Maybe it’s a byproduct of country music’s coming of age, a decades-long emergence from the fringes of American music to mainstream dominance that ultimately put its capital on the must-see map. Maybe it’s the eponymous hit ABC television drama filmed on its streets and celebrating its grit-meets-glitz spirit and style. Maybe it’s the explosive food scene or the legion of entrepreneurial artisans—leatherworkers, distillers, candy makers, and clothiers—that have set up shop in the city’s redeveloped warehouse and factory buildings. Maybe it’s just kismet.
Whatever the reason, Nashville is hot, white hot, Nashville-hot-chicken hot (and as any local will tell you, it simply doesn’t get any hotter than that). And with so much to see and hear and taste, it’s a good thing Nashville is also known as a town that rises early and stays up late, affording visitors plenty of time to take advantage of the round-the-clock fun.
WHERE TO STAY
The 404 Hotel
Once a mechanic’s garage, this upscale five-room oasis—hidden in plain sight in the parking lot behind bluegrass mecca the Station Inn—places a premium on privacy. “Invisible service” administered by a discreet staff and keyless entry allow guests to make all arrangements before they arrive and come and go without notice. The sleek modern design concept is well suited to the industrial glitz of the redeveloped Gulch neighborhood, former site of the city’s historic rail yard.
The Hermitage Hotel
Opened in 1910, the historic grand hotel in the heart of Downtown has welcomed well-heeled guests and hosted the city’s social elite for more than a century. The Beaux Arts beauty, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is Tennessee’s only Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond hotel. Guests will appreciate the large rooms (500 to 650 square feet), marble bathrooms, and skyline views.
The Hutton Hotel
A favorite of the celebrity set, the elegant, eco-friendly hotel in the city’s West End neighborhood hums with a young, hip vibe—no doubt enhanced by its proximity to the affluent Belle Meade community, a country star haven, and Vanderbilt and Belmont universities. Guest rooms feature custom contemporary decor and granite bathrooms with large rainfall showers, as well as sustainable bamboo flooring and furnishings.
Kick off your visit with a cocktail at Saint Anejo. The polished Mexican restaurant and cantina boasts a premium tequila and mezcal menu of more than 120 labels and a wall of convertible windows that open onto the buzzing street life of the hip Gulch neighborhood. Order a craft margarita (variations include ginger/rosemary and cucumber/habanero/lime) or a glass of sparkling blanco sangria.
It’s the pasta that takes center stage at Rolf and Daughters (R.A.D.), an intimate Italian restaurant in the city’s Germantown neighborhood, a couple of miles north of the Gulch. The darling of country music stars and national dining critics alike, R.A.D. welcomes walk-ins who pack the century-old brick factory building to feast on squid ink chitarra with blue crab and garganelli verde with pork ragout.
Out of This World
You might be surprised to learn that the country music capital is also home to a thriving jazz scene. The Nashville Jazz Workshop (less than a mile from R.A.D.) attracts accomplished artists from across the country, who pass on their expertise to apprentice musicians—and perform concerts in the workshop’s cozy Jazz Cave every other weekend (check the website for upcoming shows). An added bonus: Tickets are just $20.
Street of Dreams
New Orleans has Bourbon Street, Memphis has Beale, and Nashville has Lower Broadway, more commonly known as Honky Tonk Row. The music rarely stops along the legendary strip of music halls and boot shops bathed in the neon glow of giant cowboy hats and guitars. Catch a set from an aspiring singer/songwriter at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge or Robert’s Western World, iconic bars where Opry stars once kicked back over fried bologna sandwiches and longneck beers after shows at the nearby Ryman. It’s also where contemporary singers such as Dierks Bentley and Gretchen Wilson cut their teeth.
Cap the night with midnight bowling—or karaoke or bocce ball—at Pinewood Social, a sprawling restaurant/bar/coffeehouse/community hangout just blocks from Lower Broadway. Created by the brothers behind Nashville hotspots the Patterson House and the Catbird Seat, Pinewood pulses with activity from early morning until 1:00 a.m. Order an espresso drink at the coffee bar or head outside to the Airstream bar for a poolside cocktail (yes, there’s a pool) and views of the Cumberland River.
Begin the day with breakfast at the legendary Loveless Cafe. (The half-hour drive from Downtown along Hillsboro Pike and Old Hickory Boulevard is a treat in itself, taking you past rolling horse pastures and grand homes.) Checkered tablecloths and tea-towel curtains set the scene, and meals like country ham with redeye gravy and cheesy hash brown casserole hit the spot. Don’t miss the biscuit sampler, a plate of slider-sized breakfast sandwiches featuring fried chicken, country ham, steak, and barbecue.
Store of Wonder
On your way back into town, stop in at Parnassus Books. Tucked in an unassuming strip mall on Hillsboro Pike opposite the Mall at Green Hills, the celebrated independent bookstore draws bibliophiles from across the nation, who peruse its carefully curated selection of titles, attend frequent author events, and play with the store’s five welcoming shop dogs. Signed copies of books by bestselling Nashville author and bookstore co-owner Ann Patchett make for great souvenirs.
Begin your exploration of Nashville’s country roots downtown at the Ryman Auditorium. Known as the Mother Church of Country Music, the venerable venue served as the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974. Settle into the worn pews to view a short film featuring Opry legends, then have your picture taken on the historic stage and check out exhibits of costumes, photos, and memorabilia. Hit the former ticket booth, now Ryman Recording Studio, to cut your own Ryman Records CD.
A short stroll down Honky Tonk Row delivers you to Acme Feed & Seed, a 22,000-square-foot restaurant, retail, and live entertainment space with a vintage feel located at the east end of Lower Broadway. Grab a seat at one of the long communal tables and order the hot chicken sandwich (Acme’s nod to the local specialty made famous by longstanding chicken shacks Prince’s and Hattie B’s). Browse the first-floor shop for handmade Nashville items, from jewelry and candles to sauces and spice blends, then head up to the rooftop bar for outstanding views of the adjacent Cumberland River.
Hello, I’m Johnny Cash
Just a couple of blocks from Acme stands one of Nashville’s newest and most popular attractions: the Johnny Cash Museum. The small, sleek museum houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of
artifacts chronicling the life and career of The Man in Black, from gold records and Grammys to jumpsuits and antique furniture. Listen to Cash classics and watch clips of his TV and film appearances. Don’t leave without picking up a classic black CASH T-shirt (or an I Crawl the Line onesie) in the gift shop.
You’re Lookin’ at Country
End the afternoon at the nearby 350,000-square-foot Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, known as the Smithsonian of country music. Immerse yourself in the history—and the sound—of country during a tour of the core exhibition Sing Me Back Home: A Journey Through Country Music, and learn more about its stars in a rotating series of special exhibits. Also plan a visit to the on-site home of Hatch Show Print, the letterpress operation renowned for its iconic concert posters and handbills.
A Watering Hole for the Well-Heeled
Drop by the Hermitage Hotel and head downstairs to the Oak Bar for happy hour. Settle into a leather armchair with a glass of single-malt Scotch—or, better still, fine Tennessee whiskey—from the bar’s extensive collection and soak up the heady ambiance of this warmly lit, dark wood–paneled cocoon of refinement and privilege. Gentlemen be warned: Female patrons are known to pop in for a peek at the fabled art deco
Country’s Most Famous Stage
No visit to Nashville would be complete without a visit to the Grand Ole Opry to see the show live. Located about fifteen minutes east of Downtown, the Grand Ole Opry House begins its fifth decade as the home of the world’s longest running radio show (first broadcast in 1925) this year. Performances begin at 7:00 and feature both country music legends and contemporary hit-makers. (See the Before You Go sidebar below for info on booking a behind-the-scenes tour.)
Fine Southern Fare
Head back into the city for a late dinner at Husk, the high holy of haute Southern cuisine. The setting, a circa-1880 hilltop estate in Downtown’s Rutledge Hill area, underscores Husk’s commitment to showcasing the region’s heritage. In fact, James Beard Award–winning chef Sean Brock sources ingredients exclusively from Southern farms and purveyors—or the restaurant’s on-site garden. And while the menu changes daily, the celebration of heirloom vegetables and Southern specialties, as well as traditional charcuterie and pickling techniques, is a constant.
Sugar’s Star Turn
For dessert, drive three miles south to Sinema, located in Nashville’s 8th Avenue South area. Housed in the historic Melrose theater, the swank restaurant crackles with opening-night energy every night. Take the grand curved staircase upstairs to the lounge, snag a seat at the bar or tuck into one of the plush nooks, and order Sugar, a platter of beautifully crafted cookies and confections perfect for sharing.
If you’re up for a nightcap,
you can’t do better than The Patterson House—and it’s on the way back to the city center, situated in a historic house in West End. A Southern vanguard in the craft-cocktail movement, the now-legendary speakeasy has been wowing patrons with made-daily mixes, a slate of classic Prohibition-era cocktails, and friendly, knowledgeable bartenders for six years—with no sign of slowing down. The bar remains open until 3:00 a.m., so pull up a seat—if you’re lucky enough to snag one.
Just across the Cumberland River from Downtown lies East Nashville, an artsy enclave that is home to Marche Artisan Foods. The European-style cafe serves up one of the city’s most acclaimed weekend brunches, featuring French classics such as croissants with housemade jams and crepes (both sweet and savory), as well as Southern staples like buttermilk biscuits, sausage gravy, and cheese grits. Order a café au lait and browse the marketplace for artisan products while you wait for a table.
Art for Everyone
Stroll a couple of blocks to Art & Invention Gallery, which offers a wide range of works—paintings, photography, sculpture, jewelry, furniture, fixtures, even toys—from more than 100 local artists. Reasonable prices, approachable art, and a welcoming spirit make it the ultimate everyman gallery. Be sure to visit its adjacent IDEA Hatchery, eight small buildings—or “incubators”—housing start-up boutiques selling clothing, jewelry, and other goods.
The Real Golden Ticket
Less than a mile away, in a charming circa-1890 grocery, you’ll find the Olive & Sinclair chocolate factory and retail storefront. Stop in and stock up on Southern-inspired artisan products: stone-ground chocolate bars, duck fat caramels, buttermilk white chocolate, and bourbon nib brittle. On Saturdays, visitors can go behind the scenes on a factory tour of Nashville’s first bean-to-bar chocolatier (the aroma alone is worth the five-dollar ticket price).
Athens of the South
Drive back across the river to West End’s Centennial Park, home of the Parthenon. Originally built for the 1897 Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition and reconstructed in the 1920s, the full-scale replica of the ancient Athenian temple houses an art gallery featuring nineteenth- and twentieth-century American paintings, an exhibition on the grand turn-of-the-century fair, and a towering forty-two-foot sculpture of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war.
Eat Global, Buy Local
Head to Germantown and the Nashville Farmers’ Market (a couple of miles east of the Parthenon) for a late lunch or midday snack. The centrally located Market House is home to a dozen eateries serving a globe-spanning range of cuisines—Greek, Indian, Jamaican, Korean, and Mexican—as well as Southern staples like barbecue and po’boys. Afterward, check out more traditional farmers market offerings, such as local produce and flea market finds, in the adjoining buildings.
Made in Nashville
Just a mile from the market, Marathon Village—former site of Nashville carmaker Marathon Motor Works—is a fitting home for the hive of craftspeople turning out uniquely Nashville products. Shop for custom bow ties and neckties at Otis James and fine leather goods at Emil Erwin. Sample imaginative small-batch spirits (think quinoa whiskey) in the tasting room at Corsair Distillery, and pick up a box of handmade gourmet marshmallows (try the black currant absinthe or maple bacon bourbon) at Bang Candy Company. And check out other one-of-a-kind items at the outpost of Antique Archaeology, owned by TV antique hunter Mike Wolfe of History’s American Pickers. It’s a fitting final stop on your whirlwind tour of Nashville, a city that cherishes its past and is always looking for imaginative new ways to honor it.
BEFORE YOU GO
While walk-ins are welcome at most of the restaurants on our itinerary and tickets are usually available for the attractions we include, some of Nashville’s most unforgettable experiences require advance planning.
The exclusive Behind the Opry Curtain VIP Tour takes guests backstage in the minutes before show time to experience the excitement firsthand, lets them in on the Opry’s inner workings, and allows them to remain onstage as the big red curtain is raised. Only ten slots are available for each show, and reservations must be made at least two weeks in advance.
A Bird in the Hand
Though it looms large in the world of country music, the ninety-seat Bluebird Cafe is a small space. A typical night at the legendary listening room features a few songwriters who take turns playing their songs and accompanying one another. Since its debut on TV’s Nashville, hard-to-score reservations have become more elusive, so make them before your trip (or queue up outside on Sunday or Monday nights, when the shows are first come, first served).
If you want to snag one of the coveted thirty-two seats surrounding the open kitchen at the aptly named Catbird Seat, you’ll need to plan ahead and stay up late: Reservations for each evening’s seven-course tasting open thirty days out at midnight—and go fast. If you’re the gambling type, you might follow the restaurant on Twitter, where it posts rare, last-minute openings.