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Trip Report: Nashville Beyond the Opry

Where: Nashville, Tennessee (one of our 10 Destinations to Watch in 2013!)

Who: Editorial Assistant Dara Continenza

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When: March 2013

Nashville isn't called "Music City" for nothin'. From the time that frontiersman and fiddler Davy Crockett settled in the area to tween Taylor Swift's rise to ex-boyfriend-dissing pop fame, Nashville has been the epicenter of the American music scene. It's not to be missed. Beyond the famous Grand Ole Opry, live music literally spills out onto the streets into the wee hours.

High Points: Along Broadway, live bands at honky-tonks play to a motley crew of tourists and resident barflies. It's loud and intoxicating, with or without a Jack-and-ginger in hand. (But for those with easily rattled nerves, a Jack-and-ginger will help assuage them.)

My two favorite honky-tonks were Legends Corner and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge. Both are divey, with cracked picture frames and yellowing photos of country stars lining every square inch of the dingy walls. The floors are adhesive with beer that was spilled early in the last millennium. And the music is wonderful. Tootsie's had a raucous band playing classic country-boogie standards in the front and a female crooner taking on the likes of Old Crow Medicine Show and the Charlie Daniels Band in the back. (For travelers who are more Rihanna and less Big & Rich, nearby Tequila Cowboy offers more of a dance-club atmosphere, with a fog machine and watery drinks to match. Avoid.)

Nashville's food scene isn't up-and-coming so much as already-here-and-wonderful, with a nouvelle Southern bent that may annoy traditionalists and enamor food bloggers. Our find, City House in Nashville's Germantown neighborhood, is just one example but offers a précis of the new dining scene: cavernous reclaimed spaces filled with found objects, wood ovens, and amiable bearded and beflanneled servers. (Try the octopus and wash it down with a "Schmancy Sazerac.") Likewise, hip The Patterson House serves up Prohibition-era cocktails over twice-filtered ice. The Bacon Old Fashioned features Four Roses bourbon infused with drippings from ever-trendy Benton's bacon—the new Nashville in a nutshell.

A non-gustatory high point? Boot shopping. Back on Broadway, at Boot Country, shoppers will find an insane three-for-one deal on cowboy boots, from butter-soft leather J.B. Hills to turquoise snakeskins apparently attacked by a BeDazzler. Pay for one pair, get three.

Low Points: Nashville is downright chilly in March. I knew it wasn't a warm-weather destination going into it, but I certainly wasn't planning for snow, either. The wind and flurries were tolerable, but travelers would be wise to pack a warm coat in winter. Lows in March are in the high 30s, but this Bostonian seems to drag cold weather along with her wherever she goes.

Public-transportation options are more limited in Nashville than in other metros. Walking is unavoidable. Cabs aren't hard to come by even during peak hours, but having to rely on them, especially if you're not staying in the city center, is never cheap. Most cabs seem to be of the van variety, though, so larger groups won't have trouble moving around.

Finally, I did not see Connie Britton, and that was disappointing. (But Nashville does in fact film on location!)

Savings Strategy: Nashville itself isn't a very pricey city, and the cost of living is actually lower than the national average. Drinking and dining out were both easy and painless price-wise, and reasonable options for both abound. Avoid the tourist dreck along Broadway—but not those honky-tonk bars.

The Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp offers tons of discounts and coupons through their VisitMusicCity website, as well as a list of free events and attractions. There are plenty of free tours, but what you may want to see most, the Grand Ole Opry, is a relatively inexpensive $18.

Where to Stay: Nashville is a city of neighborhoods, and we stayed in East Nashville, a residential swath of recently rehabbed log cabins and homes along the river. It's not far from downtown, but without a car, getting around wasn't as seamless as you might like.

The city has plenty of hotels and B&Bs (TripAdvisor lists more than 150), and many are situated around the high-traffic downtown area. The other option, always my favorite, is to rent an apartment from a local through FlipKey or Airbnb. Many rent for around $100 per night.

If You Go: Those honky-tonks get packed (we're talking not just toe-to-toe but practically entwined in one, big, sweaty mass of cowboy boots and stilettos). Be prepared to be jostled while waiting in line for a drink. But grin and bear it, because the music and the crowds are wonderful. You don't have to be a country-music fan to enjoy Music City, and Nashville really surprises on all fronts. Who knew we would uncover a LEED-certified neighborhood? Or craft bars that make Brooklyn's look as cool as a Bennigan's? There is more to Nashville than the Country Music Hall of Fame; it would be hard to leave any traveler unimpressed.

Have a question for Dara about her trip to Nashville? Planning a trip yourself and need advice? Want to share your own Music City experiences? Leave a comment below.

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