My first and last visit to Nashville was about 15 or 16 years ago with my boyfriend (now husband), and I’ve been craving a return trip for a while, especially since I’m such a big fan of the Nashville TV show on ABC. Luckily, we were able to take the kids on a fun trip there recently, and we wound up flying into Nashville and turning our excursion into a mini-road trip with stops in Chattanooga and Atlanta.
After landing at BNA and picking up our rental car (through Costco - always the best deal I can find), we took the 2-hour drive over to Chattanooga. Our first stop was the top of Lookout Mountain, which had stunning views of the Tennessee River and the city down below. The area was the site of Civil War battles in 1863, and the Lookout Mountain National Park was a beautiful spot to walk around.
We headed into the heart of downtown Chattanooga, a small-but-definitely-growing city. You can tell there’s a great revitalization going on with lots of construction, hip restaurants opening, and a surprisingly liberal cultural and social feel for the South. We had picked Taco Mamacita and their unique taco combinations (Korean BBQ, Oy Vey, The Memphis) as a lunch destination, but we were somewhat disappointed in our meal.
The kids rode the famed carousel at Coolidge Park, one that was originally built in 1894 and moved to several cities before landing in Chattanooga. It was whimsically and lovingly restored, and rides only cost $1! It’s certainly a bargain. From there, we had a nice stroll across the Walnut Street bridge, the longest pedestrian-only bridge in the world, which brought us over to the funky Arts district and the Hunter Museum.
Next up on our trip, a 2-hour drive to… Hotlanta! It was my first time, so I was really excited to finally get to the A-T-L. Our first stop was the amazing Georgia Aquarium. The admission price is steep, but don’t let that scare you away. It is the largest aquarium in the Western Hemisphere, and it’s easy to spend hours inside checking out all of sea life and exhibits. A highlight was the Dolphin Celebration show, which simply took my breath away. Just be warned - if you sit in the first 10 rows, you WILL get wet!
We’ve wanted to visit the famed Varsity restaurant for many years, so we finally had our chance with this trip. When you walk in, you’re greeted by the staff’s famous greeting - “What’ll y’all have? What’ll y’all have?” Brush up on the lingo before you go, so you can order a yellow dog, strings, ring one, and an FO with no problem! Our hot dogs were fair, but the sides were tasty and the Varsity’s famous orange beverages did not disappoint.
You’d think we’d have enough to drink, but our next stop was The World of Coca-Cola, an interactive museum dedicated to the history and enormity of the Coca-Cola brand. It’s a bit cheesy in parts, but overall it was pretty cool spending some time getting to know the iconic brand and experiencing its worldwide influence.
There are a number of different exhibits throughout the center, including a room dedicated to how Coca-Cola has been incorporated into pop culture, and there’s even a 4-D movie that was quite a thrill! The highlight of the World of Coca-Cola, however, was the Taste It! room. It reminded me a bit of Willy Wonka’s Fizzy Lifting Drinks room. This space was filled with kiosks from all over the world, with each continent’s Coca-Cola products available for sampling. We tried Beverly soda from Italy (not our favorite), Bibo from South Africa (so sweet!), Fanta Frosty from Thailand (my favorite), and so many other unique and interesting flavors from countries we’ll probably never visit. It was a fun way to travel the globe using only our taste buds.
We explored Piedmont Park, a 189-acre urban park near Midtown Atlanta, and later on we were so fortunate to have a friend give us a tour of The Weather Channel, which is not open to the public. It was quite a treat for my weather-obsessed family, especially my daughter, who wants to be a meteorologist when she grows up! We visited the very cool Ponce City Market, a retail and residential space that was converted from the historic Sears, Roebuck & Co. building. There are a number of unique restaurants and shops housed inside of the space, which is filled with vintage architectural details.
We met my cousin for dinner at Cafe Agora, a delicious Turkish/Mediterranean restaurant near our hotel in the Buckhead area. The food was plentiful, beyond fresh, and the owner was such a sweet man who came by to welcome us and check on our meal. We had the best baba ganoush I’d ever tasted as an appetizer.
One thing to say about Atlanta… you definitely need a few days there. We did not have enough time to do all the things we wanted to do or to visit all the sites we hoped to see, including the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, Stone Mountain Park, or seeing an Atlanta Braves game at the new SunTrust Park stadium.
We’re big fans of the US National Parks system, so while en route to Nashville, we got off the highway and followed signs to Russell Cave National Monument in Bridgeport, AL. Russell Cave is an archaeological site with one of the most complete records of prehistoric cultures in the Southeast. The cave structure there features a natural spring, as well as plenty of shelter. People lived there on and off for over 10,000 years, and archeologists have found thousands of relics of the civilizations that spent time in the area.
We finally made it to Nashville, and we were ready to see and explore all that the town had to offer. A wonderful way to city the city is to pick up the Music City Total Access Pass, which is pretty much a build-your-own discounted tour of the city. You can pick from a huge list of attractions and tours. Some are free with the pass and some are discounted, so just pay attention as to what you pick. Since there is so much to see and do in Nashville, this is a great way to save some money while you visit.
So, what did we do in Nashville? I feel like it’s more what didn’t we do in Nashville? We hustled and made the most of our time and covered a lot of ground. We visited the impressive Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a real monument celebrating the history and legends of country music. We toured the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. (I could write an entire story about how awesome that was!) We visited the Parthenon, a full-size replica of the ancient Greek temple, which was built for the 1897 Nashville Centennial celebration. I squealed when I saw Highway 65 Records’ “offices” around town (no Deacon Claybourne sightings, however). We strolled through the Farmers Market. We visited President Andrew Jackson’s home, The Hermitage. We ate delicious brisket and pulled pork at Martin’s BBQ. We visited the Frist Center for the Arts. We took a Gray Line trolley tour of the city. We had hot chicken at Hattie B’s. We walked along the riverfront and marveled at the size of the Nissan Arena. We even rode Nashville’s free Music City Circuit bus to get around a bit.
Of course, a trip to Nashville is not complete without seeing some live music. Unfortunately, most of the honky tonks in The District area will not allow kids after 6pm. We wound up grabbing a bite and seeing a great acoustic performance by the James Carothers Duo at Choices Restaurant & Bar, part of the George Jones museum complex on 2nd Avenue North.
However, my number one most recommended, ABSOLUTELY DO NOT MISS, thing to do in Nashville, is to take in a live performance/broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry. This takes place either at the Ryman Auditorium, where you feel all the history and all the magic in the air, or at the Grand Ole Opry auditorium located about 20 minutes outside of downtown Nashville, next to the Opryland Hotel and Opry Mills shopping center. This is how you really get to experience, live and in the flesh, the heart and the spirit of country music. During our trip, we had the honor to see an Opry Country Classics performance at the Ryman, featuring Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, T Graham Brown, Maggie Rose, Riders in the Sky, and the legendary Tanya Tucker. Larry Gatlin serves as the host of these performances, and he is truly hilarious! When you’re there, be sure to pick up one of the limited Hatch Show Print posters that they produce for each and every Opry show as a great souvenir. (Ours will be going up on our living room wall shortly.)
After all of that touring and traveling, we had to giddy up and go home. Hopefully, we will get back to that part of the USA before another 15 years go by!
Jennifer Niederhoffer is the founder of Impress Media, an independent lifestyle & entertainment public relations and editorial services firm. You can follow her on twitter @impressmedia or @themommysreview.