Would you prefer bourbon sipped neat in an oak-paneled bar or longnecks in a rowdy honky-tonk? A fine arts museum in an art deco building or country music museum in a building shaped like a piano? In downtown Nashville, you can go highbrow or lowbrow all within a few blocks.
Hemmed in by Interstate highways circling the center, Nashville has avoided much of the sprawl plaguing other cities of a similar size and remains a great walking town for visitors. Sure, there are attractions that can only be reached by car or on an organized Nashville bus tour, but whether you have friends in low places or want to rub shoulders with the moneyed class, you can hit plenty of highlights on foot in the central district.
If you’re the type with plenty of money to throw around, someone who is always seeking out the best of the best, you’ve probably already made reservations at the Hermitage Hotel. Just celebrating its 100th birthday, this gilded and glittering all-suite hotel is Tennessee’s only AAA 5-diamond hotel and has what are hands-down the most pampering rooms in town. It also happens to have the best upscale bar—The Oak Room—and downtown’s best restaurant, the Capitol Grille, serving southern-inspired dishes with distinction using locally sourced ingredients.
If your expense account gets restless, however, a block away there’s a Morton’s Steak House outlet that also has a good bar, The Palm steak house outlet in the Hilton Suites hotel (across from the Country Music Hall of Fame), and the well-regarded Prime 108 restaurant in the Union Station Hotel.
In a lovingly restored train station, Union Station Hotel is the next best bet if the Hermitage is full. Right next door is another interesting building conversion: the former art deco post office is now the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. Housing a few permanent features—including a great hands-on kids’ area—it displays a wide array of rotating and touring exhibits on two floors.
For a dose of culture at night, get tickets for a performance at the Schemerhorn Symphony Center, a building that looks a hundred years old but really opened just a few years ago. It features a traditional seating arrangement with a balcony on three sides and stunning acoustics. The Nashville symphony often accompanies famous artists in town such as Mary-Chapin Carpenter or Vince Gill.
“Lower Broadway” has gotten decidedly less seedy since the days when Willie Nelson slept on a cot upstairs at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge while struggling to get noticed. Many of the old honky-tonks are still there though, thankfully, including Tootsie’s. If it gets too crowded there, you can find plenty of other options on the same block, places like Legends, Robert’s Western World, and the Bluegrass Inn. In all of them you can see bands or singer-songwriters performing for tips from before noon to past midnight: just thrown a few bucks in when the hat or bucket comes around.
To hear real bluegrass picking, however, the best bet is to cab it over to the legendary Station Inn, in the Gulch area of 12th Avenue South. You may see someone famous or you may see some random bunch of musicians, but either way it will be a great show.
Down-home music never looked so presentable as it does at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Full of drama from the entrance through the displays, this homage to country music’s history is a great collection of stage clothing, instruments, photos, and music.
During NHL hockey season, you watch the Nashville Predators smash it up in the Nashville Bridgestone Arena, in the heart of downtown on Lower Broadway. Get some barbeque before the game less than a block away at Rippy’s or Jack’s Bar-B-Que.
The days of cheap downtown flophouses are gone in this popular tourist town, but it’s usually easy to find a room in the center for around $100 a night. There are no real duds downtown anymore, but flying blind on Hotwire or Priceline is not a good idea if you want to be downtown: they lump the area together with two other neighborhoods that require a car or lots of cab rides.
It’s better to look for package deals or browse downtown-specific rates at the likes of Holiday Inn Express, Sheraton, Homewood Suites, and Courtyard by Marriott. The cheapest option overall is often the Ramada Inn at the Stadium on the other side of the river from downtown, next to where the Tennessee Titans play football. Just walk across the parking lot and the pedestrian bridge to be in the thick of things. You’ll get a nice skyline view along the way.
Whether your tastes run highbrow or lowbrow, there’s plenty to keep you entertained in Music City USA.