Sandwiched between a sea of cowboy hats and a wall of cowboy boots of all shapes and sizes, my buddy taps me on the shoulder and says, “Let’s head out the back and go back east.”
We maneuver to the crowded bar’s back exit that spits us out right next to the Ryman Auditorium, an old church of some musical significance. I ask my friend how the city’s grown since he moved here in 2011.
“It’s like Austin, Texas was 10 years ago,” he tells me as we scramble down Broadway past bachelorette parties, fraternity bros in town on road trips, and old timers from just outside the city dressed up in their finest Friday night attire.
“Not sure what that means, but that’s what people say.”
Perhaps sparked by the 100 or so people moving to the city a day, Nashville has been making its case as the cosmopolitan, cultural center of the southern United States over the past 10 years. An influx of young people from all over the country in search of work and looking to make their musical dreams come true (yours truly included) has put a spotlight on the city, and the capital of the Volunteer State is relishing in its moment as the belle of the ball.
But Nashville is more than an amalgamation of worn-down big city folk bringing their ideas to a place once thought of as a quiet place to settle. The city is still country, but it’s a little bit rock ‘n’ roll now, too. You’ll find your bible-thumpin’ preachers next to your coffee roastin’ hipster snobs, and don’t be surprised if they’re all one in the same.
THINGS TO DO IN NASHVILLE
Hotels in Nashville
Chic, Sleek, and Boutique (so to Speak)
Set in the middle of The Gulch, the Thompson Nashville is chic, sleek, and boutique, so to speak. Inspired by the creative spirit of the city, there’s no obvious underlying theme to the hotel’s layout or decoration, but an evident effort to make the elements of each room work in congruence to create a high level of both sophistication and comfort.
You can’t escape music in Music City, and the Thompson Nashville nails it without any of the tackiness you might associate with your dad’s Hard Rock Cafe-inspired man cave. Marshall amp-inspired Bluetooth speakers that screams class instead of classic rock? Check.View Hotel
21c Museum Hotel Nashville
For those more interested in experiential art installations marking the journey to and from their rooms and the hotel entrance, 21c Museum Hotel Nashville is a novel concept of a hotel that works splendidly on every level. One of seven 21c Museum Hotel locations, the Nashville hotel is located near Printer’s Alley in downtown, making it a convenient location for your stay in the city.View Hotel
Before You Leave The Hotel…
At the top of the Thompson Nashville is L.A. Jackson, a popular rooftop bar that overlooks the city and serves as the perfect spot to get your night started and unwind after a long day. Don’t feel like going far for dinner? Marsh House, the restaurant on the hotel’s ground floor, serves up southern seafood like you’ve never had before. Remember, there’s no shame in cozying up in your bed with some catfish sliders brought to you from room service.
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack
Hot chicken has been served in Nashville for decades, but the fiery fried bird has only recently become the adopted cuisine of the city. While there are numerous restaurants to test your taste buds’ heat limits (Hattie B’s, Party Fowl, Pepperfire), Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack is the original hot chicken spot.
If you’re in need of a guaranteed seat to sit down and eat your meal, you might want to find your hot chicken elsewhere. The seating at Prince’s is in low supply and high demand. But if you’re not bothered by the no-frills attitude, you’re guaranteed one hell of a meal (fire and flames included).
Upscale Dining in Nashville
Photos by Andrew Thomas Lee
Located just northwest of downtown, Germantown has emerged as the premier upscale dining hub of Nashville. While home to numerous exquisite restaurants, our focus lies on Henrietta Red.
Henrietta Red prides itself as the dream of chef and Nashville native, Julia Sullivan, and her business partner, Allie Poindexter, who also serves as general manager and sommelier. The restaurant serves a seasonal-inspired menu and offers a raw oyster bar that’ll make you forget you’re landlocked in Tennessee. If you’ve only got time for a quick cocktail and a small plate, make sure to order the Squash Toast to keep your stomach tied over.
Mas Tacos Por Favor
Mas Tacos is not your traditional Mexican fare, more like the hipster third-generation cousin that decided fried avocado tacos with shaved cabbage, onion, and spicy dill yogurt was a good idea. Don’t forget to order the elote, or street corn, on the side.
The Latin-inspired, locally-sourced Little Octopus originally started as a pop-up shop on the east side of Nashville before setting up permanently in The Gulch, just south of downtown. Surrounded by the area’s trendy shops, it’s the perfect place to grab breakfast, lunch, or dinner before or after exploring the rest of what the neighborhood has to offer. (Pro tip: Order the melt-in-your-mouth roasted cauliflower and smoked cheddar sandwich.)
A number of 21c’s rooms include massive balcony areas with couches and tables overlooking the city’s skyline (the “Batman” building is a prominent fixture of that view), which make cozying up outside with a glass of wine and a good book almost too tempting on a sunny day.
Yazoo Brewing Company
Arguably the biggest catalyst for development in The Gulch area, Yazoo Brewing Company has been a staple of the Nashville beer scene since opening its doors in 2003. If you like good beer, you’ll find it here.
Year-round favorites like Dos Perros (a Mexican-style lager) and the Gerst (an amber ale) are a perfect balance of robust flavor and drinkability but don’t shy away from snagging yourself a pint of whatever happens to be on the seasonal tap. You won’t be disappointed.
If you feel like making your way to a couple other breweries in town, Jackalope Brewing is just a hop away from Yazoo, and Southern Grist on the east side of town is also worth your time. If you’re a whiskey drinker, the tours of Nelson’s Greenbrier Distillery are filled with fascinating info and plenty of bourbons and smooth Tennessee whiskey.
Urban Cowboy Public House
East Nashville is cool. Period. Part of what makes the east side so hip and trendy spots like Urban Cowboy, a quaint and cozy cocktail bar attached to a bed and breakfast in the heart of the east side. The original, and only other, Urban Cowboy has its roots in Brooklyn, New York, making it an example of how the urban transplants are helping the city grow.
Regardless of your spirit of choice, Urban Cowboy has a cocktail to keep you satisfied. For the old souls, I recommend the Grandfather cocktail. Or if you really feel like getting cozy, snag their delicious take on a Hot Toddy.
If it’s more your speed to get busy on the dance floor late into the night while enjoying the best Moscow Mules in town, then make sure to check out Bar. No. 308.
Nashville’s no stranger to phenomenal coffee shops all over the city, and everybody seems to have their filament-bulb-filled-favorite, whether it be Crema, Barista Parlor, or Killebrew. My pick, however, is Frothy Monkey.
The original location is in on 12th Avenue South (colloquially referred to as 12 South), and there’s almost always a long wait. Is it worth the wait? Absolutely. The wooden interior makes for a perfectly pleasant setting to sip your caffeinated beverages. If you’re a little closer to downtown, there’s a location just around the corner from the 21c Museum Hotel. Opt for the Golden Monkey, a blend of coffee, golden turmeric milk, and honey, topped with cinnamon and turmeric root.
Become The Artist…
You don’t have to stay at the 21c Museum Hotel to appreciate the art that it has to offer. The museum is free of charge and open to the public. Quite frankly, if the hotel didn’t exist, roaming through the galleries and exhibits would still be well worth your time.
While my personal favorite installation was a room full of chairs that rotate around as you lean different ways (my inner child, I suppose), the three levels of the museum each offer unique pieces in every kind of medium you can imagine (and some you couldn’t). The exhibited works rotate every couple of months or so.
Nashville’s always fancied itself the “Athens of the South,” so it’s no surprise that the city is home to a full-scale replica of The Parthenon that sits on top of the Acropolis in Greece. Located in Centennial Park across the street from Vanderbilt University, the city chose to keep it around after a World’s Fair held in 1897. The building alone is fascinating, but the art exhibits inside give insight into both Nashville and the state of Tennessee.
While the 41-foot statue of the goddess Athena may be the main attraction inside the building, the exhibit on state symbols of Tennessee gives a deeper understanding of the state’s values and culture. Paintings like “Steppin’ Out” of the Tennessee Walker, the state horse of Tennessee, or “Tough Crowd” of a tomato, the state fruit of Tennessee, are both aesthetically pleasing and educational.
Third Man Records
If you could consider any record store a museum, it would be Jack White’s Third Man Records. Jack White gets a lot of credit for starting the trend of non-country artists making a home in Nashville, and his first commercial imprint on the city was Third Man. With the slogan “Your Turntable’s Not Dead,” Third Man is interested in preserving the idea that vinyl records are still a primary way to listen to music.
In many ways, the store also acts as an agent for preserving American culture, selling plenty of old-timey items and even allowing you to record your own record in a refurbished recording booth that presses your recording straight to vinyl.
Robert’s Western World
Regardless of your opinion of country music, it’s one of America’s strongest and most pervasive art forms. Nashville, of course, is the home of country music, and it’s damn near inescapable in the city. And while there may be bastardized versions of country music floating around the city, Robert’s Western World on Broadway prides itself as the “undisputed home of traditional country music.” Aside from being one of the only places I’ll ever regularly see locals on Broadway, Robert’s plays home to some of the finest pickers you’ll see in the city.
Country Music Hall of Fame
Once you’ve had your fill of country music, take some time to learn the history of the art. The Country Music Hall of Fame in downtown gives you the entire timeline of how country music formed, from its early roots at The Grand Ole Opry to dominating music streaming services across the U.S. Even for folks who know next to nothing about the genre, learning about folks like Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash and getting to see Elvis Presley’s gold 1960 Cadillac Montecristo is an excellent way to spend an afternoon.
Public parks and open spaces are a vital part of any urban landscape, offering people a chance to enjoy the outdoors without the need to travel too far — and Nashville has plenty of them. For starters, there’s Centennial Park (where the Parthenon is located), Bicentennial Park, and my personal favorite, Shelby Park.
Bordering the Cumberland River just east of downtown, Shelby Park has plenty of green space, bike and walking trails, and recreational areas to keep you occupied and smiling for the whole day. For the animal lovers, the park is also home to a dog park regularly full of playful pups.
Cedars of Lebanon State Park
If you’re willing to make the trek outside of the city to get your nature fix, Cedars of Lebanon State Park is only 35 miles outside of the city and makes for a solid day of hiking. The trails at the park aren’t particularly strenuous, allowing you to enjoy the scenery of the Eastern Red Cedar Trees that the park is named after.
For those chasing waterfalls against the advice of TLC, Cummins Falls State Park is home to some of the most magnificent falls in Tennessee. At about 90 miles outside of Nashville, the trip is a little bit longer but the views are certainly worth it, especially if you decide to hike down to the base of the falls.
Feature image courtesy of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.