by Katy Koontz
Nashville has long been heralded as the mecca of country music, and for good reason. Most country stars old and new have lived, frequently performed, or recorded here. Just don’t assume Music City—as this Tennessee town is aptly nicknamed—is a one-note wonder. During a visit to Nashville, you can easily enjoy live blues, rock, jazz, soul, hip hop and indie performances as well as classic and modern country, gospel and bluegrass.
Start exploring at the Grand Ole Opry, the world’s longest-running radio show, which started in 1925 as a barn-dance style program. Take a backstage tour of the Opry House as well as attend one of the nightly performances. To learn more about the Opry’s history, visit the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Opry from 1943 until 1974. The Ryman is considered so sacred that a circle of wood cut from its original stage was installed in the center of the new Opry House stage so performers would still be able to stand on the Ryman-stage boards.
Next, check out the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which traces the history of country music and highlights both its classic and contemporary stars. Popular exhibits include Elvis Presley’s gold-plated Cadillac and Bill Monroe’s mandolin. The total collection of instruments, stage costumes, hand-written lyrics and personal items includes more than two million artifacts. No wonder it’s been called the “Smithsonian of country music.” The complex also houses two theaters where you can see live performances as well as the Taylor Swift Education Center.
About a mile and a half away on Music Row is Historic RCA Studio B. Built in 1957, it’s one of the oldest recording studios in the United States. More than 47,000 songs have been recorded here, a few hundred of them by Elvis himself, although Dolly Parton, the Everly Brothers, Chet Atkins, Charley Pride, Connie Francis and even David Bowie took their turns, too. During the day, the studio is open for tours, but artists still record here after hours.
Relatively new on the scene is the National Museum of African American Music, opened in 2021. It examines the influence of African American music on American culture, with exhibits covering more than 50 genres (including rhythm and blues, hip-hop, gospel, jazz and rock). You can record your own rap in a sound booth and perfect your moves in a dance studio—once you’re done admiring a mink-trimmed jacket worn by Whitney Houston or paying homage to B.B. King’s favorite guitar, Lucille.
When you’re ready for a night on the town, consider one of the several bars where local songwriters sing the hits they penned and up-and-coming performers hope to catch the attention of recording executives. The most famous of these venues is the Bluebird Cafe, where Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift were discovered once upon a time.
If you’ve tired of tunes, this vibrant Southern city offers many other fun sites to explore. Perhaps the most prominent sites is Centennial Park, where you can walk through the world’s only full-scale, exact replica of the Greek Parthenon. Nashville’s concrete version (built in 1897 for the state’s centennial exposition) includes a 42-foot gleaming gold statue of Athena. It’s a replica of the long-lost sculpture that once dominated the interior of the original Parthenon. The building also houses an art museum featuring paintings from nineteenth- and twentieth-century American artists.
Eight miles from downtown, you’ll find Cheekwood Estate and Gardens. Built in 1929, it’s a Georgian mansion on the National Register of Historic Places that’s surrounded by 55 acres of public botanical gardens. Wander through 12 separate gardens here, as well as stroll along a 1.5-mile wooded trail that features a variety of intriguing outdoor sculpture.
Not far outside the downtown area is the Gaylord Opryland Resort, the largest non-casino hotel in the continental United States. It’s well worth checking out, even if you aren’t checking in. The hotel has three enormous atriums (covering a total of nine acres), and each has its own flavor, including numerous restaurants and shops. The highlight of the Cascades atrium is a thundering 3.5-story waterfall. Visitors may even walk behind it. The Garden Conservatory resembles a Victorian-style garden, filled with more than 10,000 tropical plants—some rising up to 60-feet tall. The Delta atrium has a French Quarter feel, with a river running through it that contains water from rivers all over the world, not to mention live catfish, carp and bluegill.
Southern cuisine has long been a staple in this city—the Loveless Cafe’s biscuits and gravy are legendary—but the dish that’s grabbed the most national attention lately is Nashville hot chicken, spicy fried chicken served with pickles on white bread. Two particularly good places to try this are Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack (which originated the dish) and Hattie B’s (a hot-chicken chain based in Nashville).
No trip to Nashville would be complete without tasting the sweet treat known as the Goo Goo Cluster. Debuting in 1912, it references itself as the “nation’s oldest combination candy bar,” and is made with milk chocolate, roasted peanuts, caramel and marshmallow nougat. Buy the confection at many candy counters, or visit Goo Goo’s official store, the Goo Goo Chocolate Company. Here, you can design your own Goo Goo treat using touchscreen technology or make them yourself at their candy-making class.
Katy Koontz is a travel writer who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. She’s written about destinations around the word and is the author of Family Fun in the Smokies, a family guidebook to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.