including Dolly Parton’s Jolene and over 260 of Elvis Presley’s songs were recorded.
222 5th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37203
If you prefer to do your exploring from a sedentary position, there are many tour buses to choose from in town; only one, however, will offer some live music to go with it. While the SongBird tour takes you through all the famous (and hidden) music landmarks of Nashville, downtime between buildings or in traffic will be spent listening to songwriters performing their own work and talking about their experience of the city they love.
201 5th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37203
Nashville has many music institutions, and this might be the most important one. Even the set-up at the Bluebird is unique: instead of a stage at one end of the room, a group of a few songwriters sit in a circle in the middle with their guitars, and take turns playing the songs they’ve written for others and themselves, from the world famous anthems to the beautiful and funny songs with personal significance. The bar only has a 90-person capacity too, so an evening there feels like being let into someone’s living room. It also means that if you go, you need to shut up and listen – Bluebird’s unofficial motto? “Shhh”…
4,104 Hillsboro Pike, Nashville, TN 37215
If you need a bit of a break from country but would like to stay immersed in Music City, this museum should do the trick. From jazz to rock’n’roll, the musicians’ hall of fame honours most major figures in 20th and 21st American music history, and doesn’t only focus on the stars; instead, it pays long overdue homage to the musicians behind the scenes, from studio guitarists to producers.
401 Gay Street, Nashville, TN 37201
If you were to go down Music Row for a gander, you might be underwhelmed; most of the buildings look unremarkable, and if it weren’t for a few plaques here and there, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it doesn’t look like anything special. You’d be wrong, of course, as the music industry was invented and reinvented many times in that part of town, which is why getting a tour guide for the area is more than worth it. Given how heavy southern food is too, you’ll probably be happy to have a chance to stretch your legs…
Tour depart from Decca Records Quonset Hut: 803 16th Avenue South, Nashville, TN
Last but absolutely not least, the Grand Ole Opry is nothing short of legendary. The country music show recorded live there is the longest-running radio show in the world, and features everyone from country’s newest rising stars to performers who made the genre what it is today. An unmissable part of any trip to Nashville.
2,804 Opryland Drive, Nashville, TN 37214
And what to do in Nashville if you’re not a music fan…
It is hard to talk about what is inside the Frist Art Museum as it always changes; the gallery doesn’t do permanent exhibitions, though the one your correspondent got to see while she was down there was on French and British art, and as good as anything you’d find on the old continent. If you’re lucky, they will also be hosting one of their Frist Fridays while you’re there, and you’ll get to look at whatever on then while sipping on a drink and getting to watch live bands and art performances throughout the evening. In any case, the building’s art deco architecture is worth the detour alone.
919 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203
If you live in London, chances are that you already know everything and more about the Jack Daniels distillery in Tennessee. In that case, why not check out more of the area’s booze-making facilities? One of the first places to ever sell whiskey by the bottle, Nelson’s dominated the liquor market for decades before becoming one of the victims of the Prohibition Era. It has since reopened and remains a family business; and just so you know, the tour includes a thorough tasting session. Cheers!
1,414 Clinton Street, Nashville, TN 37203
Shopping in East Nashville
If New York has Williamsburg and London has Shoreditch, Nashville has its eastern quarter, where the younger and cooler parts of the local population congregate. There are some nice bars in the neighbourhood, but it is mostly known for its vintage shops; if you’re so inclined, head to Hip Zipper, Star Struck And Goodbuy Girls for some second-hand 70’s dresses, 80’s skirt suits and – of course – some authentic leather cowboy boots.
Guitar music is all well and good, but sometimes you really just need to get down to some basic pop. If you want to let your hair down and see a drag show or three, gay bar Play is the place for you; the drinks are cheap for a nightclub, the queue isn’t too long and it stays open until late into the night.
1,519 Church St, Nashville TN 37203
Where to eat…
If you want to sample real Tennessee cuisine, look no further. Opened by Jack and Rose Arnold in Nashville in 1982, the restaurant is still in the family, and is as traditional as it gets. All customers queue to get their lunch at the counter, and there is a reason why they are ready to stand in line. Their speciality is the meat-and-three, a combination of beef, fried chicken or fried catfish with a combination of three sides, including creamed corn, fried okra and mac and cheese. If you try their pecan pie for desert, be ready to still be thinking about it weeks later.
605 8th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37203
A more modern take on southern food, Folk offers a wide range of pizzas, meats and fish in a warm and trendy setting. It hasn’t been open for long but that doesn’t mean the team there don’t know what they’re doing; it was featured as one of Bon Appetit’s Top 50 Best New Restaurants In America 2018 list.
823 Meridian Street, Nashville, TN
If you feel the need to have a lighter bite at some point on your trip – and trust us, you will – then there are worse places to go than Dozen Bakery. Of course, light here is all relative; it is still Nashville. A good spot for lunch, it does a cracking bacon and blue cheese baguette, and a number of incredible pies.
516 Hagan Street, Nashville, TN 37203
Can you really say you’ve been to Tennessee if you haven’t had a proper barbecue? Of course you can’t. To tick that box in style, head to Martin’s, where the meat is so freshly cooked that there are no freezers on the premises and they simply stop serving their whole hog roast once it runs out. Maybe plan some nap time in your schedule afterwards.
There’s fried chicken and then there’s Fried Chicken; Hattie B’s squarely falls into the second category. Another family-owned business, it only has a few restaurants across Nashville and the queue can go round the block on busy days, but it is worth it. Their hot chicken is the stuff of legends, and comes in half-a-dozen levels of spiciness; the hottest one is pretty much guaranteed to make you cry and sweat, but if you want to play it safe, the lowest one remains some damn good chicken.
2,222 8th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37204
An intimate place with a very Instagrammable neon sign, Roze is one of the coolest places in Nashville. Their food is simple and straightforward but delicious, and if you’re not hungry it’s not a problem; their cocktails are also delicious.
1115 Porter Road, Nashville, TN 37206
The best brunch spot in town, hands down. Launched by James Beard award-winning Chef Sean Brock, it plays around with typical brunch items and manages to make them all even tastier – and greasier. Highlights include their cheeseburger, shrimp po’boy and hash browns as big as pillows. You definitely will not be needing lunch after that.
37 Rutledge St, Nashville, TN 37210
Bonus! Where to stay…
Well, the clue’s in the name. Dream is one of Nashville’s newest hotels – its soft launch was at the end of last year – and it is fast becoming one of the jewels of downtown. With 168 rooms (including 21 suites) and several bars and restaurants, it can be tempting to step inside and not leave again until the end of the trip, but as we’ve just seen, there really is a thing or two to do in the city…
210 4th Ave N, Nashville, TN 37219