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The music begins the minute you touch down.
No matter where you’re coming from, the Nashville International Airport wants to set the mood for your visit to Music City. Six separate stages scattered throughout the terminal — including an airport outpost of the famed Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge — offer jazz, gospel, and, of course, country, making the walk to baggage claim a memorable one.
Nashville’s popularity has grown exponentially in recent years. US census data shows the metro area gained an average of 100 people a day between 2015 and 2016. It’s easy to understand why: The city is culturally vibrant, yet laid back. It is at once countrypolitan and cosmopolitan, a place for cowboy hats and black ties, with dive bars and highfalutin’ locales in equal supply.
While the rapid expansion has come with its share of growing pains — increased traffic, a skyline populated by cranes, an insidious invasion of bachelor and bachelorette parties as part of a surge in tourism — it has also yielded plenty of upside for both locals and visitors when it comes to culinary, musical, and cultural choices.
Decades after my first visit at age 9, when I jumped rope with my cousins on the sidewalk in front of my Aunt Joan’s house, I found myself returning to Nashville many times to visit family and during a stint as a pop music critic for The Boston Globe.
Like Goldilocks, I discovered that Nashville can be just right for people who prefer their towns neither too big nor too small, and their weather neither too warm nor too cold. And, of course, the music junkie in me revels in the fact that Nashville is one of the best music towns in the country: a “must” tour stop for big acts and an outpost for discovering up-and-coming talent.
It’s always best to start at the very beginning, and in Nashville, that means heading to the vast Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (615-416-2001, countrymusichalloffame.org). The gorgeously designed building has a staggering array of exhibits that trace the history of the genre — with helpful explainers on bluegrass, blues, folk, and early rock ’n’ roll — from the Carter Family all the way up to current hit makers such as Little Big Town. “Outlaws and Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s,” an exhibition opening May 25, examines the tension between Nashville and Austin, Texas, during a transformative era in country music, with a focus on artists including Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver.
While there, be sure to stop in at the legendary Hatch Show Print shop, which has made iconic letterpress posters — advertising everything from the circus to vaudeville to an Elvis Presley concert — for more than 100 years.
And take a peek at the schedule, as the museum hosts scads of songwriters and performers in its various theaters. I’ve seen Keith Urban play to a tiny theater, Don Henley sit for a wide-ranging question-and-answer session, and several A-list songwriters, including Stoughton’s own Grammy winner Lori McKenna, tell illuminating stories behind their hit songs.
For music history buffs, museums dedicated to Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, and George Jones are within walking distance and worth checking out for displays of iconic stage costumes and handwritten lyrics, plus rare photos of three of the most towering figures in the format. Cash had a flair for art and several of his sketches are also on display.
Just a short hop from the Hall of Fame is the legendary Ryman Auditorium (615-889-3060, ryman.com), former home of the Grand Ole Opry, dubbed the “Mother Church of Country Music.” If you can book your travel to coincide with a show at this surprisingly intimate, acoustically pristine venue, don’t hesitate. And if you do score tickets, don’t forget to snag a commemorative Hatch Show print of the night, a memento usually sold in limited quantities for each performance. No tickets? Take the fascinating tour that highlights the building’s history.
In 1974, the Grand Ole Opry (615-871-6779, opry.com) moved to its current home 9 miles outside of downtown in the Pennington Bend neighborhood, but it still hosts performances that span the entire history of country music. In one evening you might hear songs from pioneer “Whisperin’” Bill Anderson, current superstar Carrie Underwood, or a fresh-off-the-bus face looking to break through. The Opry is an incredibly genial revue-style experience drawing a crowd of regulars and enthusiastic tourists that lends the shows a sense of genuine affability.
For fans of the CMT series Nashville, several companies offer tours of the show’s locations. In addition to seeing the houses of characters such as Rayna (RIP), Deacon, and Juliette, the tour takes you by places that appear in the series including the Ryman and Lower Broadway. You’ll also see the real-life Bluebird Cafe, the famed songwriting venue where tunesmiths like to sit around sharing songs, and the fictional employer of several characters throughout the series.
It’s possible to pass a splendid day in Nashville without listening to any music. You could enjoy the lyrical beauty of works on display at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts (615-244-3340, fristcenter.org) or check out the Parthenon (nashville.gov), a full-scale re-creation of the genuine Greek article. Walk to the beat of your own heart on a reflective hike around Radnor Lake, or admire the wares at White’s Mercantile (615-750-5379, whitesmercantile.com), owned by singer-songwriter Holly Williams, granddaughter of Hank.
No trip to Nashville is complete without a crawl through the honky-tonks of the famed Lower Broadway. At night, experience the full monty of Music City madness amid the neon lights. During the day, avoid the crush and leisurely sample the music that spills out from venues such as Robert’s Western World (615-244-9552, robertswesternworld.com) — on Monday nights Josh Hedley and the Hedliners is the act to see — and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge (615-726-0463, tootsies.net).
Want to drop a few tears into your beer, at a joint sprinkled with a little celebrity pixie dust? One of the best venues in town is Acme Feed & Seed (615-915-0888, theacmenashville.com). The three-story club books some of the best live music on the street, and noted jukebox enthusiast Alan Jackson is a part owner. Don’t miss Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row (615-208-5262, dierkswhiskeyrow.com), situated in the historic former home of Gruhn Guitars at 4th and Broadway. When your ears are ready for a rest, browse for finds at Ernest Tubb Record Shop (615-255-7503, etrecordshop.com) and then maybe even get fitted for some country kicks at Boot Barn (615-742-9780, bootbarn.com). Record store geeks shouldn’t miss Grimey’s New & Preloved Music, where artists often play release shows in the stacks (615-254-4801, grimeys.com).
Vegetarians beware: This city is a meat lover’s paradise.
The famous Nashville hot chicken is an absolute must-try. I’m partial to Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish (615-254-8015, boltonsspicy.com), where burning your mouth never tasted so good. This unassuming and friendly outpost in East Nashville has brought me to tears of both joy and pain on several occasions, and it’s my go-to spot to impress visitors. (Try the catfish!) Other popular favorites are Hattie B’s Hot Chicken (615-678-4794, hattieb.com) in Midtown and, according to local legend, the originator, Prince’s (615-226-9442, princeshotchicken.com). But heed all warnings; they’re not kidding about the heat levels.
For fresh, finger-licking-good Southern barbecue, try one of the local outposts of Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint (615-288-0880, martinsbbqjoint.com), where Pitmaster Pat Martin creates what he calls West Tennessee whole hog.
Monell’s (615-248-4747, monellstn.com), located in a 1905 Victorian house in Germantown, dishes out all-you-can-eat Southern comfort food served family style at long, communal tables. The Southern Steak & Oyster in Nashville’s SoBro district (615-724-1762, thesouthernnashville.com) offers a top-notch weekend brunch — you don’t know full until you’ve attempted to consume their steak and biscuit Benedict — and everything from spicy banh mi tacos to a delectable array of oysters for dinner.
The acclaimed Treehouse Restaurant (615-454-4201, treehousenashville.com) in East Nashville serves what they call “regionally but not historically Southern food” and occupies the former home of legendary fiddle player Buddy Spicher. Head up the street for a classic and classy nightcap at The Fox Bar & Cocktail Club (615-678-6541, thefoxnashville.com), or just down a cold brew at Mickey’s Tavern (615-852-5228, mickeystavernnashville.com).
If you can extend your weekend through Monday, make a pilgrimage to the 3rd & Lindsley Bar & Grill to see some of the best pickers in town, the incredible Time Jumpers (615-259-9891, 3rdandlindsley.com). When he’s available, which is often, Vince Gill lends his celestial tenor and killer guitar skills to the night. Famous friends like Robert Plant and Reba McEntire have been known to drop by to sing a spell. I once spent a night there interviewing Nashville star Charles Esten and then watched him intrepidly join the band and slay a Hank Williams cover.
Be sure to pick up a copy of the free alt-weekly, Nashville Scene, to see who else might be hitting the stage.
If you happen to be in town on a Tuesday — and you dig power chords and cranking it up to 11 — Thee Rock N’ Roll Residency at Mercy Lounge (615-251-3020, mercylounge.com) is another can’t-miss night of music. So many hard rock and metal-touring musicians have relocated to the city that they’ve been able to create a killer combo playing everything from AC/DC to Led Zeppelin. When classic rockers happen to be in town, you can often find them sitting in with the band. Among those who have jammed with Thee gang are Alice Cooper, Robin Zander of Cheap Trick, and Gene Simmons of Kiss. An added benefit: It’s free.
Inspired to take to the microphone yourself? For a unique karaoke experience in Nashville, drink up some courage at late-night haunt Santa’s Pub (615-593-1872, santaspub.com) and hit the stage at this double-wide dive bar to channel your inner country star.
If you have to scoot out of town on Sunday, console yourself with brunch — including scrumptious whipped blue cheese toast and breakfast tacos — bloody Marys, bowling, and bocce at the Pinewood Social Club (615-751-8111, pinewoodsocial.com). It’s a great place to start planning your next visit.
WHERE TO STAY
I’ve stayed in lodgings all over this town, and it is hard to go wrong on location, as nearly every neighborhood offers solid options. If you like to be where the action is, you can’t beat the affordable Home2 Suites by Hilton Nashville Vanderbilt (615-254-2170, home2suites3.hilton.com). This all-suite hotel is conveniently close to Music Row and several great dining spots — including Hattie B’s Hot Chicken and Peg Leg Porker — and a short walk or rideshare to downtown.
The boutique Hutton Hotel (615-340-9333, huttonhotel.com) in the West End is a favorite of hipsters and industry folks. Recently redesigned, it boasts a terrific restaurant and newly opened intimate music venue Analog.
For a quieter experience, check out historic Germantown, the funkier Nations neighborhood, or hipster East Nashville. Most major attractions are within a 15-minute car ride of all three. Uber and Lyft are readily available, and parking, though increasingly expensive, is plentiful.
On March 26, Sarah Rodman begins a new job as an entertainment editor at Entertainment Weekly. She is a Natick native and former Boston Globe pop music and TV critic. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.