Nashville, Tennessee is Music City. Portland, Oregon’s tagline is Keep Portland Weird. But sometimes you have to mix things up. And yes, while Nashville’s slogan is obvious, the city also caters to the restless traveler in all of us. Certainly, Nashville brandishes its share of weirdness – in a good way. Quirky landmarks, battle-scarred mansions, untamed eateries, and surprising shops throws the unsuspecting visitor a wondrous curveball. Spending your next vacay in Nashville? Get ready for a wonder attack!
First of all, there’s the Big Lady. Inside the city’s Centennial Park, looking up at the thirty-seven-foot statue of the Goddess Athena created by sculptor Alan LeQuire in 1990 is bound to give you a crick in your neck. Made of fiberglass, aluminum, and steel, the replica of the original in Greece is the tallest indoor statue in the Western world, requiring eight years of artist’s life to make her come to life. Word has it that authorities are considering using drones to clean the tall, tunic-clad goddess.
Goddess Athena is housed inside The Parthenon, the full-sized reproduction of the Greek Parthenon. No kidding, folks. Walking among the white pillars, you feel so very tiny. According to the back story, this identical twin building was built in 1897 and designed by Confederate veteran William Crawford for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. The building has four fine art galleries including a rotating exhibit of American art. Take a docent tour to get your bearings.
Another landmark, The Grand Ole Opry is one of a kind, and yes, this 4,372-seat auditorium is indeed grand. Regular variety shows air on the radio as a honey-tongued announcer introduces each live act. Comedians, dancers, music groups, and soloists entertain seated audiences from around the globe. Some performers are established while others are up-and-coming. It is worth booking a behind-the-scenes tour to appreciate The Grand Ole Opry’s role in American history. Walk through the various green waiting rooms for celebrities and gaze at rare photos of stars before their prime. Understand what made the place so special since its inception in 1925. The family-friendly shows are a slice of Americana that still warm the heart. The location is Tennessee’s #1 attraction.
For roaring entertainment, explore the wild side of Nashville at the Nashville Zoo. Since opening its doors in 1991, the zoo has grown from a small, private operation to an accredited facility with over 2,700 animals, colorful exhibits, nicely-paved walkways, and bench seating for folks who need to rest between animal sightings. While here, you will have the opportunity to visit its new, state-of-the-art animal hospital, a 20,000-square-foot facility seldom offered at U.S. zoos. The hospital features a wall of glass windows so the public can witness the technicians and vets working on every type of zoo critter from giant rhinos to newborn flamingos. This is the place where budding animal doctors will be inspired.
The zoo makes use of its space with events throughout the year. From November 15 to December 30, it will host Zoolumination. This is a jaw-dropping Chinese lantern festival where 500 giant custom silk lanterns come to life in the guise of animals and holiday characters. The incredible show-stopper is the 200-foot-long dragon. Chinese acrobats and entertainers will also perform nightly.
The big city of Nashville is an international community oozing with aromatic global fare and a kaleidoscope of thematic restaurants. You may not think of Music City as a place to indulge in incredible Indian food, but Chaatable will prove you wrong.
Once inside this carnival of vivid hues and saturated colors, you are whisked away to the humid and intoxicating streets of India. Gaily-decorated with bangles, Bollywood posters, and upside down umbrellas, the interiors are reminiscent of a street market where everyone speaks Hindi. The dizzying, 4,000-square-foot eatery was started by power couple, Chef Maneet Chauhan and her husband Vivek Deora, who live in the region and have already started several successful restaurants. Maneet has also appeared on Food Network as a judge on the TV show Chopped! Chaat is the Hindi term for ‘lick’, and here you will lick and like everything from hand-held bites to full scale entrees. You can get your fill of flavors that run from tangy and spicy to sweet and savory. Try the spice kabob lamb sliders or the Bay of Bengal whole fish.
Don’t worry if your palate is a neophyte to Indian tastes. Knowledgeable wait staff will explain the ingredients to you, and the menu is user-friendly. Don’t miss the adventurous cocktail menu Tamarind margarita, anyone?
Meanwhile, history buffs should nab a bite at the old fashioned, Woolworth on Fifth landmark. This is the home of one of the original Woolworth’s Five and Dime stores with a lunch counter from 1925. In February to May of 1960, civil rights activists staged several sit-ins in a non-violent protest to end racial segregation. This café was one of those sites where black and white protestors refused to budge and demanded service at the counter. The retail portion is gone, and the space has been converted into a full-service restaurant. The counter is still there, preserved in its glory. Photos of the sobering sit-in are showcased throughout the restaurant. This is one place that does not rest on its historic laurels. On the menu are comfort food dishes such as pot roast and shrimp and grits. It is open for brunch, lunch, and dinner with affordable prices ranging from $10 to $27.
Want to combine dinner with live music? At The Listening Room Café, hear the talents of humble musicians who just want the chance to try out new lyrics before an accepting crowd. The place is also a site for experience musicians to wow an audience. Cover prices are usually in the range of $5 to $15 per person, and the venue hosts two live shows a night. Savor casual American eats and Southern comfort food including pulled pork and hot chicken biscuits. It’s a large, family-friendly, venue with tables set up in front of a large stage. Guests are asked to purchase a minimum of $15 in food and beverage. Drinks and food is fairly priced, and the environment posts a no-smoking policy. Owner Chris Blair opened the café in 2006 since he could not find a venue that had the sound and atmosphere that he felt the Nashville artists deserved.
If you’ve already mashed it up in this city multiple times, try the newest place on the Nashville food scene and wander into the dynamic Downtown Sporting Club. Started by two brothers who are experts in the restaurant biz, they put their whole hearts and investor dollars on the line by recently remodeling and finally opening this 40,000-square-foot, four-level food, entertainment, and boutique hotel complex. There are a total of three distinct American and Southern cuisine restaurants and four bars.
On the first level, you can order a casual eats all day and night at Carter Assembly which, at night, offers wine, beer, and cocktails. Also on the same floor, you’ll find a fine dining restaurant called the Ribbon Room which is more intimate with a polished menu for all-day and evening dining as well. Upstairs on the second level is the sports bar where you can order drinks and food while engaging in pub games (including hatchet throwing) at the R.E.C. room. Sports fans can catch up on the latest in their favorite events on TVs posted throughout. On the third and fourth floors you’ll find the hotel rooms. The open rooftop is yet another venue for drinks and grub with views of the downtown Honky Tonk scene.
Shop, Shop, Shop
Turn your attention to Franklin, a historic tourist town outside of Nashville that puts the CHAR in charming. It’s got brick buildings and a park square, the gathering hub for locals and tourists alike. Shopaholics will make their credit cards sizzle in a frenzy from all the purchases they will want to make. Not too many shops have their own prayer chapel, but the Philanthropy Store has an A-frame chap-let in the middle of the boutique, and inside you can write a prayer need on a card and hang it on a branch. The staff promises to pray. The store is a leader in cause-driven retailing, so a percentage of proceeds is funneled towards charity work in the Caribbean Islands, East Africa, and in the US. Merchandise such as giftware, furnishings, and women’s clothing is curated and arranged beautifully in zones, so exploration is a delight.
Bibliophiles will be in literary heaven at Landmark Booksellers, home to new, rare, and used books. The building, circa 1808, served as hospital during the Civil War, a grocery store, and a furniture repair shop. Through all of its iterations, every owner kept the integrity of the oldest commercial entity in town featuring tall white columns and a peaked roof in Greek Revival style.
What makes this bookstore so beloved is the couple who run it. In 2005, retirees Joel and Carol Tomlin wanted to have a vocation they both could share, and opening a bookstore for the community seemed like a natural. The old building is crammed with volumes found in every nook and cranny, and couches and chairs beckon visitors to sit and read, or sit and exchange stories with the Tomlins
Underscoring the sweetness of this old-fashioned bookstore, the ultimate compliment came when author Karen Kingsbury decided to write a love story called The Bridge based on the bookstore. Kingsbury’s book made the New York Times bestseller list and became a Hallmark movie.
Minutes outside of Nashville, Franklin has been awarded the title of Distinctive Destination by National Trust for Historic Preservation. Thumbs up goes to Franklin for its authentic and friendly visitor experience. Not only does it offer an attractive, thriving business district, the combination of stunning architecture and a strong commitment to historic preservation, makes it a winner.
On another day, hit up Franklin’s historic mansions. Managed by The Battle of Franklin Trust, Carnton Plantation and Carter House are two properties that played unique roles in the 1864 Battle of Franklin during the Civil War. This is a trip back in time as you hear the tales of the bloody skirmish that involved at least 20,000 men. At the Carnton Plantation, the plantation estate became a field hospital for Conferate soldiers who were dying and wounded. Bloodstains on the floor boards in bedrooms that became gruesome operating rooms were never washed away.
The Carter House was a farmhouse property and the home to the Carter family when army soldiers marched in and set up the location as the spot for the second Battle of Franklin. The homeowners, slaves and children and slaves’ children quietly hid in the cellar for safety. Today, you can still see the more than 1,000 bullet holes that have riveted the walls on various buildings on the former cottin gin farm.
When in the South, you must learn to mosey. Put on your best mosey, and mosey through the gardens and galleries of Cheekwood Estate & Gardens. Once the private estate of the Cheek family (of Maxwell House coffee fame), it features 55 acres of botanical gardens featuring a sculpture garden and a museum of art with contemporary and decorative art, paintings and sculptures. One unusual sighting is what ooks like a Hobbit house with grass thatched roof, in a serene floral setting. The estate will again feature its Holiday Lights event from November 23 to January 5, where one million lights will illumine the landscape. In April 2020, Cheekwood will showcase a Dale Chihuly hand-blown glass art exhibit throughout the premises.
When you go to Nashville, you can add your newfound favorites to this list of unusual and quirky places. As long as Nashvillians willing to share their stories, set up new adventures, and sing new songs, this city will never cease to surprise and inspire.
For details, log onto www.visitmusiccity.com
Kathy Chin Leong is a three-time award-winning journalist with work published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, National Geographic Books, and many other newspapers and magazines. She is the main writer for the upcoming photo essay book titled “San Francisco’s Chinatown,” published by Heyday Press, due to premiere in October 2020.