If you’re a first timer to Nashville, you’re in for a treat. Expect to have ample opportunities to hear quality music, both in hallowed halls, as well as in the numerous bars and honky-tonks. After all, this is Music City! But you might be surprised to discover that museums also take centerstage in Nashville. You can delve into the lives of well-known musicians and producers, learn about Civil War and Tennessee State history, explore science and technology, and appreciate multi genres of art. And to top it off, the town’s a foodie mecca, so along with your comfy walking shoes, bring an appetite.
To get the lay of the land, opt to do the hop-on, hop-off guided tour with Old Town Trolley Tours. As you travel through this vibrant city, your drivers provide entertaining and informative commentary. The full tour goes on a twelve-mile loop and makes fourteen stops. It’s a great way to get a snapshot of the multiple neighborhoods in Nashville with its many points of interest.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is a major attraction in Nashville. Often called the “Smithsonian of country music,” this venerable institution, which opened in 1967, has built the world’s largest and most significant collection of materials documenting and preserving country music. Its collection numbers more than 2.5 million artifacts, including musical instruments, recordings, photos, stage costumes and other memorabilia, such as Elvis Presley’s gold-plated caddy and Taylor Swift’s tour bus.
Galleries in this multi-floored museum follow the evolution of country music as it relates to American history. The artifacts on display, combined with video footage, sound recordings and biographical panels, help to tell the stories of those who shaped the music, from Hank Williams through Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, to Garth, Reba and beyond. The touchscreen interactives are especially fun and engaging, as you can record your own song, finish the lines of popular lyrics, find out which career in the music industry would most likely suit your talents (spoiler alert: I learned I would be a songwriter) and more.
The Country Music Hall of Fame was founded in 1961 to honor the best and most successful creative artists and music industry members of influence. And the Hall of Fame Rotunda is where you’ll find all these venerable titans. There are 149 members as of October 2022. The first inductees were Jimmy Rodgers, Fred Rose and Hank Williams. Each member is represented with a likeness of him/herself on a bronze plaque along with career highlights.
There’s also the Music City Walk of Fame across the street in the Walk of Fame Park, which honors important contributors to Nashville’s musical heritage and accomplishments in the music industry. Each honoree has a commemorative star embedded in the sidewalk.
Add on the guided tour to historic RCA Studio B either before or after you’ve been to the museum. Located on Music Row, this is Nashville’s oldest surviving recording studio, where so many of the greats – Chet Atkins, the Everly Brothers, Dolly Parton, Elvis, Charley Pride – called home and helped establish the Nashville Sound. It’s the birthplace of more than 35,000 songs and over 1,000 hits and it’s still going strong. And you can stand on the “sweet spot,” where those songs were recorded!
Put the National Museum of African American Music at the top of your list, too. It’s the only museum dedicated to educating and preserving music that was created, influenced and/or inspired by African Americans. You’ll start your experience in the Roots Theater with an overview of African American history, emphasizing the creation of African American musical traditions that spring from historic and social contexts. Then move through the galleries, which highlight different genres of music, including gospel, blues, jazz, R&B and hip hop.
If you’re a fan of Johnny Cash and/or Patsy Cline, there are museums devoted to each of these artists. In the Johnny Cash Museum, you’ll find the largest collection of artifacts and memorabilia from this music icon. There are films, handwritten notes and letters penned by the Man in Black himself, costumes and guitars, music awards and exhibits spotlighting different periods of Cash’s life, such as his stint in the Air Force, his marriage to June Carter, his prison concert tour and his film career.
Upstairs, in the same building, is the Patsy Cline Museum, which is dedicated to the legendary songstress. There are numerous personal belongings, videos, letters, costumes and interactive exhibits detailing Patsy’s life, from her early upbringing and rise to fame, to her tragic early death at the age of thirty. Patsy was the first solo female artist to be admitted to the Country Music Hall of Fame and is best known for her rendition of “Crazy,” written by Willie Nelson.
You might think you’re in Greece when you see the Parthenon, one of Nashville’s several art museums. Standing proudly in Centennial Park, this full-scale replica of the Athenian original was built for the state’s 1897 Centennial Exposition. It serves as a monument to classical architecture.
Wonder why this nod to Greece is in Nashville of all places? The reason relates to one of the city’s monikers, the “Athens of the South,” a name that the town has had since the mid-19th century. In a region of the country, which at the time wasn’t known for educating its populace, Nashville was proud to have several noted colleges, universities and specialized academies. It seemed natural at the time that a structure like the Parthenon would be an ideal way to honor Tennessee’s centennial celebration. Today, it serves as an art museum with paintings by 19th and 20th century American artists. The piece de resistance, however, is the dazzling re-creation of the 42-foot Athena.
Music is everywhere in Nashville and you can listen to it 24/7. Two of the iconic venues are the Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium. The Opry is the show that made country music famous. What began as a little radio program in 1925 is now radio’s longest-running show. Multiple generations of artists from legends to rising stars grace the Opry stage. On the night I attended, the stellar lineup featured Vince Gill, Trace Adkins, Jamey Johnson, Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers, Gary Mule Deer and others.
To enhance your Opry experience, get tickets to the backstage tour. Tours are held during the day and after select evening performances. You’ll get to see a whole different side of this fabled seat of country music and learn about its founder, George D. Hay, along with some of its illustrious early members such as Minnie Pearl, Little Jimmy Dickens and Roy Acuff.
There are currently 69 members of the Opry and once an artist becomes a member, he or she can perform or even host any show they wish. Induction into the Opry is one of the highest honors in country music.
The tour takes visitors through the VIP spaces of the Opry as a performer would experience them, starting with the Artist Entrance Lobby. Each member of the Opry is assigned a box at the Grand Ole Opry Post Office in the lobby, where fans may send correspondence to their favorite star. And each gets a dressing room, which is numbered with an oversized guitar pick embedded in the floor in front of the door. The dressing rooms are themed, such as “Stars and Stripes,” “Women of Country,” “Bluegrass,” “Cousin Minnie Pearl, “Welcome to the Family,” which is used for inductees to the Opry on induction night, and “Into the Circle,” for performers making their Opry debut.
In the Opry House Family Room, there’s a mural done by Opry and “Hee Haw” cast member, Archie Campbell. The scene is Campbell’s interpretation of the organized chaos that epitomizes each Opry performance. Nearby is a bronze marker, which indicates the high-water mark during the 2010 flood. The Opry House was inundated by the Cumberland River and suffered major damage, requiring shows to be held in other venues around Nashville during the five-month restoration period.
You’ll get to walk onstage and view the scene from the performers’ perspective. And you’ll have the opportunity to stand on the six-foot circle of oak floorboards taken from the Opry’s former home, historic Ryman Auditorium. The circle represents the Opry’s unbroken connection to its history and traditions. Performers view the circle with reverence for all the titans who preceded them.
The Ryman Auditorium is a Nashville landmark. Known as the “Mother Church of Country Music,” the venue began as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. Local businessman Thomas Ryman built it as a permanent location in 1892 for tent revival-like gospel meetings, but it also became the site of lectures and eventually the first home of the Grand Ole Opry. Over the years, the venue has been updated and today, the more than 2,300-seat auditorium is known for its incredible acoustics and for hosting world-renowned performers.
The show I attended featured The Mavericks. This band with its fusion of country, rock and Latin influences electrified the audience. And yes, the acoustics were amazing. But if seeing a performance at the Ryman isn’t in the cards during your Nashville visit, take a self-guided tour of the place during the day. A film details the auditorium’s history and you can peruse the cases of memorabilia from various artists who have performed there over the years.
Head to Lower Broadway or Honky Tonk Highway, where numerous bars and clubs can be found pumping their music out into the streets day and night. There’s no cover charge to enter any of them. Stroll along and when you hear something you like, pop your head in, order a drink and stay for a tune or two, or more. It’s fun to check out a few places, as the bands vary along with the crowds and atmosphere. One thing that stays consistent, however, are the three songs that the performers will play if and only if the audience coughs up a collective $100. These numbers are: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. For other requests, it’s $20 a pop.
Some of the most popular places, like Tootsies Orchid Lounge, The Stage, Whiskey Row, Jason Aldean’s Kitchen + Rooftop Bar, A.J.’s Good Time Bar and Kid Rock’s, are typically the busiest and you’ll find yourself waiting in line to enter, then packed in like sardines once inside. The rowdiness element increases as the night grows later and people have had their fair share (and more) of libations. On weekends, Lower Broadway becomes a pedestrian-only zone and the overflow from the honky tonks fill the streets. To make your way around all the weavers and stumblers, prepare to do some combat walking.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the retail experience in Nashville. If you’ve come to shop for that coveted pair of cowboy boots and hat, or rhinestone decorated duds, this is the place. Stores abound with all the country music wardrobe accessories you can imagine, not to mention souvenirs galore.
For something a bit different, check out Marathon Village, a neighborhood created from buildings that once housed the Marathon Motor Works from 1910-1914. This company manufactured and sold the first cars in Tennessee. Today, it serves as a model for re-purposing historic structures. Inside, the halls are lined with authentic industrial parts and equipment – a nod to the essence of the bygone factory.
You’ll find a host of unique items, from quirky junk and antiques to high-end knives, one-of-a-kind jewelry and Harley-Davidson apparel. There are even flagship stores from History Channel’s “American Pickers” and legendary whiskey maker, Jack Daniels. And if you want to see four out of the eight Marathon cars still in existence, head to the Marathon Museum across the street.
No visit to Nashville is complete without a deep dive into the food scene. Know that you’re never far away from good eating, as this town is brimming with restaurants, cafes and bistros to suit all budgets and tastes.
Barbeque is a staple, with joints like Edley’s, Martin’s and Peg Leg Porker grilling up some finger-licking goodness. Then there’s something called Hot Chicken. If you’re unaware of this specialty, take note. It’s basically fried chicken with a kick, mainly due to the cayenne pepper in the sauce. How much of a kick is up to you.
Story has it that this fiery invention is the work of a scorned Nashville woman whose partner, Thornton Prince, a lady’s man, had a habit of coming home late. One morning, after a night of debauchery, Prince awoke to the smell of fried chicken cooking in the kitchen. Little did he know that his woman had put a generous dose of cayenne pepper in the dish as she wanted to teach him a lesson. Her plan backfired, however, because Prince loved it so much that he used her recipe to open the first Nashville Hot Chicken shop, which is now Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack.
At Prince’s the chicken ranges from mild to XXXHot. Over at Hattie B’s, another favorite spot in town, the heat extreme is labeled, “Shut the Cluck Up!!!” and has a “Burn Notice” warning.
For breakfast, Biscuit Love is a favorite of locals and visitors alike. This café, which now has four locations, serves up the fluffiest biscuits in a variety of combos, with sausage gravy, eggs, fried chicken, etc., accompanied by yummy cheesy grits. They also offer something called Bonuts – fried biscuit dough topped with lemon mascarpone, over blueberry compote. Go hungry!
At lunch, make a beeline for Assembly Food Hall, where you’ll have your choice of everything from Hawaiian poke bowls, hand-crafted Neapolitan pizzas, crepes and gourmet burgers to Indian street food, Pho and lobster rolls. Enjoy the rooftop bar, where you can sip a libation while listening to live music.
For dinner, Makeready L&L bills itself as a social gathering hall with a menu of familiar favorites focusing on Italian sensibilities. At its helm is the talented Executive Chef Chris Neff. Start with the hearty Tuscan White Bean Soup or Baby Gem Caesar, then take your pick from entrees such as Spaghetti Pomodoro, Pappardelle Bolognese, Chicken Parmigiana or Shrimp Bucatini. The latter is a tasty meld of squid ink pasta, shrimp, wild mushrooms, radicchio and parmesan.
The contemporary space has an industrial chic feel to it, and a small, but lively bar. Black, hand-cut silhouettes line one wall. They represent local Nashvillians who were at the restaurant’s opening in 2018 and agreed to have their photos taken. The photos were then turned into silhouettes.
If you’re craving Mexican, try Calacas. This convivial spot celebrates traditional Mexican culture and cuisine, using recipes passed down through the generations and paired with bold approaches. Begin with the guac and salsa or the Esquites – roasted corn off the cob with cotija cheese – then select from an assortment of tacos with marinated chicken, fried fish, slow roasted pork or crispy cauliflower, or opt for the Carne Asada or enchiladas with mole sauce. Accompany it with a guava or pineapple margarita.
Seafood lovers will revel in the offerings at The Optimist over in German Town. Begin your meal with the Smoked Fish Chowder or Crispy Octopus. Oyster connoisseurs can select from a special mollusk menu with eight or nine varieties on ice. Entrees feature yellowfin tuna, snapper, redfish, halibut, mahi mahi, swordfish and scallops. Add a side of corn milk hushpuppies or crispy Brussels.
When it comes to sweets, a stop at Goo Goo Chocolate Co. is a must. It’s the home of the famed Goo Goo Cluster, America’s first combination candy bar. This confection of caramel, marshmallow nougat, roasted peanuts and milk chocolate was invented in Nashville. There are also other combos with ingredients like peanut butter, pecans and dark chocolate peppermint ganache. And one that’s jam-filled and biscuit-inspired. You can even create your own recipe for a Goo Goo original.For all things Nashville: www.visitmusiccity.com
Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries spanning all seven continents, and her stories appear in numerous print and digital publications.