It’s boomtime in America’s Music City. And alongside Nashville’s healthy economy and rapidly growing population, the celebrated culinary scene that’s been developing in this country music heartland has recently come of age.
Tucked in the northern corner of the Bible Belt, Nashville is known for its tight knit musical community that has produced Jack White, Justin Timberlake and India Arie, alongside a host of country music heroes. Throw in a full-size replica of the Parthenon, something called ‘hot chicken’, and North America’s largest Kurdish population, and you have an intriguing destination demanding to be explored. Following a pandemic pause in operating the route, British Airways resumed direct flights from London Heathrow to Nashville in May 2022.
What to do
Feel the music
Brush up on your knowledge of the genre once summed up as “three chords and the truth” at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in the Downtown area ($28/£22 per adult). It’s one of the largest museums in North America dedicated to American music, with a treasure trove of two million plus artefacts. Even if country music doesn’t twang your steel string, it’s worth the price of admission alone to check out the stars’ daredevil fashions and curios such as Elvis’s Gold-Plated Cadillac – the twinkling paintwork achieved with 40 coats of a crushed diamond and fish-scale emulsion.
If you’re not too mesmerised by the fish-plastered cars, the museum will teach you that Nashville has been a national hub for music publishing since the 1800s. Its ‘Music City’ moniker was established in 1943 with the launch of the Grand Ole Opry, a musical variety show of southern culture that’s featured anyone and everyone in country music, including Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, and Johnny Cash. Check the website’s calendar to find out when you could join the audience of a live recorded show (tickets from $40/£31). With popcorn and IPA in hand, it’ll be one of the most uniquely entertaining nights of your life.
Open since the start of 2021, the National Museum of African American Music ($25/£19) is a vast space dedicated to the Black pioneers of jazz, blues and hip hop. Tour the six interactive exhibits, touching on topics like post-WWII rhythm and blues, or the history of spirituals and gospel music. Expect hallowed artefacts within such as BB King’s guitar and George Clinton’s wig.
Graze through East and South Nashville
Trendy East Nashville is comprised of several characterful neighbourhoods. As the wellspring for the city’s current culinary revolution, it’s best appreciated through one of Walk Eat Nashville’s three-hour tours ($65/£54pp plus tax – every day but Sunday). The well-informed guides will introduce you to the urban pioneers and best-in-class restaurants who have made this district one of the nation’s most talked about locales. More under-the-radar is South Nashville, where Kurdish, El Salvadoran and Somali communities weave an unexpected cultural tapestry beneath the homogenous auspices of Nashville strip malls. Join WEN’s Hidden Gems tour to get a taste of this area’s diverse and delicious cuisines.
Where to stay
The boutique Kimpton Aertson Hotel pumps out a City of Angels-vibe in central Midtown, with its outsized lobby art and roof terrace pool open in the warmer months. Elegant design touches elevate the comfortable rooms, especially the Hatch Show print individual to each bedroom wall. The hotel adjoins the buzzy Henley Brasserie which serves – if you’re so inclined – outstandingly unhealthy breakfast options like the irresistible (and practically unfinishable) Dutch Baby, a kind of huge, fluffy pancake similar in texture to a Yorkshire pudding. Free wine is served in the lobby between five and six in the afternoon. Doubles from £157, room only. aertsonhotel.com
The Graduate Nashville is set in a buzzy area for bars and nightlife, and has a sweet little rooftop bar of its own. Quirky rooms are decked out in pink and blue chintz, or could come with guitar-shaped bed frames or kitsch horse-shaped sofas. Meanwhile, much of the rooftop and raucous downstairs bar are rendered in a vivid flamingo pink. Doubles from £195, room only. graduatehotels.com/nashville
Where to eat
The ultimate purveyor of the Southern “meat-and-three” approach to dining – that is, one “hero” meat accompanied by three vegetable sides – Arnold’s Country Kitchen is a hugely welcoming family concern run by the garrulous Khalil Arnold and his mother, Rose. Join the canteen-style line at this James-Beard-recognised restaurant and heap your plate with fried catfish, collard greens, baked squash and mac-and-cheese (yes, that’s a vegetable here).
Margot Café & Bar in the Five Points neighbourhood is run by Margot McCormick, regarded as an urban and culinary pioneer in the city and one of its top five chefs. Run out of a former service station, expect a hearty French-inflected menu at this Nashville institution and save time for a pre-prandial tipple at its famously convivial stone bar.
Enjoying something of a global vogue is Nashville’s ‘hot chicken’ – essentially fried chicken coated in a cayenne-based rub. Prince’s Hot Chicken is respected as the original hot chicken shack, the recipe a happy misadventure when, so the story goes, the womanising Thornton Prince III had cayenne secretly dumped on his fried chicken by his embittered girlfriend… and loved it. You will too, although whether you attempt the “XXX Hot” is between you and your stomach lining.
Arguably the best BBQ place in Nashville, Edley’s Bar-B-Que also does a good line in meat-and-three combos to go with your exquisitely cooked baby-back ribs. Try the legendary Tuck Special brisket sandwich or, for something that’s traditionally the healthy option, the cherrywood-smoked turkey with Alabama white sauce.
The 404 Kitchen, run by Chef Matt Bolus, blends classic European with Tennessee traditions into a uniquely hearty-yet-sophisticated menu. Think sharing dishes of an entire fried and smoked chicken attended by buttermilk garlic sauce, or a cassoulet with cornbread and sorghum butter. On the ground floor is Gertie’s Bar, offering one of the South’s largest whisky collections.
Where to drink
Nashville’s honky-tonks – bars with live music – line Nashville’s main drag of Broadway in Downtown. A magnet for out-of-towner hen parties, the preferred honky-tonk for Nashvilleans is Robert’s Western World. A former clothes store (you can still pick up a pair of cowboy boots there), Robert’s harkens back to a more genteel, less garishly commercial era. You can also source a cut-price dinner there via the Recession Special – a $6 fried baloney sandwich paired with a can of Pabst beer.
The Wedgewood Houston neighbourhood, about three miles from Downtown, is a former industrial zone that now makes for a superb art gallery and craft drinks tour. Ensure your tasting itinerary includes the award-winning Corsair distillery, Diskin Craft Cider, and Jackalope Brewery. Cross the road from Jackelope for dinner at Bastion, a party bar meets fining dining spot housed in an old jam factory, with either gourmet nachos in the eclectic front or a two-hour tasting menu in the elegant rear.
The moody Attaboy speakeasy, located in East Nashville, is the only non-NYC outpost of what is regarded as one of the world’s best cocktail bars. There’s no menu; instead the bartenders will mix a drink, using homemade bitters, based on what you’re in the mood for.
Where to shop
A magnet for musos and one of the most eyecatching shops in Nashville is the White Stripes frontman Jack White’s Third Man Records. Even if you’ve left vinyl behind, a scour around its waspish black and yellow record bins feels spiritually nutritious. The site is also famous for its direct-to-acetate recording booth, which Neil Young used to record his album A Letter Home.
Or pick up a souvenir piece of Nashville history at the Hatch Show Print shop, located within the Country Music Hall of Fame. The wellspring for much of country music’s iconic advertising, Hatch offers several tours through its historic print works in the afternoon ($20/£15 for adults; daily and at 11am on weekends).
Opry Mills, just across Opryland Drive from the Grand Ole Opry, is Tennessee’s largest outlet mall, about 15 minutes’ drive from Downtown. Some 200 stores are stuffed inside, with an extensive high to low range that includes Saks Fifth Avenue, Forever 21 and American Eagle. The food court also offers experiences you didn’t realise you needed, such as the Aquarium Restaurant, where you dine within the watery embrace of a 200,000-gallon shark tank.
There’s a surreal, full-scale replica of the Parthenon ($6/£5 entry) in the city’s Centennial Park that also doubles as an art museum (if you’re British, brace for a “leave the marbles where they are” quip). The replica also lays claim to the world’s largest set of matching bronze doors.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
Should I tip?
Consider tipping 15 per cent at restaurants, unless the service charge is automatically added (18-20 per cent is standard for the US). At bars and with hotel bellboys, tip $1 per drink or bag respectively.
What’s the time difference?
Five hours behind GMT.
What’s the average flight time from the UK?
Nine hours and five minutes.
How should I get around?
With everything around 15 minutes’ drive away, taxi services such as Lyft and Uber can be a cost-effective method of travelling.
What’s the best view?
The skyline seen from the John Siegenthaler Pedestrian Bridge.
If you’re planning to hit a lot of museums and tours, pick up the Music City Total Access Pass ($119/£100) for over 50 per cent savings on entry and box office pricing.
Trying to fly less?
Cargo freighters occasionally go from Europe (Southampton, Antwerp) to Wilmington, North Carolina or Houston, Texas. From here it’s a day to a day-and-a-half’s Greyhound bus to Nashville.
Fine with flying?
British Airways flies direct to Nashville from Heathrow from around £495 return. Or look into connecting flights with the likes of American Airlines or Finnair.