We all have that one city we return again and again. For me, it’s Nashville. Over the last decade, I’ve found myself in this slice of Southern charm for many reasons, usually professional. But for this, my fifth visit, I came to visit a friend for pure, unadulterated leisure. Rather than heading to the Grand Ole Opry or Ryman Auditorium, tourist spots I’ve patronized ample times, I carved my trip around one specific neighborhood: East Nashville.
“East Nashville is Leave it to Beaver — with tattoos,” joked hotelier and designer Lyon Porter on a recent phone call. If you’re already acquainted with Music City, then you’re know that this creative arts district that some like to call "East Nasty" has exploded in recent years with new hotels, restaurants, and shops. A couple of those hotels founded by Porter — Urban Cowboy and The Dive Motel — add to the neighborhood’s charm. While tourists may associate Nashville with honky-tonks, hot chicken, and the Country Music Hall of Fame (all, by the way, worth your time), if you’re the kind of traveler who seeks out cool, artistic hubs, cross the Cumberland River and make your way here.
Another local, Libby Callaway, has lived in East Nashville for 15 years and founded her eponymous communications company in 2016. “It just feels good here,” she says of the neighborhood. “It’s walkable, and I like the way it’s laid out. It’s kind of vast and there are still areas to explore. The definition of what East Nashville is continues to grow.” She shares that in the last five years, in spite of Covid-19 and a destructive tornado, East Nashville has evolved. “It’s like a tribe,” she says of the general mood. “It’s welcoming. You see people you know at the grocery store.”
Of course, you probably won’t be grocery shopping when visiting East Nashville but you will be partaking in a whole lot of eating, shopping, and a live music performance or two. Here's how to make the most of your time in one of the coolest neighborhoods in the United States.
Where to Stay
Situated in a historic Victorian mansion, Urban Cowboy offers eight suites, all with clawfoot tubs (a traveler’s dream). It feels like staying the night at a very cool musician’s expensive home, complete with artfully-displayed guitars, cow horns, and gorgeous leather furniture. Porter’s second East Nashville property, The Dive Motel, introduced another bold experience. What was once a 1965 motor inn is now a 23-room "dive" motel, each room different from the next. Indulge your love for nostalgia with a stay in the Boogie Nights suite after grabbing a drink at the impeccably designed Dive Bar.
Next is a spot we recently featured on Fathom, The Russell. The boutique hotel in a former Presbyterian church, will grab your attention with its striking stained glass windows, concierge-less policy, and philanthropic pursuits: They donate a percentage of every stay to local nonprofits who serve Nashville's population experiencing homelessness and others in need. Sister property The Gallatin Hotel will open in summer 2021.
Nearby is Vandyke Bed & Beverage, another solid option where eight rooms are named and themed after an adult beverage like Whiskey, Wine, Champagne. Also cued for fun are the rooftop patio and a grassy courtyard for enjoying a sip in the sun.
Where to Eat
You don’t visit Nashville unless you plan to eat — and by "eat," we mean "chow down." Though the city is iconic for hot chicken (do not leave without having some), you’ll quickly notice that East Nashville offers a diverse mix of cuisines.
Try this on for a plan: Start your day at Nashville Biscuit House for a no-frills Southern breakfast: Bacon, egg, and cheese on a biscuit with a side order of biscuits and gravy should do just fine. (No such thing as too many biscuits in the South.) When your appetite comes back, swing by Mas Tacos Por Favor for tacos or Hearts for a spiced cauliflower bowl — both are among Callaway’s favorites. If you need an afternoon caffeine hit, a pour-over at Barista Parlor is a solid choice. Happy hour is well spent at Pearl Diver — not just for the tropical drinks (more on those in a minute) but for coconut fried tiger shrimp. Another excellent choice is the Roberta’s popup at Urban Cowboy’s bar Public House. Relax on the outdoor patio beneath twinkly lights and enjoy their stracciatella with house bread. For dinner, the best options are Once Upon a Time in France, a small, charming bistro serving classic French fare; Folk if you’re craving Italian food and an all-natural wine list; and Peninsula for a delicious menu of Iberian specialities or for dumplings at their current pop-up MANJU.
Honorable mentions include Lyra’s middle eastern menu, Redheaded Stranger for tacos, and Pelican & Pig for fried provolone with chili crisp and smoky tomato sauce. If you still haven’t tried hot chicken and don’t have time to cross over the river (home of many popular spots, like Prince’s), grab a plate at Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish.
Where to Drink
Many dining spots mentioned above also have top-notch beverage programs (like the tropical libations at Pearl Diver), but if you seek a dedicated watering hole, you shouldn’t miss Dino’s. Nashville’s oldest dive bar comes with all the quirks and charms you’d expect from such an institution. If you want kitschy, CAMP is a national parks-themed bar that highlights specific parks through ingredients based on their region. The owners donate a portion of proceeds to preservation efforts at the park corresponding to the cocktail. If you're going upscale, look no further than Attaboy, a minimalist, speakeasy-style bar that serves flat-rate, no-menu drinks catered to your personal preferences. The original location is in New York City.
Where to Shop
East Nashville is a haven for vintage. High Class Hillbilly (another Callaway favorite) stocks hand-picked vintage curated by singer-songwriter Nikki Lane. Black Shag Vintage has a divine assortment of band tees and suede jackets. Grimey’s is good for new and preloved music. For cowboy boots, don’t skip Goodbuy Girls.
On the non-vintage front, Snake Oil Provisions at Urban Cowboy hotel carries the most gorgeous leather jackets and other wardrobe necessities. The Shoppes on Fatherland is a tranquil area to stroll around and browse quaint boutiques if you're looking for gifts. Re-up your natural beauty and wellness supplies at Lemon Laine, and swing by Sisters of Nature for “good smells and great stitches.”
What to Do
If all the aforementioned eating, drinking, and shopping has you yearning for a breath of fresh air, head over to Shelby Bottoms Greenway and Shelby Park for natural splendor like wetlands, streams, and more than five miles of primitive trails. While you’re there, don’t miss abandoned Cornelia Fort Airpark on the northern end. Locals come in the summer for the Cornelia Fort Pickin’ Party — bluegrass bands, beer, and food stands.
Although East Nashville doesn’t offer the same honky-tonk live music experience you’ll get downtown (maybe for the best?), the neighborhood specializes in more intimate experiences at spots like The Cobra and The East Room. Of course, if you’ve visited Nashville before, you know music is everywhere. Just keep your ears open and follow the sound.