Nashville, Tennessee, is definitely country music and all that goes with it—cowboy hats and elaborate, custom boots, songs about heartbreak and crying over beer. Bumper stickers reading "Eat More Rhinestones" and "Viva Nashvegas" reflect the shiny, glitzy surface of Music City. But Nashville's repertoire is wider than many visitors assume.
Nashville business is flourishing in a variety of industries, including publishing, health care, automobiles, finance and professional sports. The city also does a booming business in conventions and trade shows, especially with the opening of the mammoth new Music City Center downtown. With 353,000 sq ft/32,795 sq m of exhibition space, this new convention center can vie with Las Vegas and Atlanta for the biggest conventions in the country. Nashville is also home to Vanderbilt University and other colleges, and these days is hosting more and more people who would just as soon attend a performance of the Nashville Opera as the Grand Ole Opry.
The city is currently enjoying a place in the national spotlight, as it comes into its own as a culinary center in the South and as an appealing alternative to people ready to relocate from congested bigger cities. From the New York Times to W to tourism websites, the press is touting Nashville as a top choice for visiting, relocating or doing business. It doesn't hurt that ABC's hit drama Nashville is keeping the city in the public eye.
New residents from around the world have brought to Nashville a diversity of cultures that has changed the social fabric for the better—especially when it's time to go out to eat. The result is a city that not only lives up to its reputation but also surpasses it.
Nashville's layout is relatively simple. Downtown sits on the west bank of the Cumberland River and is a major sightseeing and entertainment area. The core of downtown is "The District" for tourists, but every local just calls it "downtown" or "Lower Broad." This is the historic area that contains many shops, restaurants and bars. It spreads west from the river for about six blocks and encompasses a block or two on either side of Broadway, a major east-west thoroughfare. To the south is 12South, chock full of shopping, restaurants and more. North of The District, but still in downtown, are the state Capitol and Bicentennial Mall State Park, and "The Gulch" is bordered on the Broadway side by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts at 10th Street. Numbered avenues begin just west of the river and increase as you head west.
Broadway continues west out of downtown and eventually runs into West End Avenue. These streets intersect near Music Row and 17th Street, a short distance from downtown. The neighborhood between West End Avenue and Interstate 440 is known as West End. It's home to specialty shops, upscale eateries and Vanderbilt University. A more distant area that's of interest to visitors is Music Valley, home of the Opryland Hotel and the Grand Ole Opry—that's northeast of downtown, off Briley Parkway (Highway 155). About 7 mi/12 km southwest of downtown is Green Hills, a shopping and dining enclave centered around the Mall at Green Hills. Across the river is East Nashville, the city's revitalized historic area, with dozens of shops, bars and restaurants.
Like much of the southeastern U.S., the area around Nashville was inhabited by Mississippian tribes some 1,000 years ago. Stone tools, pottery shards and burial mounds have been unearthed around what is now the Tennessee Bicentennial Mall State Park. The region was a prime hunting ground for later Native Americans, including the Cherokee, the Chickasaw and the Shawnee. Fort Nashborough, the first permanent European settlement in the area, was built on the banks of the Cumberland River in 1779 (a replica of the original fort stands at the foot of Broadway). Tennessee became the 16th state of the Union in 1796, and the town—renamed Nashville—was later chosen as its capital.
During the War of 1812, many of the city's residents left for New Orleans to fight, helping Tennessee earn the nickname "The Volunteer State." The soldiers fought under Gen. Andrew Jackson, who went on to become a U.S. president.
Initially held by the Confederates during the Civil War, Nashville was occupied by Federal troops in 1862 and remained in Union hands for the rest of the war. Several brutal battles were fought in the rolling hills of middle Tennessee in late 1864, however, including the Battle of Nashville, a decisive Union victory. Reconstruction brought recovery, progress and growth to the city. Several colleges based in the city became prominent in this period, including Fisk University, an influential school attended primarily by African Americans, and Vanderbilt University. Today, the city is home to some 16 colleges and universities.
Promoting its educational facilities and cultural refinement, the city championed itself as the "Athens of the South." To drive the point home, it built a full-scale replica of the Parthenon for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897. Then came country music—much to the horror of some of the city's high-minded promoters. The main reason Nashville became the home of country was radio station WSM, which began broadcasting the hugely popular Grand Ole Opry in 1925. In time, record labels and recording studios established themselves there, and Nashville had a new nickname: "Music City."
In the early 1960s, the Nashville sit-ins were among the first nonviolent protests for civil rights in the country. Around the same time, Nashville and Davidson County merged their operations to form a more unified and effective local government. Since then, the city has added communications- and computer-related businesses to its portfolio and has experienced significant growth. It continues to be a top choice for corporate relocations and expansions.
The city's visibility increased further in the mid-1990s, when Nashville became home to two professional sports teams, the Tennessee Titans NFL football team and the National Hockey League's Nashville Predators. In 2001, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts opened, strengthening the city's cultural offerings; those offerings were boosted with the 2006 opening of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, the European-like concert hall that the Nashville Symphony now calls home.
The sprawling 8-acre/3-hectare new Music City Convention Center, one of the largest in the country, has been built in the heart of Nashville, cheek-to-jowl with the Country Music Hall of Fame, as Nashville bets big on the future. A plethora of new restaurants are following, and they offer the thousands of conventiongoers many options. This includes eateries by noted chefs from larger cities who have set their sights on Nashville. In fact, among southern cities, Nashville is a darling of the American foodie world.
Today, music continues to be the city's most visible industry, and one that reaches beyond country to embrace all types of music. Nashville's diverse economy also remains on an even keel as the city continues to grow, attracting visitors and new residents alike.
Nashville is full of sights for both history buffs and country-music lovers. Most sights are easy to get to: Many historical landmarks are located in the downtown area, and both Music Row and West End Avenue are nearby.
Start your tour downtown, where you can see the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry, and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Take some time to get a feel for the city's history: Stop by the Tennessee State Capitol and Bicentennial Mall, or spend an hour or two touring the impressive Frist Center for the Visual Arts. For a completely different feel, head over to West End Avenue and Centennial Park, where you can't miss one of Nashville's landmarks: a full-size replica of the Parthenon with a 42-ft/13-m sculpture of Athena covered in gold leaf, just like the original ancient statue in Greece.
Next, cruise up the Cumberland River to the visitor-oriented Music Valley area to see the present-day Grand Ole Opry and the impressive Gaylord Opryland Resort. If history interests you, then visit one of the area plantations: the sprawling Belle Meade Plantation or The Hermitage, which was home to U.S. President Andrew Jackson and retains many of its original furnishings.
To mix it up with the locals, have a meal and a drink in the Five Points area of East Nashville or in Hillsboro Village.
Above all else, people go to Nashville for the music, and there are plenty of nightlife spots to meet the demand. Country, of course, is the most common style, but folk, rap, rock, jazz, rockabilly and blues are also well-represented. If you really want to sample the spirit of Nashville, make some time for the many small clubs in the city. The performers you'll see there aren't likely to be big names, but they're trying hard to get there, and the level of musicianship is consistently high. One day you may get to say you saw them before they hit the big time.
Downtown, especially in the honky-tonks of Lower Broadway, is the best place to see Nashville crooners and pickers in action. Best of all, few of the bars charge a cover (though the musicians strongly encourage tips), making it easy to see a lot of music for little money.
The best place to start is Tootsie's Orchid Lounge (look for the purple storefront). It was the favorite watering hole for many country legends in the heyday of the Opry. Willie Nelson, Roger Miller and Patsy Cline sidled up to the bar there, and today it's bolstering many country-music hopefuls.
Robert's Western World, just a few doors down from Tootsie's, is another Lower Broadway favorite and isn't as claustrophobic. If you prefer a less twangy sound, Nashville's rock-music club scene is excellent for a city of its size, with a half-dozen simultaneous shows happening on weekends. Don't forget the Ryman, which, in addition to being a tourist attraction, has a terrific lineup of live music.
One of the city's best-known music venues is hidden among nondescript offices and shops on Hillsboro Road in Green Hills: The Bluebird Cafe has given rise to many country superstars, Garth Brooks among them, and pretty much any songwriter who has had a hit has performed there at one time or another.
Some of the Lower Broadway clubs have music from morning to the wee hours, and other bars get the band going around 8 or 9 pm. Things are at their liveliest 11 pm-1 am, and most places close by 3 am. The Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau also has an app (Nashville Live Music App), to help you keep track of all the live-music options in the District and around town.
Nashville's culinary scene is teeming with creative genius with chefs from Atlanta, Charleston, Miami and other foodie cities opening restaurants in the city as well as plenty of local action. In fact, some in the foodie world are saying that Nashville is the new Charleston. New twists on southern classics pop up at some of the city's oldest establishments, and an influx of international residents in recent years has brought new flavors to the scene, from Korean and Caribbean to Ethiopian and Indian. You'll find Mediterranean fusion next to humble, southern meat-and-threes (one meat and three well-cooked sides), so there's something to tempt every palate and pocketbook.
The city's best dining establishments are more dispersed than in the past, going beyond the traditional triangle formed by Green Hills, West End and downtown. Old favorites continue to excel, while newer spots are also packing in fans. While in town, be sure to have biscuits and gravy and grits for breakfast at least once (you can walk it off later that day). Nashville's other native cuisine is "hot chicken."
As in other cities, food trucks serve some great fare as well. For details, visit http://www.nashvillefoodtruckjunkie.com.
Dining times are generally 6-10 am for breakfast, 11 am-2 pm for lunch, 5-10 pm for dinner.
We've included a sampling of restaurants in town. Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$25; $$$ = US$26-$50; $$$$ = more than US$50.
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