Loretta sang me through my first chaotic year with twins; Hank Jr. helped me see that other peoples’ families could be goofy, too; and Carrie convinced everyone that slashing a boyfriend’s tires is a legitimate response, given the proper circumstances.
No matter what you call it – hillbilly, bluegrass, Cajun – when it comes to country music, Nashville, Tennessee, took the lead in the early 1900s to become the smokin’ hot epicenter of the genre.
The thing is – we’re parents. These days, we don’t do smokin’ hot. Even the term sounds dicey. Like really, who wants one more urgent care copay?!
To that point, I’m sticking to a kid-friendly look at Nashville with an emphasis on the great outdoors, the best music venues for families, and Nashville’s history. (And I’m including a phenomenal science center because I know Richmond families love a good science center.)
Before visiting any new spot, I turn to old faithful: Google Maps. From my laptop screen, I imagine that a clock face is overlaid on the map. We’re talking Nashville, so as part of this research, I designate downtown Nashville as the center of the clock and the various Nashville venues and attractions as noon, three o’clock, and so on. Not perfect, but you get the idea. Now, let’s see what kind of good times Nashville has in store for families!
Nashville’s Great Outdoors
We’ll begin with the weather: Think Central Virginia and you’re good. Nashville summers are toasty with the occasional summer storm. Spring and fall are gorgeous and on the mild side. Winters range from Do You Want to Build a Snowman? to rainy. I monitor weather.gov every single day so dangerous weather doesn’t sneak up on us, especially while we’re vacationing.
Nashville’s 132-acre crown jewel of a vintage park, Centennial Park is walking distance from Vanderbilt University and just two miles from downtown (at eight o’clock on our clock map, see how that works?). Centennial Park boasts a pond with geese and ducks, flowering trees and plants, a dog park, a walking path, a children’s play structure, poignant war memorials, a sunken garden and – the piece de resistance – a full-size replica of Greece’s Parthenon.
I hear you asking, “Greece’s what?”
Called the Parthenon, the Grecians completed a temple in 438 B.C. to honor their beloved Athena. In 1897, the Nashvillians created a full-size replica of the Parthenon in Centennial Park for Tennessee’s Centennial Exposition.
In the 1990s, Nashville native Alan LeQuire created an immense 42-foot golden statue of the goddess Athena and installed it inside the Parthenon. (Give the kids a short lesson before you visit.) Parking is free. Bring food for the ducks and a picnic lunch for you.
Nearby restaurants: All are about a 5-minute drive from the park: reliable Jason’s Deli; Fido, which is loved by locals for burgers and sandwiches; ice cream at NoBaked Cookie Dough; and a Keith Urban fave, Pancake Pantry.
Cheekwood Estate and Gardens
At the seven o’clock marker on our Nashville map (and less than a half hour from downtown), is a gorgeous slice of yesteryear. Mabel and Leslie Cheek – owners of a wholesale grocery distributor – completed a mansion atop fifty-five glorious acres in 1929 and named it Cheekwood. In 1957, the family bequeathed the stunning property to the State of Tennessee, which preserved Cheekwood for us to
It’s easy to assume that kids won’t love gardens or art, but Cheekwood is particularly committed to families with kids. Children and adults will be charmed by an outdoor exhibit this summer, which includes five storybook houses inspired by the words of beloved children’s authors and illustrators like Dr. Seuss, Beatrix Potter, and Maurice Sendak.
Check cheekwood.org for a schedule of activities and tickets.
Nearby restaurants: In under twenty minutes, drive from Cheekwood to the patio seating at Edley’s Bar-B-Que; an upscale sports grill for families at Sam’s Place Belle Meade; Noshville Delicatessen, which has vegan offerings; and Costco for the food court and a gas fill-up.
Cumberland Park, Downtown Nashville
If you’re visiting in the summer, dress your little guys in their bathing suits and head for Cumberland Park in the morning. This wondrous space sits on the hem of the Cumberland River and essentially in downtown Nashville at, say, one o’clock on our map. This gorgeous space delivers outrageous play for the kids, including an elaborate spray park (summer only), a climbing wall, a green maze, a bouncy pad, and sand play. Don’t feel like a picnic? Take a stroll over the charming pedestrian bridge and – boom! – you’re in downtown Nashville and you can hit the family-friendly downtown honky-tonks and grills.
Candy shops: Back in 1912, Nashville’s Howell Campbell was a sweet treat pioneer. He was the first in the United States to combine chocolate with other ingredients, and the goo goo cluster was born (like a chocolate turtle). The shop is actually called Goo Goo Clusters. Don’t miss Rocket Fizz – it’s more than a candy shop, but you know that if you’ve been to the one in Carytown – where Rob Lowe, Jon Cryer, and Amy Adams buy their own vintage and weirdo candy and sodas. Both shops are a 7-minute drive or a 20-minute walk from Cumberland Park.
Paddle Up Nashville
Is your vacation not complete without water? Sitting at nine o’clock on our map and a 14-minute drive from downtown is one of Nashville’s coolest activities: stand-up paddleboarding (SUP). Paddle Up Nashville’s pro shop and launch area at Rock Harbor Marine makes them the first and only SUP shop located on the water in Middle Tennessee. The super-friendly team offers basic instruction with every rental.
Most Nashville honky-tonks are fine with kids until six in the evening. The following music venues are especially family-friendly.
Grand Ole Opry
Born and raised in California, I never imagined that I’d see the Grand Ole Opry where singers I love performed – like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. Both appeared only once at the Opry because of their racy style (Elvis) and familiarity with profanity involving mothers (Lewis).
How to get the most out of your Opry visit: First and foremost, only buy tickets if you actually love the performer. Every evening the Opry features five to eight musical acts. One headliner – Hunter Hayes in our case – draws the crowds and plays for twenty minutes or so. The other singers, yodelers, and musicians perform for a short time, too. Because the Opry is considered the longest running radio show in the world, the musical sets are interlaced with commercials. Second, the Opry is casual. It’s like friends getting together in a really huge barn to hear great music. Purchase tickets in advance at opry.com.
Nearby restaurants: Nashville’s Aquarium Restaurant is in the Opry Mills Mall that shoulders the Opry. The food is tasty enough, but the prices are sky high.
You’ll dine in what seems like an aquarium with an amazing array of tropical fish including sharks, rays, and eels. Go more for the surroundings than the pricey food, but there is a kid’s menu.
For your music-loving family, these honky-tonks are near Cumberland Park and are just right for families with kids until that six o’clock witching hour. Back on our clock-map, look for these establishments in downtown Nashville – so the center of our clock.
Robert’s Western World
Robert’s Western World screams yesteryear country, and kids are welcome at this old-school honky-tonk. Soak up the classic country, eat a fried balogna sandwich – don’t worry, the grill also has a great menu including burgers, fries, and garden burgers – and take lots of pictures.
Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge
Originally called Mom’s, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge was eventually named for its big-hearted owner and as I write, the lounge is fifty-nine years young. Tootsie’s delivers great live bands and food spread over three stories, and is family-friendly in the late afternoon.
The Wildhorse Saloon boasts three floors with a friendly bar around every turn and a stage where live country music acts perform day and evening. This saloon happily gives free line-dancing lessons (about fifteen minutes long), and after just one, you and the kids will be boot scootin’ like locals on the large dance floor.
Explore Nashville’s Past
Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage
Most Americans don’t know Andrew Jackson. Sure, we remember that he was a President and that he’s the guy on the twenty. Maybe we know that he didn’t free his enslaved people or that he was the president responsible for the relocation of Native Americans east of the Mississippi.
But, on the whole, we don’t know the seventh president.
We don’t remember that he was a fiery brawler and the only president to fight in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812; that he was a romantic who once said, “Heaven will be no heaven to me if I do not meet my wife there”; and that he was a Goliath of a patriot who said, “the brave man inattentive to his duty, is worth little more to his country than the coward who deserts her in the hour of danger,” and that he was hilarious – at his packed funeral, his pet parrot was removed after cursing at the mourners.
We had no idea that Jackson was the first president to ride a train, to install an indoor toilet in the White House, and to raise a Native American child – Lyncoya – who was orphaned after a battle in Alabama. And true, Jackson never freed the enslaved people who labored on his land.
All of this is why you shouldn’t miss the Hermitage estate and gardens that sits at two o’clock on our map and thirty minutes from downtown. Take one of many tours at this estate where he lived with his wife Rachel, and learn about this highly complex man. You can also stroll the elaborate gardens and see the tomb of Rachel and Andrew. (FYI: The kids will most love the Hermitage by Wagon Tour.)
Nearby restaurants: All are about a 10-minute drive from the Hermitage: pizza and pasta at the Gondola House, Sam’s Sports Grill, Sonic Drive-In. And there’s a Walmart here, too.
Belle Meade Plantation
A young John Harding bought 200 acres outside of Nashville in 1820 and ordered enslaved people to clear the property and build a large home. The Belle Meade estate sits at seven o’clock on our map and is just fifteen minutes out of downtown. It eventually became a world-famous thoroughbred horse farm. When the Civil War hit, the family hid many racehorses as the Army grabbed as many as they could for the war.
During the war, the daughter of the owner was seen waving her kerchief in support of the Confederate forces. Irritated, the Union Army shot at the home and the bullets are in the front porch columns to this day.
Take one of many tours led by knowledgeable costumed guides (many are history teachers). Belle Meade’s most popular tours are the Mansion Tour, the Journey to Jubilee Tour (commemorating the African Americans who built and maintained Belle Meade), and the Segway Tour (must be sixteen years old for this one).
Nearby restaurants: Belle Meade and Cheekwood are just seven minutes from each other; the same restaurants near Cheekwood are also near Belle Meade.
Nashville Adventure Science Center
Not historical, I know, but the absolutely impressive Nashville Adventure Science Center is too wonderful not to include. This center for kids features 175 hands-on interactive exhibits, a Zero Gravity Spacewalk ride, an IMAX theater, and a ton more. My kids, husband, and I loved this science center. Nobody wanted to leave!
Getting There and Staying There
A flight from Richmond to Nashville runs $190 to $400 depending on the time of year. Driving from Richmond to downtown Nashville will take nine hours with no traffic or potty breaks. Real-world estimate: eleven to twelve hours.
Once you’ve arrived – you know the traffic in DC?– keep it in mind if you’re thinking about driving the Nashville interstates during peak commute. Always consult Google Maps or your driving app of choice to see possible delays.
If a budget-hotel is paramount during your stay, look for a hotel that includes breakfast, Wi-Fi, and parking in one easy-to-understand price. But if you’ve racked up hotel points or just feel like splurging on a 4-star, you’re covered.
Sleeping Near the Grand Ole Opry
I’ve stayed in two hotels near the Grand Ole Opry and both provided a distinctly different, but fantastic experience.
1. A clean and comfy 2.5-star. The Country Inn and Suites by Opryland is an easy eight minutes to the Grand Ole Opry and includes breakfast, Wi-Fi, and parking. If you plan to visit the Opry, it shares a ginormous and free parking lot with the Opryland Mills Mall.
If you don’t want to deal with a long walk to the Opry, you have two choices: the property has a shuttle that will take you from the Country Inn to the Opry for $10 per person round-trip. Or you can try to score a better price by using Uber. (Remember, Uber determines prices based on distance, time, and demand in the area.)
2. Four-star resort accommodations. Offering a whopping 2,881 guest rooms spread across six floors, the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center is a longtime dweller on the list of world’s largest hotels.
And the hotel is as beautiful as she is huge, boasting three enormous garden atriums decked in flora and fauna, waterways, and skylights. The property offers many dining options including fine and casual, plus the requisite Starbucks. The hotel’s luxury buses squire guests in comfort to the front of the Grand Ole Opry (minutes away).
Impressed? Believe it or not, there’s more. In 2018, the owners plowed 90 million into a new indoor and outdoor pool scene, and it’s off-the-hook incredible. This luxury pool system could likely be the fanciest hotel-waterpark your children will ever encounter. Called Sound Waves, the outdoor park is like a beach with chaise lounges, cabanas, and several water slides. The indoor pool is just as awesome with more pools, a wave-rider, and a beautiful lazy river.
For dining, The Delta in the atrium is the best for families with its kid-friendly fare (pizza and burgers). The Delta is also where guests catch boats for an indoor “river” ride.
($9 per person; shown above left).
Guest rooms have a mini-fridge and the property also has 400 suites, which include a kitchenette and living space.
Four Stars Near the Downtown Action
The beautiful Nashville Omni Hotel is connected to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, sits across the street from the Music City Center, and is a block’s walk to a host of restaurants and honky-tonks. The Omni has a gorgeous lobby, an impressive rooftop pool and whirlpool, a hip fitness room, and cushy guest rooms (with mini-fridges).
The hotel also has two upscale restaurants: Kitchen Notes (southern dishes) and a popular steakhouse with a coffee stop for morning treats. The hotel has free microwaves and cribs, just request at arrival. Also free is the private car that chauffeurs guests within three miles of the Omni. Valet parking, $50 a day; self-parking, $26 a day. To save money, search for independent parking garages in the area. The amazing news? No resort fee.
What About Airbnb?
Ready to try Airbnb? Or maybe you’re a seasoned pro? The Airbnb market in Nashville sizzles with zillions of inexpensive options including: Johnny Cash’s apartment from back in the day (historic rental from 1910, sleeps six, $65/night); the Bluegrass Tour Bus (stationary, sleeps six, $28/night) or even glamour camping on a stunning horse ranch (sleep six, $59/a night). Airbnb.com.
In Richmond, pick up your free RFM at your local grocery store – or hundreds of other places you shop, work, and play. You can also catch up with more on family travel from Wendy at JellyFishinJuly.com.
If you would like to receive every issue of RFM in the mail, SUBSCRIBE.
Photos: Courtesy of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp, Landry (Aquarium), Dan Ham (Gaylord), Chris Hollo (Hunter Hayes)