In the last five years, Tennessee’s capital has exploded. Tourists and business travelers from across the country are invading Music City in masses, turning a town that once revolved around country music into a cultural hub that even jaded New Yorkers are hooked on.
This influx in visitors (13.5 million in 2015) is driving unprecedented growth across the city. According to the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation (CVC), there were nearly 1,500 new hotel rooms in the pipeline between March 2016 to May 2017 and more than 100 restaurants opening each year -- pushing everything from pizza to seafood.
With luxury hotels cropping up quickly, and the craft cocktail movement elevating the drinking culture, costs across the board are on the rise -- so it's more important than ever to plan your trip wisely. Whether you're after the tourist-centric downtown district or something a little more off-the-beaten path, here's everything you need to know to plan a smart trip to Nashville, Tennessee.
The Perfect Time to Visit
Late September-October and April-May
In summer, Nashville is busy and sticky -- with throngs of tourists (especially in June around the CMA festival) and hot, humid days nearing 100 degrees. The best time to go is between March and May or between October and November, when you’ll experience warm, sunny days -- with highs in the 70s and 80s -- and cool nights, ranging from the high 40s to the low 60s. Bring a light jacket for evenings, and prepare for rain, which is common yearound.
The Cheapest Option
The quietest and cheapest time to visit Nashville is in the winter. It can get cold -- with lows in January dipping to 30 degrees -- but during the day, highs around 50 degrees or even 60 (in March) make sightseeing manageable. Snow is infrequent, though not unheard of, but light if it does occur.
Nashville isn’t much of a walking city and its main attraction -- live music -- is mostly an indoor activity. Also, December is charming with Christmas decorations at the Opryland Hotel and the Belle Meade Plantation.
The Smart Place to Stay
Kimpton Aertson Hotel
Six years in the making, the new Kimpton Aertson opened in midtown this summer. It is centrally located -- within walking distance of Vanderbilt, the Gulch, and Music Row -- yet away from the bustle of downtown Broadway. The stylish interiors include herringbone tiled floors, exposed concrete ceilings, custom prints from Hatch Show Print, and a check-in desk made entirely of blue, hand-knotted rope (you just have to see it). Each of the 180 guest rooms and suites has large windows, a flat-screen TV, and a Jawbone bluetooth sound system; some have balconies and sitting areas. There are two events spaces: a ballroom with a wraparound outdoor terrace with 270-degree views out over downtown, and a 17th-floor rooftop.
The Aertson maintains Kimpton’s mission to weave its properties into their local environment. Built in conjunction with a luxury apartment building, the two share a pool deck, where locals and visitors can mingle over cocktails overlooking the leafy Vanderbilt campus. Come October, Henley -- the hotel's bar and restaurant, helmed by James Beard Award-winning chef RJ Cooper -- will be home to the city's first chef's table (it's already receiving buzz); and a partnership with the Nashville Songwriters Association International brings local musicians to the hotel for private performances. While we were there, we caught Little Big Town and Darius Rucker. We found rooms as low as $214 on a week night or $274 for a weekend from November through January. Rates go up in shoulder season, to around $314-$334 per night midweek, and up to the $400-$500 range in the summer high season.
21c Museum Hotel
The art-centric 21c’s new 124-room Nashville property opened in May near Printer’s Alley downtown. The historic building, which dates to the early 1900s, has large, arched windows and high ceilings that contribute to bright, airy guest rooms; and there are playful touches, like zebra-print curtains, and smart details like USB charging ports and outlets built into the couch or bedside table. Like all 21c hotels, the property also functions as a free museum, open 24/7 for guests. It has 10,500 square feet of contemporary art space, including a massive gallery on the basement level and interactive installations throughout the first floor (even the bathrooms provide an opportunity to engage in art). The restaurant Grey & Dudley -- named after the building's former tenant, a hardware store -- is getting a lot of buzz for its elevated take on Southern classics. The 21c is a short walk to the honky tonks on historic Broadway and to the state capitol building, and it's a longer walk or short drive to the hip restaurants in Germantown. The room rates don't fluctuate a ton. The lowest prices we found were in January, for $279 per night. That went up to $329 per night in April, and a high of $369 in the summer.
In May 2014, Lyon Porter and Jersey Banks created their dream home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They named their oasis the Urban Cowboy and started inviting family, friends, and fellow creatives to stay and unplug. Just over a year ago, they opened the Cowboy's first and only outpost in Nashville. The eight-room, East Nashville Victorian home (c. 1910) and its backyard bar, the Public House (which is, fittingly, open to the public), have become a fixture in the city's art scene. The striking reclaimed-wood wall art in the lobby and sitting room, by Nashville design company 1767, is a favorite among photographers, as are the suites -- each of which has its own unique theme. The Watchtower, for instance, located in the corner domed turret, has an antique copper-leafed clawfoot tub, pitched 14-foot ceilings, and hand-painted Southwestern-inspired wallpaper by Clinton Van Gemert of Printsburgh -- who also did custom wallpaper throughout the property. The Urban Cowboy is not for every traveler: while every room has a clawfoot tub, not one has a TV; and there are no facilities (e.g. gym or pool) on site, though in-room spa services can be arranged. But those who are looking for place to unplug and, perhaps, reignite their creative spirit, this East Nashville retreat is one of a kind. Suites start at $195 per night in low season and go up to $250 per night during busier times of the year. The Cabin, a freestanding four-person suite in the back of the property with its own entrance, is $500 per night. The Cowboy offers 50 percent off for locals looking for a staycation Monday through Wednesday.
What to Do
Stroll Broadway, the infamous honky tonk strip, where live music spills through every doorway. Though most of the bars are touristy, Robert’s Western World maintains an authentic feel.
For live music off the strip, check the schedules for the famous Ryman Auditorium and Grand Ole Opry, or stop in at the Station Inn for some of the best bluegrass around. Check out our list of venues for music-lovers that don't love country.
Open for nearly 50 years, Gruhn Guitars is home to one of the world's most extensive collections of vintage, used, and new fretted instruments, including many owned by famous musicians. All employees are certified guitar geeks, who restore the instruments by hand and even make their own glue.
After a $100 million expansion in 2014, the Country Music Hall of Fame (kids $15, adults $25) has doubled in size and houses the world’s largest collection of country music artifacts. Snap a photo in front of the wall of gold records.
Visit the Parthenon ($4 for kids, $6 for adults), a full-scale replica of the Athens monument, at the center of Nashville’s Centennial Park.
Watch the sunset over the city from Love Circle, a scenic lookout in Hillsboro/West End.
Take a tour of the infamous RCA Studio B, where Elvis recorded more than 200 hits.
Tour the Hatch Show Print workshop. This letterpress print shop has been in continuous operation since 1879; today, it designs and prints 500 to 600 unique posters per year, using almost entirely antique wooden typefaces.
On a hot afternoon, there's nothing more refreshing than the Mellow Yellow cocktail at Henley, the new bar at the Kimpton. Made with tequila and yellow bell pepper, it is the perfect precursor to RJ Cooper's stunning cuisine. We recommend the short rib with oyster mushrooms, which was like cutting through butter, and a side of heirloom grits with chicken-fried chanterelles.
Other buzzy food-and-drink spots to visit: Husk (make a reservation in advance), where James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock focuses on local, heirloom grains, and vegetables. Standouts include the fried catfish and the burger -- regarded as one of the best in town. Marsh House at the new Thompson Hotel -- home to another James Beard Award-winning chef, John Besh -- serves upscale Southern fare with an emphasis on seafood. And the hotel's pastry chef Lisa Marie White is making arguably the best biscuits and donuts in town. In the evening, head up to the sceney rooftop bar L.A. Jackson -- the first of its kind in Nashville -- for pitchers of cocktails.
While there’s been a lot of fuss over Nashville’s new restaurants, don’t leave town without sampling the staples: the whole hog dinner at Martin’s Bar-B-Que; proper Southern fried chicken at Monell’s; and the meat-and-three at Arnold’s Country Kitchen.
A trip to Nashville isn’t complete without hot chicken (chicken fried in a cayenne-spiced batter). Hattie B’s has inspired fanfare among visitors, while locals swear by Prince’s (regarded as the creator and perfecter of Nashville-style hot chicken) and Bolton’s. You be the judge.
Go shopping and see some of the city’s best street art in the 12 South neighborhood.
Culture-hounds should cross the Cumberland River to East Nashville, where new restaurants, shops, and bars abound. Shop at The Idea Hatchery, an enclave incubator-esque shops; and at Fond Object record store and art collective, catch an in-store performance in the winter or an outdoor movie in the summer. Don’t leave before getting a cocktail and a bite (we recommend the squash with fresh herbs and homemade yogurt) at the Urban Cowboy Public House -- the vibe is more like you're in a friend's backyard than at a hotel.
Fashionistas looking to snag a great deal on designer apparel should stop by UAL (United Apparel Liquidators) in Hillsboro.
Head to Biscuit Love’s new location in the Gulch for an order of bonuts -- a cross between a biscuit and a donut. Arrive early, unless you want to wait in line for an hour.
Winter is a great time to visit a museum. Check out the Johnny Cash Museum dedicated to the illustrious singer (kids $15, adults $25), and interactive exhibits at the Adventure Science Center (kids $15, adults $25) will capture the imagination of kids and kids at heart.
Nashville is a drinking town -- evidenced by its abundance of bars, as well as its distilleries and breweries. The most historic, Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, was founded in 1860, revived in 2009, and has an exquisite fleet of Bourbons. Tennessee Brew Works touts its low-waste, efficient brewing technique and serves a menu that will nip your drunk-munchies in the bud.
Tips to Save Even More
Unless you’re set on visiting for a specific event, plan your trip around major concerts and Vanderbilt University events. Flights and hotels are more expensive during large country big name acts and popular Vanderbilt football games and family weekends.
Nashville is a driving city, but the new bike share program is changing that. With 36 stations across town, you can explore for $5 per (24-hour) day or $10 for a 7-day pass.
Not only is there a lot of good music in Nashville, and a lot of it's free. Check local sites for nightly performances in bars and restaurants, and even at vineyards.
In the summer, the Nashville Shakespeare Festival offers free performances (a suggested $10 donation) in Centennial Park Thursday through Sunday and Labor Day Monday.
Nashville is quickly becoming revered for its art -- much of which can be seen for free. The Arts Company houses contemporary photography, painting, and sculpture; the galleries at Fisk and Vanderbilt universities always have high-quality free exhibitions; and on the first Saturday of the month, join the First Saturday Art Crawl, when galleries open their doors from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and serve wine and hors d'oeuvres.
For bargain finds, the Nashville Flea Market, one of the top flea markets in the country, is held fourth weekend of every month.
Nashville is also home to several free museums. Among them, the Tennessee State Capitol and Museum -- one of the oldest-operating capitol buildings in the country -- and its Military Museum, as well as the campy Cooter's Place Museum and Store, dedicated to Dukes of Hazzard memorabilia.
For more money-saving tips in Nashville, check out Nashville on a Budget.