Nashville is probably my favorite city that I’ve visited in the United States. Not only is it known as the capital of Country music, it is also a historic American city where good manners and classic American charm are still alive and well.
I’ve decided to feature it in my blog on the day after Independence Day because I lived there during one summer and witnessed the best fireworks display and 4th of July celebration that I’ve ever seen. Not only was there a free concert downtown featuring a long list of well-known performers, there was a live orchestra performance accompanying a fireworks display that must’ve lasted for thirty minutes or more. It was hands-down the most epic and moving 4th of July that I’ve ever experienced. The last few minutes of the fireworks show can be seen at the link below.
The city itself is second to Memphis in size for the largest city in the state of Tennessee, with over 600,000 people living in the city proper, according to 2014 estimates. The downtown area has seen a boom in its population and tourism in recent years, and Nashville has also been voted the friendliest city in the United States by Travel and Leisure Magazine in 2015. So what’s so happening about Nashville?
Well, there are a lot of activities within Nashville as well as side trips to take from Nashville. A common misconception is that Nashville is just for Country music fans and for visiting honky-tonks. This could not be further from the truth. It is nicknamed “Music City” because it is just that; you can find all kinds of music almost everywhere you go in Nashville. While the city will always be synonymous with Country music, there is a very lively and diversified music scene there, from bluegrass and folk to indie and alternative rock. One of the most interesting things to me was that in the downtown area, you could see about a dozen or more classic honky-tonks and cheesy Country shops, while the other areas of the city had modern cafes and hipster hot-spots rivaling those of New York City.
If Nashville was a woman, I imagine she’d have multi-colored hair, a few tattoos, cowboy boots, and a 19th century dress. It’s truly a city of contrast; both old-fashioned and progressive at the same time, but always completely genuine and charming.
So today I am reminiscing about my favorite activities and restaurants in Nashville.
Frist Center for the Visual Arts
A beautiful art deco building that was originally the city’s main post office now houses this art museum featuring regularly rotating exhibitions. I saw a great exhibit featuring Andy Warhol’s works of art with a focus on his connection with music and his depiction of famous musicians in his artwork.
Whether you love him or hate him, Andrew Jackson’s home and plantation 10 miles from Nashville is a must see for history buffs and those who like early 19th century homes. The home is very beautifully preserved and the museum provides a wealth of information about Jackson’s life, family, and homestead. Complete with staff dressed in period costume and live animals, his crib is pretty cool. Beware if visiting in the summer though; it can be brutally hot walking around his vast property in high humidity and no air conditioning, so bring lots of water.
Centennial Park and Parthenon Replica
This public park is located just across the street from Vanderbilt University (which also has a beautiful and historic campus) and seemed to always be bustling with activity.
When I was there in the summer, they played free movies at twilight every week and also held concerts, craft fairs, swing dancing (yes swing dancing) and other events. The main attraction to the park, however, is the full-size replica of the Parthenon in Greece. It was originally built to be a temporary attraction for Tennessee’s Centennial Exhibition in 1897, but was made permanent in the 1920s. Today it is a major landmark of the city and houses a museum with paintings donated by art enthusiast George M. Cowan as well as contemporary art exhibits, and ancient Greek art and sculpture replicas. The most epic feature of the inside, though, is the replica of Athena in the center of the upper portion of the building. It is a truly breathtaking structure from the outside and equally mesmerizing on the inside, where you can really appreciate its vast size.
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
It houses an endless array of Hall of Fame members’ personal items and country music memorabilia such as Carrie Underwood’s CMA awards show dress, Jerry Lee Lewis’ blue suede shoes, and Elvis’ huge white Cadillac car adorned with metal stallions. It’s definitely a must-see for music history and museum fans.
RCA Studio B
A short drive from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, RCA Studio B is a surprisingly small, yet very historic recording studio, known for creating the “Nashville Sound” during the mid-twentieth century.
Elvis Presley recorded some of his most famous songs here as did with Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, and countless others. Look out for the mark on the wall outside of the studio, that is said to have been left by Dolly Parton’s car after she hit it as she was arriving late to the studio one day.
Located in downtown Nashville, the Ryman is another historic venue for Country music and is often called the “Mother Church of Country Music”. This auditorium was originally a church and later saw performances by some of the most famous entertainers of the 20th century and was also the home of the Grand Ole Opry radio program from 1943-1974. You can take a backstage tour now. The building is also rumored to be haunted.
Grand Ole Opry House
Unfortunately, Tennessee had experienced very bad flooding in the year prior to when I lived in Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry House had some flood damage, forcing it to close for restoration temporarily. The Grand Ole Opry is probably the one of the top names that come to mind when one thinks of Country music and is often referred to as the “The Show that Made Country Music Famous”. The radio program, which began in 1925, is now housed here. Countless Country music stars during the 20th century such as Roy Acuff, the Carter family, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Minnie Pearl, and many others performed on the Grand Ole Opry program. Weekly performances are still held here with many of the top modern Country stars, and you can also take a backstage tour.
The Bluebird Café
A famous hole-in-the-wall café known for giving many famous Country artists their start, this café still operates but is quite difficult to get into for a show without reservations. My friend and I attempted to wait in line for the remaining first-come-first-serve church pew seats, but sadly we didn’t get in.
An authentic New York style delicatessen with classic fresh deli sandwiches, salads, hot meals, New York cheesecake, pies, and gigantic and gorgeous black and white cookies (I ate a large-size black and white cookie in one sitting once. It was the size of a plate.). They have three locations in Nashville, one of which is in the airport. My favorite meal was the tomato pie with basil and cheese in a flaky crust that came with a side of fresh fruit. Yum!
Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery (formerly Big River Grille and Brewing Works)
This restaurant has festive outdoor seating upstairs and is located adjacent to the water’s edge overlooking the Cumberland River. It was very busy, especially on weekends, but it’s a memorable place if you only have a few days in Nashville.
A sophisticated, yet relaxed restaurant featuring some tables enclosed in cabana-style curtains that can be closed for extra privacy. This was a particularly nice spot for a date or catching up with friends over drinks and appetizers. The large plates are on the expensive side but they also had scrumptious, very reasonably-priced pizza.
Bread & Company
A great place for a laid-back lunch, this eatery had many tempting carb-y offerings and featured a menu of gourmet sandwiches made on fresh bread as well as fancy salads. The fresh mozzarella sandwich with pesto and olive tapenade was AHH-MAZING.
This youthful coffee house and bar/restaurant catered to a twenty-something hipster sort-of crowd and was very laid-back and cool. They featured a very tempting selection of desserts and other food and of course the classic coffee creations like giant frothy cappuccinos. I had a giant marshmallow cereal treat and cappuccino here one night and it was a very blissful night indeed.
Coco’s Italian Market and Restaurant
This restaurant was a piece of home for me. Just like many Italian family-run places we have throughout New York and other areas of the Northeast, this restaurant had delicious fresh Italian and Italian American offerings, an Italian-imports market featuring Italian-made sweets, pastas, Italian-themed merchandise, and also the awesome “Bella Italia” license plate I bought for my car. I had a delicious lemon blueberry cream cake that made a lasting impression and the experience has not been replicated since. The owners’ family was originally from Albany, NY and my parents remembered their restaurants. Small world!
Touristy but Still Fun
Jimmy Buffett’s restaurant chain has a location in the heart of Nashville’s downtown and it’s just as kitsch and touristy as you’d expect, but still pretty fun with a festive island theme.
I like this place more for the music and atmosphere than for the food, although they do offer a large menu featuring lots of BBQ dishes. I saw a live Blue’s performance during dinner which was really unique and entertaining.
Farther from Nashville, but Worth a Visit
If you have more time to explore areas of Tennessee outside of Nashville, some notable attractions worth visiting are Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg (it’s a dry county so you can’t actually buy alcohol in the town of Lynchburg), Loretta’s Lynn’s Ranch in Hurricane Mills, and my personal favorite, Graceland, which was Elvis’ home in Memphis from 1957 until his death in 1977.