The Insider’s Guide to Nashville

With its mouth-burning Thai-Laotian food, burgeoning art scene, and almost 16,000 acres of green space, it’s a whole new Music City.

Kristin Luna
Oct 30, 2018 · 17 min read

Photographs by William Mebane
Illustrations by Rachel Briggs

H Clark Distillery.

THE ICONIC COUNTRY MUSIC CAPITAL has loomed so large in American culture for so long that even people who’ve never set foot here think they know what it’s all about — cowboy boots, the Grand Ole Opry, meat-and-threes, Tay Tay. But what you might not know? It has the single largest Kurdish population in the States, which means you’ll find exceptional blistered flatbreads and savory spiced meats on the menu at Azadi International Food Market & Bakery, a hit with immigrants and locals alike. There’s a thriving street-art scene, where muralists transform the side of buildings into powerful statements on the complex city they love (see: the thousand-square-foot tribute to leaders of the civil rights movement in North Nashville). And in this town built on the music staff, the twang of a banjo is just one of the many sounds you’ll hear coming out of the recording studios and clubs the city is known for.

“We have a reggae scene here, believe it or not,” says Airbnb Experience host and Grammy-award-winning record producer Steve Fishell, ticking off Jack White, the Black Keys, and Kings of Leon as just a few of the other city’s non-country successes. “Now the city’s a music center on so many different levels.”

But when Chakita Patterson arrived three years ago, she was struck by one cliché that the city absolutely lived up to — Southern hospitality. “Everyone here is so welcoming and so open,” says Patterson, who hosts African American history-focused treks with her company, United Street Tours. “Anybody coming in will feel a sense of community.”

Johnny Meyer on banjo at a Full Moon Pickin’ Party.

So head on down to the Full Moon Pickin’ Party, take a sip of that new local beer — almost 20 breweries have popped up in just the past few years — and check out Nashville 2.0.

Meet Music City’s Music Man

Charles Esten (“Chip” to his friends), who starred in the cult TV show Nashville, and a singer-songwriter who’s a fixture on the local music scene, shares his favorite musical haunts around town and how they’ve featured in the show.

“I consider it one of my life’s greatest blessings that I have been able to perform there over 100 times,” says Esten. The iconic broadcast — the longest-running radio show in history — with its famed six-foot circle of wood plucked from its previous home, the Ryman Auditorium, officially turns 93 years old on November 28.

With just 20 tables and 10 bar seats available for reservation and a calendar that opens up a week before shows, the Bluebird is often the hottest ticket in town — and you never know what acts might show up on any given night (think: Taylor Swift, Garth Brooks, Steven Tyler). “This one-of-a-kind venue, more than any other, values the origin of all music: the songwriter,” says Esten. “It’s a very special place, and countless pivotal moments on the show took place in our painstakingly detailed replica of it.”

“Over the years, we have been blessed to stage so many beautiful moments in the Mother Church of Country Music,” says Esten. “This is one of the best places you will ever listen to music.” Formerly a ­tabernacle, built in 1892, the Ryman still maintains its church pews and prominent stained-glass windows, added in the 1960s for The Johnny Cash Show.

Don’t miss the free Sunday night Bluegrass Jam, where pickers of all skill levels show up with their stringed instruments. “Walls never soaked in as much amazing music as the four that make up this humble and historic home for the very best of bluegrass,” says Esten.

This legendary Cajun-themed bar is one of historic Printer’s Alley’s hottest spots on any night of the week. “But my favorite has to be Tuesday nights,” says Esten, “when the great Whitey Johnson sits in his white suit and, along with his white-hot band, tears the roof off the place with his blues guitar.”

James “Omelette” Bradley, a regular at Big Al’s.

Skip the chaos of Broadway… and kick up your heels at the 5 Spot’s Motown Monday dance party put on each week by Electric Western.

Try a Goo Goo Cluster but also dig into Olive & Sinclair’s dreamy chocolate and sinfully delicious Cherry Bombs.

Cheer on the Predators at Bridgestone Arenaor join the locals at the team-approved TailGate Brewery for a viewing party and a sampling of out-of-the-box beers.

See a show at the Bluebird Cafe… or avoid the hassle of trying to get into the ticket lottery and check out a songwriter round at the divey Douglas Corner Cafe instead.

Eat a meat-and-three at Arnold’s Country Kitchenor avoid the line that wraps around the block each weekday and try a bite of soulful Southern comfort food at Big Al’s Deli & Catering.

The “Silo” mural, with Daddy’s Dogs in the foreground.

Mural Mania

Nashville’s streets abound with art, but a word to the wise: Skip waiting in line to photograph the gorgeous but over-Instagram’d WhatLiftsYou wings by Kelsey Montague and hit up these five exceptional murals instead.

The Silo (51st Avenue and Centennial Boulevard)
Australian artist Guido van Helten painted then-91-year-old Lee Estes onto a 200-foot grain silo, turning him into a symbol of the tension of gentrification.

Stay Tuned Nashville (625 Main Street)
Adrien Saporiti is most known for his iconic I Believe in Nashville murals, but he’s also painted a bold block of vertical stripes with Nashville scrawled in florid script on the side of the Center 615 building.

Jason Woodside (299 11th Avenue South)
The Gulch is brimming with new art, and most striking is the massive whimsy of ribbons in stripes, polka dots, and all colors of the rainbow that Jason Woodside installed in 2017.

Elliston Parking Garage (207 Louise Avenue)
Nashville Walls Project tapped nine artists — including prolific muralists Nathan Brown, Folek, Chris Zidek, and Mobe — to beautify the exterior of a four-story parking structure.

Family Matters (26th Avenue North and Clarksville Pike)
The Norf Art Collective, based in the historically black neighborhood of North Nashville, painted John Lewis, Z. Alexander Looby, and other leaders of the Nashville civil rights movement on an affordable-housing building.

The Beer Boom

When Jackalope Brewing Co. opened its doors in 2011, the female-owned brewery was just the third production brewery in the city. Nearly 20 more soon followed, and today Nashville is setting its sights on becoming the craft-beer capital of the South.

“All of this couldn’t have happened without a great community full of thirsty people on board with the flavorful and fanciful world of craft beer,” says Bailey Spaulding (left), who now co-owns Jackalope with Steve Wright. When she’s not working, you’ll find Spaulding frequenting one of her favorite local beer stops.

12 South Taproom and Grill: “They reopened the patio to dogs, and I love to walk my pup there!”

M.L. Rose: “M.L. Rose works really hard on its draft list. Our Bearwalker Maple Brown is always on draft there and is part of the 2-for-1 brunch drink special on Saturdays and Sundays.”

City Tap House: “The roof deck’s got great views, but it’s still fairly new, so a lot of people don’t know it exists yet. Walk through the main restaurant and take the elevator on the left. I feel like I’m giving up a secret, and my friends might be mad at me when they read this.”

Drifters: “My husband and I went there a lot when we were dating, so it has a special place in my heart. The barbecue brisket nachos are my favorite.”

D’Lab dancers after their performance at the Flamingo Cocktail Club.

Neighborhood Deep Dive: Wedgewood-Houston

Where art goes, the masses follow — at least such is the case in this neighborhood, where artists’ collectives housed in disused warehouses still pepper the area — but now the vibe is less grit and more hip.

True natives will have varying opinions about the “new Nashville” and its culinary scene, but all can agree: Dozen Bakery does the best lunch in town, hands down. Occupying a former auto repair shop, it’s now a café open weekdays for breakfast and lunch and weekends for brunch with a small but curated menu of soups, salads, sandwiches, and tartines, plus an ever-changing array of fresh-baked goods.

Helmed by James Beard–nominated chef Josh Habiger, Bastion is a casual bar housed in a former jam factory on one side and a cozy-yet-stylish restaurant with a clandestine entrance on the other. Even if you can’t nab one of the 24 spots for the nightly dinner service, grab a seat at the bar and order the daily punch and a plate of nachos.

Memphian David Lusk has been a force in the Tennessee arts world for more than 20 years. He opened his first Nashville gallery in We-Ho in 2014 as a way to showcase sculptors, painters, and photographers from across the country.

This Miami-inspired cocktail venue comes from the duo Alexis Soler and Angela Laino, well-known names within Nashville’s spirits scene. They took an old church with lofty ceilings and character and added plenty of pink, as well as a cocktail-attire dress code, when it opened its doors earlier this year.

Long before We-Ho was drawing the masses, this delightful no-frills burger joint kept its tables full thanks to its decadent sweet potato fries, a secret menu (comprising favorite burgers of past regulars and employees), and arguably the best grass-fed burger in town.

Part of Tennessee’s recent whiskey boom, Nashville Craft opened its doors in spring 2016 with a different kind of process that transforms sorghum into a spirit, dubbed Naked Biscuit. Scientist turned distiller Bruce Boeko also makes his own whiskey and gin and offers a full cocktail menu.

Formerly located in the Hillsboro Village neighborhood and at downtown Nashville’s Cummins Station before that, the 24-year-old gallery caught the We-Ho fever five years ago and relocated closer to its community of artists. Many locals, like photographer Caroline Allison, showcase their works among its bright white walls.

Live Like a Local in Five Points and Lockeland Springs

Tag along with blogger and local tour guide Matt Niehoff as he gives you the lowdown on the hip East Nashville hood that houses some of the city’s most celebrated restaurants and boutiques.

9 a.m.: “European-style eatery Marché Artisan Foods tops my list of go-to brunch spots. Breakfast is served seven days a week — don’t miss menu mainstays (and my favorite) croissant French toast, the tartine, or the crepes, savory or sweet.”

10 a.m.: “Stroll up to FLWR Shop, the cutest locale for picking up ­gorgeous, fresh-cut arrangements or ­succulents. Just a few blocks away, the Shoppes on Fatherland is a retail start-up community with shops like Project 615 for your Dolly or Willie tee, Wheat & Co. for the latest in men’s fashion and accessories, and Gift Horse for a funky print to ­commemorate your trip.”

Noon: “Ten years in business and numerous accolades later, Mitchell Delicatessen still serves the finest sandwiches in Nashville. Most of their meats are cured or smoked in-house, and the bread is delicious perfection.”

1 p.m.: “Post-lunch, fuel up for your afternoon activities with a craft beer at Southern Grist Brewing Company Taproom. The menu is ever-changing, featuring options like Peach Upside Down Cake IPA and various sours. Then head to Shops at Porter East, home to my favorite store in town, Apple & Oak. Owner Allison Holley is the queen of fabulous design, and her shop features the best vintage rugs and random finds.”

3 p.m.: “East Nashville is filled with century-old Craftsman, Victorian, and Queen Anne–style homes, and no tour of the east side is complete without a stroll down my favorite street, Eastland Avenue. You’ll find the neighborhood’s best and grandest examples of historic architecture, large trees, and an overall unique and gorgeous vibe.”

5 p.m.:Attaboy is a hip cocktail joint that puts an interesting twist on your typical speakeasy-esque spot. There’s no menu, so step outside of your comfort zone and they’ll introduce you to your new favorite cocktail, likely a riff on one of your normal go-tos.”

Ramen at Two Ten Jack.

6 p.m.: Two Ten Jack, a Japanese-inspired izakaya, is where you’ll find me at least once a week — for good reason. Pull up a seat at the bar and enjoy the best cocktails, small plates, and ramen in town (or anywhere). Don’t miss the №1 draft cocktail, fresh nigiri, Japanese fried chicken, spicy edamame, and, of course, the star of the show: a bowl of tonkotsu ramen.”

9 p.m.: “The hippest bar in Nashville, Urban Cowboy Public House is the perfect locale to wind up the night. In the backyard of a ­historic Victorian home, a bumpin’ soundtrack plays while you cozy up by the fire and enjoy a craft cocktail on the expansive patio.”

The Hottest Chicken in the Land (With a Twist)

The city’s most famous meal — “hot chicken,” a deep-red, burn-your-face-off dish that takes its color and heat from cayenne pepper — has made its way from its city of origin to the farthest reaches of the globe; KFC started selling a version in 2016. So while we recognize that it’s important to hit up hometown favorites like Prince’s and Hattie B’s for the world’s most authentic rendition, don’t stop there. These spots offer creative riffs on the beloved bird.

Waiting in line at Hattie B’s.

The Nasty Princess, an off-menu item, combines a trio of beloved Southern staples: hot chicken, fluffy biscuit halves, and a pool of gravy.

The 55-ounce Bloody Mary here is topped with skewers of two whole fried Cornish hens, two Scotch eggs, eight pieces of fried okra, and a whole avocado.

The fish here comes breaded and in a sandwich, with killer sides to boot.

Who doesn’t love a nice, hot, spicy pig ear? Here, they’re a step up on the heat meter, so watch yourself.

To avoid the line at the original midtown location, order online, pick it up, and eat, picnic style, in nearby Centennial Park. Go straight for the burn-notice option, dubbed “Shut the Cluck Up!!!” — if you dare.

Travis Smith, the head distiller at H Clark Distillery.

A Timeline of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail

Late 1700s: Moonshining begins to avoid alcohol taxes and — later — bans.

1861: Confederate government of Tennessee bans production of whiskey because it needs corn to feed the army.

1866: Jasper Daniel’s Jack Daniel Distillery becomes the first to be federally registered in the U.S.

1869: Prohibition Party forms as a political force.

1911: Jasper Daniel dies. According to legend, he kicked a safe in a fit of anger five years earlier, which led to gangrene, amputation, and his eventual demise.

1920: Federal Prohibition begins.

1920s: Bootleggers use hot rods to outrun the cops on twisty mountainous roads; NASCAR is later born as a result.

1932: Mountain Dew — slang for moonshine at the time — is invented in Knoxville as a chaser for moonshine.

1933: 21st Amendment ratified, ending federal Prohibition.

2017: Tennessee Whiskey Trail launches with 26 distilleries.

Nawal Sadat making bread in the bakery at Azadi market.

Around the World in Five Bites

Thai noodles, Kurdish flatbreads, and other international eats blow the lid off the city’s battered-and-fried image.

Nashville houses the largest Kurdish population in the United States, and Azadi keeps those residents satisfied with halal meats and chicken galore. Order the lamb flatbread, fired up in a tandoori oven.

Chicken noodle soup, full of handmade chewy noodles, is the star at this beloved hidden Thai-Laotian restaurant tucked into an Asian grocery store.

What could be better than a 70,000-square-foot Latin-themed concept? In a former Kroger, this complex offers a grocery store, a food hall made up of nearly a dozen vendors, two pop-up cantinas, and live music that ranges from bachata and salsa to merengue and mariachi.

This Thai-Laotian restaurant provides Gulch diners with true Asian fusion, heat level and all. Go with friends and dig into a feast of Tiger Tear beef salad, Esane sausage, and Malaysian noodles.

This Vietnamese joint out on Charlotte Pike has killer pho, though it also serves plenty of other tasty offerings, like a Bún bò Huê and a creamy, dreamy avocado smoothie.

Browse and Shop with Drew and Jonathan Scott

When the personalities behind HGTV’s wildly popular Property Brothers series aren’t writing, filming, or building, they like nothing more than combing the streets of Nashville for home accents that can amp a room up to an 11. Here’s their must-visit local list.

Drew and Jonathan Scott

White’s Mercantile is owned by Holly Williams, a granddaughter of Hank and a singer-songwriter herself. It’s stocked with a wide variety of curiosities, from whimsical kitchenware to designer pet clothing.

Kidd Epps Art Shop has simple design and purposeful products, mostly spanning sleek beds, sturdy tables, and stylish industrial lighting.

1767 uses reclaimed wood to create works of art — installed in floors, walls, bars, and beyond — that play to Art Deco connoisseurs’ love of angles and geometry.

Pre to Post Modern is located among a hodgepodge of antiques shops and is home to the best vintage finds in town. It’s heavy on midcentury modern furniture but also has kitschy tabletop decor (think bright-pink rotary phones).

Preservation Station salvages pieces of history, like pendant lights from a defunct hospitals or stained glass from centuries-­old churches. Many a designer culls through the stock here for antique doors, lighting, hardware, and other architectural elements.

Nashville Flea Market is open the fourth weekend of every month on the Fairgrounds. With up to 1,200 vendors from 30 states, it’s a must-stop for shoppers and gawkers alike.

Welcome Home has excellent barware, candles, pottery, coffee-­table books, and numerous other accents you never knew you needed.

Take a Day Trip to Franklin

Just 20 miles south of Nashville, the city of Franklin is steeped in history. Known for its 1864 battle, one of the bloodiest of the Civil War, its downtown today is one of Tennessee’s most historically authentic, thanks to a commitment to preservation. Here’s your ideal afternoon.

Gray’s on Main in downtown Franklin.

The late Merridee Erickson was a Middle Tennessee fixture for 20 years; her legacy lives on via her namesake bakery and restaurant, a Franklin staple since 1984, with sweet treats like the old-fashioned cinnamon roll and lemon icebox pie.

Learn about Franklin’s pivotal role in the Civil War during visits to Carnton and the Carter House.

This 30,000-square-foot former manufacturing warehouse is nearly a century old and today houses a collective of creative businesses, shops, event venues, and restaurants like Mojo’s Tacos, the perfect spot for a late lunch.

The first legal distillery to open in Williamson County in a century, H Clark is housed in an old granary and cooks up gin, rye, and bourbon with plenty of bucolic charm. Free tours are offered seven days a week, and tastings are available for $10 a flight.

The excellent food leans heavily into the area’s Southern heritage — think grilled pimento cheese BLT, and fried chicken with truffle mac and cheese aside a black pepper drop biscuit.

Open till midnight, this newcomer is the only independently owned restaurant or bar in town where you can get a cocktail after 9 p.m. And with such a wide selection of whiskeys available (more than 150), you’ll need those extra hours to sip your way through OBJ’s full roster of offerings.

Rural beauty—shown here in Smyrna—is a short drive from Nashville’s downtown.

Nature Worship

The city has nearly 16,000 acres of greenways and 200 miles of trails to explore, and mid to late fall, with its balmy afternoons, may be the best time to visit.

For paddling: Harpeth River State Park, a Class I river with nine access sites over 40 river miles that draws kayakers and canoers of all skill levels.

For dancing in the moonlight: Warner Park’s Full Moon Pickin’ Parties, where 2,000 people come out under a full moon to play and listen.

For a run with your pup: Shelby Park and Shelby Bottoms Natural Area, a 1,200-acre natural area popular with runners and dog owners.

For a picnic with friends: Centennial Park, home to a full-scale replica of the Parthenon, as well as ­hiking trails, picnic areas, and activities aplenty.

For flowers galore: Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, a historic estate and art museum located on 55 acres of botanical gardens.

For agrarian paradise: The family-owned and -operated Bloomsbury Farm often hosts community events — like the November 4 “Gather at the Farm” feast — and is equipped with its own Airbnb.

Handmade boots and leather goods of exceptional quality are available at the Peter Nappi studio showroom in Germantown, which is open to visitors.

The handmade leather footwear at Peter Nappi.

About the author: Kristin Luna is a journalist, photographer, and digital storyteller with more than 15 years of magazine experience, as well as a decade of work in the online space. Kristin has penned more than a dozen guidebooks for Frommer’s and contributed to 50+ print titles, including Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, AFAR, Southern Living, Real Simple, and USA Today. Through her blog, Camels & Chocolate, she and her business partner, Scott, have produced multimedia campaigns for numerous DMOs, from Visit Britain to Visit Florida, in addition to hospitality brands like Fairmont Hotels, Hilton, Airbnb, and Viator.

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