A slice of Nashville: War and peace way down south

Cate Huguelet finds Civil War remnants and musical stardust in Tennessee's state capital

Visits to Nashville can assume a vampiric quality, with nights spent soaking in the brassy honkytonks and days squandered sleeping it off. Yet rhinestone-studded, strictly nocturnal itineraries offer only a blinkered view of the city. The 150th anniversary this year of the Battle of Nashville – one of the Civil War's final decisive clashes – makes a good occasion for a daytime walk illuminating the city centre's role in the American story.

Begin your walk at the north face of the Tennessee State Capitol, accessible via a stone staircase on 6th Avenue North. Though the Confederate forces were defeated before they could advance on the city centre, much of Nashville's thorny history in the years surrounding the war condenses on this hill, Downtown's highest point.

At the building's north-east corner, a plaque marks the grave of its architect, William Strickland, whose body rests within its limestone walls. Strickland's Greek Revival vision – completed in 1859, 16 years after Nashville became the permanent seat of Tennessee's state government, and five years before the battle – was realised partly with slave labour. Shortly after the 1861 outbreak of the Civil War, Tennessee's legislature would vote here to secede from the Union.

Look north, across the grassy hillside and the well-groomed Bicentennial Mall beyond. Now a city-centre sanctuary for joggers and families, these grounds once witnessed a very different scene: in 1862, Nashville, with its valuable rail and shipping connections, was taken over by the Union. While the state's government fled west to Memphis, Union forces set up shop at the Capitol, fortifying the site with artillery and erecting encampments on the sloping lawns.

Return to the top of the stairs; rather than descending, turn right and follow the footpath through the east gardens for 150 yards, passing the tomb of President James Polk (1845-9) and the equestrian sculpture of President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) – both Tennesseans. At the gardens' southern end is a statue of Andrew Johnson, presidential successor to Abraham Lincoln. During Nashville's occupation, Lincoln named the Southern, but pro-Union, Johnson military governor of Tennessee. As governor, Johnson ordered local public figures to the Capitol to swear loyalty to the Union or go to jail.

With some wartime history under your belt, you're ready to taste Nashville's culinary heritage. Take the winding stairs beyond the Johnson statue down to Charlotte Avenue, crossing the street and then turning right. Just beyond 6th Avenue North, head south through Legislative Plaza, a hotspot for lunching office workers and political protesters alike. Turn left at the plaza's end and right at 6th Avenue North. At No 231, allow a top-hatted doorman to usher you into the Hermitage Hotel.

Admire the soaring lobby of this 1910 Beaux-Arts hotel before proceeding downstairs to the Capitol Grille (001 615 345 7116; capitolgrillenashville.com). In this snug subterranean dining room, moustachioed chef Tyler Brown serves upscale Southern comfort food. On weekdays, the rotating blue plate special – a meat dish, such as fried chicken, with two side items – makes for a hearty lunch.

To explore another chapter in Nashville's history, exit the Hermitage, turn left and then right on to Union Street, and right again on to 5th Avenue North. A century on from the Civil War, the city was embroiled in the battle to end racial segregation. Beginning in 1959, hundreds of African-American college students staged sit-ins at the lunch counters that once occupied the rather anonymous buildings at Nos 221-225, 224-226, and 237. Though the demonstrators faced sometimes violent resistance and arrest, they eventually prevailed; by mid-1960, the counters were open to all.

Continue south to the end of the block; at the south-east corner of 5th Avenue North and Church Street is the Downtown Presbyterian Church. Designed in Egyptian Revival style by Capitol architect Strickland, it was a hospital in the Civil War.

Continue along 5th Avenue North for two blocks. At No 116 stands the Ryman Auditorium (001 615 889 3060; ryman.com). The clerical feel of its arching neo-Gothic windows is no whimsy – the building was conceived in 1892 as an evangelical tabernacle. As home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 until 1974, it hosted artists such as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, and was dubbed the Mother Church by disciples of the religion of country music. Today, it serves as an intimate venue for diverse musical acts.

From here, turn left on to Broadway, a strip of bars and tatty souvenir shops presided over by kitschy neon signs. At 3rd Avenue South, turn right and stroll for 10 minutes until you reach Lea Avenue. Turn left and, after two blocks, right on to Rutledge Street. Here you'll find newly-opened Husk Restaurant (001 615 256 6565; husknashville.com), at No 37, housed in a converted late-19th-century home. Tuck into award-winner Sean Brock's crispy pig ears – or retreat to the bar and contemplate Nashville's past, bourbon in hand.

Fresh cuts

Nashville has made great strides towards embracing cycling culture, opening the 26-mile Music City Bikeway and introducing B-Cycle (above; 001 615 625 2153; nashville.bcycle.com), a bike-hire programme with 21 stations around town (a 24-hour B-Cycle pass costs $5/£3, covering unlimited journeys of one hour or less).

This winter, Nashville letterpress institution Hatch Show Print (001 615 256 2805; hatchshowprint.com) relocated to 224 5th Avenue South. In its shiny new digs, visitors can watch print-makers at work. Whether a new design, or one produced from the shop's archives, a Hatch print makes a unique Nashville souvenir.

Travel essentials

Getting there

 

With no more non-stop flights from the UK to Nashville, you will have to change planes. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and its partner American Airlines can get you there from Heathrow or Manchester via Chicago; returns from £521. Delta (0871 221 1222; delta.com) and United (0845 607 6760; unitedairlines.co.uk) fly via a number of North American hubs.

Staying there

Housed in a converted 1900 railway station, the centrally-located Union Station Hotel (001 615 726 1001; unionstationhotelnashville.com) combines 21st-century comfort with Gilded-Age splendour. Doubles start at $199 (£121), room only.

Go guided

Echoes of Nashville (001 615 554 0053; echoesofnashville.com) offers group walking tours of the city centre from $15 (£9.40).

More information

visitmusiccity.com

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