Nashville, You Win
Sometimes falling in love with a destination has nothing to do with the headline attractions or top ten travel lists. Often it's the rhythm of a place or feeling like you somehow belong. I have no good reason to love Nashville. I'm not particularly fond of modern country music (give me Dolly, Patsy, or Loretta any day) and I have no connection to southern or even mid-American culture. I self-identify as an urban northerner, counting Chicago, Montreal, and Milwaukee among my favorite destinations.
But Nashville sings to me. And if you're looking for a good time without really trying, you just might love it, too.
This is my unofficial list of how to have a blast in Nashville without (okay, almost without) feeling like a tourist.
It's been a while since I've offered my travel opinions to you, and they will be steeped in beer and adorned with sensible shoes, as usual. But if you're new here, my travel manifesto is to plan about half of each day. Loosely if you like, tightly if you prefer. That could look like one meal, one "attraction," one walk, and one brewery, for example. I plan geographically so that I can maximize my ability to walk and minimize my Lyft fees, but if you're renting a car (and in COVID times or the immediate wake, I suggest you do) then proximity may be of less importance to you.
Nashville is easy to enjoy, and that's not only due to the live music wafting from every open window along Broadway and hot chicken at every turn. It's because there is a lot to explore -- there are neighborhoods, alleyways, bridges, museums, and even little trips within the trip to botanical gardens and historical sites. I'm gonna break this down by what to eat, what to drink, what to see, where to explore, and where to stay, based on my two nicely packed trips in the fall of 2019 and the spring of 2021. Bear in mind that some suggestions overlap categories.
What to Eat
Sometimes the best meal is the one closest to you. But when you're looking to plan ahead, or when the meal is likely to be the day's destination, I suggest dinner at Husk for stunningly simple, classic Southern food and drinks, Hathorne for seasonal, innovative dishes and excellent service, or Folk for cozy and inviting surroundings with what I call a hi-lo menu.
Husk, above, is set in a ridiculously charming southern mansion with a wraparound porch, and while the inside still feels homey, it's not in the way that some house-turned-restaurant buildouts feel a bit too Bed and Breakfast. It's a home you'll want to linger in. Don't skip the seasonal vegetable plate, and I highly suggest taking the bartender's whiskey recommendation for a digestif. One plus -- it's only blocks from the heart of downtown. We were seated at the basement bar in a quiet corner and lingered for hours.
Hathorne is the kind of place that wants you to feel welcome and downright happy. For instance, if you happened to see a live show in which the musicians sing a tribute to grandmothers, and yours has recently died, and then your Lyft driver asks if you're pregnant due to a babydoll-cut dress and you show up a bit teary, Hathorne is the kind of place that will give you a little bubbly and a snack before you can ask. For example. The environment is a long, streamlined church hall with an oversized bar and simple patio. I've never had a bite that I didn't want to talk about -- the food is always interesting.
It's a bit out of the way if you're staying downtown or in East Nashville, but offers an opportunity to explore other watering holes on the west side of town. It's well worth the drive, and hopefully, your rideshare will be better than mine.
Folk is the wildcard in this lineup. I call it hi-lo style because you can order a chic multi-course dinner, or a wood-fired pizza, or a combination, depending on your mood and budget. Folk employs staff who are friendly and very knowledgeable about wine. The place fills up fast, so book early, and the dining room design skews a bit more modern.
For casual meals, I highly recommend an authentically French breakfast at Margot Cafe and Bar in East Nashville/Five Points as well as a vegetable-forward and chic lunch at Butcher & Bee (below). At the former, I highly suggest a croissant and a little perch up in the mezzanine for a calm morning. At Butcher, the whipped feta is one of my lifetime's most craveable appetizers (it also works as a final course), and the rotating crispy rice option is below.
Of course, you'd be remiss if you didn't give Nashville hot chicken a shot, and you can get away with boasting about it even if you order the "mild" version. I'm sincerely not the person to weigh in on the chicken wars even casually, so please ask the locals about what is and is not authentic. I enjoyed every morsel I tasted so obviously my Midwestern bar is low.
Here is my Seventeen Magazine-style quiz that will match you with the chicken experience of your dreams:
Do you struggle with commitment? Do you like variety? Do you suffer from ordering-the-wrong-thing-aphobia? Then Waldo's is for you. Naked chicken with dipping sauces and several smaller sides--you can't go wrong.
Wouldn't cheat on a classic? Need multiple locations to serve your ever-changing plans? Do you feel the need for bragging rights? You've matched with Hattie B's. There is a reason everyone raves about the place that is almost synonymous with chicken.
Are you looking for something just a little different -- perhaps you've had the classics before? Do you like puns and table service? Are cocktails and boozy milkshakes of importance to you? You're gonna want Party Fowl. It's also in a convenient spot and the servers will guide you to your ideal meal.
Finally, are you a food truck person or a food hall person? Do you prefer boneless chicken or chicken sandwiches over full pieces of chicken? Is heat very important to you? Then consider Prince's. Hailed as the original, Prince's has been around 100 years for a reason.
Now that we've sorted that out nicely, let's move on (and let's not @ me, kay?)
What to Drink
There is absolutely no shortage of alcohol and folks that want to serve it to you in Nashville. I'm estimating it is a top bachelorette and birthday destination for this reason. It's important to whittle down what you are looking for in a drink because the options are so vast. The below should give you a framework, and ask your servers for their top spots, too!
My best beer experiences in town -- and I consistently base this judgment on menu variety, service, and quality of the beer -- have been at Smith & Lentz, Southern Grist, and Tennessee Brew Works. An honorable mention goes to relative newcomer New Heights Brewing Company.
Smith & Lentz is just good people. It's the place that makes you consider moving to a city in order to be a regular. The servers will give you ideas of other things to check out in town, but mostly they'll make you want to return. The brewery building was severely damaged by the 2020 tornado and it took about a year to rebuild and reopen. When they did, Smith & Lentz added a kitchen with a woodfired oven and now makes some beautiful pizza (which I will call nouveau-Neopolitan style). The beauty of the beer is not only impeccable quality, but a clear vision that focuses on lagers--think several pilsners to choose from--and what they've dubbed "hop-driven" IPAs. Chef's kiss.
On the other hand, Southern Grist is undoubtedly trend-driven. The list skews towards pastry stouts, over-fruited sours, lots of words that are synonymous with cloudy--and they produce these Instagrammable beers well. They sometimes have beer slushies, too. If you're looking for the bleeding edge styles turned up to eleven, this Nashville taproom in the western neighborhood The Nations is for you. Nearby is pizza at Nicky's Coal Fired (it turns out that I like pizza) and a few shops worth browsing.
On the more classic end of the spectrum is Tennessee Brew Works, which is ideal for a variety of competing interests -- food, music, a wide array of beer styles -- and will please just about anyone. It's walkable from Party Fowl and also Third Man Records, if that's on your radar. Tennessee Brew Works has a mash filter (beer nerds take note) so be sure to glance at the production brewery behind glass or take a Saturday tour.
For a high-touch craft cocktail experience, don't miss Vandyke Bed and Beverage located in Five Points. The bartenders are easygoing and happy to make recommendations, or you can kick back and enjoy Bob Ross on the TVs and the beautiful, muted design of the space. More on that in the Where to Stay section.
Feeling like you gotta hit Broadway? I understand. I recommend you dip your toes in by starting at one of the following three spots depending on your mood (after that, the night will take care of you):
Acme Feed and Seed for rooftop river views as the sun is setting. As an aside, Acme was one of the few spots on The Strip that took Covid precautions very seriously and was not afraid to close at peak pandemic and I respect that. They also have indoor music on the first floor that is less chaotic and crowded than many other places, and they are located at the very end of Broadway if you're not up for pushing your way through crowds.
Downtown Sporting Club is an anomaly in that doesn't feel as touristy as its neighbors and could easily exist in another (shall we say classier?) Nashville neighborhood. It's the perfect place to get your sea legs, play some bar or lawn games, and look across the street to assess the classics: Tootsies Orchid Lounge, Legend's, Dierks Bentley's Whiskey Row, and the like.
Go full tilt and eat a fried bologna sandwich or Moon Pie at Robert's Western World. They've got the gritty Nashville surroundings with high-caliber music and everything you could want from a Broadway Honky Tonk. Don't forget to tip the band.
During my first trip, I felt close enough to Kentucky that I didn't want to miss out on a distillery experience. I found Nelson's Green Brier to be an inviting and educational stop just a short scooter ride from downtown. Makers of the original Tennessee whiskey, and also Belle Meade Bourbon, a personal fav, will explain what sets their product apart and also guide a sampling. Plus, it's located in Marathon Village, a grouping of old car manufacturing buildings that house machining artifacts plus other shops and stalls ideal for a little wandering.
One final drinking tip that is peak tourist and absolutely worth it: join George Jones and try some white lightning. A fun place to do this is at the 6th and Peabody building where you can taste Ole Smoky Moonshine, Yee Haw beer, and Prince's hot chicken all in one stop. It makes for an ideal lunch after the Country Music Hall of Fame or before a Predators game as both are only a few blocks away. Try the boozy pickles from Ole Smoky and lounge on the enormous patio.
What to See
A free, self-guided walking tour offers an opportunity to get your bearings and take note of a handful of historically and culturally significant buildings and streets in Nashville. This one covers The Ryman Auditorium, Printer's Alley, the beautiful pedestrian bridge with downtown views, and Hatch Show print -- and it interfaces with Google Maps to make things simple. I like to sneak a walking tour in on the morning of day one or two of a trip, armed with coffee and Wikipedia on my phone.
The Ryman Auditorium is about as quintessential Nashville as it gets. You will not regret venturing inside for a self-guided tour (or a show if the timing works in your favor). Though the building has a striking history and a significant historical stature, it is also a modern working theater. I enjoyed learning about the women who operated and worked to save the theater from demolition, as well as the Opry days shown in video clips and interviews.
Some lesser-known attractions that I endorse are below.
Music lovers will want to pop in to Jack White's Third Man Records. It's a tiny little spot with excellent swag, a chill vibe, and of course, ample music to choose from. A tip: though I will (and I have) walk just about everywhere, this hood is dicey if you're not familiar with it, so bring a pal.
Spend a morning exploring the Nashville Farmers Market. The indoor stalls and inspiring garden center are open daily, but opt for a weekend for the full experience. From there, you can walk out onto the Bicentennial Mall and over to the capitol grounds.
Finally, live music is a must in Nashville and there is more variety than you may imagine. For an incredible "open mic" sort of experience, try The Basement early in the week (I suggest the original location). Bring cash for the bar and prepare to stand, though you may find a stool if you're lucky. For more of a vetted singer-songwriter event, I like The Listening Room Cafe. For a small fee, they put on two concerts a night in a dinner-like setting (and as many as 4 shows on Sundays). I didn't eat during the show I attended but reportedly the food is lovely.
Where to Explore
Even as a urban-leaning traveler, I look forward to getting out of the city when I am on vacation. It's a little trip within a trip! If you have the time, head south to Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Belle Meade plantation. They are minutes from each other and make for a perfect duo.
Cheekwood holds a wide variety of gardens that are relatively free-flowing and relaxed. Rather than formal, manicured gardens or even backyard inspiration, Cheekwood's gardens have a handful of zones that contain plants by region and type. If you're a botanical garden junkie like me, you'll find these gardens to be more of a pleasant, picturesque walk than an examination of specimens. Within the garden is the old mansion, which is a separate experience that I'm saving for my next trip.
From there, I recommend a visit to Belle Meade, a plantation that is historically unique in that it was not a crop plantation, but an estate where horses were bred. When planning what would be my first ever plantation visit, I was careful to avoid any whitewashed tours about the bootstrapping attitude of the South, and instead opted for the Journey to Jubilee tour led by a woman of color that outlines the lives of the slaves working in the house, grounds, and stables.
I was very impressed with the stories and honest dialogue facilitated by this tour and I highly recommend it. Belle Meade is a beautiful space that allows for independent exploration but does not hide what conditions were like for slaves, even after emancipation. If you have the opportunity to spend a few hours here, it is time will spent.
Where to Stay
If you've made it this far, you clearly are planning a trip to Nashville. The last important piece of advice I can offer you is where to stay. Where you land on accommodations may be a product of convenience and where you plan to spend the majority of your time. My top recommendations for a hotel are Vandyke Bed and Beverage and The Russell on the proximate side of East Nashville, and the Hotel Preston for a budget option that lies between the heart of the city and the airport.
Hotel Preston is a simple, affordable option that I found surprisingly charming for a high rise outside of town. I recommend it to those of you who tend to craft jam-packed vacations and a hotel is simply a place to land. That's not to say it is unpleasant -- we appreciated the friendly bartenders and clean, charming lobby. But it likely will not contribute significantly to your appreciation of The Music City.
The Russell (above) caught my eye on my very first night in Nashville. It is built inside an old brick church, and part of their proceeds go towards care of the Nashville homeless population. The real gem of The Russell is the common areas - there is a massive coffee and reading bar, numerous areas to cozy up with a book, and even the books themselves. You will have no shortage of places to kick up your feet and appreciate the preserved stained glass. The only drawback I discovered is that some of the rooms are very small for the price and somewhat awkward in layout. But the ample shared spaces make up for that, and I would certainly stay again.
The creme de la creme lies several blocks to the east of The Russell, and that is Vandyke Bed and Beverage, right in the heart of Five Points and fully aware of just how cool it is. Vandyke has it all -- a classy bar, a rotating food residency, rooftops and a courtyard -- plus spacious and stylish rooms. If you're a nightcap sort of traveler or you're in need of a well-stocked home base (think snacks, desk with solid wi-fi, espresso), Vandyke should move to the top of your list. We were amazed by the hospitality of this small hotel, from the manager who loaned us an umbrella to the chef who visited with us at brunch. We cannot say enough about this place.
That's a wrap! If you need more things to do, see, and eat, just ask. I didn't meet a single bartender or local who wasn't excited to usher me to their favorite neighborhood or venue. That's the thing about Nashville--it wants you to have a good time.