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 as my Yankee heart now begrudgingly admits, live — with tiny humans in tow too. And yes, that holds true whether or not they're pint-size 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.
More: The Mom's Guide to Miami
Where to eat & drink
Traveling parents need restaurants that have it all: good food and 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 of quality and chill at Cafe Roze and Fort Louise in East Nashville.
The former, founded by NYC expat chef extraordinaire 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 Bower (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 that Google Maps tells me is called "Rolling Mill Hill") or the Barista Parlor coffee shop, 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 café near Shelby Park. Get the waffles. Just do it.
Where to shop
In the East Nashville (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 coffee shop Terminal Café to vegan ice cream (and pink decor) extraordinaire at Kokos to vintage-kitsch hawker PonyShow, which also has an adorable retro kids section.
West across the river, Hillsboro 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 refueling.
What to do & where to play
If you're a traveling family, chances are you're in the market for a park — or five. Two of my son's favorites are Shelby Bottoms Park in East Nashville (complete with river trails, hummingbirds and a toy-filled kids play area) or head southwest for Radnor Lake State Park (and its turkeys, turtles, egrets and more).
Then there's Cheekwood Estate and Botanical Gardens, which goes well beyond "park." It's a 1930s estate and Georgian mansion with 55 acres of gardens, wooded trails, greenhouses… and an art museum. Plus, Cheekwood always has a roster of seasonal programs that span all ages: weekend yoga in the garden and story time for kiddos; harvest beer garden with bluegrass music and a playhouse made of pumpkins; hot toddies and a holiday lights exhibit… you get the picture.
And speaking of art museums, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts features rotating exhibits from local and international 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 the most hands-on 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.)
Looking for a non-museum indoor spot to take a tot? Don't miss Saturday story time 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. Herr 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?
If your kids are well beyond the story time age, never fear: There's a fantastic rainy-(or any-)day activity for tweens, teens and parents nearby at The Candle Bar, which, yes, is exactly what it sounds like: hand-poured, sweet-smelling souvenirs for all ages, plus BYOB for the grown-ups. As my neighbor said to me recently, "You know the economy's good when they open up a candle bar down the street."
Where to stay
In Nashville, Airbnbs are king — and I'm personally biased toward the family travel rental site Kid & Coe (hey, if I'm out of town, you can even rent my place). After all, if you're schlepping with a posse of little kids, it's a great idea to have a temporary home where you can spread out, nap, cook, and make a mess (just clean it up before I get home, okay?).
But if your tot posse is smallish (or older) and 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, Tennessee, 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 Farmers 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 main stage 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, ya hear?