If you’re a country music fan, Nashville is the mecca. Home of the country music recording industry, you could spend a week in Nashville on a country music themed itinerary.
While the city is becoming a trendy place to live known for hip restaurants and vibrant neighborhoods, I booked my first trip to Nashville because of country music. I cut my teeth on George Strait’s Greatest Hits Volume II album. My first concert was the Judds. And Garth Brooks is hands down the best show I’ve ever been to. My mom grew up on country music. My grandma grew up on country music. It’s in the blood.
A Country Music Lover’s Guide to Nashville
So armed with a long list of legendary country music sites and newer spots to check out, I made a pretty good dent during the 3 days I was in Nashville. So here’s the scoop on what’s a don’t miss, what’s become more touristy than gritty, and what you can skip altogether:
Grand Ole Opry
If Nashville is the home of country music, the Grand Ole Opry is it’s living room ; ) The iconic radio broadcast is going on 100 years and for the last 50 years it’s been held at the Opry House east of Nashville on the Cumberland River. Shows are performed live every Friday and Saturday night (some weeknights during high season) and it’s not uncommon to see country music’s biggest stars. Read this post about how to tour the Grand Ole Opry.
The Ryman is Nashville’s most iconic live performance venue and it’s world renowned for having amazing acoustics. Nicknamed the “Mother Church of Country Music” as it was home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943-1974, it’s a don’t miss for sure. Get tickets to a show (so many people play the Ryman, not just country music acts) or read more about a tour.
Honky Tonk Highway
It may be bachelorette party central now, but the stretch of Broadway from 5th to the river is still home to a few of Nashville’s original honky tonks. If you’re not familiar with the term, a honky tonk = a bar that plays country music. While it’s more tourist oriented now than a place where the next big thing is likely to be discovered, there’s a few worth checking out.
Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge rose to legendary status since it shared an alley with the Ryman and stars there to play the Grand Ole Opry would often pop in for a drink and a song while they waited. Robert’s Western World, The Stage, and Nudie’s are all originals. The music starts at 10AM and rolls until 3AM. Even if you’re not interested in the scene, it’s worth a stroll down the street midday to hear the music and see all the neon signs.
Big Name Bar & Grills
Besides the handful of remaining original honky tonks on Broadway, the area is pretty much wall to wall bar and grill type places owned (or at least branded) by country music stars. Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Alan Jackson, Dierks Bently, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Kid Rock, Jimmy Buffett and MORE all have places on Broadway. They all have bars and live music, but they’re a little more open feeling and all serve food. If you’re not 22 and you need something a little more than a dark bar, these spots are a pretty good compromise.
Country Music Hall of Fame
As a country music fan, this is 100% a must do in Nashville. And really I would say it’s probably worth planning a trip to Nashville just to see it.
It’s large in scope, but not overwhelming. It’s designed and laid out in a very linear way so you never feel unsure about where to turn next or get tired or lose interest.
Because the subject matter of this museum is music (and it’s a type of music that I personally love), I think it adds a lot of emotion and nostalgia to the experience.
We spent 1 hour and 45 minutes in the museum (not including the gift shop) and it didn’t feel like we rushed, but also like we could’ve spent more time enjoying some of the video loops they have set up in different places. I swear every attraction and activity in Nashville costs $25, and this one felt most worth it.
Also, a very very good gift shop.
Individual artists (and groups) are recognized with captions about their contributions to country music as well as personal items, but this museum is about the flow and progression of country music in general and never focuses too much on any one person.
The top floor (you take an elevator to the top floor and work your way down) of classic country was my favorite. Highlights include Elvis’ gold-plated Cadillac, Hank William’s boots, a wall of gold records, an interactive table where you can design your own country star outfit (you have to go with Dolly’s hair), and a small theater where they play a loop of classic performances and comedy sketches. If you’ve never seen Merle Haggard’s impersonations…you’re missing out. This is one of those places where you could’ve sat all day and watched.
My favorite thing I learned all day was about country music making the PR transition from “hillbilly” music to “western” music. Here’s an excerpt from one of the signs:
“Many country artists bridled at the word “hillbilly,” considering it loaded with negative cultural stereotypes. By contrast, “cowboy” implied romance, bravery, and the self-sufficiency of life on the open range. By the mid-1930s, western fringe and cowboy hats and boots had become part of many performers’ wardrobes, especially after Gene Autry and other Hollywood singing cowboys began to tackle the world’s ills in their fantasy version of the West. As Autry wrote of one of his typical movies, “While my solutions were a little less complex than those offered by FDR…I played a kind of New Deal cowboy who never hesitated to tackle many of the same problems.”
The Outlaw section (“Country’s Roaring 70s”) is the section with the most “reading” to do and it really gets into the emergence of Austin as an alternative country music capital to Nashville and all of the politics in the industry. Don’t miss Willie Nelson’s sneakers and bandanas.
The tail end of the museum (80s to modern day) is the music I grew up on so it was fun to see, but it’s definitely the smallest part of the museum and while it hashes out micro trends and waves in country music, they’re just that in comparison to everything else in the museum…micro. Highlights include George Strait’s hat, Shania Twain’s iconic leopard print outfit, and Taylor Swift’s rhinestone guitar.
Kids will enjoy the interactive exhibits at the end where you can go inside a guitar, see Taylor Swift’s tour bus, and take a quiz that will tell you what role you’re best suited for in the music industry based on your personality.
The actual Country Music Hall of Fame is located in a rotunda after you exit the museum exhibits. Only a fraction of the artists that you see in the museum are actually in the Hall of Fame.
Hatch Show Print
You can do an interactive tour at Nashville’s legendary print shop through the Country Music Hall of Fame. Tour the studio and even get the chance to screen print your own poster. Get tickets here.
Historic RCA Studio B Tour
Your only chance to tour a live recording studio in Nashville just happens to be one of the most historic studios in Music City. The Country Music Hall of Fame organizes tours of the historic RCA Studio B where greats like Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton. Book tickets for the tour here.
Johnny Cash Museum
There’s become a trend of opening up musician focused “museums” on Broadway to pick up some of the tourist crowds who are looking for something to do other than drink. I say “museums” because I’d almost classify them more as attractions. The Johnny Cash Museum is the biggest one and definitely the most well done. If you’re a fan of the man in black, I’d say it’s worth the $25 for a 45-ish minute look around. Entry isn’t regulated though (timed), so the first room you enter can get pretty crowded if a lot of people show up at the same time. I’d suggest moving on through and then circling back when it’s cleared out (you can’t exit and reenter though so just retrace your steps before you exit). Grab tickets here.
Patsy Cline Museum
Located on the second floor of the Johnny Cash museum, the Patsy Cline museum requires separate admission. It’s a well done museum (more what I would call an exhibit) and interesting to learn about her career and life (so short!). The highlight was seeing her outfits that she designed herself and also recreations from a couple rooms in her home. But it cost about $20 and we spent about 20 minutes inside. I wouldn’t say it’s the best entertainment value. It really should be included in the admission to the Johnny Cash museum. So, if you’re a super fan it’s worth a peek. But it’s hard to justify the cost if you’re not.
Glen Campbell Museum
I didn’t make it to this museum, but I suspect it’s similar to the Patsy Cline one. At $20/person and a suggested tour time of 45 minutes (that’s usually pretty padded-I’m guessing you can see the whole thing in 20 minutes) that’s a pretty high entertainment cost. But maybe it’s worth it to see those famous rhinestone suits ; )
The Bluebird Cafe
Made popular with visitors from many appearances on the show Nashville, (but long known by locals and people in the music industry to be one of the best places in Nashville to scope out up and coming – and already successful songwriters) the Bluebird Cafe is an intimate listening room environment. Make reservations in advance-minimal spots are held for walk-ins. They serve a minimal food menu along with drinks. Even though it’s called a club, it’s not the kind of environment you’d think. All ages are welcome, but may not be best for young children who have trouble keeping quiet and still. Find more info here.
National Museum of African American Music
Even though they call Nashville “Music City,” that has historically been all about country music. But in September of 2020, the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) opened right in the heart of downtown Nashville and if it’s not already considered one of Nashville’s premier attractions…then it should be.
You might think that focusing solely on African American music (instead of culture in general) would limit the scope of this museum, but boy it sure doesn’t.
Highlighting 50+ genres and subgenres and the historic and political climates in which they were created, yes this museum is about music, but also how the development of the music and music styles tells the history of a major group of people.
This is a fantastic museum. I’m not going to lie…a lot of the museums/attractions in Nashville (especially downtown) feel a little gimmicky ($25 for 20 minutes of “entertainment”), but this is NOT that. This is a world-class, Smithsonian caliber museum.
As a frequent traveler (and history major in college), I always scope out the museums in a new city and while there are some subjects/time periods that I’m more interested in than others, I will always make time to visit a museum that’s “well done” even if it’s not about something that I’m particularly drawn to.
Confession…while I love country music (and it was the main reason for the trip to Nashville), I wouldn’t say I’m a huge music person in general. Yes, I like to listen to it, but I’m not a music junkie. I wouldn’t normally seek out a museum about music, but this particular museum seemed important and I’d only heard extremely positive things about it.
Well I’ll tell ya, it ended up being one of the best things I did in Nashville. Yes, the Country Music Hall of Fame is the #1 museum/attraction to visit in Nashville (for me), but the NMAAM is definitely #2 and if you’re at all inclined to do anything in Nashville besides drink on Broadway, you should make room in your schedule to visit.
You’ll start your experience in the Roots Theater to see a film that sets up the museum experience for you. It’s equally educational and emotional.
One of my favorite parts of the museum experience is that they give you an arm band with a swipe card on it when you check in. Then when you’re listening to any music at any of the interactive tables in the main entryway or side rooms, you can scan it to your band and when you leave they will email you a playlist with all of your music.
Where to Stay in Nashville: The Noelle
When planning my first trip to Nashville this year, I was surprised by how good of a hotel scene they have. Most options are downtown, but you’ll find everything from boutiques to luxury to budget. I love a good boutique hotel (especially when it’s part of Marriott Bonvoy), so the Noelle was my pick for this trip.
Sitting at 4th & Church St in the middle of downtown Nashville, the Noelle is close enough to everything you’d want to do downtown, but far enough away from Broadway that the noise isn’t going to keep you up at night.
The modern day Noelle is reborn from the original Noel Place built in the 1930s, one of Nashville’s first luxury hotels. I love a modern hotel with historic charm and Noelle really delivers on that. The lobby and common areas have a luxe 1930s feel to them, but not in a stuffy way. It has a creative and artistic vibe and it’s pretty warm and welcoming despite feeling a little trendy sometimes.
The lobby and archive room on the mezzanine are pretty divine and the hotel is full of fun touches like a mail chute on each floor that goes all the way down to a gilded box in the lobby and vintage elevator dials.
The room we stayed in is the 2 King Beds, Studio Suite. I had originally booked the 2 King Beds, Classic Room but we were upgraded at check in (I have Marriott Bonvoy Platinum status).
The room had some pretty nice features including an electronic shade and light system. Goodnight lights? Good morning lights? Reading lights? You’ve got options. There was a white noise machine in the middle bedside console which I have NEVER seen in a hotel before. Very nice touch.
We also really loved the water and ice set up. Between the elevator and our room was a water and ice station. There was hot, cold, and SPARKLING water as well as freezer drawers with small bags of ice. The good kind of ice. And if you didn’t come with your own reusable water bottles or cups, they had four plastic ones in the room that you could use during your stay. There was an ice bucket/mini bar/fridge situation in the bureau
And last but not least, the stationary kit made a big impression on the 9 year old I was traveling with ; )
I’m not always a fan of hotel restaurants because they’re not usually as good as what you’ll find in other places, but sometimes it’s convenient and the Noelle actually has some pretty solid options.
Rare Bird Rooftop Bar is a fun place for a drink. Can’t beat the views. There’s also supposed to be a hidden bar in the basement that you access through a supply closet. Here are the directions.
We had breakfast at Makeready L&L one morning when we had someplace to be on time and the food was very, very good. I will say though that they suuuuure nickel and dime but don’t let you know until you get the bill : ) I’ve never been charged $2 to get cheese on scrambled eggs in my life, but they did and didn’t mention the upcharge. We actually all commented on how reasonable the prices were when we sat down, but there were probably $15 in upcharges when we got the bill. Not a problem, but just assume that ANYTHING you ask for/about different than exactly what’s printed on the menu is going to cost you an extra $2-5.
Drug Store Coffee is also in the lobby (pastries and breakfast sandwiches too) which is always nice.
The lobby bar is pretty swanky and serves a pretty good dinner menu. We sprawled out on some couches in the lobby and had dinner one night when we didn’t feel like going out. There’s also in room dining available.
An interesting observation…the branding of this property is strong and they’re definitely going after a certain vibe and a certain type of guest.
On the website, the hotel describes itself as “an experiential hotel and creative gathering place for adventurous people seeking a true Nashville encounter.” I don’t know exactly what that means, but when I stayed there the hotel was mostly full of businessmen. Are they the “adventurous people seeking a true Nashville encounter?” haha. I’m not so sure but I only mention it because I think this hotel actually has appeal to a wider range of people than they market to.
Here’s what we’re looking at:
The location- Conveniently in the middle of downtown, but a tiny bit removed from the wild party that is Broadway. Easy enough to get there if you want (2 walkable blocks away), but not close enough to be annoyed by it if you don’t.
The price- I would say this is a luxury “lite” property. The hard product is very nice, and the service is there if you need it (but don’t go in with Ritz Carlton/Four Seasons expectations), but the price is quite a bit lower than comparable places in the area.
The setup- This place has a couple of room categories where there are TWO king sized beds in one room. That’s not a configuration you see much and while I suspect it’s there to target parties with multiple girls staying in one room (proximity to Broadway and Nashville’s appeal for Bachelorette parties), it also suits families.
So all of this to say that if you’re worried that this place looks too “trendy” or like it’s too much of a vibe for you, just know that it actually serves a pretty wide range of audiences. Plenty of the aforementioned business travelers. I would be comfortable staying here with kids (I did). And if you are coming to have a good time, it’s still a good fit (although it is NOT a party hotel).
Last note is about service…everyone I encountered who worked here was very friendly, but I wouldn’t say it’s a service oriented hotel. You’ll find staff at the front desk and in the restaurants, but that’s about it. It’s not a luxury service, and that’s ok (as long as it’s not what you’re expecting). We had more facetime with the valet than anybody else in the hotel and it was okay, but they really only want to handle your car. They don’t want any involvement with your luggage. So we wrestled our own luggage cart on the side of the street while the valet guy stood there and watched. It was really odd and I don’t know if we just got an unhelpful staff member, or if they draw a hard line between valet and bell services. Anyways, again not a problem but you’re going to get Courtyard Marriott level service here.
Book your stay at the Noelle here.
Where to Eat in Nashville
Nashville is a food city…and isn’t that really the best kind of city? Now, while Nashville has developed a burgeoning “food scene” over the last 5-10 years with trendy new restaurants opening every week, that’s all a little overwhelming to me. I like to stick to the tried and true and try out the best of what the area has to offer. Those places that have become institutions, staples, and “must dos.” Thankfully Nashville has plenty of those.
The hot chicken craze has made its way across the country (at least the South!), but it’s a Nashville original. And like all good food traditions…this one has a great story.
Here’s the story of how Nashville’s famous hot chicken came to be…straight from the side of Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack…
“They say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned…but some folks like a little heat, including Thorton Prince – the father of Nashville’s hot chicken.
Even in the height of the Great Depression, Thorton Prince knew how to have a good time. He enjoyed the nightlife and had a well-earned reputation as being quite the ladies’ man. Of course, one person who was not too thrilled with that reputation was his steady girl.
While we don’t know if Prince came home one night with a faint hint of perfume or a smudge of lipstick on his collar, we do know that after another one of Prince’s nights out, his scorned lover wanted revenge.
And using Prince’s love of fried chicken as bait, she concocted the perfect recipe.
Instead of a lecture the next morning, Prince awoke to the sizzlin’ smell of fried chicken. The trap set, Prince’s jilted lover served up a plate of homemade fried chicken. Without noticing the devilish amount of peppers and spices she had sprinkled on the chicken, Prince dug in. Much to her dismay, Prince didn’t fall over weeping in pain. Nope, he asked for seconds, and, at that moment, the legend was born.
Prince perfected the recipe for Hot Chicken and opened up a restaurant – Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. Almost 100 years later, a lot has changed in Nashville. But not Prince’s. Thornton Prince’s great niece, Ms. Andre Prince Jeffries, is still serving the legendary dish that Nashvillians crave. In the last few years, the hot chicken trend has caught on like wildfire throughout the South, but Prince’s Hot Chicken is the original and remains the gold standard for hot chicken.”
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack: While the original Prince’s is long gone, there are a few locations around Nashville, but the most convenient is the one in the one in the Assembly Food Hall at 5th & Broadway right across from the Ryman Auditorium. It’s a nice spot (the food hall in general is a nice place to grab lunch), but my chicken was a little tough. The sides were good though.
Hattie B’s: Prince’s might be the original, but Hattie B’s has kind of taken over as being “the” place for Nashville hot chicken. There are a bunch of locations (in other cities now too). The one on 5th & Broadway gets a long line at lunch, but it moves pretty fast. The chicken was really good, and their sides are really solid and have some fun twists. The pimento mac and cheese was pretty fun.
Other Places: There are a million places to get hot chicken in Nashville (both hot chicken specific places and restaurants that have it on the menu) and I think it’s kind of like pizza in New York…everybody has their opinion on what the best is and honestly it’s all kind of the same (blasphemy!). Also, if you’re nervous about the heat level, most places have a scale where you can pick your heat (including an option for no heat).
Meat & Three
This is where the South shines, y’all. It seems like Southern food has become a trend lately and it kills me when I’m somewhere decidedly “not Southern” and they’ve got “Southern style fried chicken” on the menu AND IT COMES WITH NO SIDES. Cafeteria style joints that serve up your main dish with your choice of several sides are what I live for.
It’s officially called “meat and three” and it’s pretty self explanatory. You pick your meat (could be fried chicken, bbq, ham, etc.) and three sides (southern specialties) and it’s glorious. You’ll find this combo at tons of restaurants (even a lot of the hot chicken places), but there are a few old school cafeteria style restaurants that specialize in this. I didn’t get a chance to try any on this trip, but here’s a couple on my list:
Arnold’s Country Kitchen: If you only go to one, make it this one.
Dandgure’s Classic Southern Cooking: Maybe as good as Arnold’s, but shorter lines.
Biscuits & Gravy (& Southern Classics)
Are you even in the South if you haven’t had biscuits? Breakfast is always a favorite of mine no matter where I go, but it just hits a little different when it’s down home style.
Biscuit Love: This seems to be the “trendy Southern breakfast biscuit place” in Nashville. Obviously they’re all about biscuits and whether you get them as part of a breakfast sandwich, with gravy, or on the side, they’re pretty good. I had the biscuit sandwich with fried chicken, gravy, and an egg and honestly it was a bit much, but I LOVED the order or “bonuts” we got as a starter. This place gets really busy on the weekends (really every day). You wait in line to order at the counter and then they bring your food to the table. Go early!
Loveless Cafe: This was the best all around meal we had in Nashville and I’d say it’s a definite don’t miss. It’s outside of Nashville a ways and it’s such a pretty drive. They’re open pretty much from 8AM-8PM and serve breakfast all day, but we went for lunch. The fried chicken was phenomenal and all of the sides were stellar. They also bring a plate of biscuits to your table when you sit down (and they’ll bring all you want), and they were actually the best biscuits we had anywhere. This place is a whole experience and it’s well set up to handle the crowds they get. The best way I can describe this place is it’s like a local Cracker Barrel – and I mean that in the best possible way.