Country music’s not everyone’s cup of sweet tea. And while it would be hard to avoid that particular chicken pickin’ sound while in town (it’ll greet you at the airport, for one thing), with a little planning and know-how, having a good time in Nashville doesn't have to involve an appreciation for steel guitars and Kenny Rogers.
With its award-winning chefs, art scene and vibrant neighborhoods sprouting independent boutiques, craft breweries and sophisticated nightspots, Nashville caters to even the most unflinching country-cynics. And, if all else fails, there’s plenty of blues and bluegrass.
See some (non-country) live music
Nashville is home to more than 130 music venues, and with its reputation for hosting some of the best musicians in the world (coupled with a large demographic of music industry bods), it should come as no surprise that Music City’s live scene is as rip-roaring and diverse as a city three times its size. Rock, jazz, soul, hip hop, blues, indie and electronica are all on tap in Nashville, and the city is firmly on the route of major bands touring the United States. Lovers of rock and indie should check out The Basement (and sister venture The Basement East), Exit/In, The End and the 5 Spot, which also hosts a Monday night Motown dance party that's worth staying up past your bedtime. Cannery Row houses three venues just south of downtown – Cannery Ballroom, Mercy Lounge and the High Watt – and is a central spot to catch touring bands, while 3rd & Lindsley offers a more intimate setting and local talent. Don't forget to check the schedule at the Ryman, which hosts a broad range of performers and is the city's most famous venue.
For the full gamut of music listings, keep an eye on nashvillescene.com
Pull up a chair for a memorable meal
Nashville's restaurant scene is hotter than ever, with more than 100 opening their doors in 2017. Now-classic spots like Rolf and Daughters, The Catbird Seat and Husk Nashville remain some of the state's finest, but newcomers like oyster bar Henrietta Red (helmed by chef Julia Sullivan, who trained at Thomas Keller's Per Se) and sleek tapas bar Barcelona are taking turns at dazzling diners.
A sign that the food scene here is well and truly established: some of the chefs launching new kitchens in Nashville learned from the city's best. Aaron Clemin spent 10 years working under James Beard Award-winning chef Tandy Wilson at City House before breaking out in his own to open Kuchnia + Keller, an Eastern European-inflected spot inspired by his hometown of Milwaukee. Stop in for a comforting bowl of beef goulash – topped by greens, it's a bit lighter than the traditional dish, but every bit as delicious – or the citrus-spiked, dill-flecked smoked whitefish accompanied by crispy potato pancakes.
The quality fast-casual trend has hit Nashville full-speed, meaning you don't have to spend big bucks to eat well. Hot chicken joints like Hattie B's are obvious options, but don't miss the juicy burgers at Hugh Baby's, the local answer to Shake Shack, or the worth-waiting-for pizza at Slim & Husky's.
Tour breweries and sample craft ales
Like most cities in America right now, Nashvillians can’t get enough of crafty suds. In the last five years over a dozen new breweries have opened around town, not to mention an ever-increasing number of taprooms. Calibrate your palate in the so-called 'brewing district' south of Broadway, where stalwart Yazoo Brewing Co, whimsical Jackalope and creative Tennessee Brew Works cluster within a few blocks' walk, and then set off on an adventure across the city to discover a huge range of Pilsners, pale ales, red ales and IPAs, as well as new experiments in sour beers. Read more about craft beer in Nashville.
Remember the American Civil War
Buildings scarred with bullet holes, former slave plantations and battlegrounds around Nashville pay witness to a dark period in Tennessee’s history, when the state found itself at the center of the western theater of the American Civil War. The Tennessee State Museum gives an excellent primer to the state’s role in the war and the era of reconstruction that followed. Exhibits include actual weapons and uniforms used in some of the 400-odd battles that ravaged the region. For a taste of pre-war Tennessee, the Belle Meade Plantation, southwest of town, is an extravagant example of an Antebellum plantation home. Read more about Civil War sights around Nashville.
Indulge in barbecued meat
Baby back or spare? Wet or dry? These are choices that will need deep consideration as you negotiate Nashville’s celebrated barbecue scene, and that’s before you’ve got to the menu of side dishes and sauces. The cooking method of smoking, slow-roasting, braising and otherwise coaxing all kinds of deliciousness out of pork ribs, brisket and chicken pieces is prevalent all over the American South and Nashville’s ‘cue joints are up there with the best of them. Worship the gods of slow and juicy at Martin’s, Edley’s or Peg Leg Porker, or brave Jack’s on Broadway (just be sure to close your ears to the honky-tonks surrounding it).
Drive the Natchez Trace Parkway
One of America’s most glorious and historic two-lane drives finds its starting line in Nashville. Set your radio to the playlist of your choosing and cruise: The Natchez Trace Parkway runs a total of 444 miles from the city to Natchez, Mississippi, and commemorates the old Natchez Trace, a trail originally trammeled by migrating bison and then used for centuries by Native Americans as a trade route. Today’s paved road winds alongside broad-leaved trees and open green farmland and is a great way to experience Tennessee’s landscape. Near the parkway entrance just off Hwy 100 is the Loveless Café, famous for its fluffy biscuits and Southern fare.
Buy a guitar
Music City is home to some superlative stores for finger pickers. Gruhn Guitars claims to be the world’s largest purveyor of vintage and used instruments and boasts an inventory that reads like an archive of guitar history: try out a rare 1917 Gibson mandola, a limited edition 1970s Epiphone or your all-time favorite Fender. Eric Clapton, Robert Plant and Paul McCartney are all on the client list. For a perhaps less overwhelming experience, seek out Corner Music, a neighborhood guitar shop with international ambitions, or female-owned Fanny's House of Music, billed as 'Nashville's most comfortable music store.'
Canoe the Harpeth River
The green and watery land of Middle Tennessee is criminally overlooked by visitors to the city, yet within just a 20-minute drive of the boozy bars of downtown, you can be drifting down a tree-lined stretch of water as happy as Ratty from Wind in the Willows. The Harpeth River is one of the prettiest and easiest areas to access for canoeing, and features slow-moving water interspersed with a few easy rapids and lots of sand banks where you can rest your boat and have a swim. Foggy Bottom Canoe, Canoe Music City and Adventures on the Harpeth all offer canoe rental and guided trips.
Explore independent shops
Shopping in Nashville has been hitting the lifestyle headlines of late for its rich seam of local design talent and one-of-a-kind stores. Imogene + Willie is a favorite as much for its location in an old service station, as for its custom made denim and leather boots and belts. Hey Rooster General Store in Hillsboro Village stocks a rotating selection of handmade home wares, ceramics and gifts, with its one common theme being that everything seems to be beautifully desirable. Some top spots for local and sustainable local fashion include Local Honey, Ceri Hoover and Emil Erwin.
Country and non-country fans alike will appreciate Hatch Show Print which has been turning out graphic-print posters for music stars from its hand-cut letterpress since the 19th century. It’s one of the oldest print shops in the US and runs workshops where you can create your very own poster.
Shopping fiends looking to indulge should head for the neighborhoods of 12th Avenue South, Hillsboro Village, Marathon Village, Germantown or the Gulch.
Get ye to the Frist
The Frist Center for Visual Arts is not the only art museum in Nashville, but the quality of exhibitions here is unsurpassed elsewhere in town. Housed in the former US Post Office, the white marble-clad building has no permanent collection, meaning its 24,000 sq ft of space is free to house the very best domestic and international traveling exhibitions. From a Kandinsky retrospective, to Goya, to a celebration of American animation, there is always something new at the Frist.