First things first: You don’t have to like country music to fall in love with Nashville. Granted, it won’t hurt if you’re a fan of some torch and twang, but Tennessee’s No. 1 destination offers something for everyone: from attractions like its famed Zoo and the Grand Ole Opry, to the Lane Motor Museum, with its quirky collection of (mostly tiny) cars, and an endless array of down-home and upscale clubs and restaurants.
Nashville, along with being Tennessee’s largest city, is also its biggest tourist draw. About 16 million visited in 2019; While those numbers dropped drastically during the peak of COVID in 2020-2021, they have bounced back well. Everywhere we went during our recent spring getaway, things were hoppin’ – whether it be a restaurant or a museum.
It had been nearly a decade since I’d last visited Nashville, and it seemed even more tourist-friendly and popular than ever. There were families, couples, kids and lots of bachelor and bachelorette party participants milling around the city. No matter what draws you to Nashville, this is a city that seems determined to make sure you have a great time.
Known worldwide as “Music City,” Nashville is, indeed, the heart of the country music industry—and is also home to some of the finest players and pickers anywhere. You’d be hard pressed to not find music to your liking in Nashville: along with traditional country, there’s everything from jazz to classical to blues here, found in venues ranging from down-and-dirty honky-tonks to classical music halls.
After settling into our chic (and centrally located) boutique hotel, The Bobby, we savored a fantastic welcome dinner with friends at its recently opened restaurant, Union Tavern. Led by celebrity chef Ryan Poli, this casual gourmet restaurant featured everything from pork belly with cilantro lime dressing to puttanesca tagliatelle with serrano ham, capers, and olives. There is also a fun rooftop bar.
We decided to kick off our sightseeing with what turned out to be an ideal overview of the city via a one-hour Gray Line bus tour. Not only did this provide us with a decent “lay of the land,” it also showcased many attractions we would explore later – and one that we only managed to see from the bus, the city’s famed Parthenon. Built for the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition, it is an exact replica of the Parthenon in Greece, complete with a 42-foot tall statute of Athena inside. But why, you might wonder, does this southern city house such a wonder? Because Nashville, with its focus on higher learning and as home to many colleges, is sometimes still referred to as the “Athens of the South.”
Yes, our adventures in Nashville were varied and plentiful. In fact, there is simply too much here to see and do it all in four days – but we tried. We did our best mostly by foot, but no worries – Uber and Lyft are easily accessed in this bustling, beautiful city. The most striking building in town is also the tallest: the 617-foot tall AT&T Building – commonly known as the “Batman Building” because of its resemblance to the cowl of the superhero character.
Here is a rundown of some of the highlights of our spring getaway – all of which we would recommend to first-time visitors to Nashville:
A trip to the Ryman Auditorium. The 1994 reopening of the 2,362-seat Ryman Auditorium — which hosted the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974 — gave downtown Nashville a welcome boost, and there are now many shopping and dining options nearby (check out family-run Hattie’s B’s if you’ re hankering for fantastic fried chicken – with a super-hot version humorously dubbed “Shut the Cluck Up”). Built in 1892 as a church tabernacle, The Ryman eventually morphed into what would become an international phenomenon, a still-airing radio show dubbed the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry, which debuted during World War II, introduced such legends as Patsy Cline, the Carter Family, Minnie Pearl and Hank Williams to the world. While dubbed “The Mother Church of Country Music,” The Ryman was unfortunately obsolete and decaying by the early 1970s. And when the Opry moved to its new location (Opryland, 12 miles away) in 1974, the Ryman sat empty for years. But in 1994, a multi-million renovation project brought this National Historic Landmark back to its original splendor. Today a popular concert hall, it has hosted everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Harry Styles. Open daily for tours, we loved exploring the extensive amount of memorabilia from various musicians who have played there.
The Country Music Hall of Fame is worth at least a two-hour visit; that is, if you’re a fan of country music. Chartered in 1964, the museum has one of the world’s most extensive musical collections – everything from Elvis’ white Cadillac to country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons’ marijuana-embroidered suit is on display. Visitors can learn about the early roots of country and its connection to Celtic music and even modern-day rock ‘n roll – don’t forget: even The Beatles covered songs by Carl Perkins. There are always special exhibits; we especially enjoyed “Kacey Musgraves: All of the Colors,” which chronicles the Texas-born star’s evolution from a child singer and yodeler to becoming an award-winning recording artist. You can get utterly lost in this place, and time here is well-spent.
The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, located in the city’s historic Municipal Auditorium, is dedicated to the musicians – sometimes famous and sometimes only famously talented – who played on some of the most popular recordings of all time. There is a 9,000-square-foot interactive exhibit, “The Grammy Museum Gallery,” where visitors can learn about every aspect of the music industry– from songwriting, to playing instruments, recording and engineering. We loved the special exhibit about Jimi Hendrix, who played around Nashville clubs as a backing musician during the early years of his career. There are countless instruments on display, including the Stratocaster that Hendrix played all those decades ago in Nashville clubs. This museum is a true gem for any serious music fan.
The National Museum of African American Music, which opened in 2021, is the only museum in the US to showcase the 50-plus musical genres and styles created or influenced by Black Americans – including spirituals, jazz, gospel, hip-hop and more. There’s an included introductory short film before you explore the galleries; don’t miss it.
The Johnny Cash Museum, opened in 2013, and the Patsy Cline Museum, which was unveiled four years later, are housed in the same building, just off Broadway (where most of the city’s rowdiest honky-tonks are located). Shannon and Bill Miller, who founded the Cash museum with the full support of his family, were able to pay homage to Patsy Cline – who tragically died at age 30 in a 1963 plane crash – after her husband, Charlie Dick died in 2015, leaving behind an extensive collection of Cline’s belongings – everything from private letters to stage costumes. It’s a poignant tribute to an iconic talent.
The Frist Center for the Visual Arts – housed in the city’s former art deco general Post Office — is another cultural attraction worth exploring. In addition to its ever-changing exhibits, there is often also free, live music in the 1934 building’s spacious lobby. A special exhibit, “Alma W. Thomas: Everything is Beautiful,” explores the life and art of this famed Black artist, known for her colorful, abstract paintings by her. It runs through June 5.
·If you’re hankering for something more elegant, check out a show by the Nashville Symphony. For the past 15 years, this acclaimed orchestra has made its home at the beautiful $123-million Schermerhorn Symphony Center, known for its remarkable acoustics and distinctive architecture. We were lucky enough to catch the “Police Deranged” show with former Police drummer, Stewart Copeland, where he changed up well-known hits of the ’70s and ’80s with the help of the symphony and three very talented vocalists. It was thrilling, to say the least.
On our final night, we took in a show at the famed Grand Ole Opry. Located about a 15-minute drive from the center of town, this was a true highlight. The performance is broadcast live and features a mix of music and comedy. I was most impressed by the soaring vocals of family gospel group, The Isaacs, and longtime Opry member Mandy Barnett, who shot to fame as a teenager portraying Patsy Cline in “Forever, Patsy.” I wasn’t sure if the Opry could measure up to the Ryman (where I’d seen a show many years ago), but the acoustics were incredible; you could literally hear a pin drop.
We had so many fantastic meals during our time in Nashville that it was hard to keep them straight. “Music City” is also a much acclaimed “food” town, so whether you’re craving finger-lickin’ barbecue or upscale dining, you’ll find it. Some of our favorite spots included the rooftop bar and restaurant, Denim, located on the 21st floor of The Joseph hotel. One night we stopped by the fun, casual Red Headed Stranger for taco appetizers, and the nearby Audrey for cocktails. Named after his maternal grandmother, Audrey is James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock’s third opening in Nashville since summer 2020. Any day now, he’s set to open June in the same building, a gourmet restaurant with a unique tasting menu-only format focusing on Southern cuisine.
We also enjoyed a great meal at FOLK, named by Bon Appetit as one of America’s Best New Restaurants in 2018. It’s a pizza-centric but rather elegant place, with plenty of other delicious choices on the menu, too. We also enjoyed a fantastic meal of kabobs and other delicacies at Kurdish-Turkish restaurant Edessa. (Nashville, we learned, is home to the largest Kurdish community in North America). If you’re looking for true down-home cooking, check out Arnold’s Country Kitchen. Considered Nashville’s most iconic “meat and three” joints, you’ll get a generously portioned meal of one meat and three hearty sides. The vibe here is extremely laid-back, and the food, downright delicious.
I’ve decided that Nashville is the kind of tourist-focused city that – like New Orleans and San Francisco – you can visit time and time again and still find something new to love and remember with each visit. No doubt, we’ll be back.
For more information about Nashville, go to www.visitmusiccity.com
Nicole Pensiero is a South Jersey freelance writer and a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association