My sisters and I crouched into an Uber to head to the 12South neighborhood of Nashville. A few minutes in, the driver asked a question that had clearly been on his mind: “So, are you part of a bachelorette party?”
“No, we’re just visiting. Why do you ask?”
“Every other one of my passengers today was here for a bachelor or bachelorette party.”
Nashville is on the rise. It has been for some time, building on a unique culture stemming from its country music roots and legendary creative scene to become an in-demand destination for nightlife, food, sports, and the arts. The city is experiencing significant growth propelled by millennials looking for a lower cost of living and laid-back lifestyle in a place that has a lot going on.
The city even has a nickname for practically all of its sides: NashVegas for the nightlife, Smashville for sports (specifically hockey), Music City for its music heritage.
I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Nashville a couple of times a year for my job, but the rest of my family had never been. When the opportunity arose to take a family vacation there over a long weekend, we jumped on it.
I can’t claim to have seen most – or even a large portion – of the city, but what I have seen continues to make me want to dive deeper.
Here’s my hot list of things to love about Nashville.
My mom is a born and bred Texan who meets a friend everywhere she goes. But having lived in Massachusetts for the last 12 years, she’s become accustomed to the more closed-off nature of New Englanders. She commented a couple of days into the trip about how genuinely friendly everyone was that she encountered. People would talk to her on elevators, say hi on the sidewalk, and make small talk in lines. There’s a typical Midwestern friendliness that abounds in Nashville, and it’s refreshing to see that spirit live on in a large city.
Robert’s Western World
A stroll down Lower Broadway, Nashville’s famous strip of honky tonk bars, is a sensory explosion of live music, neon lights, and enthusiastic crowds searching for their next spot.
Candidly, Lower Broadway is not a scene I’d normally enjoy. I tend to bypass tourist hot spots in favor of finding the favorite spots of locals. But a trip to Nashville really isn’t complete without checking out its famous country music bars. And the only honky tonk that was recommended to us by every local we asked was Robert’s Western World.
Robert’s is considered the home of traditional country music. It began as a humble boot store, where “you could enjoy a porkchop sandwich, drink a PBR, try on some boots, and listen to an old hilbilly singer,” according to its website. For that reason, the atmosphere – though energetic – is very casual and unpretentious. Despite being packed, it didn’t feel like a scene. And prices were right – for less than $100, my four family members and I had dinner and about three drinks apiece over the course of a few hours. You can’t beat that.
Rolf & Daughters
I’ve dedicated an entire post to my favorite restaurant anywhere. The celebrated restaurant tucked into a residential street in Germantown is best known for its bright and inventive hand-made pasta dishes. It’s worth the modest splurge to experience what Bon Appetit named one of its ten best new restaurants in the U.S. when it opened in 2013.
The Gulch is a neighborhood located between Music Row and downtown Nashville. It was formerly a neglected railyard, but development that began in the early 2000s has completely transformed the area into the South’s first LEED certified community.
I always stay at a hotel in the Gulch when I visit for work, so by default I’ve explored more of this area than any other in Nashville. Despite its newness, the area’s charm and walkability make it a great place to hang out. Local favorites like The Station Inn (below), the Peg Leg Porker (a barbecue joint), Biscuit Love (breakfast), and Milk & Honey (coffee/brunch), among many other shops and restaurants, are all located within a five-minute walk.
I’m eagerly anticipating my next stay in the Gulch so I can go to Sunda, an award-winning New Asian restaurant that opens in 2018. I’ve been to its original Chicago location and have been dying to go back ever since to try more of its innovative takes on Asian staples.
The Station Inn
There are two places I always go in Nashville every time I visit: Rolf and Daughters and the Station Inn. The Station Inn is a tiny bluegrass and roots venue that dates back to the 1970s. It features both new and established artists (apparently famous bluegrass musicians used to show up unannounced after performing at the Grand Ole Opry), and is probably best known for a bluegrass jam session that takes place every Sunday.
I love this venue because it’s tiny, it’s frequented by locals who all seem to know each other, and the patrons take the music seriously. I was even shushed on my first visit for speaking to a colleague during the set. I learned my lesson quickly.
Part of the venue’s appeal is how understated it is. Old promotional posters and signs cover the walls and give it an underground feeling. Low ceilings and a simple stage make you forget that it hosts some of the best bluegrass and roots music around, and that the likes of Alison Krauss have played there on their way to stardom. But don’t let the sparse decor fool you – you’ll be blown away by the talent and caliber of the musicians that perform every night.
The Grand Ole Opry
Speaking of famous Nashville music venues, the Grand Ole Opry is undoubtedly the best known and most historical music event that regularly takes place in the city. What many don’t know about the Opry is that it isn’t actually a venue – it’s a live radio show. The show takes place at two venues during the year: at the Grand Ole Opry House in spring, summer and fall, and the Ryman Auditorium (its original home) in the winter.
Each show features eight or more artists split into three acts that showcase a range of musical styles from past and present. The performers range from up-and-comers to established, sometimes world-famous artists. Each artist only plays a couple of songs, so it felt kind of like the music version of a tapas restaurant: you get to taste a lot of different dishes over the course of your meal.
The headliner the night we went was Vince Gill, an artist I loved listening to growing up. Shelly Fairchild’s strong vocals and catchy pop-country songs made me instantly want to save her music on Spotify. And I particularly loved the husband-wife duo of Drew and Ellie Holcomb, whose slower songs and smooth, haunting vocals were fresh and unexpected.
One surprising and hilarious aspect of the Opry show was the fact that it was a live radio broadcast, and the host would read ads from the stage in between acts. The advertisers weren’t the what one would expect – no big-name companies, but instead local institutions that seemed completely incongruent with the show. The Tennessee Fish & Wildlife Commission touted the good hunting grounds in the state (with images of dead deer flashing on the screens of the auditorium), and Kentucky Kernel seasoning advertised its special blend of herbs and spices that are apparently a staple of Southern cooking. The blend of campy ad scripts, random images of dead fish and seasoned chicken flashing on the big screens, and the collective amusement of the audience created an atmosphere of hilarity that had us all doubled over laughing.
Patterson House is a darling of the Nashville speakeasy/craft cocktail circuit. It’s only identifiable by a small sign outside, but don’t let that fool you – it’s so well known around town that it can be difficult to get in.
Patterson House doesn’t take reservations, and it fills up quickly. We spoke to a family waiting outside before it opened who had tried to visit multiple times in the past, but had always been turned away because the bar was at capacity. We quickly discovered how full it gets after it opens at 5:00: By about 5:30, the small bar was filled with lively chatter, not an empty seat to be found.
The extensive cocktail list had something to satisfy any taste, with every cocktail being conceived and handcrafted by expert bartenders. Mine, a bourbon concoction, was bright and herbal and went down a little too smooth. We only had time to stay for one drink, but I could have lingered for hours in the dimly-lit space that makes you feel like you’re back in the Roaring 20s.
The charming boutiques of 12South emerge out of nowhere from a modest residential area. Locals will tell you that ten years ago, nobody would have predicted that 12South would become the in-demand shopping district it is today. Anchored by boutiques including Imogene + Willie, Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James, and White’s Mercantile, this trendy strip offers moderate- to high-end goods and wares that have a uniquely Nashville flair. Oh, and the street art is totally photo-worthy (see below).
The Street Art
Cities around the world are embracing street art, and Nashville is no exception. My sisters and I did a mini street art tour of the Gulch and 12South during our visit and found a number of fun walls to take silly photos in front of. These are just two of the many areas with high-impact murals – I hope to discover even more on a future visit!
What are your favorite things about Nashville? Tell me about them in the comments!