Set amid the gentle hills and farmlands of central Tennessee, sprawling Nashville attracts millions of visitors each year. The majority come to immerse themselves in country music, whether at mainstream showcases like the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry, or in the smaller clubs and honky-tonks found not only downtown but also in Nashville's many neighbourhoods.
Behind the rhinestone glitter and showbiz exists a hard-working conservative city. Nashville has been the leading settlement in middle Tennessee since Fort Nashborough was established in 1779. A state capital since 1843, it is now the financial and insurance center of the mid-South. Rapid development since World War II has transformed a once-compact town into a maze-like conurbation, stretching out in all directions along the undulating roads, here known as pikes.
For all its "Nash-Vegas" image, the city has maintained a strong reputation for learning since planter times. As well as holding over a thousand churches – more per capita than anywhere else in the country – it has been tagged the "Protestant Vatican" for its proliferation of training colleges for preachers and missionaries, church administrative offices, and Bible-publishing plants.
People who visit the Music City for the first time are always surprised by the lack of public transportation. Like many large cities in the Mid-South, Nashville has spread out, taking over land from plantations and farms and now covering a large area that limits the ability to walk from one district to another. Granted, there are a few public bus routes and many taxi companies, but Nashville is a lot like Los Angeles (at least in one respect): people here like to drive. There are more parking lots downtown than office buildings, and yet parking remains at a premium. If you arrive by plane, your first step should be to rent a car. Don't depend on public transportation—it's just not a dependable or convenient option.
The one exception to this overriding need for a car is if you plan on spending most of your time downtown. It's a short walk from tourist-friendly Second Avenue to famed Printers' Alley and all parts in between.
Begin your visit Downtown and visit Big River Grill and Brewing for lunch. Next, stroll along Second Avenue and take in the sights. Downtown is famous for its music venues, and every storefront is part retail outlet and part performance hall. There are more specialty shops and cafes than you can visit in a week, and each features some kind of live music. Nowhere else can you shop for shoes while listening to a local band play a version of Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart."
In the early days of the city, all of the printers were located on Printer's Alley. This section of downtown takes up three city blocks between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. Today there aren't many printers turning out playbills and newspapers, but there are museums and shops for visitors to explore.
The West End/Music Row
The West End of Nashville is home to Music Row. If you have any interest in country music or the music industry, this is a place where you should spend at least a day. Every major recording label in the United States has an office here. You won't see anything like the imposing Capitol Records building in Los Angeles, though. This is Nashville, and record companies here work out of renovated homes and warehouses. The atmosphere is relaxed and inviting, which is the reason a lot of artists are choosing Nashville as the place to record their next projects. Some of the best recording studios in the nation share real estate with the record companies on this famous street. Stand outside Emerald Studios or Quad Sound and see what famous musical artist walks out the door.
Two blocks from Music Row on West End Avenue lies Elliston Place. This is one of Nashville's trendy neighborhoods. Small homes and cafes typify the tenants of the area. And then there's the Elliston Place Rock Block, a block-long section of Elliston Avenue that is home to six of the loudest nightclubs in town. This is not the place to go if you are interested in quiet conversation—this is where you go to listen to great country music and party into the wee hours of the night.
The West End is also home to Vanderbilt University, one of the nation's finest private universities and the alma mater of former Vice President Al Gore. The lush and expansive campus provides much-needed green space in Nashville's West End area, as well as opportunities for visitors to enjoy collegiate sporting events, art museums and symphonic concerts.
South of the Music City lies the suburb of Brentwood. This is where the affluent live and where corporations have been relocating over the last decade, meanwhile escaping the congestion of downtown traffic. Brentwood offers the best shopping in town with two large shopping malls and a number of factory outlet centers. Brentwood also suffers from poor public transportation. You will be lucky to even find a bus, much less catch a ride on one. This is definitely a place where you should drive your car.
A little further South is the historic town of Franklin. One of the oldest towns in Middle Tennessee, Franklin is famous for its numerous antique malls and neighborhood cafes. A drive down Main Street is like driving through a Norman Rockwell painting. This is typical small-town U.S.A., filled with history and charm and friendly folks who are always willing to offer directions or tell a tall tale or two. After 200 years, Franklin has retained its quiet Southern charm.
If you arrive in Nashville via the International Airport, you will be in the Opryland area. For many, this is the final destination, and with good reason. For decades, the district around the Opryland theme park kept the city of Nashville alive. The Music City owes a great deal to the now defunct amusement park that was once home to the Grand Ole Opry , the world-renowned country music venue. The Opry drew millions of visitors every year, and the area surrounding it grew up rapidly. Today, the theme park has been turned into the largest shopping center in the South, Opry Mills . The Opry still stands and still offers the greatest in Country Music entertainment. Dining in and around this area can be exquisite—try the New Orleans Manor or adventurous at 101st Airborne.
The Music City may have earned its fame through country music, but eating here is every bit as much a "foot-stomping" good time. You can find virtually every type of food imaginable, from a spicy lunch at a Mexican cantina to a romantic dinner at a French bistro. The requisite tourist restaurants like Hard Rock Cafe are on Second Avenue, but they are certainly not the kings of the strip.
As delicious as the food tastes, the real joy of dining in this city is the exceptional service you receive everywhere you go. Folks in the South do things differently. There is a slow and easy style to everything here, and that includes the restaurants. You will seldom find an establishment that does not greet you with a smile and a handshake. Reservations are a courtesy, not a requirement. Servers are actually interested in serving rather than just achieving a large gratuity. From fast food to more upscale fare, you will quickly discover the intangible quality that makes dining in Nashville different from anywhere else.
Popular local establishments such as Mulligan's Pub and Big River Grill and Brewing offer relief for diners who can't stomach another high-priced cheeseburger. Sample the constantly-changing menu at Mad Platter Restaurant & Catering , located in an 18th century house. Here, the food and surroundings are as distinctive as Nashville itself. If you're in the mood for something a little more exotic, try Sitar Indian Cuisine to get your taste buds jumping.
West End/Music Row
Noshville New York Delicatessen is a West End favorite bringing you a taste of the East Coast, from bagels to pattie-melts and even pickled herring, you'll be noshing down at Noshville. If you haven't had enough of traditional southern favorites, Hog Heaven is the place to go for authentic, mouth-watering barbeque or Arnold's Country Kitchen for the best cream-filled pies. Don't miss Elliston Place Soda Shop for that old-fashioned, small town appeal.
Just outside of Nashville, Brentwood offers many good dining choices whether you're staying there, or just want to get a little ways out of the city. Cozymel's , in the Westgate Commons is a good place to take your taste buds on a trip south of the border. Milano's Pizzeria serves up creative combos along with traditional pizzas and delectable deserts. If you're in the mood to watch a show with your dinner, Shogun Japanese Steak & Sushi serves up hibachi style meals with flair.
Many tourists make it out to Opryland to take in the Grand Ole Opry , the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center and the massive Opry Mills , so it comes as no surprise that numerous fun dining options abound in this area. Cock of the Walk makes its business catfish, any way you want it, so don't miss this requisite Nashville meal. Gibson Cafe and Guitar Gallery has a fitting place here in Music City, where you can feast your taste buds on delicious food while you feast your eyes on treats like diamond encrusted Les Paul guitars. Another fun themed eatery is Aquarium Restaurant in the Opry Mills, where you can dine as if you're on the bottom of the ocean.
When you visit Nashville, you will quickly discover that there is more to see and do than you might have expected. There are few American cities in which you can tour Civil War battlegrounds and historic homes, and then travel up the river on a luxurious paddle steamer.
Grand Ole Opry Take a backstage tour of the Grand Ole Opry , home of country music's most famous radio broadcast, and the adjacent Grand Ole Opry Museum . Also be sure to see the Opry's original home, at the Ryman Auditorium . Dine at the Old Hickory Steakhouse , then visit the historic Two Rivers Mansion .
The Hermitage Visit The Hermitage , Andrew Jackson's Greek Revival home, then browse the country music legends on display at the Music Valley Wax Museum . Take a ride on the famous Music City Queen or cool off at Nashville Shores . Dine with a view at the unique Aquarium Restaurant .
Oaklands Historic House and Museum The historic Oaklands Historic House and Museum contains relics of 19th Century life in the South. The nearby Stones River National Battlefield marks a three-day Civil War battle that left nearly 100,000 dead. Enjoy a meal at the Outback Steakhouse . Cannonsburgh Village is a restored colonial town where all of the buildings look just as they did hundreds of years ago. The Murfreesboro/Rutherford County Center for the Arts is also close by. There are art exhibitions, performances and other cultural activities here throughout the year.
The Parthenon The Parthenon is located in the West End. This is the only to-scale replica of the Greek architectural marvel in the world. Stop into the Midtown Cafe for a hearty meal. The nearby Local Color Gallery displays work by Nashville-area artists, while the exhibits at the Hartzler-Towner Multicultural Museum take on a more worldly air. All Fired Up gives guests the opportunity to create their own ceramics and sculptures.
Belle Meade Plantation The Greek revival Belle Meade Plantation , is considered the loveliest of Nashville's historic plantations. Nearby is the Cheekwood Botanical Garden and the Cheekwood's Museum of Art , founded by the family that started Maxwell Coffee. The Pineapple Room Restaurant is an authentic Southern tea room that also serves light lunch dishes. Stop into Gallery One , which has a regular schedule of temporary displays.
Whether you choose to tour Nashville as part of a large group or by yourself, there are many ways to see the Music City. It is impossible to list every tour and charter service in town, but the following are some of the most popular.
Walking Tours Grand Ole Opry Tours (+1 615 889 9490/ http://www.opry.com/ ) Sweet Magnolia Tours (+1 615 463 8558 / +1 800 235 5295/ http://www.sweetmagnoliatours.com/ ) Sonshine Tours (+1 615 822 6097/ http://www.sonshinetours.net/ ) First Choice Tours (+1 800 899 1616/ http://www.firstchoicetours.net )
Bus Tours NashTrash Tours (+1 800 342 2132/ http://www.nashtrash.com/ ) John Hopper Tours (+1 615 298 5755 / +1 800 298 5755 ) Nashville Express Tours (+1 800 638 8687 / +1 615 872 7585/ http://www.nashvilleexpress.com/index.html ) Johnny Walker Tours (+1 800 722 1524/ http://www.johnnywalkertours.com/ ) Gray Line Tours (+1 800 251 1864/ http://www.graylinenashville.com/ )
Distillery Tours Jack Daniel's Distillery (+1 931 759 4221/ http://www.jackdaniels.com/ )
Boat Tours Music City Queen General Jackson Showboat
Carriage Tours Second Avenue Carriage Service (+1 615 244 7113/ http://2ndavecarriage.dctn.com/ )