48 hours in ... Nashville

You can spot the stars just about anywhere in Music City, but you don't have to be a fan to mosey on down to the country capital, finds Lauren St John
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The Independent Culture
Why go now?

In September, Nashville comes alive. As summer slips into autumn, temperatures drop below 32C and schools reopen, the town relaxes and celebrates the music and hospitality for which it is famous. Whether you are travelling in style or on a tight budget, a long weekend in Music City can be an unforgettable whirl of open-air concerts, al fresco meals on the Cumberland river, star-spotting, and pine-scented walks along the Natchez Trace.

Beam down

Since American Airlines abandoned its loss-making route from Gatwick, there have been no direct flights from London to Nashville. But there is a good variety of connecting flights on American, Continental, Delta, Northwest and United. Expect to pay around pounds 350, including tax.

Get your bearings

Arm yourself with a copy of the Nashville Scene, an elegant free paper which lists the week's essential arts events and where to find them. Residents of Nashville pride themselves on their friendliness, so do not be surprised if a request for a milkshake turns into a discussion about the Royal Family, Uncle Bud's impending visit or Auntie May's illness.

Like most American cities, Nashville is designed for drivers and not pedestrians. However, Second Avenue and the downtown area have enough shops and restaurants to keep you occupied for hours (Gruhn Guitars and the Big River Grill are my favourites), and when you are tired, you can sit in the shade by the river. For fans of American football, the soon- to-be-renamed Houston Oilers have recently moved into Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville.

Check in

The most famous motel in Nashville is Shoney's on Demonbreun (001 615 255 9977), an unprepossessing establishment in its own right, but the first stop for every dreamer who has ever arrived in Music City hoping to be the next Hank Williams or Mary Chapin Carpenter. Demonbreun, better known as Music Row, is home to country's biggest record labels, management offices and recording studios, plus souvenir shops and guitar-strumming Patsy Cline wannabes. A two-person room costs $88.68 including tax.

If size is your criterion for a good hotel, revel in the mammoth, glitzy, 3,000-room Opryland Hotel, with its coloured fountains, indoor jungle, designer shops and other tourist traps. Usually best visited in winter when the trees are hung with lights, it's also handy for the Grand Ole Opry. For luxury and convenience, try the Westin Hermitage on Sixth Ave (001 615 244 3121), which has the added advantage of the Capitol Grill, a pricey but excellent restaurant. Rooms start at a bargain $100 per night for a double if you get a weekend special.

For other options call the Visitor Information Centre on 001 615 259 4747.

Take a ride

Nashville is so sprawling and offers so many far-flung attractions that a hire car is handy. That said, it is not difficult to do without one. The Nashville Trolley Co (001 615 862 5950) operates a shuttle service in the downtown and Music Row areas, with an additional route to the Opryland Hotel. The fare is $1. Music City Taxis (001 615 262 0451) and an airport shuttle service (001 615 242 4433) are also available. Opryland USA River Taxis and the General Jackson showboat, which cruise the beautiful Cumberland river, offer an alternative, more tranquil, view of Nashville.

Lunch on the run

Nashville's hokey image might lead one to believe it is a hamburger and grits kind of town, but it actually has some of the most delicious food found anywhere in the South. Planet Hollywood and other tourist traps are conveniently situated on Second Avenue, but it is worth making the effort to visit the restaurants favoured by locals. For a quick lunch, try the Elliston Place Soda Shop (an old-fashioned diner with vanilla malt shakes to die for), Provence or Mosko's for sandwiches and salads, or the Calypso for heavenly fruit tea and low-cost Caribbean food.

Cultural asides

Much of Nashville's culture centres around the music for which it is known, but if you venture beyond the Country Music Hall of Fame there is much on offer. Take a trip out to the Hermitage, home of the seventh US President, Andrew Jackson, or visit the Tennessee State Museum (001 615 741 2692) or Belle Meade Plantation, a restored 1850s mansion. Historic Franklin, a quaint town with a wonderful cinema with sofa seating, is also worth a visit if you have time. The Judds and other country stars have their home here.

The Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Ole Opry, has the best acoustics in Nashville (001 615 889 3060). Bye Bye Love - The Everly Brothers Musical is showing there until 24 October, while the Texas Troubadour Theatre hosts A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline until the end of the year. The audience can be as interesting as the show.

Sundowners

Downtown Nashville has more than its fair share of outstanding restaurants. The upmarket Cake Walk and The Sunset Grill, where Lucinda Williams and other stars hang, out are just two of them. But for restaurants that live on in the memory, it is sometimes necessary to travel. The Monterey, a down home Mexican restaurant with soap operas to match, is a local favourite. Best of all is the Blue Moon Cafe (001 615 352 5892), a 20-minute drive out of the city but worth every mile. Sit out on the jetty and watch the sun go down while eating lobster tail in mango salsa, or camp-fired trout in lemon and garlic.

Night music

Nashville is home to a thriving alternative, contemporary Christian and blues scene, but if it's country you've come for, it's not hard to find. Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and Roberts's Western Lounge might be full of tourists, but everyone from Terri Clark to BR549 got their start here. Line dance at the Wildhorse Saloon (001 615 902 8200) or dial 24-Blues for the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar in Printer's Alley. For searing torch singing, don't miss Jonell Mosser, a regular at Third and Lindsley (001 615 259 9891), or The Sutler for gifted local bands. Stadium acts such as LeAnn Rimes and Aerosmith perform at the Starwood Ampitheatre or soulless Nashville Arena, a futuristic version of the Eiffel Tower.

Nashville's real heart lies somewhere between The Bluebird Cafe and The Grand Ole Opry. The former, a Nashville institution which featured in the River Phoenix film The Thing Called Love, hosts songwriters' nights and intimate evenings with veterans and aspiring stars. The Grand Ole Opry (001 615 889 6611) is, of course, the stuff of legend, and legends such as Porter Wagner and Little Jimmy Dickens make regular appearances in 10-gallon hats and purple sequinned flares that would have them arrested in other rhinestoneless parts of the globe. Too much fun to miss.

If you'd rather not sleep, Graham Central has four floors of dancing, including jazz, country, techno and disco. For a more sedate evening, go to the free open-air concert Dancing in the District, held every Thursday, or attend a television taping of Prime Time Country at Studio A in the Grand Ole Opry (tickets are free but reservations are necessary on 001 615 889 6611).

Flat-out breakfast

Don't pass up the opportunity to start the day at the Pancake Pantry (001 615 383 9333), a unique experience and as good a breakfast as you'll find anywhere on earth. Garth Brooks and Pam Tillis eat there and who can blame them? Since Nashville is known as the buckle of the Bible Belt and Baptist book publishing is one of its biggest industries, there are churches on every corner. The Cathedral of the Incarnation on West End is one of the most beautiful.

Take a hike

If the steel guitars get too much for you, take a ride out to the Natchez Trace for some peace and quiet. Head west out of Nashville on Highway 100 until you come to the Loveless Cafe and the calm forests of the 450- mile Trace. Cycle or hike along the centuries-old trail used by pioneers, postal carriers and Indians. If you don't have a car, stroll through Centennial Park, which, rather incongruously, has a scale-replica of the Parthenon, and occasional live music.

Finally, put the cap on 48 perfect hours by enjoying cocktails at the award-winning Bound'ry (001 615 321 3043).

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