Known as ‘Music City’, and the country music capital of the world, Nashville should be top of the bucket list for any country music fan – or any music fan for that matter. The same way that aspiring actors move to Hollywood for their lucky break, hopeful musicians move to Nashville. From bar staff and restaurant waiters to shop assistants and uber drivers – it seems that everyone in this city is trying to make it into the music business.
The result is free live music pretty much everywhere you go, as each band and solo artist sings their heart out in the hope of getting noticed – or, at the very least, for a regular spot in one of Broadway’s popular honky tonks.
But Nashville can do a lot more than just carry a tune. If you’re planning a visit, here are six must-do’s for your diary, plus a break-down on where to stay, and where to eat.
WHAT TO DO IN NASHVILLE
1. CMA FEST
For the ultimate Nashville experience, the week of the CMA awards and CMA Fest is the pinnacle of all things country music. This is the week where some of the biggest names (think Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, Dolly Parton, Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood) flock to the city to release their latest singles, perform on stage and pick up an award or two. The awards night then kicks off a whole week of country music concerts around the city centre. The best bit? Most of the concerts are free.
Stages pop up in the middle of streets, along the riverbank, in parks and car parks, with each stage hosting an impressive line-up of world-famous musicians – all playing for free. For the die-hard country music fans, the biggest names play for 4 consecutive nights at the Nissan Stadium – the only stage that requires tickets (from $223 for a 4 day pass).
For the whole week the streets were a sea of cowboy boots and cowboy hats as country music fans, rednecks and cowboy and cowgirl types flooded Music City.
We felt like the only European tourists there, and never got bored of people watching.
We hit about 32 concerts in the space of five days, and by the end of it I was country music’d out. Some of the highlights included Darius Rucker, Chris Stapleton, Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, Kane Brown, Lonestar, Brothers Osborne, Dan + Shay, Florida Georgia Line (with Bebe Rexha), Chase Bryant, Luke Combs, Brett Eldredge, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Kelsey Ballerini, and – believe it or not – the Backstreet Boys (they’re back, apparently).
2. 12 SOUTH
One of our best experiences in Nashville actually came as a recommendation from The Hermitage Hotel‘s concierge desk. Just a 10 minute Uber ride away from Broadway you’ll find yourself in a completely different vibe altogether, with high-end boutiques, quirky second hand stores, gourmet doughnut shops and bustling restaurants.
Head over to Reese Witherspoon’s picturesque shop Draper James for cowboy boots, checked shirts, denim dresses, southern style homewares and complimentary iced tea, plus the chance to catch her in person (apparently Reese pops in regularly).
Browse through Mexican blankets, vintage American flags, Native American style clothes & accessories as well as taxidermy moose heads, bear skins and skulls at eclectic second-hand store Savant.
Wade through rows after rows of guitars and professional music equipment at Corner Music or nose through high-end clothing, accessories, and home goods at White’s Mercantile (owned by the granddaughter of music legend Hank Williams).
Edley’s Bar-B-Que had a queue that stretched out the door and the food was worth the wait – reasonably priced sticky BBQ dishes as well as spicy taco options, bottomless iced tea refills and free WiFi. You’ll find plenty of Instagram opportunities in front of the nearby ‘I Believe in Nashville’ mural right next door to Edley’s, outside Draper James’ pretty facade as well as the Tiffany turquoise Five Daughter Bakery.
From here you can also walk over to Dolly Parton’s home and peek through the gates – if there are tour busses in her driveway, it means she’s probably home.
3. NASHVILLE SOUNDS
To break up all the concerts and Honky Tonks, we spent one evening watching the Nashville Sounds baseball team play at First Tennessee Park and it ended up being one of the most fun experiences of the whole trip. If you’ve not been to a baseball game in America before, all the cliches are true – the background music, the dance cam, the corn dogs, the cheerleaders, the mascots – the whole experience felt a bit like being on the set of a typical American movie. And there wasn’t a tourist in sight.
The game kicked off with a very serious national anthem (everyone including the security guards and bar maids stopped what they were doing to sing with one hand placed on their chest), then the baseball players were introduced individually with an over-dramatic intro video (each player had their own theme song of choice), which would play again each time a new player swung the bat. Everything was sponsored, from the dance cam to every foul ball, meanwhile mascots ran around the field during breaks while cheerleaders shot t-shirts out of t-shirt guns. There were endless food stalls serving hot dogs, corn dogs, chicken wings, pizza, soft pretzels and ice cream (all the American food groups), while The Band Box offered frozen whiskey drinks, comfortable couches, and a hang-out area with table tennis, basket ball hoops and mini golf.
The baseball is just a 7 minute walk from the Germantown Inn boutique hotel which is where we started our stay.
4. A TROLLEY TOUR
On our first day in Nashville, we did a hop-on, hop-off trolley tour – partly to get our bearings and learn about the city, partly for the shade and breeze (it was only June but already unbearably hot), and a good excuse to sit down for a couple hours.
The tour guide will dish out all the cool facts about the city and it’s celebrities, and take you past over 100 points of interest and stop at 15 of the city’s most important landmarks along the way. You can hop off wherever you like (and catch the next bus after a bit of exploring) as the busses follow a continuous 12 mile loop. The tour takes about 1 hour and 40 minutes in total (no reservations necessary), and by the end of it you’ll feel like you know your way around town, and you’ll have a better idea of what you might like to visit in more depth, or what you’re happy to leave off the itinerary.
5. A SONGBIRD TOUR
When we say there’s live music everywhere, we mean everywhere. And that includes on the bus. On the Songbird Tour, two musicians sit at the back of a bus (with seats facing towards the stage) and take it in turns to perform, tell interesting stories and explain a bit of history as the bus travels past dozens of recording studios on Music Row, as well as various celebrity homes and hang-out spots.
The musician hosts aren’t amateur either – one of them was Keith Urban’s songwriter, and both had some fascinating life stories to share. Plus their song lyrics were, frankly, hilarious. Highlights included As Long As Her Name’s Not Susan, Duck Tape Fixes Everything, This Shit Is Bullcrap, and My Friend The Undertaker Will Be The Last Guy To Let Me Down.
Need a break from all the cowboy hats and country songs? Bonnaroo festival coincides with CMA Fest and is just an hour’s drive away. The crowd and atmosphere here couldn’t be more different from central Nashville – all teenagers in nipple tassels, glitter and hot pants, bouncing around, high on life (and other substances).
The lineup here included Muse, The Killers, Eminem, Paramore, Alt-J, Duo Lipa and Sheryl Crow, and the uber home was cheaper (and more attractive) than local accommodation, so made a fun night out.
WHERE TO STAY IN NASHVILLE
FOR PEACE AND QUIET
If you’re looking to escape the city madness, the Germantown Inn is a lush respite in a quieter part of town, still walking distance to Broadway and the city centre. The Germantown neighbourhood is known for its leafy blocks of historic homes, dotted with cafes, restaurants and upscale boutiques.
Less than a 10-minute walk will get you to the baseball stadium, the park (walking through the Bicentennial park is the prettiest route into town) and to downtown.
The boutique hotel only has six guest suites, each one tastefully and individually designed in a chic palette of gray and white with pops of hot pink, and with enormous beds (hello Frette linens), monogrammed cushions, original fireplaces, stylish modern bathrooms (all metro tiles and brass fittings), fluffy robe & slippers. Like the streets in Germantown, the Inn’s rooms are each named after a different president, whose portrait is hung over the fireplace.
The rest of the interiors are equally stylish, with exposed brick and hardwood floors, colourful Kilim rugs, and an eclectic mix of modern and vintage furniture.
Outside, there’s a pretty patio decorated with festoon lights, modern seating and plumped cushions.
Room rates include breakfast which is prepared fresh every morning (from tortillas and quiches to berry parfaits chilled in wine glasses), as well as a complimentary happy hour with wines, tea, biscuits and nibbles for late afternoon snacking.
Wi-Fi is free and fast.
FOR CITY LUXURY
Forbes has named The Hermitage Hotel as one of the finest five star properties in the world, while Conde Nast Traveler has named it the Best Hotel in Nashville in the 2018 Reader’s Choice Awards. They’re not wrong.
The Hermitage Hotel is a stone’s throw from the Honky Tonks, but feels a world away from the chaos with grandiose interiors, enormous bedrooms, marble bathrooms and a white-glove service including a very helpful concierge, nightly turndown and a pillow menu (choose from buckwheat, memory foam, latex and down options).
They also bring out complimentary cookies and lemonade every afternoon.
Constructed in 1908 and named after president Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage estate, the hotel oozes luxury from the second you step inside the impressive marble lobby – all vaulted stained glass ceilings and arches decorated with frescoes and intricate stonework.
The bedrooms range from 490 square feet to 1,500 square feet for a suite, with elegant traditional furnishings, classical music playing in the background (you can of course change the channel or turn it off), 600-thread count Italian linens from Frette, stocked mini bar and a huge marble bathroom with a two persons shower, Molton Brown bath gels and soaps, double vanities, big bathtub and a TV behind the mirror so you can watch TV from the bubbles.
WHERE TO EAT IN NASHVILLE
There’s no shortage of BBQ joints in Nashville, but the city is most known for it’s hot chicken, with arguably the most famous spot being Hattie B’s. The queues here often go around the corner!
Just a few streets over from Broadway you’ll find Church Street where there are a number of good restaurants – Deacon’s New South offers a super stylish hipster vibe with Instagram-worthy interiors, while across the road Puckett’s offers live music, BBQ grub and hot chicken (and a pretty decent salad menu too).
When it comes to eating on Broadway, Our favourite spot by far was the rooftop of Mellow Mushroom, as it gave us a view over the street below (and a prime spot on the night of the CMA fest as there was a stage set up right beneath it), plus a refreshing change from all the BBQ wings and Nachos.
Mellow Mushroom seemed to be the only restaurant that served decent salads, pizzas, sandwiches and other healthier options, as well as the stickier, naughtier foods.
When we booked to visit Nashville and CMA Fest, I never imagined I’d actually get into country music (although my boyfriend is a die-hard fan). But the songs are pretty catchy, and impossible not to sing along to. From Save A Horse Ride A Cowboy, Duck Tape Fixes Everything and I’ve Got Friends In Low Places to Shut My Mouth Slap Your Grandma and What If The Hokey Pokey’s Really What It’s All About, we guarantee you’ll still be humming them to yourself months later.