If you thought traveling to Music City was just for country fans and so, so, so many bachelorettes (ugh), I don’t blame you. But if you’re easing back into travel yet still afraid of flying — we’re right there with you, btw — Tennessee’s capitol is actually a fantastic, relatively central road trip destination for the whole family. But where are the best (and safest) places to go when in Nashville with kids?
With a reliably gorgeous extended-fall (the leaves change but it’s still in the ’70s) and expanded outdoor dining/playing options since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Nashville is the perfect place to bring a kid or four for a long weekend or longer. And it’s an increasingly popular travel destination for a reason — so get on down here before all the secrets are out.
Where to eat & drink
Traveling parents in 2020 need restaurants that have it all: outdoor seating, 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, Lou, and Penninsula in East Nashville.
Cafe Roze, 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. Lou, owned by Mailea Weger (yes, I’m recommending only women-owned restaurants on purpose) lets you get your weird-wine fix at brunch — Lou is known for its contact wines, fermented wines, and more — while also snagging some banana pancakes that will make any kid’s morning. Both have outdoor seating options, and Lou even let us picnic on their lawn (bless them) when we were particularly afraid of dining anywhere near other diners.
Even more upscale (but not at all stuffy), Peninsula is inspired by the Iberian, you guessed it, Penninsula — offering up Spanish and Portuguese flavors with unmatched creativity and depth. Helmed by co-owners Yuriko Say, Craig Schoen, and Jake Howell (manager, bar manager, and chef, respectively) this team has just reopened the intimate, relaxed space for a limited-seating tasting menu that’s unlike anything else you can eat in Nashville — and that’s a good thing. Bring older kids (and/or younger adventurous eaters!) and watch everyone fight over the ice cream with caviar and potato chips. Seriously.
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). Urban Cowboy has reopened its outdoor seating at a more limited capacity since the pandemic, and the additional spaciousness is much appreciated.
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, and another nearby family favorite is The Getalong, which hosts plenty of kid-friendly events. Oh, and they’ll sell you a legit kid-sized ukelele in pretty much any color.
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 carry-out refueling.
And don’t miss The 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 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. She’s doing curated book bundles and contact-less pickup from her shop window, to boot.
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, outdoor 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. What better place to enjoy a socially distanced fall?
And speaking of art museums, the Frist Art Museum features rotating exhibits from local and international artists. A recent kid-fan favorite was the Frist’s exhibit for the 50-year anniversary of Eric Carle’s The Hungry Little Caterpillar. The Frist’s best-kept secret is its classy kids section, the Martin ArtQuest Gallery, which lets kids learn about art in hands-on ways — but alas, it’s currently closed due to COVID-19. We know it will be back when the time is right (and safe), though.
Where to stay
In Nashville, short-term home rentals are king. I personally love family-friendly rental sites Vacasa as well as Kid & Coe. 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, play and make a mess (just clean it up before you leave, okay?).
But if you’re looking to fancy up your stay, you can’t beat the newly opened downtown Graduate hotel, complete with its remarkable Dolly Parton-themed rooftop restaurant-bar, White Limozeen (get the moules frites — moules for you, frites for all). The Graduate staff is doing a phenomenal job of keeping COVID-anxious travelers at ease, with mandated masks indoors, spaced-out rooftop (and poolside!) seating, limited elevator capacities, and hand sanitizer stations aplenty. Book the family suite to get two rooms with a shared private foyer; the kids’ room comes with guitar-shaped beds, a horse bench, and an array of children’s books that will keep them so occupied, they won’t even run over to your room to wake you up at 6am. Right?!
Another comparably-priced option is Nashville’s Margaritaville Hotel, which was named Best New Hotel of 2020 by USA Today — and it lives up to the hype. Kids will love its tropical vibes (yes, that is a giant flip-flop statue in the lobby) and parents will dig the shockingly good food and wine at the hotel’s JWB Grill (the key lime pie, folks, is not to be missed). Oh, and every family member will flip for the pool.
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 except this past one, Franklin’s Harlinsdale Farm welcomes Pilgrimage Music Festival, which is probably the most kid-friendly music fest of all time. Past 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), the Foo Fighters, and more — and the main stage event that featured me trying to pee in a port-o-potty while holding my own Silas up over my head so he wouldn’t touch anything. Ah, music festival life with kids. Pilgrimage plans to reopen in time for the 2021 fest, and boy do I plan to be there.
Y’all come back now, ya hear?
A version of this story was originally published in June 2018.
Of course, 2020 travel is not complete without masks. Here are some of the best kids face masks by Black-owned brands. Travel safe!