If you’re visiting Nashville for the first time, plan on slipping on your cowboy boots and hitting the honky-tonks. Downtown’s legendary Lower Broadway district is a mix of scruffy old dives and newer, celebrity-branded entertainment palaces (e.g., Jason Aldean’s Kitchen + Rooftop Bar)—all lit up in neon, any one liable to house the best cover band you’ve ever heard. Down the center of the street, a parade of party buses, party tractors, and party fire engines blast their own soundtracks. It’s a booze-soaked, feather-boa-draped scene befitting the South’s bachelorette party capital, and it’s worth doing once—and maybe never again.
To be fair, Broadway and the surrounding entertainment district are home to celebrated cultural destinations such as Ryman Auditorium, the National Museum of African American Music, and the Frist Art Museum. The area is a huge part of Nashville, but Nashville’s so much more—a dynamic city where you can easily fill up on memorable meals, great music, and gorgeous scenery without bumping into Fireball-chugging tourists asking to hear “Fancy Like” and “Friends in Low Places.” (No disrespect; blame it all on their roots.) Here are a few—okay, 30 or so—places to put on your list.
Nashville is packed with independent restaurants garnering national acclaim. For a mere nibble of the culinary scene, consider this sample day of eating around town:
Wake up your taste buds in East Nashville, a sprawling neighborhood east of the Cumberland River with a fiercely independent spirit and enough cool hangout spots that one could spend a weekend there alone. Cafe Roze is the ideal brunch spot: upscale but easygoing, reservations accepted. Amid clean-lined accents of blush pink and black-and-white, go light with housemade coconut yogurt and granola or heavier with an egg sandwich with local Gifford’s bacon and tomato jam. Flip the menu over for a full spread of beverages spanning the caffeinated, boozy, and refreshing.
If you’re short on time, grab a breakfast burrito from Mitchell Delicatessen; stuffed with chorizo, bacon, and guac, the crowd-favorite is available on weekends until it sells out. Or, hit the drive-through at Donut Distillery for a pack of adorable mini doughnuts in the signature whiskey glaze. (Did we mention you’ll want a car for this off-the-tourist-track quest?)
For lunch, cruise Nolensville Pike, a melting pot of immigrant-owned businesses just south of downtown. Nashville is home to the country’s largest Kurdish population, and Edessa is an outstanding ambassador of the culture’s cuisine. Bookend your kebab of choice with the addictive Anatolian flatbread and Turkish coffee or tea. Crave a cerveza? Head to La Hacienda Taqueria, where owners Carlos and Lillian Yepez are famed for their homemade tortillas. Enjoy street tacos and a Modelo under blown-up photos of a beaming President Obama, who stopped by the colorful restaurant back in 2014.
Abutting downtown to the north, the neighborhood of Germantown is full of charming townhomes on tree-lined brick sidewalks, though you might see a few leveled lots from the March 2020 tornado that struck the area. It’s also ground zero for Nashville’s James Beard darlings. Head to happy hour at Henrietta Red, the seafood-forward spot from homegrown talent Julia Sullivan, a 2020 finalist for “Best Chef: Southeast.” Daily from 5:00 to 6:30 p.m., the pretty, white-splashed restaurant serves $2 oysters and $3 cava. Then walk next door to City House, a neighborhood mainstay helmed by Tandy Wilson, who won the “Best Chef: Southeast” honor in 2016 after being nominated nine times in the category. The warmly lit Italian-Southern spot continues to draw a hungry crowd, many of whom start with the shareable belly ham pizza. (When the waiter asks if you’d like a fried egg on it, say yes.) There are several other fantastic dinner options in the area, but those are two spots Nashvillians reliably show off to out-of-towners.
If you’d rather steer somewhere that truly feels like a discovery, head to the westside to Sylvan Park, a residential enclave with its own small restaurant strip, and the newly opened Spanish spot, Lola. Couples on double dates fill the airy, minimalist interior and share tapas like classic papas bravas (fried potatoes) or tuna gildas (skewers of seared tuna with pickled peppers and olives). Start with the stellar charcuterie board, but pace yourself—the dishes come fast.
Spare a few hours for shopping, and you’ll get to explore cool parts of town while taking home some unique keepsakes. And while there’s nothing wrong with a pair of $200 cowgirl boots, here’s a leather purveyor where you can truly feel good dropping cash: Able sells handbags and shoes—along with scarves, jewelry, and apparel—from rigorously selected ethical manufacturers around the globe. The shop, which has the sleek look of a high-end boutique, is located in the Nations, a once-industrial area west of downtown that’s now dotted with restaurants and breweries. After studying the sophisticated selection, walk next door to a huge location of the Frothy Monkey, a beloved local coffeehouse chain.
Nestled on the southside near Belmont University is one of Nashville’s best shopping neighborhoods, 12 South. Its central artery, 12th Avenue, is on the bachelorette circuit and can get crowded on weekends, but brick-and-mortar outposts of sought-after national brands like Draper James and Marine Layer make it a worthy destination. It’s also home to a must-visit gift shop, White’s Mercantile. Owned by singer-songwriter Holly Williams (daughter of Hank Williams Jr.), the retrofitted gas station is full of her “favorite finds and discoveries from the highway,” from gorgeous barware and charcuterie boards to retro music prints and soft baby clothes.
Shop small, literally, in East Nashville, where pocket-sized stores seem built for easy browsing. Five Points Alley Shops is a row of mini boutiques like Fairytales Bookstore, an adorable children’s bookshop, and Goodbuy Girls, where you can pick up those cowgirl boots (owner Tanya Montana Coe has an amazing eye for vintage finds and a celeb fan base). Stroll another collection of boutique-lets at the Shoppes of Fatherland; check out Tenn Gallon Hats for kitschy Nashville-themed gifts, both new and vintage. Other standout shops in the vicinity include Lemon Laine, a sunny spread of clean beauty products, plus a facial-oil “bar” where a specialist concocts a custom blend (by appointment); and Vinyl Tap, where there’s an actual bar inside a record store and album racks have built-in cup holders.
Drinks and Jams
How to begin a night out in Nashville? With a killer drink of course. You’re guaranteed one at Attaboy, an East Nashville speakeasy with a pedigree: It’s the only outpost of the esteemed Manhattan bar of the same name, which was founded by alums of Milk & Honey (the New York establishment often credited with launching the modern craft-cocktail movement). Knock on the door of the nondescript brick box and wait to enter a space that looks exactly as a mixology temple should (dim lighting, clubby rounded booths), where there’s no menu and bartenders whip up libations to taste.
More in the mood for a rum-laced drink in an over-the-top mug inside a Polynesian-themed bar presided over by a giant gold robot? Chopper Tiki, up the street from Attaboy, is your place. Or head to Germantown to Mother’s Ruin, another NYC spin-off drawing crowds, where the cocktails are creative, the wall art offbeat (including a bathroom devoted to Betty White), and the Old Bay waffle fries legendary. Just south of downtown, Wedgewood-Houston is a fast-growing neighborhood where warehouses conceal cool little watering holes. An old welding shop looks humble on the outside but houses Never Never, an inviting hangout where you’re equally at home sipping prosecco punch or a Coors Banquet. (Relevant for your morning hangover: This area also has an excellent coffee scene.)
This is Music City, of course, and no trip here is complete without a live show. Nashville happens to be full of iconic stages that aren’t honky-tonks. One is Exit/In, anchor of the city’s “Rock Block,” a strip of restaurants and clubs near Vanderbilt University that was an epicenter of 1970s counterculture. The black-painted venue marked its 50th anniversary last year while facing twin threats: the pandemic and a change in building ownership. A groundswell of community support saved the club, which has hosted the likes of B.B. King, the Ramones, and Jimmy Buffett (who played the venue’s first show as a total unknown). It continues to book an eclectic lineup, from indie rock to reggae to synthpop.
The music’s also sounding a little sweeter these days at the Basement East, the East Nashville concert venue that became a symbol of resilience when its cinder-block “I Believe in Nashville” mural remained standing after the 2020 tornado—and almost no other part of the building did. “The Beast” reopened in March 2021, reestablishing itself as a beloved neighborhood spot to catch local and national acts across diverse genres, as well as tribute shows for the likes of John Prine and Tina Turner.
For a truly throwback experience, head to Printer’s Alley, a festive two-block strip of downtown that isn’t not touristy but feels like it, thanks to its off-Broadway location and distinct music history; blues and jazz reigned here during Prohibition. Established in 1948, Skull’s Rainbow Room keeps the past alive with live jazz nightly and burlesque shows Friday and Saturday nights—on the original checkerboard floor where Etta James and Elvis Presley performed. Also downtown, but a world away from noisy Broadway, is the Listening Room Cafe, an intimate place to hear talented songwriters share tunes and trade stories, usually in groups of two or three. The format is a lot like the city’s famous Bluebird Cafe, only it’s much easier to score tickets.
Work It Off
Nashville isn’t known as a particularly outdoorsy destination, but the city is home to some spectacular nature escapes within an easy drive of the action. After an indulgent night out, do as the locals do and head to Radnor Lake State Park, a 1,400-acre nature preserve just 20 minutes south of downtown; blink, and you’ve traveled from city to suburb to dense forest set on steeply pitched hills surrounding a serene lake. You’ll have plenty of company on the 2.7-mile Radnor Lake Trail loop, and not just fellow walkers—keep an eye out for deer, wild turkeys, bald eagles, and maybe a star or two (the park is a favorite hangout of Taylor Swift).
Fifteen minutes west of Radnor Lake, two neighboring greenspaces, Percy Warner Park and Edwin Warner Park, together constitute 3,200 acres—one of the largest park expanses contained within a U.S. city. More than 60 miles of hiking trails traverse old-growth forest, open pastures, and parts of the historic Natchez Trace trail used by American Indian tribes for centuries. It’s a sanctuary of wildness in the shadow of the city, but there’s cultivated beauty here too: Percy Warner borders Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, a 1930s private mansion that’s now home to the city’s botanical garden. Reserve your ticket and entry time in advance, and explore a dozen distinct horticultural havens, including a Japanese garden and a 1.5-mile woodland path dotted with whimsical sculptures.
If you do only one thing in the Warner parks, climb the Allée, a set of picturesque limestone steps built in 1936 under the New Deal and restored in 2020. Located at the entrance of Percy Warner Park at the end of Belle Meade Boulevard, the stairs are a popular spot for Rocky-style jogs or leisurely strolls to a lovely view of the tree-lined avenue below. On a clear day, you’ll spot the downtown skyline peeking above the treetops on the horizon. Somewhere in that urban jungle, tourists are downing cheap beer and dancing to “Livin’ On a Prayer,” but from this vantage point, you’d never know.
Where to Stay
Downtown Nashville is the hotel hub, but try these boutique spots tucked into neighborhoods
Vandyke Bed & Beverage
At this lively eight-suite hotel in the heart of East Nashville’s Five Points, rooms are named and styled after drinks—Tequila has a Southwestern vibe, while Vodka is all Scandinavian minimalism—and the street-level bar draws a local crowd.
This East Nashville hotel is situated in a 115-year-old church and preserves many of its details—pews serve as headboards, for instance. Both the Russell and its sister property, the Gallatin (also a church-turned-hotel), donate a portion of their proceeds to local homeless ministries.
The Germantown Inn
An 1865 Federal-style home now houses a 10-suite bed-and-breakfast with Frette linens, Turkish towels, and a twinkle-lit courtyard terrace. Playful portraits of American historical figures (James Madison has magenta hair, for one) exemplify the classic-with-a-twist design.
This article appears in the Spring & Summer 2022 issue of Southbound.