“It’s funny how certain cities get under your skin. I’ve been around, but there’s something captivating about Nashville, Tennessee…”Unknown.
My brother and I were in a car together; we’d just picked him up from his flight home from Toronto, here for a short week to celebrate my dad’s retirement.
We were talking about my upcoming trip – three months across the US, Canada, Cuba and Mexico – and a trip he was taking to the States to renew his Canadian Visa.
I mentioned that I’d booked the accomodation he suggested in Nashville and he said he was going to stay there again too when he went.
“When will you be there” I asked.
“November 13,” he said.
“I’m arriving on November 14.”
Talk about serendipity. I’d booked a private room at the hostel, which was essetially just a two bunk room there to myself, so my brother moved on in and we prepared to tear up the city.
This was my first long haul trip away and I was immensely grateful for the friends and family that travelled parts of it with me. Getting to spend some time, just my brother and me, in one of the best cities in the world is now a priceless memory for me. And by god we had fun.
I beyond adore Nashville and if I’m recommending places for people to visit on a USA trip then it’s always number one on my list. I love the hum of the South, the gorgeous people, the incredible food, the immensely talented musicians littering every bar and street corner along Broadway. Nashville is a fun city and a place to go to for a good time. I absolutely love it.
One of the things I love best about travelling through America is the diversity of it’s cities – New York is different to Portland is different to Palm Springs is different to Memphis is different to Chicago. There’s so much range and scope to find places that really suit what you love to do and do. Nashville is perfect for me because I’m a huge country music fan who likes a good night out and great Southern cooking.
It’s becoming a more popular city to visit for Americans themselves (you will be confronted by many hens parties if you head there) but I’d love to see more people embrace it when planning a States trip. There’s a whole great country to see outside of just New York and LA and Vegas and Washington, and Nashville is just the start of it.
Where to stay.
If there’s one thing to say about travelling to Nashville, it’s that accomodation is absolutely not cheap. In fact, it verges on the hideous, especially if you’re looking to stay downtown and close to Broadway, where all the action is. I’ve stayed in two hostels for my trips to Nashville and they’re both different but good. The first was the Nashville Downtown Hostel which is located just off Broadway on 1st Avenue. This place has a great industrial chic feel, 24 hour reception, clean spare looking rooms, good bathrooms, washing machines, a massive kitchen and everything else a great hostel needs. If you’re only spending a couple of days in Nashville and want to be able to stumble home quickly and safely every night, walk to the Ryman or Nissan Stadium or a hundred other sights easily, then this is the place for you. They have private rooms available and the location really is second to none, especially for what you’re paying. However what it doesn’t have is parking, so if you’re getting a car in Nashville to do some exploring, then this isn’t an easy option. For that, you want the Music City Hostel which is located in Midtown. It’s much smaller so private rooms are harder to grab, but it has a much more homey feel. From there it’s about a 30 minute walk to downtown (though I probably wouldn’t walk it at night) but you could easily head out on nearby Division or Demonbreun Streets. I found the latter was better for meeting people (um I ended up going on a 4.30am bender with people I’d met just hours earlier at Music City Hostel) but both are really good, well priced accomodation options, especally for first time visitors to Nashville.
Where to eat.
I’ll start by saying this: I’ve been to Nashville twice now and there are still places to eat with enormously good reputations here that I haven’t gotten to. You will NOT be short of a good meal in Nashville, ever.
The absolute starting point for food in Nashville is Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. The city is famous for it’s style of fried chicken and this place is absolutely the best proponent of it. You will line up. It will be worth it. Amazing chicken and incredibly delicious sides, all washed down with sweet tea. So cheap and so damn good. For Tennessee BBQ, you’re going to Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint. OMG. Incredible brisket, perfect sides, so much food I kept eating until I couldn’t take another bite. And they do free sweet tea top ups! We went at lunch time to the Belmont location and the place was understandably packed. The meat just melted in your mouth, it was perfectly cooked… I’m salivating now just thinking about it.
If you’re staying downtown, I’ve been to Puckett’s Boat House for dinner both times in Nashville and I love it. They have the best gravy on their fried chicken that I’ve ever tasted, along with amazing cobblers for dessert. It tends to fill up really quickly but you can book online and I really recommend doing so. If you’re around Germantown then Henrietta Red is a great place for a drink and a dozen oysters. Super chic.
The 12 South area has a lot of great restaurants and cafes but the absolute best thing there is the Five Daughters Bakery. Again, there’s likely to be lines. I bought something called a Maple 100 layer doughnut, which was pretty much like an angel cried in my mouth. It was incredible, more like a cro-nut, filled with soft layers of pastry and a kind of cream. I could have eaten 100 of them.
For coffee, Barista Parlour in The Gulch does a great cold brew and also has a small selection of breakfast items on offer. I’d been in the area because I really wanted to go to Biscuit Love – I am a massive fan of Southern style biscuits – but no joke there was a queue of about 100 people and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
What to see and do.
You don’t have to be a country music fanatic to love Nashville but if you are, then you’re definitely in for a treat. They don’t call this place Music City for nothing. That said, even if country is not necessarily your number one jam but you just love to hear great music played by talented people, Nashville is still one of the best places to visit. There’s music everywhere and so much of it is damn good.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is the city’s premier museum and it’s a really fantastic place to lose yourself for a couple of hours. I’ve been twice and loved it – they do excellent temporary exhibitions too, so the content is always being updated and changing. It’s a really interactive museum as you might expect from a place with music as it’s primary theme, and plenty of exhibits such as costumes, cars, instruments, hand written lyrics, awards and more to keep you occupied. Last time I went I also did the RCA Studio B tour which leaves from the hall of fame and takes you down to the studio in Music Row. It’s worth noting that you can’t show up to the studio direct, you’ll need to book the tour and leave from downtown. Some of the greatest performers in music and country music history have recorded in the studio and it’s a great little tour for music fans. There’s also a Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville which I’m yet to go to but have heard great things about.
If you’re in Nashville then live music is a must and the best place to see it is at the ‘mother church’ – the Ryman Auditorium. It is a literal church that is the original home of the Grand Ole Opry and hosts performances a couple of nights a week. It’s located in downtown Nashville so super easy to get to if you’re staying in the area. The Opry itself has relocated a little bit further out of town to a much larger venue, and also has performances a couple of nights a week. At either you could hear from country legends, modern day superstars, or up and coming performers, it really is luck of the draw. Tickets can be bought online in advance (highly recommended) and it’s worth keeping an eye on their website so you can check the days you’ll be in the city for who’s playing. I went to the Ryman last time because of it’s history but either are good choices. The Bluebird Cafe is also another famous music venue that’s been on my list for a long time but I haven’t made it there so far – it can be tough to get in as it’s quite small.
If you’re looking to escape from downtown for a little while, then there’s a couple of good options. The Belle Meade Plantation runs daily guided tours and you can check out a grand old Southern estate and hear about the history of the Jackson-Harding family. I really enjoyed this and found it thoroughly interesting. The estate is well preserved and gives a good insight into how the affluent lived 100 and more ago. Radnor Lake State Park is only a short drive out of the city and has a variety of great bushwalks around the lake. A friend and I did this as saw turtles, snakes, squirrels and more up close. It’s a bit of an oasis and was nice to head there for a couple of hours and just escape the hustle of the city, plus there’s plenty of great spots for photos.
If you’re looking for other non-music options, then Nashville isn’t a bad place to go and watch some sport. Because people generally aren’t coming to the city with games as their number one priority, it can be easier to get tickets to events. The local NHL ice hockey team, the Predators, have been pretty good in recent years and their home rink Bridgestone Arena is right in the heart of downtown. I’d never been to the ice hockey before we went to a game here, but it’s super fast paced and really enjoyable. Nashville also has an NFL team in the Tennessee Titans, who play at Nissan Stadium – this is just a short walk over the Cumberland River from downtown. I’d never seen an American football game live either and while the game itself is pretty slow, istening to the crowd sing and chant, plus as the extra on field stuff, was pretty fun. Both are good days out and you really don’t have to be the biggest sports fan to enjoy it.
Nashville has a few sections that are good for wandering through. Downtown is really the heart of the city and there’s plenty of bars, restaurants and small shops to check out. The Gulch is another great area with cafes and upscale boutiques, 12 South has a gorgeous village feel (and is home to the Nashville mural everyone gets their photo taken in front of), while Germantown has some up and coming restaurants.
Finally, if you’re going to Nashville then you’re gonna want a big night out down on Broadway. The place is lined with great bars filled with people all there to have a good time, drink some Tennessee bourbon and listen to amazing music. I’ve had some of the most fun nights of my life in Nashville so I definitely have a soft spot. Downtown I like The Stage for it’s country pub type feel but honestly, you could probably walk into any place and have a good time. If you’re looking to get away from downtown then head up to the Division/Demonbreun Street area which has a row of grittier feeling dive bars. I like Winners and Losers, two bars sitting alongside each other catering for however you’re feeling that night. Both of these also have food, and Losers has a great rooftop section. The Thompson Hotel in the Gulch is a lovely place for a cocktail and has the highest rooftop bar in Nashville, so you get some beautiful photo opportunities across the city. It’s a little more upscale than the other two areas so is a nice place to kick off your night before things get loose.
Where to shop.
Nashville isn’t one of those cities where the best shopping happens in the main downtown/CBD area; instead, they’ve filled that part up with bars and so the good shopping gets done out in the suburbs. My favourite area for shopping is 12 South which has a lot of smaller boutiquey type places including Reese Witherspoon’s excellent Draper James label store. You walk in and they offer you sweet tea while you browse – very Southern. It’s not cheap but it’s definitely good for a splurge. The Gulch also has a lot of boutique style stores as well as some great vintage places and local brands. The area also has some of Nashville’s best cafes and lunch spots, so it’s a nice place for a wander. Otherwise if you want the full American mall experience then head off to Opry Mills which is huge and has all the usual labels and chain shops.
Nashville: a snapshot.
How long should I stay: Ideally you want three full days here and for the love of god, do it over a weekend so you can really go all out and tear the place up. Arrive Thursday night, leave on Monday would be my strong recommendation.
Getting around: Public transport is almost non existent in Nashville unfortunately so your options are either car or Uber/taxi. If you’re staying downtown then you should find most things easy to manage and within walking distance, then organse a ride if you’re going to head out of the area. I had a car the second time I went because I’d already done downtown pretty well and wanted to explore some of the other parts of the city. If you can go with the latter it will give you more freedom (especially if travelling solo) but it’s not a complete necessity.
When to go: Summer in the South is violently hot so if that’s not your jam, then June-August are out. I went in late April and temperatures were already in the low 30s (degrees celcius that is) with humidity.
Key places for first timers: Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Ryman Auditorium, Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, downtown bars.
Underrated gem: I loved Radnor Lake State Park because it was great to step out of the city for a bit to somewhere really lush and relaxing. And it’s so close to Nashville.
If you could only eat at one place: Hattie B’s by a whisker but if it was Martin’s or Puckett’s then I wouldn’t be disappointed either. Nashville is filled with incredible places to eat.
Best photo opportunities: Head up the the Thompson Hotel’s rooftop bar, it hands down has the best views of Nashville. The I Believe in Nashville mural in 12 South shows up a LOT on the ‘Gram. And once that neon lights up down on Broadway, that’s a pretty good snap too.