Tennessee’s capital, like its nickname Nashvegas, is a neon hodgepodge of classic American tropes. It’s a country song steeped in whiskey and sputtering like an old Chevy, a bachelorette party tottering between honky-tonks. But these days, even Nashville’s main drag, Broadway—once a haven of peep shows and all-night Willie Nelson jam sessions (like, literally with Willie Nelson)—is getting remastered. Some honky-tonks, like Tootsie’s, are still legitimately gritty. Others, such as nearby Acme Feed & Seed, are rehabbed with branded merch and gift shops. Meanwhile, the city's population is exploding: last year, 83 people moved here every day. And the chic tourists packing new luxury hotels like East Nashville’s tony, Travel & Leisure–approved Van Dyke Bed and Beverage? Unlike a sad Hank Williams song, these out-of-towners are far from down on their luck.
For Portlanders, this storied city is just one four-hour flight away. Yes, new Nashville has glitz. But you’ll still find those boot-strapping singer-songwriters—scribbling verses on dive bar napkins—who put this city on the map.
For a shot of Old Nashville, Robert’s Western World—Nashville’s best honky-tonk eight years running in the Nashville Scene—is packed with neon, is plastered in photos of legends like Wanda Jackson and Dolly Parton, and also serves as a boot store. Order the Recession Special: a fried-bologna sandwich, chips, moon pie, and a PBR for $6.
For the sound of new, sneak off Broadway to the Sobro neighborhood’s Listening Room Café. This converted International Harvester showroom hosts songwriting showcases (where you can learn at the knees of the bards behind your favorite Tim McGraw and Carrie Underwood tunes) and local pints like Yazoo’s Pale Ale and a strawberry gose from Little Harpeth Brewing.
For a deep cut of history, try the free Tennessee State Museum. Dating to 1937, the newly expanded 137,000-square-foot space (steps from the year-round Nashville Farmers Market) offers stunning exhibits about the area’s original inhabitants, unflinching takes on legacies of racism and the Trail of Tears, and, through February 2020, the interactive exhibit The State of Sound: Tennessee’s Musical Heritage, featuring rare recordings of early jazz classics like Lil Hardin’s “Brown Gal.”
EAT AND DRINK
Modeled after the Milan Galleria, Nashville’s Arcade is a circa-1902 pedestrian walkway housing 23 eateries and 18 art galleries. At J Gumbo’s, score piquant, crowd-pleasing “bumblebee” stew: corn, stewed tomatoes, and black beans spiked with a wedge of French bread. Three doors down, Katie’s Meat and Three offers a homey heave of fried catfish, no-frills mac and cheese, and a classic potato mash.
Nashville also does high class; witness Bastion, a 24-seat restaurant helmed by James Beard semifinalist Josh Habiger. Down a dark corridor and past a corrugated metal barn door, find a constantly changing à la carte menu fueled by Southern nostalgia and mischievous minimalism. (Think fall-off-the-bone riblets on a bed of herby peach slaw.) Bastion books out weeks in advance, but there’s a consolation prize: cheap tallboys at its Big Bar, and superlative nachos with saucy queso and cotija, pickled onions, and almost too much pulled pork.
One stop is mandatory, and that’s Prince’s Hot Chicken for cayenne-red wings, ideally from the chain’s Gulch neighborhood food truck outside Yee-Haw Brewing. This beautiful mess of moist fried chicken—dry-rubbed in chile pepper, buoyed by slab-like Texas toast, bulwarked by crinkle-cut fries—is hotter than Johnny Cash circa 1966. (Pro tip: a side of ranch extinguishes the fire in your mouth.)
The seven-year-old Nashville Downtown Hostel (suites from $175/night, nashvilledowntownhostel.com) is a far cry from the cacophonous hall of dorm beds from gap-year travels; rather, this converted 19th-century Kemker-Woolwine Candy Warehouse boasts studios, condos, and three industrial-chic suites with such amenities as exposed brick interiors, courtyard views, stainless-steel kitchenettes, and ample twin beds and couches.
If tiny beds won’t do the trick, consider Bode (rooms from $150/night, bode.co): sleek, renovated condominiums fronted by a courtyard with cornhole and fire pits, plus a modish lobby serving local ales like Hutton and Smith’s Belay On Blonde and lattes from Stay Golden Roasters. Despite the luxe touches, Bode is 100 percent Nashville, just blocks from Broadway and the Gulch and, for guests staying in, simply a slow dance from the courtyard’s blanket-cozied 1948 Ford F5 pickup. (The truck is available for moonlit guitar-plucking when not in use as a stage.)
Should modern Nashville start to feel like a country song gone haywire, recharge with a 100-minute trek southeast to Rock Island State Park, a cool retreat at the confluence of three rivers. This plein air playground of swimming holes and waterfalls is a back-pocket cure for humid days that hold on too long. If taking the longer way back to Music City, stop at the Old Stone Fort Archaeological Park, a site marking ceremonial grounds of tribes from the Middle Woodland Period (50 BC–400 AD). The preserve offers hiking trails, falls, and a surprisingly comprehensive museum. (It’s also home to the wreckage of a Civil War–era gunpowder mill.) Ruminate over history with lunch at Prater’s, where a smoky, authentically sloppy brisket sandwich calls for more napkins. Napkins call for scribbles. And that, friends, is how the music starts. Direct October round-trips from PDX to BNA start around $236 on Sun Country Airlines