Nashville has long been known as the beating heart of the country music industry. Home to many of country music’s most legendary recording studios, as well as performers both iconic and unknown, Nashville has for the last 75 years earned its nickname as “Music City, USA.” It’s a major center for Southern culture, cooking, and music.
But the city is more than just honky-tonks and hot chicken. Nashville hosts two large universities (Vanderbilt and Tennessee State), one of the largest health care complexes in the country, and an emerging tech scene. With a rapidly growing population — the metro area has welcomed 250,000 new residents since 2012 — and a rash of new developments, the city is poised to overtake Memphis as Tennessee’s largest city. It’s an attractive, affluent, and increasingly business-friendly city, with a revitalized downtown core.
Life in Nashville
With three major interstates that run through the city, driving is definitely the quickest way to get around Nashville. However, the Nashville MTA bus service offers excellent routes downtown and works very well for people commuting within the city center. For those with a longer ride, the 10 year-old Music City Star is a commuter train that runs on weekdays.
Where to play
For a taste of classic Nashville, head down to Broadway, where you’ll find neon signs, honky-tonk, and hundreds of weekend cowboys throwing back shots and enjoying live music. Is it a cliche? Of course it is. Is it fun, and something you should do at least once? Absolutely.
First things first: The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Relics from the Grand Ole Opry include Bob Wills’ fiddle, Patsy Cline’s cocktail dress, and Gram Parson’s Nudie suit. Exhibits on more contemporary acts complement the extensive collection dedicated to the history of one of America’s enduring folk music traditions.
For a glance at where a lot of that history was made, take a walk downtown to The Ryman Auditorium, home to the Grand Ole Opry until 1974. (It’s now housed in the The Grand Ole Opry House, 9 miles east of downtown.) After decades of disrepair, the Ryman was renovated in the early ‘90s and now plays host to many concerts (including a few Grand Ole Opry-affiliated performances) per year.
For a different kind of history altogether, check out The Parthenon, a full-scale replica of the Athenian landmark. Built in 1897 for the Centennial Exposition, the monument is a reference to Nashville’s nickname:The Athens of the South.
Fort Negley was the largest inland fort during the Civil War. Built by the Union using slave labor, it served as a base for The Battle of Nashville, a crippling defeat for the Confederacy. During Reconstruction, it was a frequent meeting place for the Ku Klux Klan. Now, its ruins and newly constructed visitor center offer a fascinating look into Nashville’s checkered past.
Get ready to eat. Nashville is one of the true culinary centers of the South. Its most famous dish is Hot Chicken: a breast or thigh that has been marinated, floured, fried, slathered in a cayenne paste, and plopped atop a piece of white bread covered in pickles. It’s an iconic, delicious local specialty, perfected at Prince's Hot Chicken on Ewing Drive. Fans line up by the hundreds — but if you don’t feel like waiting, check out Hattie B's on 19th.
For more iconic Southern food, head to Arnold's Country Kitchen for a “meat and three” — that’s one main meat dish, and three sides. Think collard greens, mac and cheese, and fried chicken. At Martin's BBQ, brisket, pulled pork, and smoked turkey rule the day.
Over the last 15 years, Nashville has been in the midst of a culinary boom: From inventive food trucks like Mas Tacos Por Favor (which now has a brick-and-mortar spot in East Nashville) to the Italian/Southern fare at City House (whose chef, Tandy Wilson, won a James Beard in 2016), chefs are pushing boundaries and fusing Southern cooking with traditions from around the world. One of the most exciting restaurants in town is Rolf and Daughters, an innovative kitchen in a former warehouse serving self-proclaimed “peasant food” — Mediterranean-inspired dishes with a decidedly Tennessee twang.
For a taste of classic old-school Nashville, you can’t beat Broadway. The bars lining the streets attract country music performers, wannabes, and fans like moths to their neon signs. Two of the most historic — and best — are Tootsies Orchid Lounge and Robert's Wester World. Both are within spitting distance of the Ryman Auditorium and count country luminaries such as Willie Nelson, Trisha Yearwood, Ray Price, and George Strait as frequent customers (and sometimes performers).
But you don’t have to two-step your way into a shot, a beer, and a good time. You can enjoy a classic cocktail, too, at places like The 404, a converted shipping container turned fine dining (and drinking) mecca. The bar at the 404 recently earned a spot on Travel & Leisure’s “Best Whiskey Bars in America” list for its voluminous whiskey list, easily the best in Nashville. The Patterson House was one of the bars to bring the cocktail renaissance to Nashville and serves up sophisticated drinks like the Lone Pine Mall (Old Tom Gin, lemon, Douglas Fir Eau de Vie, maple syrup, egg white, and a housemade Eucalyptus tincture) to eager drinkers. And Bar 308 on the city’s hip east side slings a mix of classic cocktails, inventive house drinks like the LAXBNA (rye whiskey, averna, bonal, and falernum) and a menu of “Writer’s Block Shots,” each named after a different American novelist. (May we recommend the Dorothy Parker, which is a shot of Ford’s Gin and Angostura Bitters, topped with a sugared pineapple slice.)
Sometimes, though, a classy drink isn’t what you’re after. Sometimes, you just want to drink cheap beer and sing karaoke in a doublewide trailer. If so, the much-beloved Santa's Pub is your place. Beer is $2, there are holiday decorations everywhere, and presiding over the bar is a large man with a very bushy beard. It’s almost enough to make you forget you’re thousands of miles from the North Pole.
We’ve already covered The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the Ryman, and The Grand Ole Opry House — three of the cultural attractions for which Nashville is most commonly known. Lovers of country music can also check out The Johnny Cash Museum for archival footage and artifacts related to the legendary singer, or walk down Music Row, a stretch of 16th and 17th avenues that is home to almost all the major labels and recording studios in country music.
There is culture beyond country in Nashville, of course. The Tennessee Performing Arts Center provides performance space for the Nashville Opera, the Nashville Ballet, the Tennessee Repertory Theater, and the Music City Drum and Bugle Corps. The Nashville Symphony performs 140 shows annually at the Schemerhorn Theater, a state-of-the-art concert hall opened in 2006.
When it comes to visual arts, a number of local museums put on excellent exhibitions. The Frist Center for the Visual Arts is a non-collecting museum housed in the former downtown post office, and often plays host to major national and international touring exhibitions. The Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art is located on a privately funded estate, the former home to the heirs of the Maxwell House fortune. The 30,000-square-foot mansion houses hundreds of paintings — the collection is particularly strong on early 20th century Hungarian art — and its 55 acres of land artfully merges modern sculpture with the beauty of the natural world. (Don’t miss the contemporary wing, where you’ll find Warhols in what used to be the estate’s garage and stables.) Both Fisk University and Vanderbilt maintain high-quality galleries, as well.
As you might expect, many of Nashville’s most popular annual events are related to the country music industry. The Country Music Association Awards, a nationally televised event, is held every year at Bridgestone Arena. And The CMA Music Festival brings thousands of performers, musicians, and fans to town every July for four days of shows and signings.
But there are plenty of civic events that aren’t based on country. Nashville is the annual host of The Tennessee State Fair, which brings over 200,000 people to the city every September for carnival attractions, rodeo events, and exhibitions. Let Freedom Sing! is a 4th of July celebration in downtown Nashville that features one of the largest fireworks displays in the country. And The Nashville Film Festival, held every April, is one of the largest film festivals in the South.
Even the corporate mega-malls in Nashville have a country music theme: The area’s largest shopping center, Opry Mills, is adjacent to the Grand Ole Opry House. Its 1.2 million square feet house over 200 retail outlets, a movie theater, and dozens of restaurants.
For more localized options, head to the 12 South neighborhood, which is filled with local businesses selling vintage and handcrafted goods. The flagship of Imogene and Willie, one of the world’s most respected sources for quality denim, is in the neighborhood, as is a popular weekly farmers' market.
Nashville is home to two major-league sports team. Once the Houston Oilers, the NFL’s Titans moved to Tennessee in 1996, playing one year in Memphis before settling in Nashville. The NHL’s Nashville Predators play at Bridgestone Arena.
Local sports fans also have two Division 1 collegiate athletic programs to follow: The Vanderbilt Commodores and the Tennessee State Tigers. Vanderbilt’s baseball and football programs are particularly strong — the baseball team won the 2014 College World Series, and the football program has sent players like Jay Cutler to the NFL.
Nashville has a number of airy green spaces near the city center. Centennial Park, home of the Parthenon, was the site of the 1897 Nashville Centennial, and its 132 acres contain large open spaces, a small artificial lake, and several exhibits (among them an F-86 Sabre and an old steam engine.) Locals love Sevier Park, 20 acres situated in the middle of the trendy 12 South neighborhood. Riverfront Park and Cumberland Park sit on the shores of the Cumberland River downtown. About 9 miles south of downtown is the Warner Park system, which comprises over 3,000 acres. It’s the best place near the city center for hiking, running, and horseback riding — in fact, it’s the site of the annual Iroquois Steeplechase.