view of Nashville city skyline.

Nashville: The Whiskey-Loving City With 180 Music Venues

Kristin Luna

Kristin Luna

October 26, 2023

5 min read

The new Nashville 


Growing up near Nashville, a few things were inevitable: You’d be raised on country music, log countless hours in the 56 state parks flanking the city, and spend many a weekend on the roller coasters at Opryland USA. You’d be less likely, though, to see a lot of tourists. For a long time, Nashville was home to many, but visited primarily by those making the pilgrimage to the Grand Ole Opry house.

Opryland USA may have shuttered in 1997 to make way for a mega-mall, but the turn of the millennium proved to be the start of a renaissance in Nashville. It brought with it a complete makeover of the once desolate downtown core, a booming musical presence that extends far beyond homegrown twang, and a globally celebrated culinary scene—all of which have now made Nashville one of the must-visit cities in the US.

The making of Music City

Nashville’s music scene dates back almost 150 years to 1871 with the establishment of the all-Black acapella group, Fisk Jubilee Singers, at Fisk University (a private historically black university). When the group went on a global tour and performed in front of dignitaries like Queen Victoria, they earned Nashville its moniker “Music City.” 

Another musical milestone happened in 1892, when the Ryman Auditorium opened as the home for the Union Gospel Tabernacle. From 1943 to 1974, it was the home of the Grand Ole Opry, the country’s longest-running live radio show, which dates back to 1925. Each November, the Opry returns to the Ryman for a winter residency. The venue, with its incredible acoustics and soaring stained glass windows, is now widely referred to as “the Mother Church of Country Music.”

A little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n roll 

live music in Nashville.

While Nashville may historically be known as the birthplace of country music—artists like Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, and Waylon Jennings shaped the Nashville sound that developed in the mid-1900s—that’s hardly where its musical influences end. 

Tennessee is actually home to blues, gospel, rock ‘n roll, bluegrass, soul, and rockabilly as well. More recently in the 2000s, internationally acclaimed artists like the Black Keys, the Kings of Leon, and Jack White’s Third Man Records relocated their bands and labels to Music City.

It’s easy to see why, too, as Nashville boasts more than 180 live music venues and a couple dozen music labels, from mom-and-pop operations to global conglomerates. On any given night, for example, you can drop by the Station Inn and see a mash-up of bluegrass, Americana, and traditional country by artists ranging from newcomers to Vince Gill.

Mural mania

mural in Nashville.

Perhaps the biggest boom in travelers to Nashville during the last few years is the influx of art lovers flocking to the city’s urban core in search of street art. Renowned street artists like Guido van Helten, Risk, Herakut, and Jason Woodside have pieces in the city, as do notable Nashville muralists Mobē, Nathan Brown, Tara Aversa, Folek, Ty Christian, forBecks, and Kim Radford. 

Murals dot just about every part of town these days, but for a dense concentration of some of the most diverse art around, drive down the Gallatin Pike corridor in East Nashville, then venture north to Jefferson Avenue. Norf Studios is leading the charge with impactful installations that shed light on issues the community faces while celebrating its culture.

Check out a map of the city’s best murals here

Nashville strong

“It’s going to be OK,” became the unofficial Nashville motto in 2010 after a flood decimated homes, businesses, music studios, and more, displacing 10,000 people and leaving parts of the city under 24 feet of water. The phrase came to exemplify Nashville’s resilience and spirit to come together and rebuild.

In March 2020, that strength of character was on full display once more when a devastating tornado ripped through parts of Nashville’s central core in the middle of the night and claimed the lives of 25 people. Two days later, long before the rubble had been cleared out and streets reopened, the first COVID-19 case was reported in Tennessee. Yet, restaurants, breweries, bars, and other small businesses lifted each other up and cleaned up the carnage together. (In December 2020, tragedy struck again when a bomber detonated a blast in downtown Nashville on Christmas Day, injuring three people and damaging dozens of buildings; the bomber died in the blast).

As a sign of better days ahead and a memorial to all affected by the March 2020 storm, as well as the East Nashville street art lost when the buildings crumbled to dust, muralist trio Mobē, Jason Galaz, and Milton Chavez painted a “Nashville Strong” mural right next to the main intersection in Five Points where the tornado touched down.

Some like it hot

Nashville hot chicken.

The story goes that a cheating man was responsible for the birth of Nashville hot chicken back in the 1930s; after being unfaithful to his wife, she dumped a heaping scoop of hot pepper on his chicken the next morning. And more than 90 years later, the trend is still on fire. In fact, it’s so popular now, you’ll see “Nashville hot chicken” on the menu in cities across the globe from Minneapolis to Melbourne. 

The original Nashville hot chicken includes plenty of heat from the heaping tablespoons of cayenne pepper added to the batter that’s then fried up. Try it at the source, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, or at any of the half-dozen tourist hotspots like Hattie B’s (pro tip: order online for pick-up in advance to avoid lengthy lines) or Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish. Order Hattie B’s from Goldbelly or try making your own Nashville hot chicken at home.

Getting in “good trouble”

Nashville, a frequent stop for the Freedom Riders, was at the center of the civil rights student movement in the 1950s and ‘60s. 

The city’s Fisk University was the alma mater of late Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis (who, many years later famously said, “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”) The Woolworth department store on 5th is the site where Lewis was first arrested in 1960 with a hundred others for participating in a non-violent sit-in. 

While the store reopened as a restaurant in early 2018, you can still see the marks on the original dining room floor where the lunch counter was once mounted in the terrazzo. 

Nashville was the first city in the South to integrate lunch counters. A short walk from the old Woolworths, the Witness Walls public art installation pays homage to the thousands of students who marched to the county courthouse and talked Mayor Ben West into doing so.

A spirited city

Tennessee’s culture is deep-rooted in the distilling industry, thanks to the limestone-filtered water that turns the state’s water into liquid gold (Jack Daniel's alone is a $3B a year industry for the state).

To make it easier for travelers to explore the state’s storied distilling history, the Tennessee Distillers Guild launched a 26-distillery state-wide Tennessee Whiskey Trail that spans more than 500 miles, from the western corner of Memphis to the eastern border in Bristol. 

Four distilleries on the trail are in Nashville. The largest is Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, born from a family legacy unearthed by Andy and Charlie Nelson more than a decade ago when they were traveling to the town of Greenbrier with their family.

Once the brothers learned that the rumors they’d heard much of their lives were indeed true—that their great-great-great-grandfather Charles Nelson had been a famed distiller back in the 1800s until Prohibition shuttered the distillery in 1909—they set out bringing the family business back. Today, Nelson’s Green Brier products, like the award-winning Belle Meade Bourbon, are distributed in all 50 states. You can also take a virtual tour of the distillery via Airbnb’s online experiences. 

A taste of Kurdish culture 

For more than 40 years, Kurds have been relocating to Nashville to escape war, genocide, and hardship in their native country—first escaping the Kurdish-Iraqi wars in the 1970s and later fleeing the wrath of Saddam Hussein during the Persian-Gulf War of the 1990s. Today, Middle Tennessee houses the largest Kurdish population in the United States. 

More than 15,000 Kurds reside in Nashville, mostly in the southern part of the city, which has brought an international flair to the food scene thanks to such gems as Azadi International Food Market, a bakery and grocery with authentic offerings of halal meats, chicken, and more. Don’t miss the lamb pizza, fired up in the tandoori oven. 

Nashville in pop culture

Bluebird cafe in nashville.

Award-winning author Ann Patchett’s independent bookstore Parnassus Books has turned Nashville into a literary hotspot, with book tours from celebrated writers regularly stopping through the cozy Green Hills shop.

However, the city is most recently known on the pop culture scene for being the home of the eponymous TV show. The ABC series Nashville (2012-2018) that starred Hayden Panettiere and Connie Britton as rival country artists utilized notable locations all over town as filming sites, from the Country Music Hall of Fame to the Bluebird Café—and brought a whole new faction of travelers to the city to explore it for the first time.

Fang fingers

To understand Nashville’s current sports fanaticism, you must first travel back to the 1990s. Though youth and college sports are the lifeblood of so many Southern communities, for decades, Nashville had no pro team to call its own—nor did the entire state of Tennessee for that matter. In 1997, that all changed when the Houston Oilers football team relocated to Memphis, then to Nashville the following year, eventually changing their name to the Titans.

In 1998, the Predators NHL team arrived on the scene and introduced the state to the concept of “fang fingers”—think of Joey Tribbiani comically learning how to use quotation marks and you’ve pretty much nailed it—and birthed an instant fandom thanks to their prime arena location in the heart of downtown at Bridgestone Arena. In 2017, the Preds were Stanley Cup finalists.

This year, a month before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Nashville SC—the city’s first MLS team—kicked off its inaugural season and made the playoffs, something only six first-year expansion teams have done in MLS history.

Pickin’ in the parks 

Nashville park.

In mild weather, Nashvillians flock to the outdoors, from restaurant patios to the massive Centennial Park that serves as the city’s outdoor epicenter (and houses a full-scale replica of the Parthenon). Most importantly, when Nashvillians congregate in green spaces, they often come with instruments in hand and start a rousing round of community picking. 

In normal years (sorry, 2020), Full Moon Pickin’ Parties are held monthly on the Friday of each full moon from June to October, at the Percy Warner Park Equestrian Center. Musicians Corner is a long-held, multi-genre series at Centennial Park that takes place every weekend in warmer months. It’s safe to say, if the weather holds, the locals will take to the parks, instruments in hand, and give whoever is nearby a free show.

Good to know

How to budget for a trip to Nashville

You can have a champagne experience on a beer budget in Nashville—or go whole hog and spring for that top-shelf Dom Pérignon stay instead. Music City may have once been a cowboy-boots-and-PBR kind of town, but that image no longer holds true with an influx of luxury hotels, like a Four Seasons and Thompson Hotel, being added to a lodging mix that includes historic properties such as the Hermitage and Union Station alongside newer boutique stays like the Bobby and the Joseph. For a mid-level stay, plan on budgeting between $250 and $350 a night, though if you don’t mind being in an outlying suburb like Brentwood, you could halve that number. (And in peak times like October, the price could easily double).

Safety considerations

Nashville, like any big city, has its share of crime, though downtown has traditionally seen lower rates of violence with its density of hotels and sheer bodies no matter the hour of the day. If you’re looking to make your base in the safer parts of town, choose downtown or any of the adjoining neighborhoods surrounding Belmont and Vanderbilt universities such as Music Row or 12South.

Weather in Nashville

The saying goes that Tennessee weather is like a winning Powerball number, meaning the number on the thermometer can wildly oscillate from day to day no matter the season. It’s best to be prepared for all the elements: intense heat, scorching sun, soup-thick humidity, torrential downpours, sudden thunderstorms.  

When to visit Nashville

The mildest weather in Nashville typically arrives from March through April and October through November with summer temps soaring in the high-90s and the heat index much, much higher. Spring—which also correlates with tornado season, it must be noted—brings a bevy of big events like the Tin Pan South songwriter festival and the beloved St. Jude Rock 'n' Roll Nashville marathon, half-marathon and 5K, which falls on the last Saturday of April annually.

The biggest event of the year is the annual CMA Fest, held over a four-day period in early June each year. While many of the concerts around downtown are free to attend, you’ll need a ticket for the nighttime shows at Nissan Stadium—and to plan your accommodation early as things sometimes book out a year in advance.

If you want the lowest prices, plan to visit Nashville in the winter. Even in the coldest of months, temps tend to stay mild around 50 degrees with it rarely dipping below freezing, though there’s an occasional flurry or ice storm every January and February (often following 70 degrees earlier in the week).

Money saving tips

  1. Downtown Nashville hotels can be insanely expensive no matter the month of the year. On a strict budget but have access to a car? Consider staying out near the airport or 15 minutes out of town down in Brentwood, where hotel prices fall dramatically.
  2. Take advantage of free live music. The great thing about visiting a destination that is literally referred to as Music City is that live music is plentiful and oftentimes free. Look into free summer concert series like Live on the Green and Musicians Corner and check out the round-the-clock shows at the many Honky Tonks on Broadway (few, if any, charge covers during the day).
  3. Rental cars or rideshare lifts can quickly eat into your budget. Save money (and gas) by renting a BCycle bike at one of the many stations all over Nashville.
  4. Take advantage of the area’s many free green spaces. One of Nashville’s biggest selling points is the bevy of green space in both Davidson and adjoining Williamson County—like Edwin and Percy Warner Parks, Centennial Park, Owl’s Hill Nature Sanctuary, Bells Bend Nature Park and Radnor Park. Pack a picnic and make a low-budget (but high-fun) afternoon of it.
  5. Nashville is one the country’s most buzzworthy street art towns, and in addition to seeing large-format pieces by notable artists from around the world like Guido van Helton and Herakut, mural-chasing is an activity that is also completely free. 

Public transportation options in Nashville

Don’t come to Nashville and expect to get around by public transportation; it barely exists here. Sure, there’s a bus system, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a local who takes it—let alone knows how to direct you to the closest stop—and you’d be better served renting a car or using your own two feet to get around. If you’re staying downtown, it’s easy enough to walk from Point A to Point B, and multiple ride-share services makes it easy enough to bop around different neighborhoods. Nashville also has an electric fleet of bike-share BCycles, as well as plenty of electric scooter services, too.

Nashville airports

Nashville International Airport (BNA) is the busiest airport in the state. It serves as a focus city for Allegiant Air, and it’s also the main headquarters of the Tennessee Air National Guard. Nashville’s airport is less than 10 miles from downtown. As of this writing, BNA is undergoing a massive multi-year expansion, so it’s something of a construction zone. The project is slated to finish by 2023.

How to get to Nashville from Nashville International Airport (BNA)

As mentioned, public transport options in Nashville are scarce, and that includes from the airport into the city. There are plenty of taxis on hand, however, and the flat fare from the airport into downtown is $25 for the roughly 15-minute trip. The Nashville Express Airport Shuttle serves the Nashville metro area.  A one-way ticket from the airport to downtown costs $45. Lyft and Uber are also available, with fares usually in the $15-20 range.

What to see, do, and eat in Nashville

Ryman Auditorium

The top ten things to do in Nashville

  1. Nab a well-worn pew in the Ryman Auditorium as you listen to a world-class act belt out from the hallowed stage of the Mother Church of Country Music, built in 1892 and once the home of the Union Gospel Tabernacle.
  2. See the seasonal exhibits at Cheekwood, Nashville’s 55-acre botanical garden.
  3. Go to a live show at the Grand Ole Opry, the longest-running radio broadcast in the world.
  4. Wander among the columns of the Parthenon, a full-scale replica of the original in Athens and the centerpiece of Centennial Park.
  5. Pick up a souvenir at the Hatch Show Print letterpress shop, a Nashville icon for more than 140 years.
  6. Take a selfie from John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge. This footpath connects downtown Nashville to the east side of the Cumberland River where the Tennessee Titans play at Nissan Stadium.
  7. Make your own candy at the Goo Goo Chocolate Co. Nashville’s century-old candy brand not only whips up some of the best chocolate around, but also invites visitors to partake in the experience: The recently upgraded downtown store features a design-your-own confection station, full-service chocolate bar and retail shop. 
  8. Rock out with the pickers at Station Inn’s weekly Sunday night Bluegrass Jam, a must for lovers of stringed instruments and Americana-style tunes.
  9. Admire the art at the Frist Art Museum. At the forefront of Nashville’s current art boom is the Frist, which opened in the old Art Deco post office in 2001 and sees many of the top traveling collections like the recent Picasso Figures exhibit. 
  10. Indulge in a meat-and-three. (That’s meat and three vegetables, served cafeteria style, for those of you outsiders.) While many Southern restaurants have such lunch offerings on the menu, few due it to perfection the way Arnold’s Country Kitchen does.

Local picks for top attractions and activities in Nashville

  1. Country music may be a predominantly white male platform, but the new National Museum of African American Music sheds light on the Black musicians who have shaped the country’s musical heritage.
  2. Sure, Centennial Park is lovely, but if you want actual R&R—with a side of wildlife—you’ll head to the 1,368-acre Radnor Lake State Park instead.
  3. Food halls are trendy and all, but for a literal taste of the best food in town under one roof, you can’t beat the Market House at the Nashville Farmers’ Market, open seven days a week.
  4. Spend an afternoon in the interactive Tennessee State Museum, which got a serious upgrade by way of a brand-new $160 million building a few years back, then take a stroll along Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park.
  5. Downtown Nashville was home to many sit-ins and protests during the civil rights movement. You can read the Ten Rules of Conduct protestors abided by during sit-ins in the downtown library’s Civil Rights Room, have lunch at Woolworth on 5th where the late Congressman John Lewis was first arrested with a hundred others for participating in a non-violent protest and see the Witness Walls by the Davidson County Courthouse that depict the events and people who made civil rights history through art. Just this year, a historic marker honoring Lewis was unveiled in front of a former Greyhound station where he and other Freedom Riders boarded a bus to Alabama.
  6. Visitors may think the Adventure Science Center is primarily for kids, but locals know that the Sudekum Planetarium and its 63-foot dome theater—featuring laser light shows, skies that change with the seasons, educational films and more—is a good time no matter your age.
  7. Traveling with kids? Escape the chaos of Broadway and retreat just over the river to the 6.5-acre Cumberland Park where your younguns can run through the water features and scamper among the playground equipment.

What to eat and drink in Nashville


Nashville’s food scene runs the gamut of food halls, tasting experiences and dive bar food alongside some of the country’s most celebrated new restaurants like Vivek Surti’s Tailor. With notable chefs like Deb Paquette, who owns Etch, Etc. and Jasper’s, and Sean Brock—formerly of Husk; now the proprietor behind Audrey, the Continental and Joyland—at the helm, one thing’s for certain: You won’t go hungry.

  • Nashville hot chicken. Sure it may be touristy, but you can’t come to Tennessee and not try what has become the local dish on a global scale. Prince’s is often credited with popularizing the blazing hot poultry dish, but Bolton’s and 400 Degrees are also serious contenders on the heat scale.
  • BBQ. Every local will have an opinion on who makes the best barbeque, and with Memphis favorites like Central opening Nashville locations, it’s a more crowded field than ever. Our suggestion? Try them all—Edley’s, Martin’s, Jack’s, Whitt’s—and form your own educated opinion.
  • Kurdish cuisine. One thing many visitors don’t realize is that Nashville has the highest population of Kurds in America, and there are plenty of places to sample their native cuisine in Little Kurdistan (off Elysian Fields Court), like Newroz Market or Azadi International Food Market.
  • Whiskey. Whiskey is to Tennessee what bourbon is to Kentucky, and there’s a distinct difference between the two—Tennessee whiskey must be aged for two years or longer in new charred oak barrels. Many bars around town like Black Rabbit, Patterson House and 404 specialize in inventive cocktails made with the state’s beloved local water, though you can also go straight to the source and do a tour or tasting at one of Nashville’s resident distilleries like Nelson’s Green Brier.
  • Beer. Like many cities of its size and demographic make-up, Nashville has been brewing up an impressive selection of beer in recent years with more than two dozen breweries and taprooms now calling the city home. Among the most notable are Yazoo, established in 2003 and widely considered Music City’s OG brewery, and the woman-owned Jackalope, whose second taproom in Wedgewood-Houston, the Ranch, is the perfect patio hang for balmy Southern afternoons and evenings.

Where to stay in Nashville

The bulk of the city’s hotels are clustered in downtown Nashville in a grid between 1st and 12th avenues, with many of the hotels centered on or just off of the three main arteries: Broadway, Demonbreun and Korean Veterans Boulevard. If you prefer to stay in a less trafficked neighborhood, a vacation rental may be the answer for you: Airbnb is hot in the Nashville market with roughly 6,000 rentals locally. Just do your vetting via previous guest reviews so you know what you’re getting as many are located in more transitional neighborhoods.

Top Nashville neighborhoods for visitors

East Nashville: “East Nashville” is a catch-all for the hip (and hipster) neighborhoods just east of the Cumberland River, which include Lockeland Springs with its charming Craftsman bungalows, the walkable and retail-and-bar heavy Five Points, Cleveland Park and Inglewood, both where many young families are moving (and subsequently, the taco bars and patios are following).

Germantown: What previously was a residential neighborhood—and one on the National Register of Historic Places at that, with many houses dating back to the early 1800s—has become engulfed by downtown as the Nashville Sounds’ home, First Horizon Park, went in a few years back and development popped up all around it.

The Nations: The up-and-coming dining and art neighborhood primed for Millenials, the Nations out in West Nashville is not only seeing a boom in condo complexes, but also beer and dining; Fat Bottom, Southern Grist, Nicky’s Coal Fired Pizza and a new Corsair Distillery tasting room are all Nations residents. 

12 South: Once Nashville’s scrappy neighborhood where artisans and indie boutiques could test the waters—Imogene + Willie and Judith Bright are just two designers that got started here—has become a polished row of expensive chain like Madewell and Outdoor Voices alongside Music City-exclusive boutiques like Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James.

The Gulch: The South’s first LEED-certified neighborhood is less than a mile from downtown and a popular spot for fresh-out-of-college students to flock thanks to its walkability and numerous trendy restaurants and bars.

  • 21c Museum Hotel Nashville, $289 a night, a contemporary art hotel with the perfect downtown locale
  • The Dive Motel, $199 a night, a retro style icon (complete with an outdoor pool!) in a seedier part of town
  • Hermitage Hotel, $378 a night, the classy dame among a sea of trendy newcomers
  • Vandyke Bed & Beverage, $233 a night, a whimsical eight-room property with individually decorated guestrooms boasting names like Rum, Tequila and Wine
  • Thompson Hotel, $389 a night, a glitzy hotel with floor-to-ceiling windows giving the illusion of space (not to mention, offering great views)
  • Hutton Hotel, $269 a night, a recently renovated boutique hotel for those who want to be near the action but not right in it
  • Union Station Hotel, $395 a night, a 1900 train station-turned-luxury hotel with jaw-dropping stained glass as its centerpiece

Day trips from Nashville

  • Thanks to the vision of developer Aubrey Preston, this unincorporated community of Leiper’s Fork brimming with artists and galleries is protected by a land trust, meaning the charming hamlet of just 650 residents will never run the risk of losing its Mayberry-like feel. 
  • Winding 444 miles from the north terminus in Nashville to the south terminus in Natchez, Miss., the Natchez Trace Parkway straddles three states and is brimming with waterfalls, parks and large swaths of hardwood trees. A popular path for cyclists, it’s more than just a scenic road along some of the most pristine natural landscapes in the South; it’s also chock full of 10,000 years of history. Pay close attention to the historical markers that shed insight on the rich Native American history in the Deep South.
  • Fancy a little whiskey with your road trip? Book a driver (or secure a DD) and take your tastebuds on a journey along the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. While Nashville boasts four distillery members—Nelson’s Green Brier, Corsair, Nashville Craft, Pennington’s and Big Machine—you can also venture about 40 minutes south to the Leiper's Fork or H Clark distilleries.

Read our guide to the best under-rated destinations in the US and join Going to get the cheapest flights to Nashville or anywhere in the world.

Kristin Luna

Kristin Luna

Freelance Writer

Kristin Luna is a Tennessee native who has spent the last two decades writing features for publications like Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Parade, Southern Living, AFAR and Forbes. She also documents her travels, both domestic and abroad, via her 13-year-old blog Camels & Chocolate, and when she’s home in the South, is likely seeking out her next favorite bourbon.

Published October 26, 2023

Last updated February 16, 2024

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