Nashville - Attractions
Downtown Nashville is a compact and pleasant place to wander. Towering office buildings and modern halls dominate but manage not to overwhelm the city's historic structures and streets (which are few but renovated and well maintained). At downtown's western end, the 1845 Greek Revival State Capitol remains the area's principal landmark. Architect William Strickland is buried in its northeast corner, and the tomb of President and Mrs James K Polk is outside on Capitol Hill. Steep stairs on its northern side lead down to a farmers market and the Tennessee Bicentennial Mall at downtown's back door.
Facing Charlotte Ave, the Capitol looks out over government buildings surrounding the Legislative Plaza, where cherry trees explode with white blossoms in early spring. The block-long Performing Arts Center downhill to the east houses the Tennessee State Museum. The underground museum spills out onto Union St, off which you'll find the city's elite banks and hotels, most notably the 1910 Hermitage Hotel, which was headquarters for both the advocates and opponents of women's suffrage on the eve of Tennessee's ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Union St leads east to 1st Ave N and the western end of Riverfront Park on the Cumberland River. The park runs between the bridges at Woodland St and Shelby Ave, providing a landscaped promenade thick with shade trees and busy with walkers and horse-drawn carriages. In the park, just south of Davis Blvd, a stockade surrounds Fort Nashborough, a 1930s replica of the city's original outpost. Across the river just north of Shelby Ave, construction continues on a new football stadium to house the relocating Houston Oilers.
The historic 2nd Ave N business area was the center of the cotton trade in the 1870s and '80s, when most of the Victorian warehouses were built (note the cast-iron and masonry facades). Today, it's the heart of what's called The District, where modern interiors are filled with shops, restaurants, underground saloons and nightclubs, including the Wildhorse Saloon of Nashville Network TV fame. Two blocks south on Commerce St, Printers Alley is a narrow cobblestone lane that has been known for its nightlife since the 1940s. The Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar anchors this notably non-countrified enclave of nightspots and restaurants.
A scenic, seedy cowboy ghetto along 'Lower Broad' between 4th and 5th Aves behind the Ryman Auditorium has country bars, adult bookstores and BBQ joints. Tootsie's Wild Orchid Lounge on the north side is the best known of the dives; snakeskin boots and chewing tobacco are available between musical acts next door at Robert's Western World, home of alternative country musicians BR5-49.
Music Row consists of two parts: the mogul's mecca along Music Square, where you'll find the platinum-studded offices of Nashville's production companies, agents, managers and promoters; and the tourist strip on Demonbreun St (pronounced di-MUN-bree-un) a few blocks block north.
Along the touristy stretch, the Country Music Wax Museum heads up a row of 'museums' and souvenir shops devoted to the likes of Hank Williams Jr and George Jones. Here you can record your own songs, sing karaoke or shell out for treasures like guitar-shaped flyswatters, Elvis cookbooks and playing cards with dated photos of big-haired country music stars.
Two block south, the lavish, devotional Country Music Hall of Fame provides a great introduction to Nashville and to the evolution of country music. It's chock-full of industry artefacts such as Garth Brooks' trademark hat, Gene Autry's string tie and the original handwritten lyrics to Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys. The pièce de resistance is the custom Cadillac owned by Elvis Presley, with a convertible cover that lifts up at the press of a button to reveal a gold-plated interior. The museum's focuses on Hank Williams Jr's room, beautiful Gibson guitars, and vintage film clips and recordings.
As Sun Studios in Memphis is to rockabilly's roots, so RCA Studio B is to country's; it produced the 'Nashville Sound.' The 1950s-style studio, again in use after renovation, is touted to have launched more hit records than any other recording studio in the country.
Music Row is south of I-40, less than a mile west of downtown, and is reached by bus or trolley.
No surprise to the twangy at heart, the Music Valley is Nashville's primary tourist attraction. In a stroke of zoning genius, this premeditated tourist zone was carved from a nearby suburb and built into an American tourist mecca far from where it could sully the original downtown. The beloved Opryland amusement park was bulldozed to make way for the massive Opry Mills shopping centre.
Country music's most celebrated performance venue, the Grand Ole Opry House, moved here in 1974 from its original home in the Ryman Auditorium downtown. Performances are held on Friday and Saturday nights year round, and guided backstage tours are offered once a day by reservation. Across the plaza from the Opry House, the Grand Ole Opry Museum tells the Opry story using wax characters in colourful costumes and authentic artefacts - don't miss Patsy Cline's classic 1950s rec-room diorama. And as if that wasn't enough, the Minnie Pearl Museum and Roy Acuff Museum are housed in a mock-Victorian village nearby.
The Music Valley is about 10mi (15km) northwest of downtown. River taxis ply the Cumberland River to and from downtown, a scenic hour's ride away, and paddleboat rides are available aboard the four-deck General Jackson. Land based transportation is also an option.
Called 'the Mother Church of Country Music', the Ryman Auditorium was home to Grand Ole Opry for over 30 years. Riverboat captain Thomas Ryman built the huge gabled brick tabernacle in 1890, dedicating it to spiritual music, and after his death in 1904, the hall was made available for a wide variety of performances. The most famous came to be known as the Grand Ole Opry after a radio announcer introduced a Saturday-night dance with, 'For the past hour we have been listening to music taken largely from the Grand Opera, but from now on we will present the Grand Ole Opry.'
The Opry was moved to the Opryland USA complex in 1974, and 20 years later, after a multimillions renovation, the Ryman reopened as a performance venue. The auditorium is at its best during performances; the graceful interior is evocative on its own, but admission is steep for a self-guided tour of an empty building. The Ryman is located downtown on 5th Ave N, just east of the Convention Center.
Tennessee State Museum
Housed on three floors of the Performing Arts Center building, the Tennessee State Museum traces the state's history from the effigy pots and engraved gorgets of ancient tribes through pioneers, pillories, dauguerrotypes, silver services, sabres and Confederate dollars. Exhibits explore Tennessee's strong abolitionist movement, begun in 1797, as well as the Ku Klux Klan, which was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1868 by Grand Cyclops General Nathan Bedford Forest.
The state's military museum branch, located in the classical War Memorial Building across the street, covers conflicts from the Spanish-American War to WWII, including radio broadcasts of the Pearl Harbor invasion. The museums are downtown on Union St at 5th and 6th Sts respectively. Buses and trolleys stop nearby.