Brace yourself for a bender: whiskey flows freely in the home of country music. Take in a show, tear up over a plate of hot chicken, two-step the night away (honky tonks are no joke), or explore Nashville's quirky-cool restaurants; there's no wrong answer here.
Nashville is the worst kept secret this side of the Mississippi: over 15 million visitors flocked to Music City, USA in 2018 alone. And it's no surprise — iconic honky tonks, dangerously hot fried chicken, a lively college culture, deep ties to the music industry, and an ever-changing culinary landscape that's caught attention beyond the national level — what's not to like? Nashville's been cool since Hank Williams crooned tunes and Johnny Cash walked the line — and it's not going anywhere. So shine your boots and let the fiddlin' good times begin.
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Like much of the south, Nashville experiences a subtropical climate. Stifling humidity and high temperatures in the summer that can creep up to the mid-90s, make visits between mid-May and mid-September grueling. Crowds are not deterred by the muggy conditions, though, as summer months bring in the largest number of travelers who attend festivals and come to see the sights. Hotel prices skyrocket and restaurant reservations are hard to come by around this time.
Early spring (April to early-May) to fall (October to mid-November) is shoulder season, with temperatures from the mid-70s and to the high-40s. October is the driest month and May the wettest, so if you're visiting in spring, bring your rain gear. While rare, keep in mind that this area of Tennessee is prone to tornado watches during the spring months. Crowds start to ramp up in the late spring and into summer, but by November, they have dwindled.
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The city's altitude helps keep temperatures lower than the rest of the southeast region, so expect crisp autumns (low-40s), with exceptional fall foliage to boot. Winters in Nashville tend to be quieter months, which means lower hotel rates (except during the holidays). Temperatures range from the low-50s to low-30s, with the occasional cold snap thanks to arctic blasts from Canada. Although rare, ice storms and snowfall do occur but only one or two inches tends to accumulate. In most instances, winter precipitation comes in the form of rainfall, so waterproof shoes are a good idea. Then again, it isn't uncommon to have an unseasonably warm winter day, so pack accordingly.
Nashville's public transportation mainly consists of a bus network operated by the WeGo Public Transit. The system runs more than 50 bus routes, with express buses available, and a shuttle to the Nashville International Airport. A one-way ride costs $2, all-day pass $4, 7-day pass $20, 20-rides $40, and a 31-day pass $65.
Riders age 4 and younger ride for free; riders 19 and younger pay half price. Seniors and people with disabilities also pay half price except the 20-ride pass, which costs $20. All-day passes may be purchased online or on the bus. Fare boxes aboard buses accept $1, $2, $5, $10 and $20 bills as well as US coins, including $1 coins. Passengers who pay with a larger denomination will be issued a change card with your balance on it, as bus drivers cannot provide change. As of 2019, there is no smartphone app that allows customers to pay through their phones.
Operating times vary depending on the bus but most routes start at 5:30am and run into the evening. Some routes don't operate on weekends or holidays, so it's a good idea to check the schedule before you head out. WeGo also provides a "park and ride" options for commuters. Riders can drive to a designated pick-up area and take a bus from there. There are no additional charges to park.
The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) also operates a commuter train line known as the Music City Star that runs between Nashville and Lebanon, Tennessee Mondays through Fridays. Fare varies depending on the amount of rides you purchase, whether you're purchasing tickets in advance or on the platform or train, and the originating station. If you're disembarking at Riverfront Park station (downtown Nashville), you can board one of two buses at no additional costs — one runs through downtown, the other through the West End/Belmont neighborhoods.
That being said, Nashville remains a very car-centric city. While most of the action happens downtown along the Broadway strip, visitors looking to explore less touristy parts of town will need to drive. Many hotels offer parking on the premises for a fee; some even offer shuttles downtown or to the Grand Ole Opry. Parking in garages downtown can rack up a hefty bill, and street parking may be hard to find. Luckily, major ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft are popular here. As always, Uber/Lyft provide a fixed price depending on distance and demand, and it's a great option for those planning a boozy night out. Traditional taxis are easy to find in downtown too but can also be expensive if you're traveling a far distance.
Nashville has grown more bike-friendly over the years, with bike sharing programs like B-Cycle available throughout the city. A day pass costs $5, a week pass $10, a month pass $15, and an annual pass $50. Bikes can be checked out from any station for one-hour at a time, between 5am and 10pm every day. Overage fees of $1.50 will be charged per additional half-hour. Electric scooter companies, like Bird, are also available in Nashville, particularly in the downtown and East Nashville areas. Traffic conditions and pedestrians may pose a safety hazard, so ride with caution.
US dollars is the official currency. Major credit cards are accepted almost everywhere but it's not a bad idea to keep some bills on hand for small transactions or picking up the tab at the rare cash-only establishment, and for tipping the countless performers you'll encounter throughout the city.
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If this is your first visit to the Music City, you'll hear this word used a lot. Honky tonks (or juke joints) are typically bars or venues with at least one music stage, drinks, and 'round-the-clock live shows. Most are located along Broadway in downtown and offer music between 10am and 3am. Generally there is no cover charge to enter a honky tonk, and you might be witnessing the next big country sensation. Performers will send around a tip jar, so bring some cash to throw in for support. Many will accept song requests for a fee — around $20 per song — and cash or Venmo is accepted for these transactions.
Nashville is synonymous with country music but its musical origins go back further than country greats like Hanks Williams and Lefty Frizzell. Musical publishings churned out of the city during the 1800s; a hymnal book published in 1824, Western Hymnal, garnered significant national attention. Soon after, the Ryman Auditorium opened its doors. Dubbed a gospel tabernacle, the stage became a premiere auditorium widely renowned for its natural acoustics. It would later be known as the Carnegie Hall of the South.
The story of the Ryman Auditorium begins strangely enough, with an insurance company. In the 1920s, the company launched a radio station, WSM, to promote its business. They mostly played easy-listening and classical music but reserved Saturday nights for a live country music show known as the WSM Barn Dance. The broadcast gained in popularity over the years and people flocked to the station to catch a glimpse of the country stars. To accommodate these crowds, WSM was moved into the Ryman Auditorium and changed its name to the Grand Ole Opry radio show. The Grand Ole Opry still remains the oldest running live radio show in the world. Rockabilly and country stars who got their big break at the Opry include Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, and Patsy Cline. Today, the location of the Opry has moved (the crowds never stopped growing) but it continues to showcase country music's biggest stars.
By 1960, Nashville had earned the moniker, Music City. As the Songwriting Capitol of the World, it continues to attract renowned musicians and up-and-comers looking to build names for themselves on the world's most sought after stage.
Nashville's drinking culture draws plenty of visitors, and who can blame them? Good drinks and even better music makes it a pretty great time. As such, Nashville is a hotbed for bachelorette parties. You're likely to come across a soon-to-be-bride and her cohort of friends (all donning "Last Bash in Nash" tees), with inflatable phallic toys in tow. Don't say we didn't warn you.
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Hot fried chicken is basically an institution in Nashville, and no trip to the Music City is complete without it. The chicken comes in varying levels of spicy, and is served on a bed of white bread with pickles. Choose your heat level carefully (from mild to "clucking hot") — this stuff is no joke. The chicken has become such a phenomenon that there is a festival solely dedicated to it, and even celebrities like Jay-Z and Beyoncé are fans of the bird. A recent fire forced the closure of Prince's Hot Chicken, the most iconic (and arguably the original) hot chicken spot in the city. Luckily, a second location in south Nashville is opened for those brave enough to try. Closer to town, Hattie B's Hot Chicken offers six level of spiciness, but none are for the faint of heart.
Meat and threes are another Nashville staple, the recipe's right in the name. It consists of a meat (meatloaf, brisket, ham, fried chicken, roast beef, etc.) and three sides like mac 'n' cheese, collard greens, or vegetables. The plate usually comes with cornbread or biscuits, and to wash it all down, a sweet tea. This is a great meal to try out fried catfish, a favorite seafood in this part of Tennessee. Your go-to for the best meat and threes are Arnold's Country Chicken and Puckett's. For carnivores craving even more meat, you can't go wrong with low-and-slow BBQ joints like Edley's Bar-B-Que, Hugh Baby's, or Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint. Biscuit lovers, rest easy: Nashville is the motherlode for the flaky bread. In the trendy neighborhood, the Gulch, you'll wait in long lines for biscuits from Biscuit Love. On the side of a highway to the southwest of Nashville, you'll be fed your share of biscuits and other down-home dishes at the retro Loveless Cafe.
Newcomers and trailblazers are going beyond traditional fare with exciting new flavors. The neighborhood of Germantown has a cluster of restaurants racking up major accolades: Rolf and Daughters takes its seasonal menu, handmade pastas, and cocktails seriously; City House serves Southern-meets-Italian by James Beard Award winning-chef Tandy Wilson; and chic Mediterranean (with a full raw bar) and natural wines can be enjoyed at Henrietta Red. Recently, attentions have turned to East Nashville, the rapidly-changing neighborhood across the river from downtown. Mexican street style tacos, soups, and pickled cactus (yes, in the middle of Tennessee) can be found at Mas Tacos Por Favor; Try New American at James Beard Award winner, Lockeland Table, which makes some heavenly banana Foster pudding. There's even a restaurant focused on Iberian Peninsula cuisine— hint: it's a meat-heavy menu. A vast, open-air farmer's market operates year-round for those looking for fresh produce, with peak season between May and November.
While craft cocktails and mixology have seen a renaissance in Nashville in recent years — thanks to places like Attaboy (a NYC transplant) and Bastion — there are two drinks that will always belong to Nashville: bourbon and fruit tea. Belle Meade Bourbons, especially the one served at Husk, is arguably the city's best. Fruit tea, on the other hand, is a concoction made of brewed sweet tea, orange juice, lemon, and other fruits like pineapple. While its origins remain a mystery, the syrupy creation has long been embraced by residents as a local drink — whether they like it or not.
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The best way to experience Nashville is to head straight for the music. If you're up for fighting the crowds, Lower Broadway in Downtown is home to the most celebrated honky tonks. You can't go wrong with Robert's Western World or Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, but lesser known (and less crowded) venues can be found Printer's Alley. Ryman Auditorium is also in this area, and offers tours when concerts are not in session. Music museums abound in Nashville: visit the Musicians Hall of Fame, the Patsy Cline Museum, Downtown; the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Johnny Cash Museum in SoBro; the Grand Ole Opry is in Music Valley, or you can take a tour of the Historic RCA Studio B in Music Row, where legends like Elvis and Dolly Parton recorded.
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Downtown, neon signs light the way for shoppers on the lookout for perfect-fit cowboy boots, hats, and records. Start at Betty Boots (try a Stetson or two) before heading to heavy hitters like Boot Country. Boot Country carries over 20,000 of the highest quality leather boots, but prices run upwards of $200 per boot, so be prepared to drop some cash. If you leave empty handed, you can still pose with the oversized boot on your way out. Wrap things up by visiting the Ernest Tubb Record Shop and its incredible collection of country music records and memorabilia. Staff are happy to talk records or give you the 101 on the store's eponymous troubadour. The space has also hosted the Midnight Jamboree radio show since 1947.
Take a mosey on over to Hillsboro Village for a more eclectic shopping experience. Upscale threads get a funky makeover at Posh; you'll score local finds like honey and handmade jewelry amongst unique home decor at Hey Rooster General Store; and the enchanting children's store, Arcade, celebrates all things kiddos with comfortable clothing, colorful toys, and books.
Trendy 12th South is a hub for specialty boutiques: imogen + willie sells bespoke jeans and hand-picked designer denim in a former gas station; tea drinkers will score the perfect pot at Firepot Chai while gushing over the Moroccan decor; and White's Mercantile, another former gas station-turned general store stocks goods by local purveyors alongside a curated selection of women and men's clothing. If you're in the market for a little bling, Judith Bright Jewelry won't disappoint.
In East Nashville, Her Bookshop somehow manages to carry a curated collection of 900 titles in a 400-square-foot space. Local and regional homewares will delight at Welcome Home and Apple and Oak; get band tees, leather jackets, and cowboy boots at Black Shag Vintage, which is housed in a renovated fire station; or hit up Lemon Laine (where you can sip wine and customize face oils) for your self-care needs.
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If you can't make the 3-plus hour trip to the Smoky Mountains during your visit, don't worry, there is plenty of nature to explore within the city. Take in views of Downtown from Cumberland Park, a river-front green space with a walking path, splash area, amphitheater, and climbing wall. Inside Downtown you'll find the 19-acre Bicentennial Park, which contains a World War II Memorial, a 200-foot granite Tennessee state map, and gorgeous views of the state capitol. Cheekwood Estate and Gardens in Belle Meade boasts lush tulip, Japanese and water gardens surrounding a Georgian-style mansion (the perfect photo op). A pedestrian bridge across the river in East Nashville connects visitors to Shelby Bottoms and Park and Two Rivers Park (that's over 1,500 acres of greenery). If chasing waterfalls is on the agenda, a day trip to Cummins, Foster, or Burgess Falls are all easily accessible by car (~1.5 hours away from downtown) — so don't forget to pack a swim suit.
Visitors in search of a quieter time in Nashville should opt to stay near Belle Meade. This area features Civil War-era museums, such as the one inside slave-built Belle Meade Plantation, for which the surrounding area was named. While the history of the area is culturally complicated, the plantation and estates like Cheekwood have plenty of green spaces and history to share with visitors. Nearby Green Hills is another suburban enclave with a major shopping mall and the beloved Bluebird Cafe, featured on the ABC TV series, "Nashville." The Gulch is a more modern part of town, with newly-constructed high-rises, and it is within close range of the city's center so you won't miss out on anything. The upscale neighborhood has some 50 restaurants of its own however, and loads of boutiques and shops to keep you occupied.
For non-honky-tonk nightlife, skip Lower Broadway and head straight to East Nashville. The neighborhood has undergone a major wave of gentrification in the last few years, attracting new businesses and residents. Musicians, artists, and young families now call the area home, as do trendy hotels (Urban Cowboy), cocktail bars (Attaboy, Urban Cowboy Public House), and James Beard-award winning restaurants (Lockeland Table). Try an especially cool dive bar like Lipstick Lounge (a "bar for humans"), the Crying Wolf, which has live music, dart boards, and pool tables, or the beer garden the Pharmacy.
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While families may not lodge all the way in Southeast Nashville, a 20 minute trip to the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere is perfect for the little ones. At 200 acres, the zoo has plenty of wildlife, a petting zoo, a colorful carousel, and a Jungle Gym playground. The Nashville Children's Theatre in Rutledge Hill is another great child-friendly attraction. The theater has helped push kids' imaginations and creativity through performance since 1931, making it the oldest professional children's theater company in America. For something a little more hands on, try Adventure Science Center in Wedgewood Houston. Exhibits cover subjects from biology and physics to air & space and earth sciences. Wrap up your visit with a trip to the stars inside the 63-foot screen domed Sudekum Planetarium.
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