There are certain cities where creativity seems to flourish and people believe their dreams really can come true — Nashville is one of them.
The summer after my junior year in college, I took a cross-country road trip to Nashville. It was supposed to be a summer adventure and I stayed for seven years. Life in Nashville was so vibrant and exciting, I wasn’t willing to return to Colorado to put my nose back in a book. And although I did eventually leave, I often think about the 210-year-old city that sits next to the Cumberland River in a lush, green state called Tennessee.
I went back to visit last May, and although Nashville is still small by Los Angeles standards, in the last few years it’s grown fast. The secret is finally out of the bag: there’s something special about Nashville.
It’s long been a popular destination for country music fans, with the Grand Ole Opry right there. But nowadays, its smart urban development, an influx of award-winning restaurants and the rise of trendy neighborhoods, each with their own unique flare, has made it a mecca for people pursuing their own vision of success in a place with small town warmth and big city amenities.
In fact, it was named the No. 1 destination in a Reader’s Choice Poll conducted by Travel + Leisure magazine and something like 80-100 people move there every day, convinced they, too, can achieve their dream, whatever it may be, among the locals who party hard on Saturday night and still manage to make it to church on Sunday. That dichotomy also exists in the way Nashville is both hick and hipster, blending its laidback Southern style with some of the most forward-thinking, creative people on the planet. It’s a place where the famous and not so famous can escape the hassles of congested urban madness and kick back and relax with some of the finest musicians and songwriters in the world. It was like that when I arrived decades ago, and it’s still like that today.
WHERE TO STAY
There are a wide variety of hotels to pick from, luxurious to budget, but for a more authentic Nashville experience, go the Airbnb or HomeAway route and rent a vacation home. There’s a genuine shortage of hotel rooms in the city, a fact not lost to locals who have flocked to list their homes on Airbnb. You’ll find a wide range of options from ultra-modern to charming historic renovation. The options range from $50 per night for a humble room in someone’s house to $1,500 a night for this swoon-worthy shabby chic Victorian renovation.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
Nashville has several distinctive neighborhoods, all with their own unique style. Downtown is the home of the honkytonks, Ryman Auditorium (home of the original Grand Ole Opry), the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, The Johnny Cash Museum, the pedestrian walking bridge, Riverfront Park, live music venues like The Listening Room and restaurants like Merchants inside turn-of-the-last-century brick buildings. Plan on spending an entire day and evening here − there’s a lot to see and it’s all within walking distance.
The Gulch is just southwest of downtown. Once a no man’s land of railway yards, it’s now one of Nashville’s hottest urban fun and residential zones. Young professionals working in the city’s booming Internet technology and health care industries like living in its high-rise condos and hanging out at its upscale restaurants and bars. The tiny 404 Kitchen is excellent and offers imaginative cocktails like “Nearest Green” made with Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey, Laird’s apple brandy, crumbles of Benton’s Smokey Mountain bacon and citrus-infused honey. And just a few blocks away is M. Restaurant & Bar, where chef Jeff Moore displays his considerable cuisine and conversational skills in an open kitchen surrounded by a bar so he can chat with customers as he prepares your meal.
Other Nashville neighborhoods that merit discovery include Midtown for its party scene and great restaurants; 8th Avenue/Melrose for its antique stores (Preservation Station is my favorite); 12 South for its trendy boutiques and restaurant offerings; Germantown, where you’ll find Nashville’s daily farmers market, Victorian-era buildings and even more great restaurants and gourmet coffee offerings; and East Nashville, across the Cumberland River, which was once the poor side of town but today is one of Nashville’s most precious resources for restored Victorian and Craftsman homes. Ask a local and they’ll tell you it’s where the hipsters live.
A great way to see and sample either The Gulch or Germantown is to take a foodie tour with Local Tastes of Nashville. Your tour guide will take you to five or six different restaurants where you’ll enjoy generous samples of their wares. Along the way, you’ll learn about the history of that particular neighborhood and see what’s happening there now.
Civil War history abounds in Nashville, the location of what many historians consider to be the turning point of the War Between the States. What few people know is that more American soldiers died in the Civil War than in World Wars I and II and all wars since – with some of the most horrific battles taking place in and around Nashville. At the Belle Meade Plantation, the “Queen of the Tennessee Plantations,” you can see a beautifully maintained, circa 1820 estate with pits in the front porch columns where Union Army cannon balls left their mark. At the Belmont Mansion, docents will tell you the story of Adelicia Acklen, who used her feminine charms and brilliant mind to beguile both Yankee and Confederate generals into helping her save her estate, emerging after the war as one of the wealthiest women in the world. Drive about 20 miles from Nashville to see the Carnton Plantation. Once a Gone with the Wind-like manor, the house and surrounding grounds were filled with thousands of dead and dying, and it’s said the floors are still stained with blood. Today, the plantation is open for tours and docents will tell you the chilling tale of the day a five-hour battle led to the death of some 8,500 soldiers.
Of course, Nashville is most famous for its country music, and what’s a trip to Nashville without a visit to the Grand Ole Opry? For the few who don’t know, this is the world-famous country music radio show that was first broadcast from Ryman Auditorium in 1925 and is now held in a state-of-the–art concert facility at Opryland, about 12 miles northeast of downtown Nashville. The show features a line-up of new stars, superstars and country music legends, with eight or more artists on each show. Even if you think you don’t like country music, you’ll appreciate the Opry for its generous slice of Americana and the epic talent that has stood on its stage.
If you make it to Nashville, be sure to include a day trip to Franklin. This historic town has been lovingly restored by its residents, who include LeAnn Rimes, Ashley Judd, Nicole Kidman and husband Keith Urban and just plain folk who adore its yesteryear vibe. Start your day trip from Nashville with breakfast at the Loveless Café, a modest roadside eatery once a best-kept secret and now a national sensation after being discovered by famous food bloggers. From there, take Natchez Trace Parkway, a picturesque drive through extraordinary scenery, and enjoy the stunning view offered by the Double Arch Bridge that you’ll pass over on your way.
Stop in Leiper’s Fork, a rural town once referred to as “a wide spot in the highway” until it was saved by the Franklin community, and now a protected historic district. You’ll find craft and art galleries, plenty of outdoor porches and firepits that invite visitors to sit a spell and enjoy an iced tea or a toasty hot s’more. Be sure to stop in at Puckett’s for a “meat and three” lunch and to listen to bluegrass or country music – or sit at the picnic tables set out in front and enjoy the passerby.
And for the pièce de résistance, on to Franklin proper. Explore downtown and all the charming stores, and finish your day with dinner at Gray’s on Main, a rustic-chic cafe offering Southern fare, craft cocktails and frequent live music. It’s a great way to wind up your Tennessee adventure.
Four Things to Know Before You Go
— Live music is everywhere: at the airport, in every bar, at live music clubs, songwriter showcases, festivals, concerts – everywhere. Try to catch a writer’s night where songwriters perform three songs each. It’s one of the best ways to get a good taste of Nashville’s rich talent. Good bets include: The Bluebird Café (be sure to get there 90 minutes early or you won’t get in), The Listening Room, The Station Inn and The Douglas Corner Cafe.
— For those who don’t smoke: Nashville did not get the memo from California about banning smoking in public places. It can be a bit of shock when you’re used to smoke-free bars and restaurants. Not the case in Nashville. Lots of people still smoke cigarettes with no shame whatsoever – not like L.A. where you have to hide behind a bush to take a puff.
— Nashville is in the South but still has four distinct seasons. Summer is muggy and hot, and air conditioning is a necessity. Winters are short but cold with occasional light snow. Fall is spectacular with brilliant blue skies, temperate weather and gorgeous autumn colors. Spring is equally pleasant with the scent of wild honeysuckle and dazzling displays of wild daffodils and other flowers sprouting from every available inch of earth.
— Smothered and covered is how the locals jokingly refer to Southern style cooking. There are plenty of restaurants with internationally influenced haute cuisine, but more pervasive are those with gravy, fluffy biscuits, cornbread, fried chicken and pulled pork barbecue along with deep-fried everything. It’s not always easy to navigate if you’re a vegan or gluten-free. While you’re there, be sure to try “hot chicken.” The story goes that a Nashville wife wanted to take revenge on her cheating husband by frying chicken that would be so over-seasoned it would be inedible. Her plan backfired and he loved her creation, and nowadays, it’s a super-popular Nashville food trend. You’ll find lots of hot chicken specialty restaurants, but my favorite is Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, with heat levels ranging from “spiceless Southern” to “Damn Hot” and “Shut the Cluck Up.”
Kim Calvert is the editor of Singular magazine and the founder of the SingularCity social networking community. An outspoken champion of people who are living their lives as a “me” instead of a “we,” Kim oversees the creative direction and editorial content of the magazine and online social networking community. She secures contributors and is responsible for maintaining the fun, upbeat, inspirational and often-humorous tone of Singular, a lifestyle guide for successful single city living.