Broadway at sundown. No, not that Broadway – I mean the one screaming through the centre of downtown Nashville, Tennessee.
I’m standing on the second-floor balcony of the bombastic, three-level Honky Tonk Central bar on Broadway. The sky is turning increasingly inky, with neon signs in Quality Street colours of pink, yellow, blue, and buildings in birthday-cake colours of purple, red and orange. If it sounds peaceful – well, it’s not. This strip of downtown Nashville is thronged with honky-tonk bars, dive bars, hot-chicken joints... and quite a lot of stag dos bumping buckets of Corona beers at each other. And the NOISE. Earbud-ruining music is inching out of the corner of every bar. Some live, some not, all of it electric. Add to that the stratospheric hum of a city that knows it’s on the up.
Turns out this is exactly why you come to Nashville: the noise.
The only American city anyone had time for last year – sorry, Charleston, New York and San Francisco! – was Music City. And that noise isn’t about to die down anytime soon. Almost 16 million people visited Nashville in 2019, a 7 per cent spike year-on-year. More hotel openings are slated for 2020, including the party-friendly W brand, following a bumper year that saw a new Moxy make its debut and boutique property The Russell open in a historic church. Nashville simply can’t build them quickly enough.
In fact, Tennessee’s capital proved so popular with UK visitors that British Airways, which launched direct flights in 2018, upped its schedule to five times a week. Anecdotally, this city is seriously hot property, judging by the number of NYC-based friends that have upped sticks and moved down to the sweltering south (the things: it’s cheaper, better weather, more fun). And no, they didn’t move for the country music or the bourbon – or at least not at first.
I’ve always had a thing for second cities, and I wanted to see what all the fuss about America’s… 24th biggest city was about.
Which is why I’m starting with brunch, a Nashville institution. I’m staying downtown, so a local friend recommended Union 417 – a rustic southern diner, complete with cutesy welcome mats, frilly lace curtains and supersized plates of chicken and waffles drizzled in maple syrup and Louisiana hot sauce so thick you can cut it with a knife. Everything is large here, from the huge mug of coffee and the homemade iced lemonade that I need as a chaser (in Tennessee, it’s always hot) to the queue snaking out the door.
Perhaps it doesn’t help that I’m here over the 4 July weekend, which has amplified the sound levels of this swaggering city to deafening proportions. The city has rigged up a stage (naturally) at the bottleneck of Broadway, given over to a succession of both local and national country-music talent, and there’s fireworks over the Cumberland River later. The crowd goes wild for Brett Eldredge, a sort of mopey, up-tempo country-music singer, while Nashville’s movers, shakers and visitors strain on the roof of Broadway’s lilac-coloured Tootsies Orchid Lounge to bounce along with him. Naturally I have no idea who he is – but Nashville doesn’t care that much.
Rather, I’m going to bounce between the bars on Broadway, spending far too much time lingering at the bar of Robert’s Western World – the most authentic honky tonk on Broadway, I’m told, which explains the shelves loaded with rows of cowboy boots, road signs and studded belts – eating the in-house pastrami sandwiches, crisps and “moon pies”, and ordering bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. So far, so noisy. Thankfully the decibel levels fall a little later, on a visit to the Listening Room Cafe, an intimate space featuring Nashville’s best live musicians, where you can order wine and food to your table with absolutely no head-banging involved.
Once the 4 July hangover recedes, I’ve got a hit list of Nashville must-sees to work through: the Country Music Hall of Fame, which traces the history of country music from folk to the city’s most famous daughter, Taylor Swift; RCA Studio B, a well-preserved space on Music Row where Elvis recorded most of his hits over a dozen years, including “Are you Lonesome Tonight”; and the Ryman Auditorium, a 19th-century performance hall that hosted the Grand Ole Opry, a local country-music radio station that became a Nashville institution.
While country music is how Nashville’s tourism boom started, nowadays this second city is attracting tourists for the zingy neighbourhoods that fan out from its centre. Most guidebooks will tell you to avoid Broadway and downtown – too touristy, too many bachelorette parties, too loud – and head into neighbourhoods such as the fast gentrifying 12 South or the Gulch.
And so I spend a sweaty Tennessee morning mooching around 12 South, a 10-minute cab ride south of downtown. This low-rise, leafy district fans out from the spine of 12th Avenue, a street studded with brunch joints, posh one-off boutiques and coffee places. Brunch at Josephine – all exposed ducts and battered, oxblood Chesterfield banquettes – offers sinfully good plates of biscuits and a southern twist on the classic eggs benedict. Further down the road is an outpost of ever-popular coffee joint Frothy Monkey, and White’s Mercantile – an old petrol station turned time-warp mom’n’pop shop selling pretty dresses and fancy kitchen and bathroom implements.
Or there’s the Gulch, a 10-minute walk out of downtown, just south of the railway line, with a chic, glossy hotel (The Thompson) plus a solid-gold line-up of restaurants and bars: Milk and Honey for coffee; Biscuit Love Gulch for buzzy southern food; and Nashville’s best barbecue joint, Peg Leg Porker, for a proper porky blow-out. There’s also the superlative Frist Art Museum, in Nashville’s former US Post Office building, which, interestingly, has no permanent collection. Rather, it shows a rotating selection: a joint exhibition featuring Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo was showing when I visited.
Meanwhile, north of downtown is the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, which tumbles down from Nashville’s Greek Revival-style capitol building. It’s worth a quick wander – as is the adjacent Tennessee State Museum – but if you want to find the overheating hipsters and families, they’ll be crowding the Nashville Farmers’ Market, which combines bars, restaurants and, bizarrely, a garden centre. By this point you’re in Germantown, so make a pit stop for dinner at Geist, in a 118-year-old blacksmiths’ shop, for elegant European-style plates and cocktails such as the Geist Old Fashioned or the Pink 75.
I saved the most Nashville “thing” for last: hot chicken. Depending on who you talk to, the place to eat it is either Hattie B’s or Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. I plumped for convenience. While the original and best Prince’s is found in its east Nashville outpost, the restaurant is so lusted-after that the queues reach almost mythical levels. Handily, there’s a Prince’s truck inside the Yee Haw brewery in SoBro (South of Broadway), which at the weekends turns into a sort of all-day-rave turned kids’ playground. And so my last Nashville experience is eating Prince’s signature fried chicken, doused in XXL sauce (you can pick the number of Xs), served classically on a slice of bread with a couple of gherkins, in what is essentially a done-up car park. My insides soon turn to fire. And if that isn’t a noisy end to a Nashville weekend, I don’t know what is.
British Airways flies from London Heathrow to Nashville daily from £412 return. From New York, airlines including Delta, American Airlines, Spirit and Southwest fly to Nashville.
Rooms at the Westin Nashville, in the heart of downtown, start from $247 (£192) a night, room only.
Rooms at the Omni Nashville, which is right next to the Country Music Hall of Fame, start from $299 a night.