You don’t need the bank account of a country music star to have a great time in Nashville. The Music City has plenty to do that’s free (or nearly free), including a night out in the famed honky tonks.
But that’s not the only way you can save big. Some of Nashville's most popular local dishes -- hot chicken, barbecue, and the beloved “meat and three” -- are also some of the least expensive. Plus, with nearly a dozen new hotels opening within the next year, you might be able to score a great deal on accommodations, too. Here's what to do, where to eat, and where to stay in Nashville.
What to do
Although a tip jar may be passed around from time to time, there’s usually no cover charge at the honky tonk bars along Broadway in downtown Nashville (a.k.a. Honky Tonk Highway), where you’ll find two of the city’s most popular venues: Robert’s Western World and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. If they’re too crowded, download the free Nashville Live Music Guide App that directs you to live local music of all genres, from bluegrass to rock ‘n’ roll.
Between acts, tour the Parthenon, a full-scale reproduction of the famous Greek temple, which houses the world’s largest indoor sculpture and the city’s fine arts museum ($6). After, drop by nearby LeQuire Gallery & Studio, where you’ll often find Alan LeQuire, the man who created the Parthenon’s mammoth Athena, at work on his latest sculpture (free).
History buffs won’t want to miss the Tennessee State Museum, Military Museum, and State Capitol tour, all of which are free. If you’re more into pop culture, check out Cooter’s Place, a free museum and store run by Ben Jones, the actor who played Cooter on “The Dukes of Hazzard.” The TV show’s props, costumes, and cars, including Rosco’s patrol car and a General Lee, are on display.
Visits to some of Nashville’s top attractions can add up quickly. Admission will set you back $24.95 at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, $24 at the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum, $20 at Belle Meade Plantation, and $17 at the Johnny Cash Museum. If you plan to visit several, the Music City Total Access Pass is worth the $75 investment for your choice of four of 23 attractions plus free admission to the Parthenon and a 25-percent discount on the Hop On/Off Trolley Tour.
Where to eat
Don't leave Nashville before trying hot chicken, barbecue, and “meat and three."
Start with hot chicken, which adds several tablespoons of cayenne and a mix of spices to traditional Southern fried chicken. Legend has it that some 70 years ago, when Thornton Prince returned home after an entire night out, his lady friend tried to get revenge by spicing up his friend chicken. To her dismay, he loved it, and Prince’s Fried Chicken was born. In recent years, several other outlets, such as Hattie B’s, have followed suit. Typically, you can get two pieces of chicken with two sides for $10.
You can’t go wrong with Nashville barbecue. Jack’s Bar-B-Que is a must if you’re on Broadway. Wedged between the honky tonks, Jack’s serves pork shoulder, turkey, brisket, sausage, and St. Louis ribs (from $4.99). At nearby Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint’s new downtown location, pit masters smoke whole hogs and make sides and sauces fresh daily (from $6).
A trip to Nashville wouldn’t be complete without sampling the “meat and three,” a cafeteria-style restaurant where you choose a meat and three sides. Considered the best in Nashville, Arnold’s Country Kitchen offers a rotating menu of meats, ranging from fried chicken and roast beef to chicken livers and blackened trout ($9.74). Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant is another local favorite ($9.99).
Where to stay
Accommodations can take a bite out of your budget, especially if you choose to stay downtown. Expect to pay $225 per night to stay at a hotel within walking distance of the major attractions. Cheaper options can be had further out, but what you save on the hotel may add up when parking downtown. (Plan to spend up to $25 for parking per day.)
Some properties, like the Hotel Preston ($140 per night) and Millennium Maxwell House ($138 per night), have free shuttle service, but with limited ranges. (Hotel Preston is nearly six miles from the downtown area, but its shuttle is limited to a two-mile radius.) These may work as long as you're willing to rely on Uber when you head downtown.
Or, you can stay at a hotel near one of the Hop On/Off Trolley Tour stops, such as Hampton Inn & Suites Vanderbilt ($184 per night). Tickets for the trolley are $28 per person for two days (buy one day, get one free) and, as the name suggests, they allow you to hop on and off at any of the stops on the loop, including those near the Country Music Hall of Fame, Ryman Auditorium, and the Parthenon.
Fortunately, a slew of new hotels, including one from the Kimpton brand and one from Sir Richard Branson’s line of Virgin Hotels, are scheduled to open in the next year. The new hotels may create competition and result in lower room rates and promotions.