It’s not just about country music, really. Sure, that’s Nashville’s most widespread claim to fame—as the Country Music Awards Festival this weekend will affirm. But this revitalized state capital, home to 600,000 people and growing, is a blue island in a red state, increasingly brimming with all kinds of culture.
The swank digs of choice, Union Station (1001 Broadway, 615-726-1001, unionstationhotelnashville.com; rates begin at $188), are situated atop a big hill on downtown’s fringes. Formerly a stately train depot, the Romanesque limestone structure resembles a castle from the outside, which doesn’t begin to prepare you for the splendor inside. The beds are luxuriously comfortable and the rooms also sport big plasma-screen TVs. Valet parking costs extra ($20/day) but it’s a better deal than paying for public parking downtown, and the friendly valets also double as informal concierges. Even if you stay elsewhere, stop in and grab a drink in the lobby bar.
Directly across the street sits the stunning Frist Center for Visual Arts (919 Broadway, 615-244-3340, fristcenter.org), which, like the hotel, is another converted building now on the National Register of Historical Places. Built in the 1930s to serve as Nashville’s main post office (no civil servant would ever go postal if they worked here!), its gorgeous Art Deco interior alone is worth the price of admission—a reasonable $8.50.
Just a short walk down the hill is the “Mother Church of Country Music,” Ryman Auditorium (116 Fifth Ave, 615-889-3060, ryman.com) . For three decades, it was the legendary home of the Grand Ole Opry radio show and it’s now host to a wide variety of live music, plus daytime tours. From there, you’re just a quick slip around the corner to the gritty sass of Lower Broad, a stretch of Broadway lined with enough honky-tonks to keep the entire Hee Haw cast busy strummin’ and chuggin’. It’s best to bar hop (and appreciate all that vintage neon as you do), but if we had to pick just one, it’d be Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge (422 Broadway, 615-726-0463, tootsies.net), dripping with its debauched, impressive history.
A tad further southwest lies Music Row, the heart of Nashville’s country- and gospel-music industries. It’s less than a mile away, but if you’re too tired (or drunk) to keep walking, take a cab. (In three days, we saw more bikes than buses; neither tally broke into double digits.) Once there, check out one of the city’s most striking pieces of public art: Musica, a 38-foot-high bronze sculpture in the center of a grassy roundabout (intersection of Demonbreun St, Division St, 16th Ave South and Music Square East). The work of Nashville native Alan LeQuire depicts nine nude figures exuberantly dancing. Something of a flash point in local culture wars because of the nudity, the handsome statue reminds us that this (relatively) liberal city is a small rhinestone studded into America’s broad Bible Belt.
A less controversial statue stands guard inside Centennial Park. Tennesseans are justly proud of the park’s main attraction: a full-scale replica of the ancient Greek Parthenon (2600 West End Ave, 862-8431, nashville.gov/Parthenon; adult admission, $5), which houses the 42-foot, gold-gilt Athena (also sculpted by LeQuire). Honestly, she’s a bit severe, like a drag queen you wouldn’t wanna piss off. Naturally, that’s why people can’t stop gaping.
Further yet from downtown, two largely residential ’hoods are worth investigating. Hit Hillsboro Village, not far from Centennial Park, for Pancake Pantry (1796 21st Ave S, 615-383-9333, pancakepantry.com), and don’t be discouraged by the line that stretches onto the sidewalk: It moves quickly. (We heard one resident opine to his out-of-towner friend, “It’s an absurd social ritual everyone in Nashville has to go through.”) Across the street, Provence gourmet bakery (1705 21st Ave S, 615-386-0363, provencebreads.com) offers great sandwiches, a superfriendly staff and free Wi-Fi. Plus, they just started brewing Chicago’s own Intelligentsia coffee. For a locally roasted cup o’ joe, Bongo Java (2007 Belmont Blvd, 615-385-JAVA, bongojava.com for more locations), brews only organic, fair-trade beans.
In hip East Nashville, the funky Family Wash (2038 Greenwood Ave, 615-226-6070, familywash.com) offers great food, good beer and, later in the evening, live music. For a more upscale dinner, try Margot’s Café & Bar (1017 Woodland St, 615-227-4668, margotcafe.com). Swing by Lipstick Lounge (1400 Woodland St, 615-226-6343, lipsticklounge.com) for libations with the friendly local lesbians.This being Nashville, it’s hard to escape live music. The Lounge is especially popular on karaoke nights, and—damn!—these ladies can sing. As their slogan says: “If you’re human, you’ll fit right in.”
Two nights, two people
+ Hotel $376
+ Meals $180
Travel time: 90 minutes.
* Cheapest fares via Southwest.com with 14-day advance purchase.
For more information, visitnashville.gov.