Nashville is on the up. In 2018, it had a record 15.2 million visitors, and not all come for the music and dancing. ISOBEL FRANCES explores this vibrant city and discovers why you’ll be back for an encore.
The sound of country music – from bluegrass and contemporary country to honky-tonk and country gospel – is filling the air on Nashville’s neon-lit main strip. Broadway – the city’s busiest street – is full of revellers sipping whisky and clambering into packed honky-tonks lining the infamous stretch. And it’s not even midday yet. This is Music City in all its glory. The home of country music and a place with talent seeping from its pores.
But Nashville isn’t all plaid shirts, honky-tonks, rhinestones and cowboy boots. Before it cemented its musical roots in the 1900s, it was known as the ‘Athens of the South’, promoting the culture of classical Greece. The city marked the Tennessee Centennial celebrations in 1897 by building a full-sized replica of the Parthenon, which was rebuilt in the 1920s and turned into the city’s main art gallery.
Nashville is one of the US’s fastest-growing cities due to its constant regeneration. One of its most popular neighbourhoods, the Gulch, used to be a dank ravine down by the railway tracks. Now, it’s one of the city’s smartest areas, with back-to-back bars and restaurants. Kanye Prime is a fancy steakhouse popular with celebrities and the upscale Mexican restaurant Saint Añejo is heaving on a Tuesday night. But while most things in the Gulch may be shiny and new, there are still old-school spots. The Station Inn is one of the best bluegrass venues in Nashville for old-fashioned country, Americana and roots.
Friendly locals suggest visiting The IDEA Hatchery in Five Points in East Nashville – a collective of eight small start-up businesses – and it is fabulous.
Goodbuy Girls sells vintage clothes and cowboy boots and Riveter, a jewellery store, stocks stunning handmade pieces. Nearby is the quirky Vandyke hotel – where the check-in desk masquerades as a bar. The barman tells us to try Honky Tonk Tuesdays at the American Legion Post 82 to see the ‘true’ Nashville. Driving up to the no-frills building on the town’s outskirts, camouflaged by a used-car dealership, we are dubious.
But as we are ushered into the back of this dance hall, the place comes alive to the sound of old-school country. It’s like stepping back in time, with locals decked out in starched Wranglers with shiny belt buckles and ten-gallon hats two-stepping their cares away.
The next morning, we are keen to refuel after all that heel-and-toeing and do-si-doing with a visit to the Nashville Farmers’ Market, which is packed full of local foods and crafts. Sample a maple bacon mocha from Farm City Coffee and a cake from Butter Cake Babe, and you won’t regret trying a soft pretzel with beer cheese at The Picnic Tap.
Walk off all those calories by exploring the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, which is located right outside. It has the most stunning views of the Tennessee State Capitol and a memorial to the Tennessean men killed in World War Two. The Carillons, 50 large Greek-style columns that contain 95 bells, play part of the Tennessee Waltz every 15 minutes.
Thank you for the music
Of course no one visits Nashville without wanting to ‘live’ the experience so don’t miss these iconic destinations…
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
This massive museum was founded in 1961 and is the world’s largest dedicated to the genre. It’s a treasure trove of all things country and western, with artefacts, recordings, stage costumes, photos and videos. There are sections dedicated to Elvis Presley and Hank Williams – and all the sequinned suits you would expect. countrymusichalloffame.org
The Grand Ole Opry.
Launched in 1925, this icon of live country music has been running for more than 90 years and launched the careers of hundreds of country stars. Still a live venue country stars love to perform at, the Opry also offers backstage tours including pre- and post-show tours. Tickets sell out so book your slot well in advance.www.opry.com
Not all music and dancing!
There’s more than country and two-stepping in Nashville so add these must-sees to your list… sample some history at the stately Belle Meade Plantation near Green Hills. It was founded in 1807 by John Harding as one log cabin on 250 acres, and in 1845 he commissioned the Greek revival mansion which stands there now. Its newest tours explore the lives and experiences of enslaved African Americans brought here in 1807. The plantation also makes its own wine, and each tour ends with a complimentary tasting. bellemeadeplantation.com
Step back in time with a stroll around the beautiful old town of Franklin, where the main street is lined with cute galleries, antique shops and Victorian buildings. Heading back to Nashville, check out the stunning views from the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge and call in at The Loveless Cafe. This diner has been serving its famous buttermilk biscuits and gravy since 1951. lovelesscafe.com
Party Fowl is Nashville’s only hot chicken spot that also comes with a full-service bar. It does every kind of chicken you can think of – including with beignets (fried doughnuts). It also does a mean gumbo and the margaritas are delicious.partyfowl.com
Hipster eatery Pinewood Social has a bowling alley and two plunge pools – this is the place for work, rest and play. Try the chipotle shrimp cocktail or pork rinds with Alabama sauce. pinewoodsocial.com
Where to stay
The beautiful Hilton Nashville Green Hills, which opened in January last year, has stunning decor and upscale bedrooms with floor-to-ceiling windows. The hotel’s king-sized beds have supportive, comfortable mattresses and handy USB points by the bed so you don’t need to faff around with an adapter. With a rooftop pool and the SkyBar on the tenth floor with stunning views, you will want for nothing. Best of all, it’s next to a huge shopping mall and The Bluebird Cafe is just around the corner.
A standard room with one king bed at the Hilton Green Hills starts from $162 (£125) per room per night including breakfast. hilton.com
Best time to go: From April to October, the temperatures range from the mid-70s to the mid-90s, with the least rain in October. You should pack for all eventualities as the weather is changeable and can go from stifling humidity to thunderstorms.
Time difference: GMT -6
Visa requirements: Apply online for an ESTA. It costs $14 through the ESTA website and lasts for two years. esta.cbp.dhs.gov
Getting there: British Airways is the only airline to offer direct flights from the UK and flies from London to Nashville five times a week, with return flights starting from £393 including all taxes and charges. Go to ba.com/nashville or call 0344 493 0122. Find out more and plan your trip via visitmusiccity.com