Nashville's reputation, of course, is as the capital of popular music. But there's much more to this genteel city of 600,000 than country stars and cowboy bars. More than two dozen schools of higher learning, including Vanderbilt and Fisk universities, attract an international crowd of academics who bring diversity in both opinion and culture to what is otherwise a very white-bread demographic. Nashville is home to both NFL and NHL teams (the Titans and Predators, respectively), a thriving foodie scene, and many excellent history and art museums.
Lay of the Land: Three major interstates—I-65, I-40, and I-24—intersect at many points around the perimeter of the city; at some point each feeds into I-440 Parkway, a beltway circling the commercial West End/Vanderbilt area, as well as Music Row and the bohemian 12South district. The rest of the creative class lives outside the beltway in East Nashville, a swiftly gentrifying neighborhood that's ground zero for hipsters and home to some cool bars and cafés. The downtown area along 11th and 12th avenues known as "the Gulch" is developing at breakneck speed, with skyscraping new apartment buildings, excellent restaurants, and stores moving into the area. The main boundaries of the Gulch are I-40 to the west and the low-lying strip of land to the east lined with train tracks that for many years served as a major railroad hub. Tradition holds strong on the west side of town: The high-dollar boutiques of Green Hills clothe Nashville's social elite, many of whom live nearby in Belle Meade, an old-money neighborhood that boasts massive homes dating back to the Civil War.
WHEN TO GO
Tennessee summers are hot and muggy; winters are mild, but not an especially cheerful time to visit. The best time to arrive is late spring (April or May) when gardens are flourishing and the temps linger in the low 70s during the day, dipping into the 50s at night; and October, when colored leaves and temperatures both begin to drop to a daytime temperature in the 60s and 70s.
HOW TO GET THERE
Nashville International Airport (BNA) is located eight miles east of town just off I-40. American, Southwest, Delta, and US Airways all have direct flights to Nashville. Car rentals are available in the terminal. The Nashville MTA offers $1.35 bus trips from the airport to downtown (take Route 18); the buses are accessible by a shuttle leaving from ground transportation (615-862-5950; www.nashvillemta.org).
Renting a car is a must if you want to explore the city beyond the obvious tourist highlights; most major car companies have branches at the airport. Taxis are also an option, though they're close to impossible to find on the street and can be a drain on the wallet (rates are $2 a mile on top of a base fee). (A local favorite is Music City Cab; 615-742-3030.)Opened in October, Music City Central (MCC) is Nashville's main transit hub. Thirty-six citywide bus routes originate at the downtown station, located at the intersection of Charlotte Avenue and 5th Avenue North (www.nashvillemta.org/musiccitycentral). Gray Line of Nashville offers bus tours covering a variety of interests, from country music to the Civil War (www.graylinenashville.com).
There are two locations of the Music City Visitor Information Center downtown: at Fifth Avenue South and Broadway (615-259-4747) and Fourth Avenue North and Commerce Street (615-259-4730). The former is open seven days a week. You can also check them out online at www.visitmusiccity.com. Local entertainment listings can be found in All the Rage and the Nashville Scene, two free local tabloid-size magazines.