Stroll Nashville: Music, Museums, Art
AAA Go Magazine
Set to a soundtrack of blues, rock and, yes, the country music that streams through the open doorways of the music joints that line South Broadway in the city’s hilly downtown, a stroll through Nashville’s museums, galleries and music-centric monuments makes it clear that the epicenter of country music is no one-hit wonder. Although there are plenty of sites outside of downtown, including the elegant 5,400-acre Belle Meade plantation, Cheekwood, the art-filled home of the family that brought Maxwell House coffee to fame; the Hermitage, which was president Andrew Jackson’s home and artsy Hillsboro Village, downtown offers varied diversions and historic lodging in a surprisingly walkable area.
The Hermitage Hotel
Start your trip, as we did, by checking into the AAA Five Diamond Hermitage Hotel. Situated across the street from the Greek-revival state capitol and just a short walk from some of Nashville’s must-see sights, the lavish hotel underwent a top-to-bottom renovation several years ago that restored its slightly worn façade to its original elegance. In the lobby, massive marble columns reach toward a soaring ceiling inlaid with stained-glass panels; rooms have classic dark-wood furnishings, plush beds made up with fluffy duvets and golden marble baths. Extras like afternoon cookies, morning muffins and, at turndown, even more cookies, are gracious and welcoming. Like any landmark hotel, the Hermitage comes with stories, too. Pool great Minnesota Fats, who lived here for eight years, played matches against anyone who’d go up against him on a pool table he had installed on the Mezzanine and Gene Autry’s famous horse Champion once clomped up the limestone stairs and into the lobby, following his owner as he checked into the hotel.
Located in a former post office, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts anchors the downtown arts scene, and rightly so: the art deco building, a work of art in itself, houses an ever-changing collection of art that ranges from Andy Warhol paintings to the treasures of ancient Egypt. Budding artists of all ages can channel their inner Monet—or Calder—at the Martin ArtQuest Gallery, where a variety of mediums are just waiting to be poured, cut, sloshed and brushed on their way to becoming works of art at 30 stations set around the gallery. For a peek into the city’s local art scene, though, head to arts district around Fifth and Union, where more than a dozen galleries have opened in recent years. Many are housed within the Arcade, a 1902 wrought-iron and glass structure that was Nashville’s first shopping center. While you’re there, follow your nose to The Peanut Shop, which has been roasting nuts on site since 1927 and was the original home of Mr. Peanut. You can also load up on Sugar Babies, Bit-o-Honeys, root beer barrels and other old-school candy.
Continuing two blocks further down 5th Avenue will take you to lower Broadway, home to Nashville’s world-famous honkytonks. Small, cramped and noisy, they’re also an incredibly fun way to take in great live music without having to buy a ticket or stick around if you don’t like what’s playing. And you never know who will pop in. Legends like Willie Nelson and Kenney Chesney have taken the tiny stage at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge while Gretchen Wilson, Miranda Lambert and Lee Greenwood have all played at The Stage.
Nashville isn’t just about listening to music; it’s about the tools used to make music, too. Open since 1970, Gruhn Guitars has one of the world’s largest collections of vintage mandolins, banjos, ukuleles and, of course, guitars owned by the likes of Johnny Cash, Dan Fogelberg and Chet Atkins. Although the main collection is on the ground floor, a trip to the higher levels of the 13,000-foot building will give guitar lovers a chance to peek at some of the more valuable instruments.
And performing. Built in 1890 as a venue for religious revivals and blessed with near-perfect acoustics, the Ryman Auditorium has hosted not only musical legends as diverse at Elvis Presley and Coldplay, but Helen Keller, Harry Houdini and Katherine Hepburn as well. It was the home of the Grand Ole Opry for 31 years. Even if you can’t get to a performance, take the backstage tour, which opens up the dressing rooms, secret hallways and legends of the famed theater. Shower-stall crooners with dreams of playing the Ryman take note: at the in-house recording studio you can cut your own CD.
You’ve heard the music, you’ve seen the guitars, now it’s time to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame. Country songs tell stories and the Country Music Hall of Fame shares the tale of one of America’s most original music forms through moving images, photographs and recordings. Thousands of artifacts, such as Elvis Presley’s gold-plated piano, one of Patsy Cline’s famous cocktail dresses—she was one of the first female country artists to break away from performing in traditional gingham and cowboy boots--and Merle Haggard’s 1972 pardon from then-governor Ronald Reagan, are highlights that will interest even non-country music aficionados, there are also 800 stage costumes, 600 instruments and a life-sized bronze statue of Minnie Pearl. One of the highlights of the museum is a visit to Studio B, Nashville’s oldest recording studio and home to hits like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely”, and 250 Elvis Presley hits.
If the weather’s pretty, take a detour east on the way back to the hotel to the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge, which stretches over the Cumberland River and offers terrific views of LP Stadium (home of the Tennessee Titans), Nashville’s skyline and, if you time it just right, gorgeous sunsets. Built in 1909, the bridge was closed to vehicular traffic in the late 1990’s and scheduled for demolition. The architectural significance of its unique concrete truss system saved it, and, after extensive renovations, including lighting, benches and a series of sculptures depicting the river’s wildlife, it reopened as a pedestrian bridge in 2003. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s been featured in music videos by Dolly Parton, Emerson Drive and Big & Rich.
Dinner options abound, for a worthy splurge, settle into the distinguished clubbiness of the Four Diamond Capitol Grille. Using sustainably-grown vegetables grown at nearby Glen Leven Farm, chef Tyler Brown has created a vibrant menu that’s alive with flavors of the season. Notable bites include a creamy, bacon-flecked onion bisque, grouper with butterbean chowchow and truffled macaroni and cheese. Stay for dessert—the Jack Daniels-laced brownie and ice-cream dessert is a gooey delight—or stop into the Oak Bar next door for a nightcap. Rumor has it that the old bar is haunted.
AAA MEMBER SAVINGS
The Hermitage Hotel offers AAA member discounts (usually 10%) off regular room rates.
PLANNING A VISIT
To plan your trip to Nashville, please visit the nearest AAA Travel Office or call 800-398-0379.
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