Nashville isn’t probably one of the US cities most people in the UK think to visit. And that’s understandable; it’s the home of country music, and people come from all over the states to worship at that altar. So for us Brits who don’t know the difference between bluegrass and bro-country (which is a thing), well, I guess the allure isn’t quite there.
However allow me to persuade you otherwise. I first visited Nashville in 2014 as part of a road trip through the southern USA, and returned again in early 2019. Yes, it’s a city of big hair, denim & rhinestones and a whole load of stag & hen parties, and Downtown feels a little like the Wild West part of Disneyland with a whole lot more alcohol, but step a few streets further back and you’ll find an incredibly cool and relaxed city that’s an absolute pleasure to visit.
The first thing that struck me as a cold and antisocial Londoner is just how friendly the people are here. Despite being the state capital, walking around the edges of Nashville you’ll feel like you’re in a quiet village, saying hello to everyone you pass and striking up conversations with strangers about pretty much anything. Thanks to the large number of Universities and Colleges in town it also feels like a young city, with a great number of craft beer breweries (Jackalope, Brew Works, Yazoo, Southern Grist), a couple of whiskey distilleries (Corsair, Nelson’s Greenbrier) and, yes, a whole load of great vegan eateries.
My advice to anyone visiting Nashville for the first time would be to absolutely visit Downtown (ie the area around Broadway), but to leave relatively quickly. Broadway is the beating heart of Nashville’s tourism industry and is a throng of hen parties, country music bars and shops selling more varieties of cowboy boots and hats than I ever knew existed. It’s also where most of the big tourist attractions are located; the Johnny Cash Museum is right off Broadway and the Country Music Hall of Fame (with the excellent Hatch Show Print) is only a couple of blocks away.
A walk down Broadway is truly an experience – there’s live music in every bar, and each one seems to be competing with its neighbour to be louder and therefore bring the punters in purely through the medium of country music versions of your favourite soft/dad rock classics.
So no great surprise that vegan options in Downtown are limited. Mellow Mushroom is right on Broadway and they serve tempeh, tofu and vegan cheese which you can have on a pizza or in one of their hoagie rolls whilst supping on a signature moonshine cocktail and listening to the obligatory covers band. Service is pretty rubbish but it’s the only bar on Broadway that serves vegan food (other than French fries) so if you’re after some day drinking to Fleetwood Mac covers then this is the place for you.
At the eastern end of Broadway, overlooking the Cumberland River, is the confusing behemoth that is Acme Feed & Seed. It’s a combination of a couple of bars, restaurants, live music venue and a souvenir shop all under the same brand. Each floor is supposed to have a different “feel” but on a Saturday the atmosphere is general “drunk-bro” and it’s all a little overwhelming. The first floor restaurant serves up a couple of vegan options, however, and the beer selection is pretty impressive. The best spot here is the roof terrace, where you can take your food and drink and enjoy the mania of Broadway from a safe distance.
Smart vegans in Nashville go East, end of. This is where the hipsters are and everyone knows that a savvy vegan follows the hipsters. Here there’s a great selection of bars and restaurants that, whilst not exclusively vegan, will happily cater to the plant based diet. Most of the good stuff here is centred around Five Points but there’s an excellent cluster as well further out in Lockewood Springs.
For a cheap, quick and delicious scran then head to I Dream of Weenie, just south of Five Points. This is East Nashville’s only full service weenery, and probably the only one in the world that operates out of a converted yellow VW campervan. There’s a menu of about 15 hot dog options, all of which can be made with a soy dog (though some of the toppings have dairy and/or egg). I went for the classic, and absolutely delicious, “Frank and to the Point” topped with ketchup, mustard, sweet relish and onions. And all for only $3? Heck yes.
Five Points Pizza is probably where my love affair with Nashville began, all the way back in 2014. This superb pizza joint has vegan cheese available for all pizzas (and you can customise to your hearts content), a great selection of beers and incredibly friendly staff, but what makes this place truly amazing is the garlic knots. These delicious twists of pizza dough, covered in garlic (and parmesan but this can be omitted) and served with some dunking pizza sauce are so simple in theory but so gloriously delicious that ever since I had them 6 years ago ever other pizza based meal has been disappointing in comparison.
This place is usually pretty busy especially at weekends so be prepared to wait for a table – Duke’s is a dive bar a few minutes away that’s a good place to spend some time whilst you wait.
About 10 mins walk west from Five Points is Turnip Truck, which is an awesome mostly all organic supermarket that carries an incredibly impressive range of vegan foods. We were staying in an AirBnB not far from Five Points so this was an unbelievably excellent place for us. It’s a little on the pricey side and has a total Wholefoods vibe but there’s a huge focus on locally sourced produce and the staff are ridiculously friendly.
East Nashville is also incredibly lucky to have its own vegan deli, BE-hive. Open only at weekends, the deli also sells its products to other local stores and we were lucky enough to pick up some of their seitan steaks at Turnip Truck. Sadly we didn’t make it to the deli itself, which by the looks of things serves up some pretty tasty sandwiches as well as meats and cheeses to takeaway. They also run a pop up food truck at Rosemary cocktail bar at Five Points and offer an amazing selection of asian/mexican fusion tacos, bowls, and other appropriate late night grub.
A little further away from Downtown in Lockewood Springs there’s a ridiculously vegan friendly enclave around 1900 Eastland Avenue. Come here empty stomached and be amazed; there’s an outpost of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream as well as Five Daughters Bakery, both of which have excellent vegan options (the donuts at Five Daughters might be the best I’ve ever had). There are branches of both in the 12th Street South district of Nashville too, if you find yourself that side of town.
There are also two excellent restaurants here – Graze and Wild Cow. Graze is all vegan and does excellent brunches and dinners, think classic American grub, all incredibly fresh and delicious. They also specialise in breakfast biscuits (basically a softer fluffier scone for the Brits). Wild Cow is vegetarian with a huge number of vegan options and offers all day food with no specific breakfast menu. Both are excellent but Graze is the tiniest touch more refined and my favourite of the two.
For daytime drinking in East Nashville then The Pharmacy is a great spot just north of Five Points. It’s one of the few bars in the area with a large beer garden, and is an excellent place to drink the day away in the Tennessee sunshine. The beer list is excellent and they sell a couple of vegan burgers, including a black bean burger and the incredibly overpriced Impossible burger.
Finally, across the road from The Pharmacy, you’ll find Mas Tacos por Favor, a traditional Mexican taqueria that almost everyone we met told us to go to. It’s not vegan, or even vegetarian, but there are a couple of tacos on the menu that can be made vegan – sweet potato & quinoa and the excellent fried avocado. They also sell home made aqua frescas and horchata and there’s a full bar inside. The line can get long, and they do sell out, so best to arrive early.
So it turns out that the Southern USA in the early 19th century was a little obsessed with Ancient Greek architecture. Full evidence of this is in the rather bonkers Centennial Park, just west of Downtown Nashville, where there’s a full size replica of the Parthenon. There’s an art museum inside that costs $6 to visit, but it’s nice enough just hanging out in the park and enjoying what appears to be a bit of a microcosm of Nashville life. When we were there there were college students playing hacky sack, teenagers posing for photos in their prom outfits and, of course, buses of drunken stags & hens rocking up for a photo op before getting back on their booze bus.
Just north of the park is a pretty neat little Boxpark type of set up on City Ave. Here there are a few cute little bars and cafes in shipping containers arranged around a central outdoor seating area/beach volleyball pitch. There are two excellent vegan options here – AVO and Kokos. AVO is a very cool all vegan cafe and bar with delicious food menus, and despite the name not everything has got avocado in (yay for my allergic ass!). There’s a focus on raw dishes, but don’t let that put you off: we had kimchi cheese summer rolls which were amazing, plus a quinoa bowl and mushroom reuben. There’s a great selection of drinks too, and from 3pm to 6pm each day all draft beers are half price.
Kokos has been selling vegan coconut based ice cream in Nashville for a while, via their East Nashville weekend only “to go” shop and their pop up ice cream bikes. However we were incredibly lucky that they opened their new scoop shop pretty much next door to AVO the day before we visited. Now I call that fate. I tried their “lemon pie” and “she’s a peach” flavours and both were absolutely delicious.
Like most US cities, it’s pretty easy to get around Nashville using Uber. However there’s also a pretty good (if irregular) bus service which works out a whole heap cheaper and covers most of the city, including the airport. A single ride is $1.70 with a free transfer and an all day pass, which covers the whole network, is $3.25.
Buses don’t give change in cash but do give you a change card which you can use as credit against your next ride. There are also two free circuit buses that stop at all of the main downtown sights. Most bus routes start at the Music City Downtown bus station right by Capitol Hill where you can also pick up route and timetable information, and there’s plenty of info online too.