It’s not always easy to step off the beaten path once you get into Nashville.
The elements that draw you into the city are sure to keep you satisfied for a long time–the streets virtually hum with the sounds of country and bluegrass spilling from music venues, while mainstays like the Grand Ole Opry House made the city into a legend.
Generations of country greats have flocked to Nashville, and with names like Dolly Parton, Hank Williams Sr., Trisha Yearwood, and Martina McBride, they certainly don’t call it Music City for nothing. You also can’t leave the city without tasting old-school Southern barbecue (tangier and spicier than the Memphis variety), washed down by the firewater that is Tennessee whiskey.
But like any good old American city, Nashville has a whole lot more to offer than what you may see at first glance… Dig a little deeper and you may find a secret world that the locals hold dear.
You can always hit the Grand Ole Opry or Ryman Auditorium for traditional Nashville country bluegrass, but for a less touristy option, try the Station Inn, “a tiny cinder-block island in a sea of urban development called The Gulch.” Station Inn is considered to be the mother church of bluegrass since 1974. Tickets are cheap too, only about $7-$14, no reservations allowed. 402 12th Ave South, 615-255-3307, www.stationinn.com
If you’re looking for original tunes rather than tired old country standards, the Bluebird Cafe is a Nashville favorite where they take their music very seriously. You’ll rarely hear a cover tune from these emerging songwriters and singers (Garth Brooks played the Bluebird before making it big), and sets are usually bare bones, stripped down acoustic sets with just a singer and a guitar or piano player for accompaniment. Audiences are requested to remain quiet during performances…in fact, the venue’s slogan is “Shhh!” 4104 Hillsboro Road, 615-383-1461, www.bluebirdcafe.com
Hopefully it won’t come as a surprise that Nashville’s music scene is about a lot more than just country. There is a whole host of blues and rock venues that nurture local talents and bring in national superstars. Exit/In has been around for more than 30 years (you may recognize it from the Robert Altman film “Nashville”). The local institution that closed down in 2002 after failing to pay its sales tax, was reopened “for good” by a new owner. On the wall is a list of performers who have played the club, including Doc Watson, Linda Ronstandt, Emmylou Harris, and The Donnas. 2208 Elliston Place, 615-321-3340, www.exitin.com
Learn more about local travel with our Southern US Travel section.
The Belcourt Theatre is a non-profit venue in Nashville that screens classic films as well as showcasing art and music (and offers a fully stocked bar). Coming up is a Classic Directors Spotlight, featuring the 1950s films of Alfred Hitchcock, a Grease sing along, and Gay Film Night. 2102 Belcourt Avenue, 615-383-9140, www.belcourt.org
You can’t be a true Nashvillian until you’ve had a popsicle from Las Paletas, a tiny Mexican stand with no sign (it’s located on the lower level of the Cypress Building on Granny White Pike across the street from a park). Funky flavors like prickly pear, plum, chai, rose petal, and “hot” chocolate (with hot peppers!) have grown ups behaving like kids in a candy store. Cash only. 2907 12th Ave South, 615-386-2101
The Loveless Cafe is a well-known spot for down-home Southern cuisine–but if you’d rather avoid the touristy crowds, try the Beacon Light Tea Room in Lyle, Tennessee (about 50 minutes from Nashville). A whole meal will set you back about $5, with fried chicken, homemade preserves, country ham, and our favorite… a pie made of frozen cream cheese and sweetened condensed milk layered with pecans and coconuts. But the real kitsch is that the cafe is Bible themed: each table has a Scripture Bread Box with Bible verses, and the place is filled with religious paraphernalia, Jesus images and… lava lamps. 6276 Highway 100, Lyles, TN, 931-670-3880
Fried avocados at midnight? Nothing is unexpected at the Alleycat Lounge, including an entire avocado peeled, stuffed with salsa, breaded and deep fried. A full bar, live music and events the “Dogs in the Alley Cat Dog Show” keep locals coming back for more. 1008 Woodland Street, 615-262-5888, www.alleycatlounge.com
What says Southern soul more than homestyle barbecue? Mary’s Old Fashioned Barbeque Pit serves hand-pulled pork barbecue 24/7, served with fiery hot sauce and hunks of corn bread. If you’re in the mood for something a little, er, lighter, try the Southern staple of a hot fish sandwich–two whiting fillets rolled in cornmeal and fried, between two slices of white bread with onions, pickles, yellow mustard, and hot sauce. 1108 Jefferson Street (615) 256-7696
According to one local source, “hot chicken is Nashville’s sole contribution to the culinary world, but it’s a good one.” See how much you can take at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, where the spicy chicken has had locals forming a near cult following. Lines are long, especially late at night (it’s open Tuesday-Thursday 12 p.m.-12 a.m., Friday-Saturday 12 p.m.-4 a.m.). 123 Ewing Drive, 615-226-9442
Like Southern food? Don’t miss Southern Comfort: Finding Good Food & Down-Home Hospitality on the Road
Get a sense of Southern history and a great view of the city at Fort Negley. This is the largest inland Civil War fort remaining, built by the Yankees (largely built by African American labor) when they took over the city in 1861. The historic fort was reopened to the public in 2005 (after 60 years), and is located only about five minutes from downtown, sitting high on a hill. 534 Chestnut Street, www.bonps.org/neg.htm
For a quiet moment, check out Radnor Lake, Tennessee’s first official “Natural Area” located in the center of Nashville. In fact, it’s considered to be the largest section of wilderness (1,100 acres) that’s so close to a major city. However, you can’t jog, bike, fish, boat, drive, or take your dog for a walk in this area–only hiking is allowed, to protect the fragile ecosystem. But there are multiple hiking trails to choose from around the perfectly crystalline lake. Parking is $3. 615-373-3467, www.radnorlake.org
If you’d rather avoid the overwhelming crowds of the Country Music Awards Festival, consider checking out the lesser-known Nashville SongWriters Festival on Music Row. The festival will take place this year from June 13-16, and brings together the music-loving public with amateur and professional writers and musicians. Live performances, writing workshops and networking opportunities abound during this three-day musical event. 615-424-1491, www.songwritersfestival.com
There are also plenty of Travel Destinations you could check out:
- One-Tank Trips: Raleigh, North Carolina
- Unexpectedly Green Cities: Eco-Travel in Chattanooga, TN
- Ask the Locals: Atlanta, Georgia
- Southern Comfort: Finding Good Food & Down-Home Hospitality
- Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Kansas City, Missouri
For more cities, check out our Off the Brochure series with this map:
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