This is Music City. While in recent years Nashville has become known for other things (hipsters, celebrity chefs, NHL hockey and bachelorette parties, to name a few), at its core, Nashville is still a place people come to play and hear music. While there’s sound 24-7 in this city, the best of it happens at night in bars, particularly in honkytonks, which are spots that play Western swing and offer dance floors for people to cut loose (when it’s not too crowded). Swing dancing the night away to classic country jams is one of the top things to do in the city. Honkytonks are no-cover-charge joints, but you must tip the band when the hat is passed.
Best nightlife in Nashville
What is it: Popular nightlife spots come and go, but not so the Station Inn. For more than four decades this cinder block box has housed the best bluegrass music in the city (if not the country), even as the neighborhood around it has changed.
Why go: All shows are first come, first served, and there's not a bad seat at these communal tables. It is not unusual for musicians in the audience to get called up to join the band on stage.
What is it: Nashville's answer to L.A.’s Magic Castle, this space (in the basement below the Johnny Cash Museum) houses a restaurant, bar and magic performance space.
Why go: The price of dinner includes the magic shows, which aren't hokey at all. The space is 21-and-up, so we're not talking kids' birthday party-type stuff. There's a dress code (jacket and dress shoes; no tank tops or flip flops, please) and a strict no-photography policy, so you get to focus on the experience.
What is it: Downtown's Broadway district is dotted with honkytonk bars that are always filled with live music and cheap drinks, and this is one of the best.
Why go: Some of the honkytonks have started playing rock and pop music to accommodate the scores of tourists who stream down Lower Broad, but Robert's is one of the most authentic, with Western swing still on the play lists, even on weekend nights. Ask about the PBR and fried baloney sandwich special. There's no cover charge, but remember to tip the band.
What is it: One of Lower Broadways honkytonks, this bar backs up to the alley between Broadway and the Ryman, along with Robert's, Tootsie's and a few others.
Why go: One of the few honkytonks that locals still frequent, you can find good country music and cheap beer in this welcoming space. There's no cover charge, but you’ll get some dirty looks from both on-stage and off if you don’t tip the band when the hat gets passed.
What is it: As Nashville has gotten its share of new high rises and high-rise hotels, there’s been an explosion of rooftop bars.
Why go: This rooftop spot at the Thompson hotel offers views of The Gulch, DJ action from Jack White's Third Man Records, craft cocktails, and a fun crowd that isn't entirely made up of tourists or bachelorette parties (unlike some other rooftops).
What is it: The Nashville Palace is a seriously old-school kind of hangout, with a restaurant, nightclub and dance floor (including free dance lessons).
Why go: The location, across from the Gaylord Opryland Resort, isn't necessarily convenient, but if what you want is country music, line dancing and more, this is the place to go. Live music is on tap daily. Remember to tip the band when the hat gets passed.
What is it: Dee's took over space from an old bar in suburban Madison just a few years ago, but it feels like it has been here forever. And as Downtown Nashville has become a tourist destination, more locals (and their bands) have headed here.
Why go: You're likely to see some of the city's best musicians playing in a low-key environment, bringing their famous friends on stage with them. When there isn't a live band, you can play whatever you want on the free jukebox (chockfull of a wide variety of country and rock classics).
What is it: Yes, this restaurant/wine bar/live music venue is a chain (it has locations in Chicago, New York, and Napa, California, too). But because this chain is the brainchild of Michael Dorf, who created the iconic Knitting Factory club earlier in his career, it is worth checking out
Why go: Even in a city like Nashville, where everyone is a musician or knows a musician, the musical lineup is impressive here, thanks to Dorf's connections. Tickets typically include seating, so you can eat and drink and not crane your neck to see the act.
What is it: If you like dive bars or karaoke (or both) this bar is the place for you. You'll recognize it when you see what is basically a large trailer painted with images of Santa. The deck out front is a relatively new addition.
Why go: Beers are $2 (cash only) and there's karaoke every night. Did we mention the $2 beers?
What is it: If you think your karaoke skills can hold their own with all the Music City singing professionals, head to Lonnie’s.
Why go: It’s the city’s number one spot for singing your heart out to prerecorded tracks (and has been for decades, despite a new location). Be prepared for standing-room-only on the weekends
What is it: The Bluebird Cafe is a place that shows off Nashville’s real music magic. It’s an unassuming room, small—and, depending on the night, perhaps even a bit cramped—but when people talk about how they heard so-and-so play in Nashville, odds are pretty good that it was here.
Why go: The Bluebird is famous for its songwriters’ nights, open mics, and performances in the round. Since it is a small room, reservations are required and hard to get, and this is not the place to plan to talk to your neighbor while the music plays. You will be shushed.
What is it: This is one of the newer honkytonks on Lower Broad, but it has a real connection to the past. Despite the name, it is not a strip club! Nudie Cohn was the tailor who made suits for Johnny Cash and Elvis, among others and this hotspot celebrates his life.
Why go: The bar is also a museum, with many of Nudie’s famous works behind glass and one of his ostentatious cars, a $400,000 Cadillac El Dorado, hanging from the wall.
What is it: This historic venue originally opened in 1948. A classic cocktail from the dark wood-paneled bar is a must-have if you’re on a sipping tour of the city… but wait, there's more.
Why go: Several nights a week Skull's offers burlesque shows, and these are not cheesy strip club acts, but artful performances accompanied by a live jazz band. Make reservations so you can have a seat with a good view.