What, you thought Music City was just for country fans and so, so, so many bachelorette parties (ugh)? Think again. Nashville, Tennessee is actually a fantastic place to travel — or even, my Yankee heart now begrudgingly admits, live — with tiny humans in tow, too. And yes, that holds true whether or not they’re pint-sized Dolly Parton fans.
From the food scene (elegant yet oh-so-accessible) to the music scene (two words: bluegrass. brunch.) to the art museum with a kids’ section that beats anything Brooklyn has to offer, Nashville is the perfect place to bring a kid or four for a long weekend or longer. And its a rising hotspot city in U.S. travel for a reason — so y’all better get on down here before all the secrets are out.
Where to Eat & Drink
Traveling parents need restaurants that have it all: good food, good vibes, but above all, plenty of chill. Because do you really want to bring a toddler into a hushed, upscale establishment where you’ll only get glared at? On the other hand, quality is key; I’m not really into what passes for "family dining" in a lot of places (sorry, Olive Garden). And in Nashville, I find the best balance in this department at Cafe Roze and Fort Louise on the East side.
The former, founded by NYC expat chef extraordinarie Julia Jaksic, is an Instagrammable hotspot where you’ll find food that is as beautiful as it is delicious — my son is a fiend for the french fries. At the latter, owned by Alabaman Jessie Brower (yes I’m recommending only women-owned restaurants on purpose) lets you get your fancy Bourbon cocktail fix — this is the South, after all — while also snagging high chairs, a kids’ menu, chic triangular crayons, and an epic PB&J parents will want to eat, too.
For caffeine, hit up Crema by the river (in a possibly imaginary neighborhood Google Maps tells me is called "Rolling Mill Hill") or the Barista Parlor coffeeshop, with locations in the Germantown ‘hood as well as East Nashville. I’m often embarrassed to admit that I love Barista Parlor, since their coffee is expensive, but it’s damn good and my kid loves the pastries, so there we are.
Over in the Lockeland Springs neighborhood is the answer to my personal must-find everywhere I travel: The Bar That Won’t Kick Your Child Out. Urban Cowboy Public House is an offshoot (literally — it’s in the backyard) of Urban Cowboy B+B, a local boutique hotel in a renovated Victorian mansion, which is now famous nationwide for its hipster-maximalist design aesthetic; my son thinks he’s "friends" with the metal horse wall decor near the bathrooms. I recommend the bar’s grapefruit-rosé situation, perfect for sipping on the patio by the fire (supervise kids by said fire, duh).
Also in Lockeland Springs: the aforementioned bluegrass brunch, featuring local fiddlers and banjo players and more every Sunday at The Post East cafe near Shelby Park. Get the waffles. Just do it.
Where to shop
On the east side (are you sensing a theme here?) the shops at Porter East have a bunch of options for parents and kids alike within spitting distance of each other — from travel-themed coffeeshop Terminal Cafe to vegan ice cream (and pink decor) extraordinaire at Koko’s to vintage-kitsch hawker Pony Show, which also has an adorable retro kids’ section.
West across the river, Hillsborough Village is a great walkable neighborhood with a ton of local shops, including curated kids’ boutique Arcade and a Jeni’s Ice cream location, both favorites with the little ones. And just around the corner, eateries Fido and The Pancake Pantry (which I’ve heard referred to as "a Nashville institution" more than once) are prime for the refueling.
What to Do & Where to Play
In Nashville, it can seem like there’s a park everywhere you turn (and I mean a PARK-park, like a big green one, which was a shocker to me after living in NYC for 20 years). Two of my favorites are Shelby Bottoms Park on the east side (also the site of the East Nashville Farmer’s Market) and Radnor Lake State Park on the south side (rife with turkeys, turtles, egrets and more — although go on a weekday or super-early weekend morning to avoid parking battles).
But the overall winner has to be Cheekwood Estate and Botanical Gardens, which goes beyond "park"; it’s a 1930s estate and Georgian mansion with 55 acres of gardens, wooded trails, greenhouses — and an art museum. If I had my way, every park would include an art museum. And Cheekwood’s seasonal offerings are always the perfect balance for parents and kids: weekend yoga in the garden AND storytime for kiddos; harvest beer garden with bluegrass music AND a playhouse made of pumpkins; holiday lights exhibit AND hot toddies…you get the picture.
And speaking of art museums… the Frist Center for the Visual Arts features rotating exhibits from local as well as internationally exhibiting artists; recent favorites were Nashvillian Vadis Turner’s textile pieces, an exhibit involving Australian Aboriginal batik, and the sculptural madhouse courtesy of artist Nick Cave (no, the other one). But perhaps the Frist’s best-kept secret is its’ classy-AF kids’ section, the Martin ArtQuest Gallery, which lets kids learn about art in a myriad of ways — from creating their own stop-motion movies to painting with watercolors to printmaking. (Confession: I have been known to use my kid as an excuse to do crafts.)
Saturday mornings in East Nashville with tots can and should only mean one thing: storytime at Her Bookshop. Joelle Herr began this lit-lady indie gem in a very small space in 2016, and it’s been so successful (no surprise, given the East Nash population of literary ladies — and gents and kids) that she reopened it this fall in a larger, but not at all overwhelming, venue. Joelle curates an always-remarkable selection of reads — from design to fiction to nature to kids’ to just plain beautiful books, period. And every Saturday, there’s a cozy children’s story hour with a local reader and/or musician. Kids listen enthralled; you browse books. Sold?
Where to stay
In Nashville, Airbnbs are king — and I’m personally biased towards the family travel rental site Kid & Coe (hey, if I’m out of town you can even rent my place). But if you’re looking to fancy up your stay and are in the market for a splurge, you can’t beat the newly renovated downtown boutique hotel Noelle. The decor is gorgeous but not too fussy (or too breakable for the young ones), and there is an artful shop, restaurant, and rooftop bar on-site. Oh, and 10-minute coffee delivery every morning — something every parent needs, correct?
Where to escape
If you’ve got a car and are willing to drive it for 30 minutes, Franklin, TN is right outside Nashville — and it’s the cutest darn small town you’ve ever seen. You know Stars Hollow on Gilmore Girls? It’s that, but in the South, complete with town-square gazebo and probably one or two Taylor Dooses with a drawl. From the industrial-chic Factory and shops to the Franklin Farmer’s Market to the occasional airstream-trailer clothing shop, there are weekend delights aplenty in Franklin.
Plus, every September, Franklin’s Harlinsdale Farm welcomes Pilgrimage Music Festival, which is probably the most kid-friendly music fest of all time. Last year’s highlights were the Avett Brothers, Justin Timberlake (presumably JT brought his son Silas, who sadly did not end up in a baby battle with my son Silas), Fitz and the Tantrums, Langhorne Slim, and the mainstage event that featured me trying to pee in a Port-o-Potty while holding Silas up over my head so he wouldn’t touch anything. Ah, festival life.
Y’all come back now, hear?
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