My desperation to visit Nashville is probably best illustrated by my behaviour aboard my flight. Having endured an uncharacteristically stressful stopover in New York, I was the last passenger aboard and had, accidentally, been given the wrong boarding pass. When the charming Delta air stewardess politely assumed I was on the wrong plane, I promptly burst into tears.
“You don’t understand,” I wept, looking ever-so-slightly deranged, “I have to get to Nashville.”
It didn’t just take tear-inducing chaos at JFK to make me feel this way.
Tennessee’s most iconic destination has forever been on my bucket list. Something about it had long-ago captured my imagination. Maybe it was the Honky Tonk bars; the idea that around every corner there would be a guitar strumming or a pair of cowboy boots, maybe it was the bourbon, maybe it was simply binge-watching the show Nashville. Who knows? All I knew was, as I said to the air stewardess now viewing me as an unhinged flight risk: I had to get there.
I got there. And it was worth every tear.
What hits you when you land, besides the heat, is that famous Southern charm. Almost every soul I encountered from the moment I landed to the moment I left was unflinchingly friendly. Quite how Nashville local Taylor Swift made the switch to London boys is beyond me.
We were staying in an air bnb in 12 South, a largely residential neighbourhood that screams adorable Americana; white picket fences, porches with swings and rocking chairs, US flags flying and a smattering of boutiques and coffee shops. We wandered through on our first morning, shopping in Emerson Grace, popping into Reese Wetherspoon’s retail venture Draper James and getting a diabetes-laden doughnut from Five Daughters Bakery. For lunch we hit Edley’s BBQ Joint; where every portion was as reasonably priced as it was unreasonably oversized. God Bless America.
That afternoon we experienced Nashville’s most recent new claim to fame: a ‘bachelorette’ otherwise known as a hen party. Dubbed ‘Nash Vegas’- Music City has somehow become the ‘bachelorette capital of America’ meaning Broadway at night is littered with more women than I have ever seen in my life, and its roads are jammed with party buses and pedal taverns. This should make it brash and terrible. Instead it’s an inebriated female utopia that loses none of its charm and, crucially, overspills with a sense of genuine enjoyment. That’s because there’s no pretence to Nashville. Bars are welcoming and casual. Everyone, on a hen party or not, is there for a good time.
We decided to embark on a pedal tavern ourselves, which felt like a spin class with added beer. It is giddy and reckless (traffic whizzes past you in a way that makes you regret signing the safety waiver) but is an enormously fun way to experience the city. As we approached Broadway, I jumped off, left the ladies to it and took a Lyft cab (the easiest way to traverse Nashville) to my first real bucket list destination: The Grand Ole Opry.
It is the show that made country music famous, a live radio broadcast that has been running since 1925, originally housed in the ‘Mother Church of Country Music’- the Ryman Auditorium, it is now at Grand Ole Opry House, east of Downtown Nashville. The space is packed and the crowd is a visual feast of Stetsons. Once the broadcast started there was a palpable atmosphere which rippled through the crowd, as country legends The Whites, Jesse McReynolds and Ricky Skaggs performed, and new blood artists like Clare Bowen and Travis Denning acknowledged the honour it is to play that iconic stage.
After the show, there is the added bonus of the Opry tour, which takes you through the dressing rooms and TV studios backstage as well as the chance to step on that Opry stage yourself. It’s a must for any country music junkies, to get a sliver of insight into one of its most famous shows.
Later that night, I made it back to Broadway for a late night dinner at Nashville Underground, a four storey music venue with fried food and plenty of margaritas. In my absence, members of my group had somehow acquired cowboy boots from Boot Barn which cannily stays open all night. I can only imagine the sheer volume of alcohol-induced purchases that place rings in. My biggest regret is not snapping up a pair myself.
We rang in Saturday night with that essential Nashville pursuit- a Honky Tonk bar crawl. Nicknamed the Honky Tonk Highway, Broadway is teaming with neon signs and a soundtrack of everything from blues to bluegrass. We stopped at as many as possible, from Robert’s Western World to Crazy Town and Losers– all of which have live music and a contagious party spirit.
For all the high energy of Broadway, Nashville is undeniably a relaxed city. Our Sunday is at Pinewood Social in Rolling Mill Hill district of the city, a multi-purpose venue that accommodates both a delicious brunch with a side helping of bowling and a dun-drenched outdoor terrace and pool, where we passed a happy afternoon drinking frozen cocktails. Our evening was spent devouring more of Nashville’s famous BBQ and listening to local musicians jamming on their guitars – a moment that so neatly tallied with all my dream imaginings of what an evening in Nashville would be.
Before I flew home the next day, I had a chance to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame (correctly dubbed the ‘Smithsonian of Country Music’) and Historic RCA Studio B; the legendary recording studio which produced over 200 of Elvis’s hits and whose hallowed booths have housed everyone from Dolly Parton to Willie Nelson. At the end of the tour, our guide turned out the lights and played us an outtake of Elvis himself, fluffing the words to Devil in Disguise – a recording made in the exact room we were sitting in. I was spellbound.
For further information on Nashville, please visit www.visitmusiccity.com.
Where to stay
Dream Nashville officially opened in March 2019 in the historic downtown district of Printers Alley, just blocks away from Music City’s Lower Broadway honky tonks. Stunning Art Deco design and a brilliant and buzzing bar and vault nightclub make this a destination in its own right. Rates from $265 per night. https://www.dreamhotels.com/nashville/
Dive Motel & Swim Club
The Dive Motel & Swim Club opened its doors in northeast Nashville in August 2019. It is a fabulously quirky renovated 1950s- era motel with a disco ball in every room and a swim club locals can join. One of the city’s most exciting and playful recent openings. Rates from $150 per night. https://www.thedivemotel.com
What to do
The Ryman Auditorium is a Historic Landmark known as the “Mother Church of Country Music” and is an essential stop for any country music obsessives. Buy show tickets in advance and snap up a backstage tour too. https://www.ryman.com
Belle Meade Plantation
Head away from the bustle of the city and visit this historic mansion, named the “Queen of the Tennessee Plantations” and famed for being the thoroughbred stud farm that produced horses like Seabiscuit. As well as serving up a slice of history, Belle Meade opened its winery ten years ago and hosts daily wine tastings. https://bellemeadeplantation.com
Where to eat
Once home to a 118-year-old blacksmith shop, Geist is housed in an historic building in Nashville’s Germantown neighbourhood and is the perfect stop for an upscale but relaxed dinner. https://www.geistnashville.com
Butcher and Bee
In trendy East Nashville, head here for an excellent weekend brunch selection, delicious lunch menus and a brilliant evening atmosphere. https://www.butcherandbee.com/nashville