How to Tour the Grand Ole Opry: Ryman vs Opry House
Undoubtedly the home of country music, the Grand Ole Opry has been country music’s biggest stage for the last (almost) 100 years. Since the first radio broadcast of WSM’s Barn Dance in 1925, the Opry has been the world’s longest running broadcast and the history that’s taken place on the stage has made it Nashville’s most popular attraction.
If you’re a country music fan planning a trip to Nashville, I KNOW the Grand Ole Opry is on your bucket list. With shows every Friday and Saturday night (plus 1-3 extra shows during the week depending on the season), you’re sure to find a lineup that piques your interest. But if you want more (MORE, MORE, MORE) then you’re definitely going to want to book a backstage tour. Peek inside the dressing rooms, walk out onto the stage, and hear plenty of stories.
On my trip to Nashville, I did TWO different Grand Ole Opry tours and in this post I’m going to give you the lowdown on your options and your best pick if you’re short on time.
Grand Ole Opry 101
If you’re new to country music (of you’re not 100% up to speed with how the Opry works), here’s what you need to know:
The Grand Ole Opry is a show, not a place. The Opry has had 6 different homes in Nashville since its debut in 1925. From 1925-1943 the Opry bounced between four different venues before starting its 30 year run at the Ryman Auditorium. The Opry left the Ryman in 1974 to move into its current home, the Grand Ole Opry House. So the Grand Ole Opry is most notably connected to the Ryman Auditorium (it’s long term historic roots) and the Opry House (it’s current home).
The Grand Ole Opry is a live show (performed for a live audience and also for a radio and television broadcast) featuring country music and comedy acts. It pulls heavily on tradition.
Shows are performed every Friday and Saturday night (plus 1-3 week nights depending on the season) and feature 4-5 different artists/acts.
Anyone can perform on the Grand Ole Opry, but some performers are inducted as members which is seen as a great honor among certain sets. It’s interesting that some of the biggest stars in country music aren’t (or never were) Opry members. Criteria for being invited to be a member is a little vague, but it generally seems to require a commitment to play a certain number of shows a year and stars who don’t live in Nashville often don’t make the commitment.
Patsy Cline is the only member to have asked about joining and to receive an invitation on the spot.
Both Hank Williams and Johnny Cash both had their Opry memberships revoked for drunk and disorderly conduct, but Cash had his reinstated later in his career.
Johnny Cash first met June Carter backstage at an Opry show.
Grand Ole Opry Tour Options in Nashville
Okaaaay, technically Grand Ole Opry tours are at the Grand Ole Opry House, but I say you’ve actually got TWO options in Nashville.
Grand Ole Opry: The current home of the Grand Ole Opry is where you want to go if you want to see where they’re currently doing the show.
Ryman Auditorium: Right in the middle of downtown Nashville and a stone’s throw from the honky tonks on Broadway, the Ryman arguably has the most history with the Opry.
Both of these spots are available to tour, and if you’re a country music mega fan, you just might want to see both.
Keep reading for the ins and outs of both tours:
Ryman Auditorium Tours
Let’s start with the Ryman Auditorium since it comes first on the Opry timeline. The Grand Ole Opry was performed at the Ryman Auditorium from 1943-1974, but on its own the Ryman is one of the most beloved music venues in the world.
Built in 1892 and originally opened as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, the building was leased to promoters for secular events to help cover its debt. Renowned for its amazing acoustics, the Ryman saw the likes of Will Rogers, Charlie Chaplin, John Philip Sousa, and Harry Houdini before it eventually gained the moniker of the “Mother Church of Country Music.”
Pretty much everybody who was anybody has played at the Ryman including Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Dolly Parton (and soooo many artists whose roots have nothing to do with country music). And its legacy became inextricably linked with the Grand Ole Opry.
After the Opry left in 1974, the Ryman’s future was uncertain and it deteriorated and sat empty for some time. But renovations began in the 90s and today the Ryman is a hopping entertainment venue in the middle of Nashville’s revitalized downtown.
Ryman Auditorium tours are self guided and your tickets give you entry anytime between 9AM to 4PM. You can buy tickets online, but they’ll charge you an extra $5ish dollars per person in convenience fees. If you buy tickets at the box office, it’s about $27.50/adult.
When you enter the auditorium, you’ll be guided upstairs to a small theater to watch a video about the history of the Ryman. The narrator is Lula C. Naff who became the Ryman’s official manager in the 1920s and was responsible for booking and promoting some of its biggest acts. The show is very well done (has some cool effects). It runs continuously (lasts probably 15 minutes or so) and depending on when you show up you could be in a full theater or have it all to yourself.
When you exit the film, you move onto the balcony of the main auditorium. There are exhibits along the back wall to look at and there’s a schedule of talks by a historian that run every 30 minutes. You move at your own pace and when you make it to the other end of the balcony, there’s a staircase to go down. Once you’re on the main level, you can have your picture taken on the stage. They print them out in the gift shop and they’re included in your tour admission.
There are more exhibits along the back wall on the bottom level and when you finish with those you can exit back through the lobby and the gift shop.
We probably spent a little over an hour on the tour. But you can stick around as long as you’d like and listen to more of the history talks if you want to.
Book your Ryman tour tickets here.
Literally everything is right near the Ryman. It sits at 5th & Broadway so you can head over to the honky tonks (or country music celebrity restaurants) after. Hit the Hattie B’s Hot Chicken (or Assembly Food Hall) and shops across the street. Or pair it with an afternoon at the Country Music Hall of Fame or the National Museum of African American Music, both of which are within walking distance.
Grand Ole Opry Tours
This is the granddaddy of them all. Country music fans from around the world make the pilgrimage out to the Grand Ole Opry even if they’re not going to see a show. The Grand Ole Opry has been at its new home at the Grand Ole Opry House since 1974 when the theater was built as a modern venue for the iconic show.
What the new Opry house lacked in history, it made up for in space. The facilities for both the performers and the audience are much more comfortable and spacious. Not to mention everything that’s been built up around it.
The Grand Ole Opry sits on the banks of the Cumberland River about 30 minutes from downtown Nashville. And…it’s a complex. I don’t say this in a bad way (it is what it is), but it reminds me a lot of Branson. It could be the demographic of people who are drawn to it, but it’s also just really built up in a way that could possibly be described as tacky. I’ll get into it more later, but just a note that this is not a historic part of Nashville even if it’s been there going on 50 years.
Okay, onto the tour itself. Tours of the Opry are guided and timed (every 15 minutes) so you’ll want to buy your tickets online to ensure that you get a time that works for you and you’re standing around waiting.
Opry tours aren’t cheap, y’all! They’re about $45/adult (and only a few dollars less for kids).
Now here’s a pro tip for you…when you arrive for your tour, do NOT park in the official Opry House parking lot. They charge $15 to park and EVERYBODY parks in the Dave and Buster’s parking lot instead. There’s literally a pathway from the parking lot up to the main entrance so it’s like they know that’s what people are going to do. Now, it might be different for actual shows, but that’s how it is during the day for tours.
Tour groups are about 20-30 people each and you gather outside the main entrance just to the left. At your tour time, they’ll open up the side door and everyone files into a theater to watch a video about the Opry hosted by Garth Brooks and Tricia Yearwood. I would say the video focuses more on the legacy of the Opry and what it means for country music artists to perform there (and be a member) instead of the actual history, but it’s really well done.
From there you move into the lobby where they have a group of video screens set up that shows you what it’s like backstage before the show starts. And at that point you get to know your guide a bit (he asks where everybody is from, blah blah blah).
And from there on it’s pretty much all backstage! You’ll walk by the performer’s entrance and see all of the backstage prep areas on your way onto a soundstage where they used to film Hee Haw (plus scenes from the show Nashville). You’ll watch another video about getting to become a member of the Opry there hosted by Brad Paisley.
Then you’ll move into a room where they have plaques for all of the Opry members plus their mailboxes where they receive fan mail before heading into the dressing rooms. This part was really cool. There are probably 20 different dressing rooms all with different themes or histories and your guide will tell you stories about who likes what dressing rooms. There’s also a room of lockers for storing valuables (which seemed interesting) and a common room where people can hang out.
When you leave the dressing rooms, you’ll walk the path that the performers take to the stage. The stage is soooo much bigger than I was expecting (especially after being at the Ryman first). There’s a photographer set up and each group gets their photo taken on the circle (cut out of the stage at the Ryman when the Opry left in 1974). And from there you walk up the aisle and you can get a really good look at the theater from a different perspective.
And then your guide leads you back through the lobby and you exit through the gift shop. You always exit through the giftshop haha. The gift shop is enormous and has pretty much any item you can think of with the “Grand Ole Opry” printed on it, but I really loved the Hatch Show Print posters that they had. Most of them were for new artists, but they had some classic ones too.
Last note about the Opry tour: make sure you have some cash on hand to tip your guide. Unlike some tours/excursions, he never mentioned anything about tips, but there were a few people in our group that did and he seemed very appreciative.
Book tickets for the Grand Ole Opry tour here.
Well, there’s the aforementioned Dave and Buster’s, a wax museum, an IMAX theater, a riverboat, and a Paula Deen restaurant. You get the picture. When they originally built the new Opry House, there was an Opryland amusement park next door, but that got paved for a mall in the 90s and like most malls these days, it seems to be moving in a downward trend. But you’ve got typical mall stores and restaurants (hey Bass Pro!) and the old Opryland Hotel is now the Gaylord Opryland.
Ryman Auditorium Tour vs Grand Ole Opry Tour
So what’s the scoop? Which one is better? Do you need to do them both? Well…I did both tours because of the travel blogger gig and I like to have the full picture before I start dishing out recommendations. I was really hoping that one tour would be infinitely superior to the other so that I could definitively say which tour you should do and which one you should skip. But…it didn’t quite turn out that way.
Here’s what I can say about the two tours:
The Grand Ole Opry tour is a better tour overall. 1) It’s guided. 2) You see so much backstage. 3) There are a lot of show elements (mostly videos) that are just for the tour.
I think there’s more history at the Ryman and even though there wasn’t as much to see on the tour itself, it felt like a more special place.
Tickets for the Ryman tour are $27.50/adult and tickets for the Grand Ole Opry tour are $45/adult.
Total time on the self guided tour of the Ryman was a little over 45 minutes. Total time on the guided Grand Ole Opry tour was just shy of an hour. So pretty even. I was honestly a little surprised when I tallied up the time for both (based on time stamps of photos at the beginning and the end). Equal-ish time on both tours but the Opry tour moved really fast and felt like we say a lot. The Ryman tour we kind of poked along at our own pace.
The Ryman is right in the middle of downtown Nashville where most visitors are spending 90% of their time. Walking distance to so many hotels. All the big restaurants are right nearby. Other notable attractions (Broadway, Country Music Hall of Fame, etc.) also within walking distance. The Grand Ole Opry’s location is its biggest deterrent. Not only is it about 30 minutes from downtown Nashville, but it’s basically in the middle of a huge, outdated mall. It verrrrrry much feels like a giant tourist attraction rather than a part of music history.
The Ryman tour doesn’t really take you anywhere that you can’t see if you’re there to see a show (besides the small theater where you watch the film). You don’t go backstage and all of the exhibits to look at are just in display cases at the back of the theater (balcony and main level) so you could look at them before the show. So much of the Opry tour is backstage so even if you go to a show there, you’re not going to see what you see on the tour. If you can see a show at the Ryman, I’m inclined to say skip the tour. But if you can’t see a show, then it really is special to go inside on a tour.
If you want to tour the Grand Ole Opry AND see a show…book the last tour of the day and then have dinner somewhere in the area (maybe try Paula Deen’s??) before the show.
Special Tours at the Ryman & Grand Ole Opry
Besides the tours I’ve mentioned, there are a couple of options that look interesting if your schedule lines up.
Ryman Backstage Tour: There is a guided backstage tour of the Ryman that takes place sometimes. When I was planning my Nashville trip, it wasn’t available at all and I couldn’t even find any dates on the calendar in the future, so I’m not sure about the status of the tour overall. But if it happens to line up with your trip dates, I would 100% do the backstage tour instead of the self guided tour.
Opry House Post-Show Backstage Tour: This is only offered on show nights. From reading the tour description, you’ll see the same things as you would on the daytime tour (maybe a little less depending on what’s in use/restricted from the show) but there will be that post-show “buzz” that’s lacking during the day.
More posts about the area:
Is Nashville Worth a Visit? The Lowdown on One of the US’ Trendiest Cities
Hot Chicken, Fried Chicken, Chicken ‘n Biscuits: Nashville’s Best Local Food
A Country Music Lover’s Guide to Nashville
Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee
The National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, Tennessee
The Noelle: A Historic Hotel in the Middle of Downtown Nashville