Go beyond hot chicken and honky tonks.
Tennessee’s capital city is now largely identified by high-volume honkytonks, tongue-scorching fried fowl, and boot-scooting bachelorettes cruising Lower Broadway, but I like to remind people to dig a little deeper to truly experience the pulse of Nashville.
While the face of Nashville’s new lofty status as a worldwide tourist destination brings sky-high hotels and swanky storefronts looking eye-to-eye with the skyline’s iconic Batman building, the L&C Building, and the Ryman, capturing a mix of both old and new Nashville on your visit will yield the best memories.
Some neighborhoods are better situated for wandering the city on foot. If you’re staying downtown, Midtown, Wedgewood-Houston, Germantown, or parts of East Nashville, you’re pretty well set to hit the pavement or explore via rideshare if you want to shed the stress of parking costs. On the flip side, it’s smart to have a car to experience a little more of Middle Tennessee. If you plan on a day of whiskey-tastin’ or honky-tonkin,’ utilize rideshare options.
Of course, there are some things we’ve long loved about Nashville that you can still find on every corner: Southern-style hospitality, live music performances, and yes, plenty of hot chicken and crumbly biscuits (try them outside of town at The Loveless Cafe or closer to downtown at Elliston Place Soda Shop or Big Al’s Deli).
Here’s a curated list of some top spots to check out next time you visit Nashville:
Where to stay
To sleep surrounded by rich Nashville history, book a stay at the supposedly haunted Hermitage Hotel. The property was opened in 1910 by a group of businessmen with a vision to introduce a luxurious place to stay in Music City. The historic spot upholds its destination status as a 5-star hotel with a prime location, a world-class bar, and an onsite restaurant Drusie & Darr from renowned chef Jean-Georges.
Open since 2020 on the south side of Broadway, The Joseph is a Luxury Collection hotel within walking distance of several notable downtown spots (such as Lower Broadway, Ascend Amphitheater, and The Schermerhorn Symphony Center). Here, real estate developer Joel Pizzuti pays homage to his Italian grandfather, Joseph, and his Italian heritage with some Tennessee twang and attention to hospitality. There’s a meticulously curated art program, a spaghetti western-inspired speakeasy, rooms featuring hand-cut Italian marble, and a sky-high spa and rooftop restaurant. The ground floor’s refined Italian spot, Yolan, showcases the cuisine and wine prowess of chef Tony Mantuano and wine expert Cathy Mantuano, plus eye-pleasing pastries from Beard-nominated Noelle Marchetti. The menu changes frequently but pasta mainstays include a solid cacio e pepe and an indulgent signature gnocchi snowcapped with white winter truffles.
About thirty minutes south of downtown in Franklin, Southall Farm & Inn provides a more “off-the-grid” way to visit Middle Tennessee. Sitting on over 300 acres of farmland, Southall serves as both a working farm and an inviting inn, with first-class dining and cozy rooms sandwiched between greenhouses, orchards, and rows of heritage crops. The spa here is one of the best in the state, with a steam room, sauna, and relaxation lounge—as well as an outdoor mineral pool overlooking Lake Mishkin and a medicinal herb garden. You can also book several unique experiences, from a falconry expedition or southern honey tasting to archery and axe-throwing.
Where to eat
It’s a little overwhelming to try to whittle down the ever-growing list of restaurants in Nashville. Before you start narrowing down your selections, there are some reservations everyone should try and book: Locust and June.
At Sean Brock’s 37-seat June—perched atop his East Nashville compound—there are two tasting menu options. Choose between eight or 16 courses of impeccably created and plated dishes that push the boundaries of Southern cuisine. Past tasting menu offerings include Maine sea urchin with paw paw, Makrut lime, sour corn, and kinome or embered chestnut with foie gras. For brunch plans, book a table downstairs at Audrey, where the showstopper is a fluffy, hearth-baked omelet whisked for half an hour with plenty of butter and cheese.
No. 1 on Food & Wine Magazine’s best restaurant list in 2022, Locust is an award-winning a la carte reservation that can be tough to snag. Reservations open on the first of every month and fill up quickly, so plan well in advance to experience Trevor Moran’s rotating menu of raw razor clams, build-your-own beef tartare, steamed dumplings, and kakigori. If you’re looking to fill your itinerary with buzzy tables, add Kisser for Japanese fare, Xiao Bao for bao buns, and Bad Idea for wine and thoughtfully curated small plates.
Of course, the original source for hot chicken is the place to begin a pilgrimage of Nashville’s globally renowned dish. Prince’s Hot Chicken serves up Thornton Prince’s scorned love’s “revenge chicken” in heat levels ranging from plain and “lite mild” to xxx-hot. The best option is the south location on Nolensville Pike, so you’ll need a car (and maybe some gloves). Another solid option is north of town at 400 Degrees, which is owned by a lifelong Prince’s fan, Aqui Hines, and offers fired-up chicken, pork chops, and fish.
It’s easy to find hot chicken available around town in myriad forms, on everything from tacos to pizza, as well as vegan variations. One of my favorite lunch moves is to grab a hot chicken and macaroni and cheese crunch wrap from Red’s and stroll around Nashville’s Parthenon and Centennial Park. And a list of Nashville restaurant recommendations is incomplete without the city’s longtime meat-and-three mainstay, Arnold’s Country Kitchen. The cafeteria-style lineup of fried chicken, roast beef, macaroni and cheese, and spicy chocolate pie is the kind of thing legends are made of.
For a six-stop shop with outdoor seating and good food and drinks, The Wash—a micro-restaurant space for startups in East Nashville—is a favorite for locals. Begin or end your time at this former car wash with a cocktail at Nashville’s shortest bar, Bay 6. S.S. Gai is the place to go for incredible Thai Gai Tod (fried) or Gai Yang (grilled) chicken.
What to do
If you’re here for the music, there are a few historic spots that cannot be missed before you begin a crawl down the honky-tonk highway. Book a show at the Grand Ole Opry, the Bluebird Cafe, or take in a show or a tour of the Ryman Auditorium. You’ve heard of all these spots for a reason.
With the iconic listening venues out of the way, head to Lower Broadway’s honky-tonk roster for your band of choice. Don’t let the shiny new celebrity bar names steal your attention from Robert’s Western World, where you can score one of the best meal deals in the city. The “Recession Special” still costs $6 and scores you a piled-high fried bologna sandwich, chips, a moon pie, and an icy cold PBR alongside a live show.
The National Museum of African American Music is another experience for history buffs and music lovers. The city is packed full of educational spots well worth a visit: the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, RCA Studio B, the Johnny Cash Museum, and Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. Just make sure to follow up a museum visit with a line-dancing class with Stompin’ Grounds or go on a food tour of Music Row/12 South with Walk Eat Nashville.
For a break from the downtown hustle, head to one of Tennessee’s many whiskey distilleries for a tasting. I also recommend taking the Nashville Beer, Bourbon & BBQ Tour with Mint Julep, which provides transportation and an expert guide to three stops for a whiskey tasting, barbecue, and a beer flight. You can also swoop south to historic downtown Franklin or, the charming two-lane town of Leipers Fork for some more local flavor, great shopping, and a change of pace. In Franklin, catch a show at the Franklin Theatre (it was the first air-conditioned building in town), shop at White’s Mercantile or The Factory at Franklin, and check out The Copper Fox Gallery, Fox & Locke, and Creekside Trading Company in Leipers Fork. .
Finish any Nashville night with great cocktail or zero-proof options at Nashville’s first craft cocktail destination just steps away from Music Row, the Patterson House; at the historic Skull’s Rainbow Room (a Printers Alley lounge with great cocktails, food, and nightly burlesque); or on the East side at The Fox Bar & Cocktail Club (try the Concord grape margarita).
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