Nashville, like most cities, is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To the bachelors and bachelorettes who rent weird, bike-propelled bars (really), it’s Nashvegas. To the hipsters fleeing Brooklyn and Austin in search of the perfect pour-over coffee, it’s “not Austin or Brooklyn.” And to the guy who’s playing guitar in the airport lounge, just hoping someone will discover him, it’s, well— That’s just depressing.
Nashville has both changed and stayed very much the same over the years. Right now the city is in boom mode. Almost every neighborhood shows evidence of this, whether it’s the explosion of eateries, the hiked-up rents, the god-awful traffic, or the giant cranes that stand sentinel over all of the new development. Behind the construction and decorative Edison bulbs, a bit of the old city can still be found—starting with this: If you’ve got only one day in Nashville, don’t make it a Monday. A relic from the city’s industrial past, many businesses, even new ones, are closed on Mondays.
If I sound protective of the city, it’s because I am. I’ve been coming here regularly my whole life. It is the city that—even more than New York—I just can’t quit. First it was for the family who are sprinkled around the South, later it would be a stopover on college road trips, and finally it would be a job at a magazine based in Alabama that would see me zooming up I-65 for weekends with friends. Now as an adult—instead of a 7-year-old stuffed into a velvet Christmas dress to go look at the lights at the Opryland Hotel or a college student crashing on an old friend’s couch and counting out change for beer money—I return to the city on my own terms. Sometimes it’s to visit family. Sometimes it’s just a stopover with really good food. This time it’s to do exactly what I want to do for a whole day. Not a bad gig. Grab your car keys (you’ll do a bit of driving today) and come along for the ride.
1000 Main St.
Nashville, TN 37206
Get an early(ish) start and have breakfast at Marché. There might be a wait at this popular East Nashville spot, but it’s worth it, so spend the time stocking up on locally produced jams and hot sauces for sale. The bright corner restaurant is filled with light, good smells, and a pleasant rumble of conversation—an ideal place to ease into your day. The menu changes with the seasons—it’s a sister establishment to local institution Margot Café & Bar, owned by chef Margot McCormack—so trust your gut and go with whatever looks good that day. I recommend the savory crepes. When I was last there, they were stuffed with a simple chicken-and-rice curry. The waitstaff won my heart by immediately offering hot sauce—Red Clay bourbon-barrel-aged hot sauce. I grabbed a bottle and meant to give it as a gift but used it instead. (Whoops.) An iced coffee from local roasters Bongo Java will jolt you awake and get you ready for our next stop.
Hillsboro Plaza Shopping Center
3900 Hillsboro Pike #14
Nashville, TN 37215
As a college student, I loved the novels of Ann Patchett. When she moved to Nashville and opened a bookstore, Parnassus Books, it became a regular stop on my trips to town. Beyond an excuse to do some light stalking (I’m always hoping the lady herself will be there when I go), this bookstore is basically the ideal place for anyone who loves books. Seriously. Ignore the fact that it’s tucked into a strip mall next to a chain restaurant in the booming Green Hills neighborhood (you’ll definitely spot some cranes here). Ignore the traffic. This is a pilgrimage, of sorts. Inside the store, there may be one or more “shop dogs”—dogs that hang out in the store—on duty. There’s a comfortable seating area with a chess board. The children’s section holds a binder full of summer reading lists for all of the local schools. The fiction and nonfiction are curated flawlessly. You can get a tea towel with T.S. Eliot quotes here. And if you’ve got someone back home whose souvenir tastes run into dadlike territory, there’s a rack of the only non-cringeworthy Nashville-branded souvenirs I’ve ever seen. Hang out here for a bit. Remember why you love to read. It always reminds me.
Nashville Farmers’ Market
900 Rosa L Parks Blvd, Nashville, TN 37208
Hop back in the car and head to the Nashville Farmers’ Market. Heaps of beautiful produce, eggs, and locally produced meat await you. Browse the market stalls, pick up some tomatoes or peppers if you’re so inclined, and then head into the main building. You’ll be tempted to eat at one of the excellent food stalls—don’t. We’re having lunch later.
If you’re so inclined, have a pint at the Picnic Tap first. The staff will walk you through the menu of local brews. Don’t get mad when your pint is served in a Mason jar. They are a fact of hipster life, and we have to accept them. If you’re in the mood for a different kind of treat, go next door to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. As a college kid in Columbus, Ohio, I watched as Jeni and her indeed splendid ice creams took over the town. A few years ago she expanded to Nashville. My favorite is one of her old standbys, the salted caramel, but ask at the counter for a taste of what’s new and seasonal.
A friend introduced me to the aptly named International Market on a trip a few years ago. Pop in here to load up on Indian snacks and get your Topo Chico fix. Don’t forget to grab a few bars of fragrant Mysore Sandal soap. (Those aren’t souvenirs; those are for you.)
Across from the International Market, you’ll find Batch Nashville, which specializes in—say it with me—local artisanal products. The thing is, you can roll your eyes at the hipstery stuff and how expensive it is, but some of it—like the Bourbon Nib Brittle from hometown chocolatier Olive and Sinclair—is not to be missed. Skip the $25 bath products (you just bought soap for two bucks across the way!), and slip out the side door to spend a few minutes at Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park.
Walk off your ice cream or beer with a stroll through the calm green space in the middle of the hectic city. Check out the large amphitheater. Learn some Tennessee history as you walk along the wall that faces the Market—quotes and facts that span hundreds of years have been etched into the rock that forms the wall.
1115 Porter Rd.
Nashville, TN 37206
Hungry? Good. We’re on our way to literal new kid on the block Cafe Roze. Full disclosure: It would be irresponsible of me to allow you to leave Nashville without experiencing the magic of a meat and three. Lunch is the perfect time to go to one. But today it’s summer, I want something a little lighter, and a friend just tipped me off about a great new place, so to Cafe Roze we go.
Find it by the pink neon sign in the window. Inside the decor is simple, every table is full, and, yeah, you could be in Brooklyn or Austin. As it turns out, the food here is really, really good. In a city where it can be hard to find a light meal, Cafe Roze offers a lot of options. Grab the farro salad—baby beets, frisee, and green beans get tossed with perfectly cooked farro and slicked with an incredibly savory miso ranch. Definitely do not miss the cold borscht, which has a fantastic balance of flavors, is a balm on a hot Nashville summer day, and is just so damn pretty.
116 5th Ave N
Nashville, TN 37219
Now it’s time to brave downtown, so pop back into your car. You’re headed to the Ryman Auditorium. I know it’s touristy, but if you can get over that, it’s actually pretty freaking cool. Take the self-guided tour, which starts with a video presentation about the history of the building and the Grand Ole Opry (it’s way more fun than it sounds like it would be). After the video, head into the auditorium itself. Along the way, there are cases full of Ryman history, videos of past performers, and pretty much every other museum-y thing you would expect. Stop, though, and take in some of the historic costumes created by Nudie Cohn, tailor to country-music royalty. When you picture country-music-star outfits in your head, you’re probably imagining what came to be called, affectionately, “Nudies suits.” Take a picture. Don’t forget to take an awkward Instagram photo of the stained-glass windows.
After you’re done being blinded by the rhinestone-heavy history of the auditorium and its storied performers, take a few minutes to sit in one of the iconic pews. If no one disturbs you, you can almost feel the weight of country music’s greats lingering in the air.
Manuel American Designs
Nashville, TN 37203
Take a walk down the street to Broadway. You’re looking for a shop called Manuel American Designs. Remember the Nudie suits you saw in the Ryman? Manuel Cuevas hails from Mexico originally, and he worked with Cohn in California as a tailor and designer before breaking out on his own. When you walk into the shop, you’ll likely be greeted by a member of the artist’s family. Cuevas himself is likely to be working in the store as well. Feel free to gawk: This is serious craftsmanship. Everything in the store is one of a kind. Cuevas has been dressing oh, you know, people like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Elvis, and the Rolling Stones for years. Lately it’s been Lady Gaga and Ke$ha. Ask to see the jackets in the back of the store; Cuevas has designed one for every state in the United States, and if the sight of all that glitz, craftsmanship, and bling doesn’t make you feel patriotic, then I don’t know what the hell will. Note: Everything here is wonderful. Everything here is handmade. Everything here is expensive. But if you want to drop some serious cash, I suggest you do it here.
1222 4th Ave N
Nashville, TN 37208
Have an early dinner—you deserve it after a long day. Plus, if you show up early, you’re more likely to get a seat at the bar at City House, chef Tandy Wilson’s excellent eatery, built in a restored home. Apart from being a great chef, Wilson is one of the nicest people in the entire world. No, really. It travels down the chain of command to his staff, who are knowledgeable, efficient, and friendly. Have a low-ABV cocktail like the Bandit, a refreshing mix of Averna, grapefruit juice, lime, and ginger ale. The menu changes seasonally—this is one of those “new Southern” restaurants people make a bunch of noise about, but it’s worth the noise and more. On my recent summer visit, I had sour-corn grits with corn butter, peppers, and I don’t know what other magic, but you can’t go wrong on the menu—and, yes, the pizza is that good.
Robert's Western World
416 Broadway B
Nashville, TN 37203
Head back down to Broadway. You have to. You may not want to, you may roll your eyes, but every time I do that (and I always do that), I end up on Broadway at Robert’s Western World anyway. So just go with it.
There are hordes of tourists. There are bachelorette parties, bachelor parties—this is Nashvegas. The recent explosion of tourism and development has left behind a few stalwart establishments, and Robert’s is one of them. Have a beer in a long-neck bottle, dance to some live music, enjoy the neon and the kids in new cowboy boots and then get the heck out of there! Broadway is always crowded, but late at night it’s on a whole different level. Think Times Square busy. We’re going down to Robert’s early to avoid some of the more, er, colorful escapades that often occur when you combine mass amounts of alcohol and people who aren’t in their own hometown.
921 Woodland St.
Nashville, TN 37206
Make your way to Edgefield. This is the polar opposite of what you just left on Broadway. Edgefield is a smoky (yes, you can smoke in here) neighborhood bar that’s a great place to post up for a pitcher of beer and a game of darts. It’s an old-fashioned bar where it just feels right to have one too many shot-and-a-beer combos. Pick out some tunes on the jukebox, settle into one of the seats at the bar, and get to drinkin’.
71 Hermitage Ave.
Nashville, TN 37210
(or maybe earlier or later, depending on how your night is going)
Grab a taxi (you probably shouldn’t drive anymore) to the Hermitage Cafe. This is one of my favorite places in the city. Open all through the night until lunch the next day, the cafe then closes from lunch until 10 p.m. I think it is the restaurant equivalent of my soul mate. The food here is cheap, bountiful, and I have been known, on occasion, to actually order everything on the menu, which is full of Southern diner classics. College me and adult me agree: This is our favorite chicken-fried steak spot. (Sorry about that weird third-person thing that just happened.) If you’ve had too much to drink or you’re simply hungry in the middle of the night in Nashville, skip the Waffle House and head to the Hermitage.
There are a zillion places, museums, shops, and restaurants in Nashville. It’s impossible to do it all in one day, and with change a constant factor in the Nashville of today, it’s probably just downright impossible. The places we went today are, of course, only suggestions. Spend some time in the city and I’m sure you’ll find your own favorites, too.