Nashville, set on a bluff on central Tennessee’s Cumberland River, earned its first nickname, “Rock City,” in the mid–19th century for its abundant limestone. Only much later would it be dubbed “Music City,” but the roots of its musical legacy date back to that same period. Today the flash and flair of Nashville’s rhinestone-bedecked country-music scene draws about 14 million visitors a year. Quite a few are so equally captivated by the area’s other charms—rolling parkland, sprawling estates steeped in history, globally minded museums—that they are deciding to stay for good (each day, around 70 people move here). Artsy boutiques, stylish restaurants and other entrepreneurial trappings of a city on the rise are popping up, all set to the rumble of downtown’s wood-clad honky-tonks. Here’s how to make the most of this slice of the South.
Live-Music Hot Spots
Nashville’s musical foundation is long and rich: Over the years, the “hillbilly music” of the early 20th century gave way to the smooth “Nashville sound” of the 1960s and then the alt-country rock of the 1990s. You can’t leave town without seeing a show at the landmark Ryman Auditorium (116 Fifth Ave. N.; 615-889-3060; tickets, from $38), which is celebrating its 125th anniversary. While perched on its wooden pews—left over from its long-ago days as the Union Gospel Tabernacle—you can stomp your feet and clap in time to a parade of musicians performing on a stage that’s hosted Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and other stars. (The Ryman was also the former home of the Grand Ole Opry.) Once in a while, a big-name musician will slip from the Ryman over to Robert’s Western World (416B Broadway; 615-244-9552) and play at the neon-lit honky-tonk without being recognized—or so one local tips me off conspiratorially. Another fun spot: downtown’s recently opened Ascend Amphitheater (301 First Ave. S.; 615-999-9000; tickets, from $35), which puts on major open-air shows from the spring through the fall.
The Hyperlocal Bookstore
When acclaimed novelist Ann Patchett and publishing veteran Karen Hayes heard that Nashville’s last (and beloved) independent bookstore was closing its doors, they opened the spacious Parnassus Books (3900 Hillsboro Pike, Suite 14; 615-953-2243) as a haven for readers who couldn’t bear the thought of living in a city without one. More community than store, it has since received national attention as a symbol of resistance to online bookstores marginalizing brick-and-mortar shops. Stop in to browse its collection of tomes by local writers such as Alice Randall and Ridley Wills, take part in one of its intimate author readings or simply pet one of the shopkeepers’ friendly dogs; Mary Todd Lincoln Coffman, a long-haired dachshund, loves treats.
Where to Catch a Ball Game
A guitar-shaped scoreboard keeps Minor League Baseball team Nashville Sounds on point at the recently opened First Tennessee Park (19 Junior Gilliam Way; tickets, from $30).
The Double-Duty Art Stop
Even the building is a work of art at The Frist Center for the Visual Arts (919 Broadway; 615-244-3340; adults, $12; children, free). Nashville’s 1933 post office turned museum is a trove of Art Deco details, with its Grand Lobby imprinted with cast-aluminum icons showing an airplane, a locomotive, a ship and more. This season the institution turns its eye to Australia with an exhibit on Aboriginal art (June 23–Oct. 15). But its wonderful second-floor Martin ArtQuest Gallery, where kids and adults can get creative at 30 interactive stations and make things like collages or small sculptures, is worth a visit all on its own.
Where to Eat Now
Upstart and superstar chefs are descending upon the booming food city seemingly every week and opening new restaurants. Hot-from-the-oven biscuits—slathered with melty butter or dressed up with sausage gravy, shaved country ham and the like—steal the show at the fast-casual Biscuit Love (316 11th Ave. S.; 615-490-9584; breakfast for two, $30*), in the up-and-coming Gulch neighborhood. Across town, in a brick house in Rutledge Hill, prolific chef Sean Brock’s light-filled Husk (37 Rutledge St.; 615-256-6565; brunch for two, $60) beautifully prepares ingredients “from below the Mason-Dixon Line,” such as the button mushrooms (dubbed the “truffles of the South” by chef de cuisine Brian Baxter) from nearby Creative Gardens that appear in the shrimp and grits. The kitchen is on the second floor, so ask for a table downstairs to avoid the heat during brunch. Or simply stop by to enjoy a glass of biodynamic wine—the menu is organized by soil type (limestone, volcanic and others)—at the subdued bar or on the breezy outdoor patio. For dinner, reserve a table in advance for the standout Rolf and Daughters (700 Taylor St.; 615-866-9897; dinner for two, $90), in Germantown. Any misgivings you may have about ordering Italian in Nashville will be forgotten with your first bite of, say, the garganelli verde pasta with heritage-pork ragout. (Tip: The wines are lovely but quirky, so ask for a sip before you commit.) And you can’t leave town without tearing into a glistening stack of hot chicken—the food Nashville is most known for—at the indoor picnic-style Hattie B’s (5209 Charlotte Ave.; 615-712-7137; lunch for two, $25), but be forewarned—the “medium” heat calls for heaps of cayenne.
Country-Music History 101
Marvel at Elvis Presley’s custom Cadillac limo with 24-karat-gold-plated trim, read Dolly Parton’s original lyrics for her 1970s hit “Jolene” written in script and browse some other 2.5 million artifacts at the Country Music Hall of Fame (222 Fifth Ave.; 615-416-2001; admission, $25), which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2017. Set aside at least an hour for the museum, plus a little extra to explore the on-site Hatch Show Print (224 Fifth Ave. S.; 615-577-7710; tours, from $18 a person), one of the country’s oldest letterpress shops, dating back to 1879. Everyone from vaudeville acts to Grand Ole Opry stars such as Minnie Pearl commissioned their iconic posters to advertise upcoming shows, a tradition many Southern musicians still follow today. Pick up a souvenir across the hall at the Haley Gallery (615-577-7711), where the walls are hung with prints by the shop’s current staff of artists.
Where to Cool Off With the Kids
Little ones love splashing around water fountains and skipping along a misted path at the six-and-a-half-acre Cumberland Park (592 S. First St.), set along its namesake river.
Stepping Back in Time
America’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson (“Old Hickory”), lived much of his life two hours by horseback—now about a 20-minute drive—from Nashville. (A note about getting around while you’re in town: Public transportation hasn’t caught up with the city’s growth yet, so plan to rent a car or hail a car service.) Jackson was born into poverty, and his original and modest farmhouse stands on the same parcel of land as the 8,000-square-foot Hermitage (4580 Rachel’s Lane; 615-889-2941; admission, $20), the mansion where he and his wife, Rachel, later lived. Guides lead 30-minute tours of the house, with its 14 rooms, 700-volume library, 11 fireplaces, beguiling robin’s-egg blue dining room and chandelier-lit parlor, where guests once danced the lively Virginia reel on floors made of tulip poplar, the state tree of Tennessee. The guides also share fun trivia, such as how Jackson used to leave a bayonet propped on a chair in the parlor as a conversation starter.
The Walkable Neighborhood
Nashville is a sprawling city. One of its most pedestrian-friendly districts is known as 12 South and stretches along 12th Avenue South from Wedgewood to Kirkwood Avenues. Warm doughnuts stuffed with homemade ice cream are scooped to order during the summer at the neon-pink-emblazoned Five Daughters Bakery (1110 Caruthers Ave.; 615-490-6554; doughnuts for two, $8), named for owners Isaac and Stephanie Meek’s five daughters. Just across the avenue is The Flipside (2403 12th Ave. S.; 615-292-9299; lunch for two, $30), an airy 1950s-style diner with a garage-door facade and a row of red vintage Big Chill refrigerators. About two blocks south you’ll find Craft South (2516 12th Ave. S.; 615-928-8766; classes, from $35) brimming with gifts, from lightly scented candles to plush dolls, as well as a rainbow of yarns beneath the slogan “Happiness Is Handmade.” Check out the shop’s events calendar for one-off classes on knitting, patchwork quilting and more, led by local artisans. A block down is Reese Witherspoon’s ode to Southern fashion, Draper James (2608 12th Ave. S.; 615-997-3601). Magnolia-shaped earrings ($65), red gingham dog collars ($22) and navy totes stamped with “hello, sugar” ($165) round out the collection of women’s dresses and jackets (from $125). Be sure to pose for a photo in front of the “I Believe in Nashville” mural just around the corner. Make your last stop at White’s Mercantile (2908 12th Ave. S.; 615-750-5379), a general store owned by country legend Hank Williams Jr.’s daughter that’s packed with skinny bandana neck scarfs ($40), Pendleton bags ($90), flannel men’s shirts ($120) and kitchenware.
Twenty minutes outside of the city, you’ll find the Cheekwood Estate and Gardens (1200 Forrest Park Dr.; 615-356-8000; admission, $20). Surrounded by 55 acres of beautifully manicured terraced gardens, expansive lawns and forest, the estate—with its 1929 Georgian-style mansion, the former home of Nashville’s prominent Cheek family—is a sight to behold. American paintings, drawings and sculpture produced between 1910 and 1970 constitute much of the permanent collection at the on-site art museum. There are also works by luminaries such as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, sculptures from Nashville artist Louise-Dahl Wolfe and 650 pieces of American and European silver.
You can rent a canoe for two- or five- or seven-mile excursions through the family-operated Canoe Music City (rentals and canoe access at 1203 U.S. Hwy. 70 S.; 615-952-4211; rentals, from $38) and paddle along the gentle Class I Harpeth River to take in the surrounding bluffs and green embankments. Don’t forget to pack your water shoes, Ziploc bags (for your phone and keys) and a picnic lunch.
Where to Sip a Craft Cocktail
In a city with countless bars, The Patterson House (1711 Division St.; 615-636-7724; drinks for two, $26) stands apart for its mixologist-made concoctions, like the luscious Alexander (Hayman’s Old Tom gin, crème de cacao and cream). With a 30-foot chestnut bar, book-lined shelves and vintage chandeliers, the space is hushed and intimate, but the snacks—think tater tots, pork rinds and shrimp corn dogs—are simple and delicious.
The City’s Most Instagrammable View
Snap and post a sunset shot of the 3,150-foot-long John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, which connects downtown Nashville across the Cumberland River to East Nashville, and then wait for the comments from your friends and family to roll in.
Consider tacking on an excursion to explore the famous Bourbon Trail in neighboring Kentucky. America’s native spirit was named for a Kentucky county, and the state is now home to more bourbon barrels than people. About a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Nashville, the Louisville-based Mint Julep Tours & Transportation (140 N. Fourth St., Suite 326; 502-583-1433; tours, from $129 a person) operates both scheduled and custom tours, during which you can sample some of the country’s highest-rated batches of bourbon at Woodford Reserve, a Kentucky Derby Day favorite, and Wild Turkey, crafted by the “Buddha of Bourbon,” master distiller Jimmy Russell.
*Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.