Country music might coax tourists to Music City like a moth to a neon beer sign, but those who venture beyond the honky-tonks get to sample the city’s rich collaborations across art and business. With a booming food scene and growing diversity, this friendly city walks the line between a slick new Nashville and old-school soul.
WHY WE LOVE IT
It’s hard to resist a city that draws a dreamer. And indeed, Nashville has long bewitched newcomers, many adding their own voices to Music City, the songwriting capital of the world. Located along the Cumberland River, with rolling hills and rural farmland along its edges, the city possesses the soulfulness of a place steeped in music history, as well as the electricity of a town on the rise, thanks in part to a nationally renowned restaurant scene steered by both local chefs and those drawn here from Chicago and New York. But chefs aren’t the only ones relocating to Nashville, which continues to see an influx of nearly a hundred new residents a day.
NEIGHBORHOODS TO KNOW
Back before country was cool, Nashville neighborhoods weren’t quite trendy enough to warrant hip monikers. Not so anymore. Now, areas like WeHo (Wedgewood-Houston), which offers artists co-working spaces; Pie Town (named for the creative micro-neighborhood’s distinctive shape); and downtown’s SoBro (South of Broadway) join must-visit classics like Hillsboro Village, near Vanderbilt University; posh Belle Meade; and the international corridor along Nolensville Pike, where you’ll find some of the city’s most authentic tacos. (We’re fans of the al pastor and chorizo tacos at Tacos Y Mariscos El Amigo.) A few more districts to know:
Named for the nineteenth-century immigrants who settled in the area, this walkable neighborhood now has some of the best eating in Nashville with mainstay restaurants such as Henrietta Red, City House, and Rolf and Daughters, as well as the Nashville Farmers’ Market, a community gathering space since the early 1800s. Sample the city’s sports scene at the Nashville Sounds baseball stadium, or, to get your culture fix, pop over to nearby Jefferson Street (the border between Germantown and historic North Nashville) for the art crawl near the old haunts of Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard, Etta James, and other R&B greats. The neighborhood (along with parts of East Nashville) took a hit from the 2020 tornado that ripped through Nashville, but most businesses and restaurants, including the heavily damaged Geist Bar + Restaurant, are back welcoming guests.
This long abandoned industrial area adjacent to downtown has undergone a massive transformation in recent years, with an explosion of shops, boutique hotels, condos, and restaurants, including the 404 Kitchen, where the whiskey list boasts more than three hundred bottles, and the first of chef Maneet Chauhan’s four Nashville restaurants, Chauhan Ale & Masala House. Drive through on the weekend and you’re likely to see lines of travelers snaking around the block waiting to snap photos in front of one of the neighborhood’s famous murals. But if you’re going to wait in line, we’d suggest joining the queue at Biscuit Love instead—the payoff’s tastier. For dinner, swing through the buffet at Arnold’s Country Kitchen; the landmark meat-and-three just added after-dark hours and cocktails. Then cozy up to a table for two at Rudy’s Jazz Room, which opened in 2017 and is named for late Nashville jazz icon Rudy Wooten.
In the blocks between this area’s beloved bungalows, you’ll find a stretch of storefronts to keep you entertained for hours. (Visit mid-week to avoid the crowds of weekend revelers.) Restaurants range from fine dining favorites such as Josephine and Epice to fast-casual standbys such as Burger Up and Edley’s Bar-B-Que. Stop in Jeni’s for a double scoop of the ice cream powerhouse’s collab with country music queen Dolly Parton. Shop for jeans at Imogene + Willie, dresses at Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James, and one-of-a-kind gifts at Holly Williams’s original White’s Mercantile.
This diverse district’s boho spirit draws all kinds to its funky shops, art galleries, and restaurants, which are increasingly among the city’s best, including classics such as Margot Café & Bar, neighborhood favorites such as Lockeland Table and Mas Tacos Por Favor, as well as newer guard spots Cafe Roze, Lou, and Two Ten Jack. Chef Sean Brock, who relocated to Nashville in 2018, is putting his mark on the neighborhood, too, with Audrey, his long-awaited love letter to Appalachian cuisine, set to open in 2021. And his Joyland, a retro reimagining of American fast food that opened for takeout mid-pandemic, has already become a go-to for biscuit sandwiches and burgers, especially tasty after a boozy night on the town. If you’re after live music, the scene on this side of the river leans more Americana or rock at venues such as the 5 Spot and the Basement East, which reopened in March and became a symbol for the city’s rebirth in the months following the 2020 tornado.
Go High…and Low
With its jeans-and-rhinestone vibes, Nashville has a special knack for celebrating both ends of the culture spectrum. With the Schermerhorn Symphony Center and its Grammy-winning orchestra situated a short walk from Lower Broadway’s honky-tonks, for example, you can go from violin to fiddle in less than two blocks. Across the Cumberland, hunt for quirky vintage finds at High Class Hillbilly, an East Nashville gem curated by the singer-songwriter Nikki Lane, before heading to Green Hills to browse the latest from high-end international designers like Helmut Lang and Veronica Beard at H. Audrey, owned by the musician Holly Williams. If it’s a drink you’re after, visit beloved dive bars like Dino’s (yes, you should get the cheeseburger with your PBR) or upscale cocktail dens such as the Fox, where you can sign up for private mixology lessons.
Seek Out Live Tunes
It is Music City, after all. But the nickname, which often brings the country genre to mind, was actually coined by a disc jockey on WSM radio in 1950 as he referenced the diversity of the music scene. Even now, folks flock here to make their names in a range of genres. In January 2021, the long-awaited National Museum of African American Music opened its doors at Broadway’s massive new mixed-use development Fifth + Broadway, and honors the contributions of Black artists across more than fifty styles. At nearby Acme Feed & Seed, stop in during the Change Up, a new monthly series started in 2020 to bring local R&B and hip-hop to Broadway. Addicted to the twang of a banjo or the buzz of a harmonica? Get in line at the historic Station Inn. For background, country fans should start at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and then head to nearby Lower Broadway to see stellar players rock old-school honky-tonks such as Robert’s Western World and Layla’s. Or drive out to American Legion Post 82 on Gallatin Avenue on Honky-Tonk Tuesday for a true taste of old Nashville.
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Escape the pull of Broadway’s bright lights and explore Nashville’s natural beauty. Start with a morning hike, taking in the quiet splendor of Radnor Lake, a 1,368-acre preserve just twenty minutes from the heart of downtown. Or head to Percy Warner Park, part of the city’s sprawling 3,100-acre Warner Parks system, and tackle the iconic stone steps terminating at the trailhead for the Warner Woods Trail, a nice two-and-a-half-mile loop. Pause for a minute at the top of the steps to take in the view—and catch your breath; it’s a climb. And although Nashville is more than seven hours from the nearest coast, there are plenty of opportunities to get out on the water. For paddlers of any skill level, the Narrows of the Harpeth offers an easy, enjoyable way to spend a day on the river. Take your own kayak or canoe and put in at Harpeth River State Park or rent one from nearby outfitters such as Foggy Bottom Canoe and Kayak Rentals and Tip-A-Canoe in Kingston Springs, Tennessee. Don’t have that much time? Stretch your legs with a quick spin through Centennial Park, located just five minutes from downtown.
Eat More Than Hot Chicken
You should absolutely order up Nashville-style hot chicken at institutions such as Prince’s and Bolton’s. But don’t singe your taste buds too early or you’ll miss out on everything else this rising food destination is cooking up, including something of a taco renaissance: Grab a seat on the patio at Redheaded Stranger and savor their house-made flour tortillas; start the day with Austin-style breakfast tacos at the just-opened Ladybird Taco; or seek out chef Julio Hernandez’s Maiz de la Vida food truck at Richland Park Farmers’ Market for crispy-cheesy birria tacos made with stone-ground, handmade corn tortillas. At a trio of fine-dining restaurants—Bastion, Catbird Seat, and Tailor—you’ll discover high-touch, tasting-menu experiences that deliver on the investment.
WHERE TO STAY
In 2018, twenty new hotels opened in Nashville. In 2019, another twenty joined their ranks. And while 2020 largely brought development to a halt, the Nashville hospitality business is already making up for lost time. Downtown, consider booking a room at one of the hip new boutique properties within walking distance of Lower Broadway—Noelle, Bobby Hotel, or Fairlane Hotel. In the Gulch, rest your head at the brand-new Grand Hyatt Nashville and score a table at chef Sean Brock’s fourth Music City restaurant, the Continental. Or check-in at the sophisticated Thompson Nashville, where guests sip cocktails at the indoor-outdoor rooftop bar. If you’re visiting a student at Vanderbilt or just want some distance between you and downtown, settle in at the Graduate Nashville with its whimsical, Nashville-inspired design details, a Dolly-themed rooftop bar, and a first-floor karaoke lounge complete with animatronic backup singers. Micro-properties such as the historic Germantown Inn, as well as quirky East Nashville standouts the Russell and the Dive Motel & Swim Club, offer plenty of personality and neighborhood charm.
WHEN TO GO
With hot and humid Southern summers and cold, wet winters more in line with those of the city’s Midwestern neighbors, Nashville is at its best come spring and fall, when cool days and colorful foliage invite you to linger on rooftop bars, take in outdoor concerts at the park, and hike the hills that surround the city. But no matter the season, Music City always entertains. To tie your trip to a specific event (check websites for COVID protocol and current dates), consult the round-up below:
Nothing says spring has sprung in Nashville quite like Cheekwood in Bloom, when more than 150,000 snowdrops, hyacinths, daffodils, and tulips burst from the ground at the stunning fifty-five-acre Cheekwood Estate & Gardens. If you’re looking to fulfill a New Year’s resolution, lace up your running shoes and join the tens of thousands of participants in the St. Jude Rock ’N’ Roll Nashville Marathon, which also includes a 5K and a half-marathon. Fancy dress and big hats are a springtime tradition at the annual Iroquois Steeplechase, held each May at the equestrian center at Percy Warner Park. May also marks the beginning of one of the city’s most popular outdoor concert series: Full Moon Pickin’ Parties, which feature live bluegrass, craft beer, and local food trucks.
A bucket-list weekend for country music fans, the CMA Music Festival features four days of some of the biggest names in the business on stages all over downtown. And sure, you can now find hot chicken on menus from Los Angeles to Miami, but to sample Nashville’s fiery signature dish where it originated, try the Music City Hot Chicken Festival, held every July 4. Another seasonal favorite, East Nashville’s beloved Tomato Art Fest draws upwards of 60,000 revelers over two days and includes crazy contests, out-there art shows, live music, and local eats. Tomato-themed costumes are encouraged—the wackier the better.
Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash’s last performance was on stage at the legendary AmericanaFest, which celebrates both the genre’s biggest names and its hottest new acts on some of Nashville’s most notable stages. The annual Southern Festival of Books shows off Nashville’s deep bench of talent, often featuring such nationally acclaimed local authors as Ann Patchett (co-owner of the beloved Parnassus Books), Jon Meacham, Mary Laura Philpott, and Alice Randall alongside other best-selling authors from around the country. Hear the stories behind the number one hits from the artists who penned them at Tin Pan South, the world’s largest songwriter festival.
With more than three million twinkling lights, Gaylord Opryland’s A Country Christmas delivers a mega-watt dose of holiday cheer every year. Come February, Nashville’s Music City Center transforms into an oasis of lush landscapes and a maze of more than 150 of the country’s top antiques dealers during the Antiques and Garden Show of Nashville, benefiting Cheekwood Estate & Gardens.