“I want to move to Nashville!” We had barely cleared the threshold of bustling Merchant’s front door when my friend proclaimed her love for my city.
“But you just met! You’ve only known each other for a few hours. Shouldn’t y’all get to know each other a little better before jumping the gun?”
I didn’t say that. But I mulled over these thoughts as we made our way to the table, our heads involuntarily bobbing to Jack White’s beats as we absorbed all the HAPPY in the air.
When my friend from the Pacific Northwest told me she booked her flight to come visit us in Nashville, which would be her first, I started scrambling to put together an epic weekend itinerary that would convert even the most stalwart West Coaster into a Music City lover.
Entertaining visitors can open your mind to all sorts of ideas about your hometown, allowing you the chance to experience it through a fresh, exciting new lens. It always reinvigorates me when I can selectively tailor weekend plans that will highlight the city’s great culture, creativity and heritage. Since, in many ways, this process mirrors planning a vacation somewhere new (searching for experiences that are very unique to that place, for example), it’s like taking a staycation. (Not a huge fan of that word, but it serves a purpose). You’re not allowed a lazy TV day when you have a visitor (well… not usually).
If you ever start to feel like things at home are getting stale, before you break up, invite a friend who’s never visited and play tour guide for a weekend. It will definitely spice things up in your relationship. Not that I was even entertaining the thought of dumping Nashville. I’m pretty good at showing the town respect and appreciation. But I think everyone can get caught up in the daily grind and forget to partake in local culture and adventure. It’s there. I promise. Even if you live in Podunk, Iowa (I was going to say Mississippi, but I thought we’d give the south a break for a bit), there are unique treasures to be found and explored! It’s a mindset thing ;-).
But back to Nashville
It’s always tough for me to narrow down the “must-see” list when someone has +/- 48 hours here. There’s SO much to do! But there are a few staples I try to always include (dependent on the person’s personality and preferences), like The Country Music Hall of Fame Museum, a visit to historic downtown Franklin (and of course my favorite institution and sugar haven, Merridee’s Breadbasket Bakery), a drive through Belle Meade, a jaunt over to hip East Nashville, a few epic dining experiences at one of Nashville’s many top-eateries, and of course a night of honky-tonking on Broadway (aka “The Strip”).
Inevitably, negative thoughts start to emerge: What if I don’t choose wisely? This is someone else’s vacation that they have invested in (as well as wanting to spend time with me as a friend, of course). What if I disappoint them in my choices for their visit?
But that’s the thing about Nashville. You can’t really go wrong with anything that you do. So here’s what we did… (and I would say that it’s a recipe for a pretty perfect Nashville weekend):
Thursday: Arrival – Welcome to Nashville!
I scooped my friend up from the airport and we headed through heavy, rush-hour traffic to the house to get freshened up for a night on the town. Most first time visitors get the initiation Honky Tonk experience. I always throw it out there as an option and then gauge how I think they would enjoy experience. Most of my friends aren’t country music fans. Shoot, I’m not one either. But the Honky Tonk experience stands out for me as one that is quintessentially Nashville, not so much about “country music” as it is about “live music” – and that “Hey! How y’all doing?” demeanor that Music City bestows on all its visitors. It’s just a good way to introduce her, and set the tone for the weekend ahead.
So, she said “Yes!” Broadway it was!
We’d have our pick of fantastic restaurants to start the night out downtown; a few of my favorites are near Broadway. But I opted for one that I’d never tried instead. I don’t know why I never think to go to Merchant’s, which is actually located on Broadway and right next to all of the Honky Tonks we had our sites set on. I took the risk of bringing her somewhere I hadn’t personally vetted, and the experiences didn’t disappoint.
I was gunning for atmosphere, and Merchant’s was winning at that. The food was — well, OK. Nashville has some ah-mazing food options, so the bar is set pretty high there. We ordered the very Nashville fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese (you’ll see that on most Nashville menus: pimento cheese) and a southern fried platter of pickles, oysters, fish and okra. A south Louisiana native, I’m naturally a tad picky when it comes to fried seafood. Fair. The vibe was perfect, though, and my guest – happy. That was the kicker.
After dinner, we started hitting HTs (honky tonks). Conveniently, no cover charge allows you to pop in and out of the bars, allowing you to sample the bands in each to decide where you’d like to spend more time. We kept our IDs accessible and literally “hopped” in and out of each one until we found the perfect HT to settle in for a Pabst Blue Ribbon (just kidding. I don’t drink that stuff).
It was, unsurprisingly (and one of my favorites), Robert’s Western World. One of the more “authentic” HTs, Robert’s is where all the greats used to hang. Boots line the walls inside. Little old men dance the two-step with their ladies. Locals and tourists mingle and mix. The Sarah Gayle Meech band had the stage (ironically, Sarah hails from Washington, like my visitor!) with special guest- and one of my favorite performers- fiddler Ranae Truex.
Friday: 12th South and Hall of Fame
The toss-up, when streamlining the perfect Nashville itinerary, comes when deciding 1) where to eat 2) what neighborhood to hang out in and 3) what to do in that neighborhood (eat, drink, shop..) Too – too – too many options. Good problem to have, if you live here.
I tend to be more of a food-focused person, so that’s my natural inclination. I usually take visitors to 12th South, one of my favorite walkable neighborhoods, for good grub, fun shopping, and everyone loves to have their “picture made” (as my grandmother would say) in front of the Nashville sign.
The newer Bartaco is a really fun place with delicious creative tacos (the pork belly is my personal fave). They’re really chill and baby-friendly in there, which makes a huge difference when you have a toddler in tow!
After lunch, we stopped in for an obligatory cupcake at Sprinkles (a very happy alternative would have been the locally owned Five Daughters Bakery).
Then it was off to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Normally, I’d accompany my guest on a tour of this thoroughly entertaining and musically awe-inspiring museum (I’ve been a half-dozen times, easily), but it was nap time. So we did a drop off.
It was a total hit. I think my friend’s exact words were “I literally feel like I’ve died and gone to music heaven!” and “It’s unreal how cool it is.” Tour guide SCORE!
Saturday: Scenic Driving, Old Franklin, Good Food
Although my idea of starting our day with phenomenal pastries at Merridee’s for breakfast was pretty much the best idea in.the.world, baby naps often usurp planned activities. I have to remain pretty pliable with schedule expectations. Shifting things around a bit (no problem), we drove around the mansions of Belle Meade and through Percy Warner Park and then made our way south to Franklin.
After the babe had a good 1.5 hours in the car to nap, she woke up right on cue to hit Merridee’s for lunch (and breakfast + dessert – because, you just have to). Their reuben sandwich is my all-time favorite. So that, a chicken pot-pie, key lime pie (also my favorite- ever, other than my mom’s homemade), and an old fashioned cinnamon roll (to die for) appeared magically on our table – and in to our happy bellies. Their pecan pie bars are also sinful, fyi.
Then, strolling down quaint Main Street in Franklin, we hit some boutiques, antiques, and spice shops. I was mostly chasing a toddler, but my friend got to do a little shopping.
Since it’s the season, and I have a kid, we stopped by Phillip’s Toy Mart (an old Nashville establishment) on the way home to see the bunnies (they have them every year, the weeks leading up to Easter). This is definitely not a normal spot on my average itinerary, but it’s fun to keep some time open for those little seasonal things.
And then it was dinner time….
East Nashville is, well, east of the Cumberland River. It has a certain connotation with Nashvillians that, depending on who you ask, manifests in different ways. Some consider it “up and coming” or think of it as too dangerous or too “far” to visit. I would say that for many, it represents a fun, progressive, hip part of town offering a refreshing break from more traditional West Nashville, where families have raised their children for generations. If you talk to people who live in East Nashville, they may have things to say about West Nashville being too far, too boring or too- whatever. I don’t know. It’s hard to say one way or the other. I love it. “East Nasty” harnesses a strong and proud community vibe that is equal parts creative and grounding. There’s a certain grittiness, or perhaps edginess to it on the surface, but once you are emerged in the neighborhoods and their families, it’s very warm + friendly. I feel like I’m speaking in huge generalizations. But hopefully, you get my drift. (And hopefully I’m not offending anyone in East OR West Nashville! Ha!)
When we arrived at the walk-in only Two Ten Jack, they informed us of the 2 hour wait. Record screech. OK, we’re going to go have a drink down the road at Holland House. Text us when our table is ready. Check.
My plan was for us to have a nightcap after dinner at the “speak-easy”-ish Holland House, but that was quickly reversed when presented with the wait. We enjoyed the warm-sophisticate atmosphere and gourmet cocktails while catching up on life, sharing philosophies and aspirations- and giggles, and waiting out that damn 2 hour (!!) text.
After about an hour, we got our text and headed over to the izakaya and ramen house to slurp down some pork ramen and small plates like Japanese fried chicken and miso crispy brussels sprouts.
It was up early the next morning before heading out to the airport, but all in all – we had a great, well-balanced, very Nashville weekend.
I always have regrets later. Oh I should have taken her to… but I can’t second guess myself. A good time was had by all. My guest. Me. AND my bambino! And more than anything – – – my friend fell in love with Nashville. That was the goal! To present the city’s culture in such a way that you have so much fun – and no choice but to fall in love!!
Have you been to Music City? What are your favorite things to do here?