Find out how to best explore Music City, from its barbecue to its bars.
The party wagon shook as it rolled down the street, blasting pop tunes and filled with nearly a dozen women, hooting, dancing, and chugging beers to celebrate the upcoming nuptials of the bride-to-be wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and gauzy white veil. Nashville has become a wildly popular bachelorette destination for all the same reasons anyone would want to visit. In addition to being the home of country music, Tennessee’s capital has a rocking food scene, terrific art, tons of new hotels, and dozens of unique neighborhoods packed with eclectic boutiques, cafés, bars, and locavore restaurants. In 2010, Nashville welcomed 10 million visitors. Last year, 15.2 million visited to check out the city’s charms. If you’ve never been, it’s an easy trip from Boston. JetBlue, Delta, and Southwest airlines all fly nonstop from Logan to Nashville in under three hours.
So, how best to tackle the city? No matter your taste in music, don’t miss the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, located smack in the middle of downtown Nashville. This 350,000 square foot treasure will likely redefine your notion of country music, which isn’t all heartbroken lovers and yodeling cowboys. The museum’s main exhibition, Sing Me Back Home: A Journey Through Country Music, uses old films, photographs, lively text panels, and fascinating artifact displays, including Elvis Presley’s 1960 gold Cadillac to teach the history of this music genre, beginning with American fiddlers from the Southern Appalachian Mountains in the early 1920’s to today’s style, much of which pulls from pop and jazz. For an added fee, you can tour Historic RCA Studio B, Nashville’s oldest recording studio built in 1957. A round-trip trolley departs just outside the museum and takes to the infamous Music Row/Demonbreun/Edgehill neighborhood, where you’ll be ushered into the low, brick structure, where Roy Orbison recorded “Only the Lonely,” Dolly Parton recorded “Jolene,”and Elvis recorded 230 songs, including “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”After the tour, pop by Hatch Show Print (located inside the museum), one of America’s oldest working letterpress poster and design shops that has inked vintage-style concert posters for artists ranging from Louis Armstrong to Coldplay.
Down the street, you’ll find Frist Art Museum set in the city’s former Art Deco post office. With no permanent works of its own, the museum hosts over a dozen annual shows of contemporary and/or classic art. Current exhibits include Connect/Disconnect: Growth in the “It” City, running through August 4 and consisting of 50 photographs taken by Davidson’s County residents offering snapshots of Nashville’s different socioeconomic classes. Dive deeper into Tennessee’s cultural, economic, political, and social history at Tennessee State Museum, which has permanent and temporary exhibitions and includes The Military Branch, located in the War Memorial Building across the street from the Tennessee State Capital (the staff of Tennessee State Museum offers free guided tours).
For more wonderful art and architecture visit some of Nashville’s historic mansions, like Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, built in 1929 in the southwest area of the city by the Cheek family of Maxwell House coffee fame. In addition to an impressive collection of English and contemporary American pieces, the estate has twelve gorgeous gardens and the 0.9-mile Carell Woodland Sculpture Trail. Nearby, you’ll find Belmont Mansion, a furnished antebellum Italianate villa, completed in 1853 for the supremely wealthy art collector, Adelicia Acklen. In the downtown area, the 21c Museum Hotel Nashville has an in-house museum, free and open to the public, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, with cutting-edge exhibits that change every few months.
When it comes to accommodations, Nashville been undergoing a hotel boom. Last year, 15 new hotels opened. This year, 22 will open with 11 more currently under construction. On the more affordable end, you’ll find inexpensive chains, followed by more stylish options, like Hotel Indigo Nashville located in a former bank and Dream Nashville Hotel, a chic, design-forward boutique with Art Deco-inspired suites. For the ultimate in opulence, nothing rivals The Hermitage Hotel. Built in the Beaux Arts style in 1910, it has ornamental plasterwork, glittering chandeliers, and Circassian walnut cabinetwork in the common areas. Plush rooms and suites come with all the modern amenities you could want, including a pet-friendly policy.
Like Nashville’s hotel industry, the city’s restaurant industry is on fire. In the past three years, nearly 350 eateries have opened with dozens more in the pipeline. Choices range from down-and-dirty chicken shacks to hipster establishments showcasing the bounty of local farms.
Since Nashville’s known for its barbecue, no trip would be complete without a visit to Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, which feels like Nashville’s version of Woodman’s of Essex, only for meat. Several huge wood-fired smokers slowly sizzle half hogs, chickens, and slabs of beef, which staff delivers to your table on a tray after you place your order. The pulled pork, chicken, ribs, and brisket arrive all smoky and fall-apart tender with various barbecue sauces (sweet, tangy, spicy). The kitchen has no freezers or microwaves, preferring instead to make everything from scratch, including the sides, like nubby cornbread, coleslaw, and potato salad.
Another city specialty is Nashville Hot Chicken, said to be created by a disgruntled lover seeking revenge on her philandering man by dipping his fried chicken in an oily blend of volcanic spices. Alas, the rascal loved the dish and Nashville Hot Chicken was born. While you can find it at several spots around town, a popular spot is the family-run Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, offering heat levels ranging from mild to “Shut the Cluck Up!!!”
For excellent farm-to-table fare, insiders head to Rolf and Daughters, located in a 100-year-old factory building in the Germantown neighborhood. In addition to creative cocktails and offbeat wines, they serve dishes like fava beans with golden raisins, anchovy, and chili and green garganelli pasta with pork ragu and Parmesan. 5th & Taylor, tucked into a spacious brick-walled former mill, is another such establishment with menu offerings inspired by the chef’s childhood Sunday suppers, like warm tomato pie, trout with roasted root vegetables, and buttermilk pudding with fruit. In the downtown area you’ll find Black Rabbit serving seasonal fare, like rib-eye with braised local greens and vinegar pie. You’ll also find The Farm House Restaurant & Bar, crafting plates like barbecued pork on a biscuit with Alabama white sauce and Tennessee chow chow and roasted chicken with farm-dug turnips, carrots, and potatoes. Should more of a splurge be in order, head to the neighborhood of 12 South, home to a tantalizing collection of cafés and cute boutiques, like actress Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James. 12 South is also where you’ll find Josephine, courtesy of Chef Andy Little who taps into his Dutch Pennsylvania roots with such offerings as Nashville hot scrapple with frisse; duck fat hash browns with trout roe, pickled turnip and crème fraiche; and grilled local lamb with peas, pearl onions, and mint. Little’s wife is the sommelier and will find the perfect pour for your meal, best capped off with the seasonal fruit cobbler for two served with brown butter pecan ice cream.
Come evening, not surprisingly, Nashville’s bar and music scene springs to life. On Lower Broadway in the downtown area, you’ll find Honky Tonk Highway, a famous strip of live music bars that are free of charge and filled with musicians and singers playing from 10am until 3am. Legends Corner, Robert’s Western World, and Tootsies Orchid Lounge are just a few of the seminal spots where many a country music star has been discovered or, alas, made it big, fizzled out, and now plays.
For a special evening, get tickets to The Listening Room Café featuring approximately four songwriters who create the music and lyrics for headliners like Kelly Clarkson and Keith Urban. Taking turns, each artist tells the backstory of a particular song before playing it for the audience.
Then, there is the illustrious Grand Ole Opry, a ticketed weekly American country stage concert held in a plush, red theater. The show began as a humble radio broadcast in 1925 and today showcases a mix of country, bluegrass, comedy, gospel, and more performed by country legends, modern-day stars, and upcoming talent hoping to be discovered. Each show continues to be recorded, which means that when you get back home, you can tune into Sirius XM Satellite Radio, the Opry website, or the WSM 650 AM website to relive the rhythm and beat of Music City.