If you think you know Nashville already – either from the eponymous TV show or reputation as the home of country music – well, yeah, you sort of do. Music plays a big part in the history of the city in Tennessee, but as I found out on a recent trip to the state capital, there’s a whole lot more to pack into a trip here too. You should probably still bring your Stetson and cowboy boots though…
Music City, the nickname which Nashville is best known by, is a fitting one. Everyone from Elvis Prestley to Johnny Cash has passed through here with modern stars regularly seeking recognition from locals as a sign of ‘making it’. It’s not just country musicians performing here either, on the night I arrived 50 Cent was on stage at an arena gig to thousands of happy fans. Sure, they like music here, but is there actually anything else to Nashville?
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Well, there is an International airport which is expanding to accommodate more flights and passengers. The arrivals process is still being ironed out to improve speed through customs, but it is straightforward enough. Everyone is exceedingly polite here, and good manners go a long way when negotiating passage into the city. The airport is located fairly close to town too, so within a few minutes you’ll be able to check in and start exploring.
BA flies direct from London Heathrow (LHR) to Nashville (BNA) daily
Where to stay in Nashville
Let’s start with somewhere to stay. For my trip I was splitting my time between two properties and they were both very different. The Omni Hotel in downtown Nashville is a superbly located modern establishment that adjoins the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Everything you would want to do in the bustling downtown district is within easy walking distance and you can also easily get a taxi to anywhere further. Don’t miss out on time at the pool as the extended hours mean that the outdoor space opens at 6 AM and remains accessible until midnight. The Joseph is just opposite and is an excellent option for late night drinks and excellent Italian cuisine.
My other stay is something I will always fondly remember. If you mix the giant atriums from the Jurassic Park films with the gaudy excess of Las Vegas’ most over-the-top hotels, you end up with something approaching the gargantuan Gaylord Opryland Resort. To say it feels like a theme park would be an understatement, especially as there is an actual water park attached to the hotel, but there’s a genuine charm to it all. There are almost 3,000 guest rooms spread out over 9 acres of indoor space with waterfalls, boat rides, sports bars and everything else you can imagine from such a place all under one roof. I not-so-secretly loved every minute I spent here.
Things to do in Nashville
The weather in Nashville veers towards the very hot in the summer months. As you would expect, air-conditioning makes getting around fairly painless, but it’s something worth considering if you plan on walking throughout the day.
To really get immersed in the city, my first stop was probably the most iconic. RCA Studio B is a relatively small building that boasts an unbeatable heritage. The historic tour shows you the recording studio where Elvis recorded more than 200 of his biggest hits and where Dolly Parton once sang too. You can see the original instruments that were played on these hits and the guides do an excellent job in making sure you get the time you need to soak it all in. They also know the best spots for taking selfies, so be sure to ask them where the best lighting is.
The best way to book this tour is with a combined ticket for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. You’re going to want to do both anyway. The museum is vast and gets into real detail about the history of the music genre which still remains a mystery outside of America. If you’re not all that enamored with this type of music, keep your time here short. You’ll get a lot of information walking through and the big attractions are impossible to miss. Fans of country music will want to spend the whole day here, so just plan accordingly.
As this is such a musical city, the new National Museum of African American Music is also found downtown. This location has much wider appeal and gets under the skin of both music and culture through the ages. While in this part of Nashville, you should also try some local cuisine at Assemble Food Hall. Hot Chicken is one of the specialties, although when I tried it elsewhere at a small diner (the wonderfully named Party Fowl) I made the mistake of asking them to make it ‘as hot as possible’.
With the heat and jetlag kicking in it’s important to decide if you want to break up the time here or try to theme each day. This was going to be our ‘day in music city’, so after a short break it was on to the famous Ryman Auditorium which is just opposite the National Museum of African American Music. The auditorium itself is actually quite a small music venue. There’s a short film that is played on a loop you should definitely watch before entering the main space as it informs you of the historical significance of the venue. The Ryman Auditorium remains one of the most in demand stages in the world.
Finally we made it to Honky Tonk Highway, a street where every bar seemingly has a live band playing and everyone is having a good time long into the night. The main stretch of the street is lit in brilliant neon signs and can get busy, but it is a place where you can buy essentials like oversized pink cowboy hats at all hours. I could have stayed out partying long into the night, but by this point I think the ‘poulty-geist’ strength hot sauce I had earlier was playing havoc with my insides. Time for bed.
The Grand Ole Opry Experience
Checking into the Opryland Resort, which is about a 20 minute drive from downtown Nashville, you get a sense of the old part of the city. The lush gardens make it feel like you are in the ‘south’, a region I’m not all that familiar with. Every time I was offered ‘sweet tea’ I kept wondering if that was just Yorkshire’s finest with extra sugar. It’s not.
Most people staying at this resort are either domestic travellers taking a short break or visitors to The Grand Ole Opry. I had heard of this before but wasn’t entirely sure what it was. It turns out this live show is a radio broadcast that has been running in some form since 1925. There is one main weekly show, the one I was excited to be attending, and then several other live performances in a theatre linked to the hotel. The Ryman Auditorium was once home to the Opry, but as audiences grew it moved to this new location.
The new stage only opened in February 2023 with upgraded audio technology and acoustics but one thing remains. All artists step onto the famous wooden circle at the centre of the stage and perform live. The audience really get into the show and depending on who is performing it can get very patriotic. This is the sort of fun patriotism that is enjoyable to participate in… for a short while anyway. The real stars are on stage, however, and the mix of Opry legends with up-and-coming artists makes for a wonderful night of entertainment. If anything, I was more convinced to listen to more country music by one night here than all the previous days’ activities delving into the past. Modern country music is thriving and its various forms make it a real blast to explore.
On this trip we were also able to try some modern cuisine from Nashville. Two standouts were Chauchan Ale & Masala House and Noko, where classic comfort foods were given ethnic twists to great effect. Who knew that American food would work so well when fused with Indian and Asian flavours?
My last stops were two contrasting experiences. A sobering tour of the Belle Meade Historic Site highlighted the not-so-distant past that has shaped Nashville. The relationship between African American slaves and the wealth that forged the area shouldn’t be forgotten and preservation efforts here are making sure current (and future) generations will have tangible evidence of what happened.
We couldn’t leave Nashville without checking out The Parthenon, a life-size replica of the original building that stood in Athens. This site can be dismissed as a folly, and approaching it I was unconvinced but the main hall where a 42-foot statue of Athena stands proud is actually quite a revelation.
I suppose that’s much like the city itself. Nashville was a pleasant surprise full of nods to the past and a thoroughly modern outlook. I will probably return one day but will tone down the hot sauce orders…
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