Not a country music fan? That’s not going to get in the way of Nashville becoming your new favourite American city. Sure, there’s honky-tonk but there’s also one heck of a hot food scene and up-and-coming ‘hoods with just the right amount of grit. Here’s how to fit the best of it into a weekend.
8:00 a.m. Pick your pancake
The early bird catches the worm – and, apparently, the pancake, too. Even on weekdays, the lines at The Pancake Pantry, a 53-year-old family-run Nashville institution, stretch all the way around the block, so get there early (doors open at 6 a.m.) and be prepared to wait. There are 23 varieties of pancakes in all, including sweet potato and the Village Smithy: cornmeal pancakes with green chiles, served with pico de gallo, sour cream and syrup. Glance up from your plate, if you can: From the stars of TV’s Nashville to Vince Gill and Taylor Swift, celebs love this greasy spoon just as much as residents and tourists do.
10:30 a.m. Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
Yes, we promised an itinerary for people who don’t like country, and no, this isn’t a bait-and-switch. While its goal is to preserve, interpret and teach the history of country music, the newly renovated Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum offers one of the most fun and interactive museum experiences you’ll find anywhere. You certainly don’t have to love the music to appreciate the wealth of artifacts inside. From Elvis’ gold-plated car and piano to Gram Parsons’ marijuana leaf-embroidered Nudie suit, the museum is 210,000 square-feet of pure amazing. With its extensive history of the country genre, told through a variety of media, there’s also an excellent chance you’ll be surprised by how much country music has influenced just about everything else you’re listening to.
If all else fails, hit the café for pimento BLTs and southern-fried pickles with buttermilk-ranch dip. When you’re done, swing by Hatch Show Print, Nashville’s preeminent concert-poster print shop since 1879. Recently relocated to the museum’s lobby, the shop still uses some of its original printing blocks and is to graphic design lovers what vinyl is to music aficionados. Bonus: Its print-shop-within-a-print-shop lets you design your own keepsake.
3:00 p.m. Hillsboro Village and 12South
The education portion of your day over, it’s time to shop till you drop. Just four blocks, Hillsboro Village is a compact neighbourhood full of cute boutiques and tasty treats, such as the gourmet popsicles at Las Paletas. One of several up-and-coming neighbourhoods, the 12South district (short for 12th Avenue South) is a short walk away. Browse pricey jeans and tees at Imogene and Willie, housed in an old service station, scour the vintage racks at Katy K Designs, and covet – well, everything – in White’s Mercantile.
6:00 p.m. Country grub
Nashville’s food scene is piping hot, so take your pick: Urban Grub in 12South offers top-notch takes on Southern classics, while the Farm House in SoBro takes a similar approach, utilizing strictly local producers. Rolf and Daughters, situated inside a 100-year-old factory in Germantown, switches it up for rustic pastas and proteins. Though most mains here clock in below $20, it rated just behind a $248-a-head spot for third place on Bon Appetit’s list of best new restaurants in America last year.
9:00 p.m. Honky-tonk time
Even if you’re still not sold on country, you’d be remiss to skip Nashville’s famed honky-tonk strip: Three institutions – Robert’s Western World (above), Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and Legends Corner – are all crammed onto a single block. Don’t let anyone tell you these are tourist traps – from Holly Williams, granddaughter of Hank Sr., to members of the Florida Georgia Line, you’re equally likely to be tapping your toes next to legit country stars as drunk convention-goers. There’s no cover, so don’t forget to tip the band.
10:00 a.m. Bluegrass brunch
With dishes such as gumbo, shrimp and grits and hot chicken salad, The Southern’s weekend brunch is full of rib-sticking goodness set to live tunes (styles range from bluegrass to jazz).
12:00 p.m. Go backstage at the Ryman
No matter what kind of music you enjoy, it’s impossible not to geek out at the idea of all the legends who’ve played the “Mother Church of Country Music”: Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong and Patsy Cline, James Brown and Bruce Springsteen. Even Elvis Costello, in one of the video installations inside the auditorium, calls looking at all the photos backstage “daunting.” Built in the 1880s, the former home of the Grand Ole Opry is as beloved for its history as for its legendary acoustics. A backstage tour ($22) gets you behind the curtains of this legendary venue with all the insider stories you’d expect.
2:30 p.m. Double-double of character and history (coffee and sugar, too)
An awesome example of reclaimed urban space, Marathon Village was a factory that produced cars for just three years – from 1911 to 1914 – and car parts for a few more years after, before it shuttered and became derelict. Today, it’s a cool mixed-use space with galleries, photography studios, artisanal foods and even a distillery. Get hopped on caffeine at Garage Coffee Company and sugary homemade marshmallows at the Bang Candy Company (maple-bacon bourbon and blackcurrant absinthe are just a couple of the unique flavours, and its flavoured simple syrups make excellent take-homes) before browsing through re-crafted junk at Antique Archaeology. Since it’s well past noon – and you’re on vacation – round the corner to Corsair Taproom and Distillery, an adjoining brewpub and artisanal distillery, which produces gins, vodkas and experimental whiskies and moonshine.
6:00 p.m. Catch a show
Okay, we tricked you. By now, the country’s gotten into your blood. Don’t fight it. Catch an intimate show at one of Nashville’s smaller listening rooms such as the Bluebird Café, where songwriters themselves play to audiences of no bigger than 90 people and Vince Gill got his start on the open mic. Come early and don’t be surprised if you want to stick around for the writer’s night show (Sundays, no cover). If loving country is wrong, well, who wants to be right?