Travel Tips: The Many Motifs of Nashville

’Music City’ is a burgeoning travel destination asserting its hallowed place on the U.S. map of popular culture
Bluebird Cafe, Day, Exterior, Line, Parking Lot, People Waiting
Bluebird Cafe

Grace Boto

We don’t know who singer-songwriter Victoria Shaw is, singer-songwriter Victoria Shaw tells us. We’re seated, bottle neck to wine stem, in Nashville’s quaint-in-style, heavyweight-in-renown Bluebird Cafe, a twinkle-lights bar between a barber shop and a hair salon in a rinky-dink strip mall. The lights are low. Tacked to a post, a Tennessee license plate spells out, “SHHH,” apprising patrons of the venue’s famously strict no-talking policy. It’s the height of intimacy, performance-wise. Young songwriters sometimes get discovered here, including, as legend tells it, Garth Brooks and a teenage Taylor Swift.

On a tiny stage, Shaw continues. If we don’t know her, we at least know her stuff: John Michael Montgomery’s “I Love the Way You Love Me,” Doug Johnson’s “Too Busy Being in Love,” Brooks’ “The River.”  The co-writer of four No. 1 singles is commanding and even a little demanding—the type of stage presence so confident that roles reverse and it’s the audience anxious for the performer’s approval. Between deftly brandished songs, Shaw shares industry tales. She once vouched for her bona fides via simple, emailed decree: “Google me!”

This is pure Nashville: a “Google me!” city aware of its worth. Songwriters’ songwriters and would-be superstars fill out the fast-expanding metro.

Teary and agog, we were a group of journalists on a trip hosted by a public relations firm, tasked to spread word to readers, including you, that Nashville should dot your vacation vision board. YouGov, a UK-based data analytics firm, ranked Nashville the most popular U.S. city to visit last year, based on positive opinions surveyed. After four days, I’ll add that Nashville proves most interesting for the history seeping through its nightlife and musical identity. Shaw embodied something essential: sharp hospitality, fun-loving hustle, and, as she invited singer-songwriter mentees onstage, a flair for room-making.

Nashville's downtown
Nashville’s downtown

Visit Music City

Music City

From a visitor’s perspective, what is Nashville’s imprint?

There’s Southern identity, of course. A flight attendant suggested we smile while deplaning. But think beyond yee-haw culture and bachelorette parties. If those Insta-adorned pink cowboy hats add something legitimate to Nashville’s intricate, honey-drizzled, hickory-dappled appeal, a city tourism representative nonetheless estimated bachelorette parties account for 2-3% of business. Don’t forget the sonorous hills of Tennessee antiquity. Everywhere, everything is more storied than it may seem.

In the 1990s, the city had “family-fun summer escape” going for it. But its big theme park, the tuneful Opryland, shuttered in 1997. Then, 9/11 impacted tourism. Nashville appeared to lack a working identity. So, it buffed its laurels, with the convention and visitors bureau promoting “Music City.” Legend ascribes the epithet to an unlikely source: Queen Victoria. In fact, it starts with Fisk University. The Nashville institution, founded just after the Civil War, educated freed, formerly enslaved people. A nine-member student chorus, organized to raise funds for the school, toured Great Britain in 1873. After hearing the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the queen said they had to be from “the Music City of the United States,” according to the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Nashville.

Around town, you may catch snippets of the city’s rebranding: live music at the airport, songs streaming from traffic boxes, and signs indicating which eateries and venues host live music (about 180 of them—so, many).

Music aside, what’s on residents’ minds? Possibly the new soccer stadium. Maybe the 350 new restaurants that have opened since 2020. Or the 98 newcomers who arrived per day in 2022, as per the Census Bureau, making Nashville the 10th fastest growing U.S. metro area with a population of at least a million (in this case: over 2 million). Many flocked from California, New York, and Chicago for affordability, according to the tourism bureau representative.

Opryland Resort Hotel
Opryland Resort Hotel

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For lodging, our blogging coterie experienced two vibes. The first seemed to suit families, corporate parties, young adults raised on immersive theme-park vacations, and anyone who loves a good water feature: It’s the mazy, 9-acre(!), 2,800-room(!!), 50,000-plant-species(!!!) Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, where a small boat gently burbles along an indoor stream and where shops, eateries, a waterpark, and a spa conjure artificial-township charm under one grand array of glass roofs. Then, we stayed in the new Four Seasons hotel downtown. Complete swank. Forty stories. Spa and rooftop bar. A polished, gastronomically artful restaurant, Mimo. Exacting attention to detail (Gibson guitars in upper-crust suites, Tennessee walnut furnishings). Plus, proximity to honky-tonk central. Even though you could, why would you visit Nashville without hittin’ the town?

The Nashville skyline
The Nashville skyline

Visit Music City


For cocktails with a storied view, seek out Willie Nelson’s old tour bus perched semi-perilously along the edge of a downtown hotel.

It took three cranes to lift this spacious tin caravan 10 stories up the Bobby Hotel, according to a bartender there. Inside, windows frame downtown sunsets the way the biggest star in outlaw country—whose genre willfully thumbed Nashville’s sheen—might’ve seen them. The rest of the rooftop bar opens up to skyscraping sights. We landed amid a winter-meets-summer-camp theme: Wes-Anderson charm and rooftop igloos. Not far from Bobby, another themed pop-up slings kitschy drinks in the Dream Nashville hotel: Chocolate shot glasses, thick as Easter bunnies, complemented “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” decor in Parlour Bar.

Don’t worry about finding patios, rooftops, or speakeasies for cocktails, too. And for staying out all night, the most livewire strip is quintessential: Honky Tonk Highway. It carries the vaguest whiff of Times Square or Las Vegas, given the larger-than-life celebrity placements. There’s Blake Shelton’s honky tonk, and Kid Rock’s, and Miranda Lambert’s. Jon Bon Jovi’s is set to open sometime soon.

The Robert's Western World honky tonk
The Robert’s Western World honky tonk

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At the end of a long day, these rowdy, saloon-style haunts—more than 30 of them, open until 3 a.m.—pump waves up Lower Broadway. There are no cover charges. Performers expect tips, though. Eyes glazed, I watched a relatively older crowd churn through Legends Corner when, suddenly, the singer who had just owned the corner stage materialized before me: Francelle, a “petite powerhouse,” per her website, whose Canadian origins bely her Southern twang and high-beam smile. She lofted a hefty tip bucket over her head. I fumbled for cash.

Party people “shop around,” idling before honky tonks, as the bands have posted up near open windows. Music crashes over the sidewalks.

Nearby, another convivial strip is Printers Alley. At one point, over a dozen publishers made this place synonymous with newspapers. Speakeasies carved up the area during Prohibition. Nightclubs electrified the ’40s. The Supremes, Hank Williams, and Jimi Hendrix have rolled through. As in any great city, going out in Nashville means bumping elbows with the ghosts of parties past.

Country Music Hall of Fame Museum
Country Music Hall of Fame Museum

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Francelle invoked Dolly, as did the other band that night—and all over down: Dolly, Dolly, Dolly. Modern country music keeps its traditions, and Parton alone could power Nashville for a century. But for every five Parton references, I’ll raise you a Jimi Hendrix or a Little Richard. To track its complex musical history, the city has multiple whole museums.

You might start with downtown’s Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. It’s enormous, with a $100 million expansion doubling its size to 350,000 square feet a decade ago. That space is put to epic use by an exhibit ribboning across two stories and chronicling the genre’s development. “Sing Me Back Home: Folk Roots to the Present” progresses gradually enough to induce whiplash only at the end, when you realize Kacey Musgraves’ gem-studded mini-dress bookends one end while a traditional African banjo bookends the other, with Elvis’s gold-plated Cadillac somewhere between. A lot has happened in 200 years. (Beyoncé’s buzzy “Cowboy Carter” album could supplement this experience, too.)

National Museum of African American Music
National Museum of African American Music

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The National Museum of African American Music, also downtown, gets more immersive. Exhibits span considerable ground, from the “1761-1807: Revolution and Slavery” section to the visitations of gospel, jazz, and hip-hop. Touchscreens pull visitors in. I could have spent all day connecting chains of artistic influence, a la Wikipedia link-hopping: Before a big screen, I tapped bubbles—Cab Calloway, Little Richard—to get to Prince. The less shy can freestyle in one of the neon-lit recording booths. Nerds can break down a Motown hit, layering beats with arrangements. These activities lift song-making out of musty documentation and within literal reach. The Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum works similarly, with chances to sing or play instruments—plus, hokily, jets of curling steam meant to resemble cannabis smoke spewing over attendees’ heads before a secret door unlatches to a Jimi Hendrix exhibit.

Tangentially related: The Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum includes Hatch Show Print, a working letterpress shop demonstrating the steps behind so many iconic music posters. Most notably, think of the one with Elvis mid-yelp, mid-strum, legs akimbo. They’re all over. Several flanked Shaw onstage at the Bluebird Cafe. Guests can hand-print their own small souvenir, too.

Even more tangentially related: If you think Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage couldn’t involve music, you’d be wrong. A driveway winds toward the seventh president’s home in the voluptuous shape of a guitar. Nothing anachronistic is allowed on display across these 1,000-plus acres. Hushed, sealed, the property’s small details tell stories. Jackson, ever-frugal, had the home’s columns made of wood, painted to resemble stone. Since the 1970s, archaeologists have worked to uncover the lives of the enslaved people who had homes on the land, which visitors can also see, and have found more than 600,000 related artifacts.

Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint
Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint

Erik Tormoen


You’ll want your barbecue and hot-chicken fix, but consider other options that probably boosted Nashville onto recent lists of U.S. “foodie” cities.

A few examples I tried: SweetMilk has Southern comfort food—biscuits, Bennys, a “Big Ol’ Cinnamon Roll” with pecans—all based on the co-founder’s family recipes. For hot chicken, Scoreboard Bar & Grill does it classically, while Jane’s Hideaway re-invents country cooking, pairing juicy fried chicken with sweet-potato puree and bacon jam. Sere bouquets dangled, in a Havishamesque heap, over the entrance, and a local band rocked a small stage.

In a historic neighborhood southeast of downtown, you might spot some nouveau-Nashville celebrities at Present Tense, a chicly monastic restaurant inspired by Japanese minimalism, where everything from chef and owner Ryan Costanza richly reflects the izakaya style of after-work dining: as satisfying as snacks yet as memorable as the prices imply. The raw tuna on grilled seaweed sourdough proved an immediate favorite, but we loved everything.

For barbecue-as-cherished-tradition, Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint has six locations, including one five minutes northwest of Present Tense. This place does it whole-hog, a 24-hour West Tennessee process of hickory wood, house-made charcoal, and North Caroline hogs hoisted into giant ovens—all of which are (sorry if this is gruesome) female for leaner, sweeter meat, the pitmaster told us while demonstrating how it’s done.

It’s practically impossible to misstep with whiskey, given the reputation here. For a recent story, Nashville Barrel Company is a bootstrapping operation launched by three friends in 2018. It nets many folks on layovers, located between downtown and the airport. For enthusiasts, the 122.5-proof Tennessee Whiskey is something else. (In the same vein, Jack Daniel’s Distillery is iconic, although my leg of the journey didn’t stop there. There are also whiskey tours to consider.)

Less traditional, Diskin Cider, Nashville’s first and only cidery, supplies gluten-free drinks all over town, the owner told us. The day we dropped in for samples, the capacious space, a former trucking garage, was hosting a chill “Harry Potter” screening. It’s a welcoming, somewhat millennial-coded place. Diskin blocked out the expansive windows and continued to host drag shows during Tennessee’s ban on the queer artform, the owner said.

Especially for those towing kids, there’s a prime sweet-tooth option downtown. The Goo Goo Cluster originated in Nashville, dubbed the nation’s first combination candy bar, and you can make your own in a back room of the chocolate shop. I thought mine would crash-land, taste-wise, but it somehow hit the spot: dark chocolate pearls, pretzels, whiskey caramel.

Another tip for parents: The hands-on, rife-with-activities Adventure Science Center has the only “star ball” projector in the country, which spangles the planetarium with 6.5 million stars, versus the 2,400 of the machine’s predecessor.

Ryman Auditorium
Ryman Auditorium

Visit Music City


Finally, country fans must visit what is a major contributor to Nashville’s “Music City” reputation. There is no venue like this one. Sacred, communal vibes befit this so-called “mother church” of country music—although it also sells drinks and merchandise. It’s an enormous live recording studio where stars mingle backstage and inductees blanch before a mythic spotlight. It is the Opry House, which hosts radio’s most enduring music program: the Grand Ole Opry.

The mega-building in Music Valley, northeast of downtown, isn’t the original, though. The church pews in Ryman Auditorium, across from downtown’s National Museum of African American Music, date back to the late 1800s. This place began as an actual church, and then, repurposed as a stained-glass concert hall, it housed the Grand Ole Opry from the 1940s through the ’70s. It still hosts big names—Lizzo, Ed Sheeran, Janelle Monae—and is worth a pilgrimage if you’re in the area.

We joined the faithful droves one night at the modern-day venue. Reba McEntire smirked up to the spotlight with that double-sighted second nature only legends possess. She spun ballads, offered warm banter, then retracted. Did she cry, as she claimed onstage she might? I don’t think so. It made me wonder if Reba has fully separated from us mortals.

Back at the Bluebird Cafe, Victoria Shaw had seemed equally dauntless on a much tinier stage. If Reba has already ascended, it makes sense she’d touch down, with pride and humility mixed, in the same city.