With world-class food and some of the most talented musicians and songwriters in the world, Nashville has become an “it” city to visit. Thinking about taking a trip? Now that I’m in my 20th year as a Nashvillian, I thought I’d create an insider’s guide of must-sees and don’t-misses to help you plan your time…my favorite spots are marked with an asterisk.
(Aspiring artists/songwriters: scroll to the bottom for additional industry-related pointers.)
WHEN TO VISIT:
Spring and fall are the best times to visit – but bring your anti-pollen meds in spring if you have hay fever! Winter’s generally overcast and less busy, with temperatures in the 30s/40s (snow is rare, but if it happens the city shuts down). Summer is pretty but very hot and humid, with temperatures reaching over 100F (especially in August).
Last week of March is Tin Pan South Songwriters’ Festival, a great event when almost all of the big name songwriters in town will perform – but get your passes early because they sell out in a few hours!
Early June is CMA Music Fest. Visit now if you want to see all your favorite country artists in one weekend, but avoid it if you hate crowds and want a reasonably priced hotel room.
WHERE TO STAY:
Nashville is not a very walkable city, unless you plan to stay downtown (and there’s a lot more to see than just downtown). If you can drive here, that’s a good plan. If you’re flying, check Kayak.com for cheap airfare; the airport is small, easy to navigate, and a quick 10-15 minute ($25) taxi ride from downtown. The bus service isn’t great, but there are lots of taxis – and most of us use the taxi-like car service apps Lyft and Uber to get where we’re going.
Lots of folks choose to rent rooms through Airbnb.com, and there are lots of those available in different parts of the city. As for hotels, many visitors stay at the massive Opryland Hotel resort situated close to the airport, 20 minutes east of downtown. It’s a cool place, and they do operate shuttles to the downtown area. But for the real Nashville experience, I usually recommend using Hotels.com to search for a room downtown (near Broadway, Demonbreun or West End) so you’re within walking distance of most of the action down by the river at the bottom of Broadway.
MUSIC VENUES TO VISIT:
1) * The Bluebird Cafe (Green Hills, 15 min drive from downtown)
If you can fit this into your trip – even if you’ve never seen a songwriter show and don’t love country music – DO IT. Trust me, you’ll love it. This little 90-seat club in a strip mall used to be an insider secret, but not anymore, thanks to massive exposure on ABC’s Nashville TV show. It’s the place where artists like Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift got their start, and it’s where yours truly cut her teeth as a performer. They host 2 acoustic songwriter shows per night from Tues-Sat, and no 2 shows are the same. The early round (6pm weekdays, 6:30 Fri/Sat) will be up-and-comers along with established hit makers, and the late round (9pm weekdays, 9:30 Fri/Sat) is usually loaded with heavy hitters.
The trick is nabbing a seat, and that’s hard. You’ve got 2 choices: a) be on their website when they open their reservation system at 8am CST exactly a week before the show you want to attend (or 8am on the Monday before Fri/Sat shows), and click as fast as you can within the 2 minutes before they sell out…or b) line up outside the door at least an hour before showtime to try and get a first come, first served unreserved seat.
Note: Sunday nights feature auditioned but less experienced songwriters headlined by a hit maker at the end of the night, and Mondays are open mic nights followed by a full band show. So it’s best to visit Tues-Sat.
2) The Listening Room (downtown)
This bar/restaurant/listening venue within walking distance of lower Broadway is a larger, somewhat rowdier version of the Bluebird, with songwriter shows nightly. Online reservations are recommended – some shows sell out – but sometimes you can just walk in.
3) The Station Inn (the Gulch, 5 min drive/15 min walk from downtown)
Bluegrass, bluegrass, and more bluegrass! Even if you’re not a huge Bluegrass fan, the world class musicians that perform at this little hole-in-the-wall venue will make your jaw drop.
4) The Basement (10 min drive south of downtown)
This little basement…literally, a basement…features great outside-the-box talent. This is the place to see the young up-and-coming indie, Americana-country artists you’ll hear on the radio someday. No reservations needed, but I.D. and a cover charge (usually $5) required. And while you’re on their website, check out the schedule at the newer, larger sister venue in East Nashville, The Basement East (known to locals as “The Beast”).
5) *Lower Broadway (the downtown strip)
Don’t leave Nashville without spending at least a few hours wandering in and out of the honkytonks downtown on lower Broadway. There’ll be a band performing constantly in every bar from 10am-2am daily, and while the Bluebird is the place where songwriters cut their teeth in Nashville, this is the place where not-yet-discovered country artists perform for tips and exposure. Grab a beer at Tootsie’s (where Hank Williams Sr. sneaked drinks during Opry set changes and Terri Clark was discovered in the front window). Wander into The Stage, and Robert’s Western World…eat some BBQ at Jack’s…buy one pair of cowboy boots and get 2 free at Boot Country…bar-hop north on Second Avenue, check out The Wildhorse Saloon, and head up Printer’s Alley to hear country music covers from the sublime to the ridiculous. If you’re a fan of country music history, take a tour of the historic Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. And for some late night fun, the Big Bang dueling piano bar is an absolute blast.
6) The Grand Ole Opry (next to the Opryland hotel, 20 minutes east of downtown)
If you’re a fan of classic country music – or of country radio from the 90’s to the present – and you don’t mind a little cheese with your twang, the Opry is a fun evening. Reserve a seat for a show on Tuesday, Friday or Saturday night, and see legendary artists like Whisperin’ Bill Anderson perform alongside today’s country stars like Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood in this throwback live-to-radio show. Artists differ for each show, are announced a few weeks beforehand, and with each artist limited to 2 or 3 songs each, there’s lots of variety every night. In January when crowds are smaller, get the added bonus of experiencing an Opry show at its original location in the Ryman Auditorium downtown.
7) Other spots…check the Scene!
Whether you’re a country fan, a rock fan, or an indie/Americana music fan, or even a fan of classical music, you’ll find what you want to hear in Nashville. Check out the Nashville Scene’s online show listings before your visit to find out who is performing at other famous local venues such as 12th & Porter, Cannery Ballroom, 3rd & Lindsley, City Winery, Douglas Corner, The Ryman Auditorium and more. Many industry showcases take place at 6pm, so watch for some of those and you might see an about-to-be-signed artist’s live show as they get scoped out by A&R for a record deal.
PLACES TO SEE
I know it sounds strange to visit a hotel if you’re not staying there, but this place is crazy. I’m talking about indoor rainforests, waterfalls, rivers with boats on them, and plenty of places to get lost. It’s a fun place to wander when the weather is rotten outside…get some freshly photosynthesized indoor oxygen…grab some drinks and cruise the indoor stores. Then, cross the parking lot to the Opry Mills mall next door for some outlet shopping.
Music enthusiasts will love this massive downtown museum featuring all things country. On Saturday mornings at 11am, visit the museum’s Ford Theater for their “Songwriter Sessions”, featuring acoustic performances and Q&A sessions with hit songwriters.
3) *Music Row
If you’re here with a car or a bike, take a drive along the streets of Music Row (16th and 17th Avenues South between Demonbreun and Wedgewood) to check out the beating heart of Music City. At the entrance, you’ll pass the famous Musica sculpture on the roundabout (known as “Hillbilly Porn” to the locals who dress it up for special occasions). The Row itself won’t look like much from the outside – just a few blocks of office buildings interspersed with old houses – but those houses are the legendary publishing companies, studios and record labels that make the country music business wheels turn. Check out the banners hung outside the buildings to celebrate the songwriters on their roster who penned current Billboard hits. On any given day as you drive by, hundreds of songs are being written in those buildings and demoed in those studios.
4) East Nashville
I’m partial to East Nasty, because that’s where I live…but it’s also been named one of the coolest places to shop, eat, and hang out by several national magazines, so it’s worth a visit. Grab a cab over to 5 Points (10 min east of downtown)…have lunch, bar hop, and do some shopping for antiques, vintage wear or creative art. If you’re a runner, show up at 5 Points at 6pm any Wednesday to get some exercise in a giant group run with the 100+ members of the East Nasty running group…whether you’re a marathoner or a 5k-er, you’ll find your pace and make some new friends. I’m partial to Shelby Park as well – its Greenway trail meanders along the river for about 27 miles of beautifully flat, forest and honeysuckle-lined paved biking trails from East Nashville all the way out to the Donelson area. You can rent bikes from the outdoor stand at 5 Points and explore it from there, or pedal over to the Eastland area to check out some of the best restaurants in town (Silly Goose etc, see below).
5) Pedal Tavern
If you’re visiting with a group of friends, this pedal-powered bar is a fun outing. Bring your own beer (the keg is just for show) and drink it while you sit on a barstool and pedal your way through downtown Nashvillle on this open-air tavern-on-wheels, stopping along the way to bar-hop.
WHERE TO EAT:
Nashville has a TON of amazing restaurants – it has become a real foodie hub lately. I’m no expert, but here are a few of my personal favorites, starting with my local East Nashville spots:
1) *Sky Blue Cafe for breakfast (East Nashville)
It’s a small cafe, and there’s no lobby, so on weekends you will have to wait outside for a table. But it’s worth it for the delicious breakfast/brunch options. The Nashville TV show has filmed scenes in the funky art/antique store next door. (After 9:30am, the wait can be about an hour, so put your name on the list and then take a walk to explore the beautiful old Victorian houses on the surrounding streets.)
2) The Pharmacy for lunch or dinner (East Nashville)
Delicious burgers and old-school style “phosphates” (soda-shop-style sodas) are the staples at this small restaurant with a big backyard of Christmas-light-lit picnic tables. Covered seating is limited in the rain, and expect a significant wait at peak times, but this is a fun hang!
3) The Wild Cow for lunch or dinner (East Nashville’s Eastland area)
Even if you’re a carnivore, this vegan restaurant makes veggie food taste delicious. I still can’t figure out how they make their nachos or their buffalo-flavored quinoa kale bowl, but it’s GOOD. (Closed Tuesdays.) When you’re done, wander over to Jeni’s next door for a gourmet ice cream dessert in flavors like Poached Pear Reisling or Cayenne Chocolate.
4) Lockeland Table for dinner (East Nashville’s Lockeland Springs area)
Delicious and unique dishes, a great wine list and an awesome “community hour” happy hour are the hallmarks of this East Nashville eatery. (It’s one of my faves…and that’s a blessing and a curse because it’s literally around the corner from my house!) For a more laid-back night of takeout food, Italia across the street makes a delicious “drag it through the garden” pizza.
A fun afternoon indulgence: while you’re enjoying a stroll through Five Points, grab a picnic table and a loaded hotdog from this VW bus-turned-food truck. Then head across the street for a delicious (huge) cone of locally made ice cream in creative flavors like Cereal Killer and Oreo Speedwagon.
6) Barista Parlor for coffee (East Nashville)
This upscale coffee house, owned by a member of the Black Keys, features leather-aproned baristas creating your own personalized cup of coffee in what looks like a complex chemistry set behind the bar. It’s expensive but good…and the people watching is lots of fun. You’re equally likely to run into Robert Plant or an actor from the Nashville TV show here…if you can pick them out in the sea of hipster skinny jeans and hair gel.
7) The Copper Kettle for Sunday brunch from 10am-2pm (Green Hills, 15 min drive west of downtown)
This is another tiny venue, and again, you may have to wait outside. But the all-you-can-eat brunch is reeeeeallly good, so make sure you’re hungry. Browse the used bookstore next door while you wait – it’s crammed to the gills with good reads.
Both are a little pricey, but worth it! The Southern is a steakhouse, and the steak at this place is pretty much to die for. Etch is a foodie’s paradise with a menu packed full of locally-sourced, gourmet foods in unique flavors and combinations. Plus, both these restaurants are close to all the fun downtown sights: Lower Broadway, the Listening Room, Country Music Hall of Fame etc.
9) Turnip Truck for a quick lunch on the go (Gulch location, 2 min drive/10 min walk from downtown)
This is a health food/produce store featuring a quick salad bar and hot bar for take-out, or for eating on the patio. It’s a good place for people-watching – you’ll occasionally see some star power here – and it’s also right across the street from Two Old Hippies (the expensive but cool clothing store-to-the-stars).
10) Fido for coffee or breakfast/lunch (Hillsboro Village, near Music Row)
This is a weekly hang for me and my girlfriends…and for half of Music Row. It’s the “let’s grab a coffee” spot for lots of music meetings, but the food is really good too. Wander Hillsboro village while you’re here too – there’s some cool shopping along the block.
11) Edgehill Cafe for coffee/breakfast (by Music Row)
This Music Row coffee shop hang has recently been redone and is now a full-fledged restaurant, but you’ll still see a full crowd of music industry types in there before the 11am co-writing appointments start! Taco Mamacita across the street is definitely Music Row’s lunch spot of choice. You might not know the faces (sometimes you’ll recognize a few) but if you know your songwriters and music execs, you’ll see at least 10 big ones in there on any given day. (Try the chicken tortilla soup – it’s really good).
12) Noshville for breakfast (Green Hills)
Sadly, the Midtown location has closed its doors to become condos, so the hallowed hang for the movers and shakers of the music industry is no more. (Unless you knew your songwriters, you wouldn’t have realized you were sitting next to the biggest guns in the business as they chatted about today’s song idea in the next booth.) But I’m keeping the Green Hills location on the list because it’s still going strong and boasts a wide variety of classic breakfast and lunch options.
Lower Broadway is the tourist strip, but Midtown holds the local music industry hot spots. So grab a booth and some beers to people-watch. A few bars such as Tin Roof feature live music performed by local songwriters. Oh, and check out the chocolate-milkshake-like bushwhacker at the Brewhouse or Rebar – delicious but deadly! Special mention: The Patterson House…stop in here if you’re a lover of the seriously fancy (and expensive) cocktail. This is a favorite spot for artists like Dierks Bentley because of its great drinks and low profile; there’s no sign out front and a no picture taking policy inside.
14) Additional Foodie Spots:
If you’re a foodie, check out these expensive but renowned upscale Nashville eateries: Kayne Prime (a boutique steakhouse – try the cotton candy bacon appetizer!) and The Catbird Seat (the gourmet chef plans a specific dinner with paired wines and you pay a set amount for the whole thing – book it a few weeks in advance).
WHERE TO SHOP:
There are several malls around Nashville: check out The Mall at Green Hills (upscale with a Nordstrom’s, Macy’s, Mac, BCBG, Lucky, Sephora, Athleta, and various boutique designer stores), Opry Mills (a huge outlet mall designed in a circle so you can walk the whole loop and shop at Saks Off 5th, Guess, Old Navy, Forever 21, Bass Pro Shop, Off Broadway Shoes etc) and Cool Springs Galleria (in the suburbs south of town).
2) Strip Malls:
Nashville has some cool consignment shops, as you’d expect in a town that centers around show biz where you can’t be seen on camera wearing the same thing twice. Check out Designer Finds (next to the Mall at Green Hills), Designer Renaissance (in Berry Hill), and there are a ton of others listed in this guide by Ms. Cheap.
4) Boutique Fashion Stores:
Nashville has some wonderful (and some wonderfully expensive) boutique shopping stores where you can find unique and super stylin’ pieces. Check out this guide for details. (My faves are Posh, UAL and Two Old Hippies for the expensive stuff and Lizard Thicket and Blush for more affordable items.)
If you’re a lover of antiques there’s a lot to choose from around here,here’s your guide to Nashville antique stores.
ADDITIONAL INFO FOR SONGWRITERS/MUSICIANS:
If you’re an aspiring songwriter or a visiting musician, here are a few tips for navigating your trip to Nashville.
1) Plan ahead
If you’re coming to co-write or participate in the music business, avoid visiting between Thanksgiving and Christmas – many industry folks are gone during that time. Likewise, avoid the first week of May when most of Music Row flies to Key West for the songwriting festival. Folks book their schedules a long way out, so if there are people you plan to meet or work with, try to contact them well in advance.
2) Join NSAI
The Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) is Music Row’s Ellis Island…it’s the welcoming spot where newcomers can get oriented and find info about how the business works. Call ahead to make an appointment and find out what they do, or become a member online in advance and plan your trip around one of their educational seminar weekends. (The annual fee for this nonprofit association goes towards the worthy cause of legislative songwriter advocacy.) Take advantage of NSAI’s song evaluation services from afar, have a one-on-one coaching session in person, or attend a “pitch-to-publisher” night with your demos. You can also use NSAI as a home base for internet access, printer/computer access, and songwriting rooms while you’re in town.
3) Visit your Performing Rights Organization (PRO)
Are you a member of ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC? If you’ve earned royalties from any of your songs, you should be (or if you’re represented by a PRO in another country you’re likely already automatically affiliated with one of the American ones too). When you make your plans to visit, reach out to someone in Member Services at the Nashville office of your PRO and ask them to meet with you, hear your songs, and help hook you up with cowriters or publishing meetings while you’re here. My Member Services rep at ASCAP was the one who got me the publisher meetings that resulted in my first songwriting deal. Also, ask your PRO rep if they know of any “#1 parties” happening during your visit (they’re last minute, unadvertised, parties to celebrate the songwriters behind the current hit topping the Billboard chart, and anyone who knows about them can usually attend).
4) Take in the live music
Don’t miss your chance to visit the venues listed above and soak in as much live music as possible while you’re here. You can also try your luck at the Bluebird Cafe’s Monday night open mic night, where attendees enter a raffle for the chance to perform, or speak to the host of the Commodore’s nightly songwriter rounds – one of the most welcoming venues for unestablished songwriters seeking to perform – to see if they can fit you in for a late-night audition and then a potential slot in an upcoming show.
5) Network, network, network!
Know anyone in the music biz down here? Reach out to them and see if they’ll meet for coffee during your visit. Don’t know a soul? That’s ok…many of us didn’t when we first got here. The beauty of this city is that hardly anyone is actually FROM here. So start conversations…be outgoing…visit restaurants and venues where the music industry crowd spends time, and talk to the stranger sitting next to you. You never know who it might be…and in this business, who you know is just as important as what you do.
A CAVEAT: One of the rookie mistakes aspiring songwriters often make is asking established songwriters they’ve barely met to co-write with them. Co-writing is an opportunity that must be earned. It’s a bit like asking for sex before you’ve even been on a date. What you CAN do is ask to buy them coffee…pick their brains…even offer them a CD of your material (which they may not be allowed to accept if their publisher has a policy against accepting unsolicited music due to risk of copyright suits) but unless you’re a writer with success to your name, or unless THEY open the door to that topic, don’t ask them to write.
Interested in more behind-the-scenes musings about songwriting, creativity, the Nashville music biz and life in general, along with some free songs? Sign up for my email newsletter here.