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As a native to Nashville, Tennessee, I love to tell everyone about my home city. There’s just something special about the Nashville way. We smile and say hello to strangers. We help each other recover after floods or tornadoes. And we never, ever pester our resident celebrities, who can be seen around town getting groceries just like — gasp — regular people.
(Wink, wink) Can you say that, L.A.?
Once known mostly for Music Row and honky-tonks, Nashville has become a destination for family travel. As your homegrown guide, I’m here to share the best tips to plan your vacation in my city. Whether you love music or history, camping or resorts, here’s a list of the best things to do with your kids in Nashville.
One of my favorite things to do with my kids is walk through downtown Nashville. Start on Broadway at Bridgestone Arena, the home of the Nashville Predators. You’ll be in the heart of Nashville’s tourist district. Honky-tonks and bars like Robert’s Western World dominate the area, but the best stops for kids are Savannah’s Candy Kitchen on Broadway and Mike’s Ice Cream on Second Avenue. Continue walking to the riverfront off of First Avenue to explore along the Cumberland River, with a walking trail near Ascend Amphitheater, views of Nissan Stadium where the Tennessee Titans play, and a reconstruction of Fort Nashborough. Ready to go off the beaten path? Walk up to the historic Arcade between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. Built in 1902, the eclectic shopping area is popular with the lunchtime crowd (I recommend trying candy by the pound at The Peanut Shop or grabbing a slice at Manny’s House of Pizza). Next, walk three blocks to the Nashville Library, which has a remarkable children’s area including storytimes with puppets and entertainers. A central courtyard, a grand reading room, and a civil rights room make the library a lovely place to relax after a long walk. If you prefer a guided tour of the city, I highly recommend United Street Tours, which offers a unique perspective on historic and contemporary Nashville with an emphasis on Black History. And yes, you can even book them for food tours and mural tours, perfect for those Instagram selfies.
There’s just something special about the Nashville way. We smile and say hello to strangers. We help each other recover after floods or tornadoes. And we never, ever pester our resident celebrities.
Frist Art Museum
The Frist Art Museum is one of my favorite rainy day activities. The museum features world-class exhibits on art and history. However, the true draw for our family is Martin ArtQuest, an interactive area for families to develop their own artistic skills. My kids run straight to the stop-motion animation displays and the giant light board. The drawing, painting, and printmaking stations are popular and often are themed to go along with current exhibits. ArtQuest is a safe space for kids to explore, but all ages are welcome. I see adults sketching and painting each time I go, and I have a few treasured prints I’ve made as keepsakes of our visits. A cafe on the lower level of the museum is a convenient place for a meal or snack in the middle of the day. Before leaving the area, be sure to walk next door to visit the Union Station Hotel and peek at the railroad tracks behind the building.
Country Music Hall of Fame and National Museum of African American Music
Add a soundtrack to your visit to Music City with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (CMHOF). The memorabilia in the museum is enjoyable for country music fans, and kids can have fun with interactive games, scavenger hunts, and recording booths. My favorite part of the museum is the educational programming offered throughout the year. Classes on songwriting, mandolin-playing, costume design, and more are offered in the Taylor Swift Education Center (yes, Swifties, you also can find several of Taylor’s costumes in the museum). After exploring the Country Music Hall of Fame, walk a couple of blocks over to the National Museum of African American Music. Opening in the fall of 2020, this museum will trace the evolution of American music and the influence of African American traditions from spirituals and the blues to present-day hip-hop and R&B. Can’t get enough of Nashville’s music history? You also can visit the Johnny Cash Museum, the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, and the community-run Jefferson Street Sound Museum. If you’re a live music fan, check out NowPlayingNashville for local shows. While tourist favorites like The Bluebird Cafe often aren’t suitable for kids, all-ages shows can be found at area parks, local record stores like Grimey’s, and historic venues such as the Ryman Auditorium.
When it’s time to cool down, hit one of Nashville’s water parks. Nashville Shores is located about 20 minutes from downtown and includes water slides, a wave pool, a lakefront beach, and a lazy river. The park also has a ropes course and offers cabin and RV site rentals. Visitors staying at the Gaylord Opryland Resort have access to the indoor/outdoor SoundWaves water park for a full day of family fun. Staying at the Opryland resort is like being on a cruise ship, with restaurants, shops, and entertainment within easy, indoor walking distance. If you’re planning your trip on a budget, then plan on a stop at Wave Country. As a park run by the city, Wave Country offers admission to its giant wave pool, five water slides, and kiddo splash area for only $12 a person.
Nashville Farmers’ Market and Bicentennial Park
For a touch of local Nashville life, head to Bicentennial Mall and the Nashville Farmers’ Market. The surrounding area was hit by Nashville’s recent tornado, but many businesses are repaired and open for customers. The indoor food court at the Farmers’ Market offers a taste of Nashville’s varied food scene, including Jamaican, Indian, and Korean options as well as Southern barbeque. In the outdoor farm sheds, you can sample and buy local produce, homemade jams, and artisan goods. The market is next to Bicentennial Mall, which includes walking paths, splash areas, and a self-guided timeline of Tennessee History. Continue the history lesson by strolling to the nearby Tennessee State Museum, where admission is free. Then top off your afternoon with a stop at the wonderful Cupcake Collection in the Germantown neighborhood. Their sweet potato cupcake is award-winning, and they offer vegan and gluten-free options as well.
Adventure Science Center and Fort Negley
The Adventure Science Center is a fun-filled stop for families with young children. Start with the SoundBox exhibit, a music-centric area with plenty to keep everyone entertained (my kids may have had to drag me out of the karaoke booth). If you have climbers, they’ll head straight for the central Adventure Tower, which rises 75 feet through the center of the museum. Climb to the very top of the tower for a beautiful view of the Nashville skyline, then exit on the third floor and find the museum’s bee colony.
After your time at the museum, walk down the hill to Fort Negley, the remains of a civil-war era fort that was built in 1862 by Black men, women, and children who were pressed into service. High atop St. Cloud Hill, the stone fortifications offer a stunning view of the city and a glimpse into Nashville’s complicated history. The Fort Negley Visitors Center offers maps and exhibits, along with an outdoor fossil pit where anyone can sort through rocks from a nearby quarry and discover fossils to take home. If you need a quick pick-me-up after all the history and science, head to nearby Gabby’s Burgers for a shake or some sweet potato fries.
The Nashville Zoo at Grassmere
The Nashville Zoo at Grassmere is one of our regular stops throughout the year. With tree lined walkways and plenty of outdoor spaces, the zoo is a beautiful place to experience close-up looks at remarkable animals. The tiger and Andean bear exhibits are particularly thrilling stops — the bears are known for swimming up to the viewing area and jumping and dancing with delighted kids. The tigers, on the other hand, tend to nap right by their exhibit window, often with a giant paw pressed against the glass. The zoo has a state-of-the-art veterinary center that allows visitors to view baby animals in the nursery and even observe minor medical procedures. After visiting the animals, drive one mile to Plaza Mariachi for a beautiful indoor food court filled with world cuisine and live music. When my kids are hot and tired after spending hours at the zoo, paletas or churros from Plaza Mariachi are just what we need to finish out a fun day.
Midtown’s Centennial Park is one of Nashville’s most iconic locations thanks to playgrounds, amphitheaters, and a full-size replica of the Parthenon. A couple of miles away, Fannie Mae Dees Park (a.k.a. “Dragon Park”) offers an ADA-accessible playground and is home to a remarkable mosaic dragon sculpture that is perfect for a game of hide and seek. Ready for a quieter pace? Visit Radnor Lake or Beaman Park to hike forest trails and watch for local wildlife. If you’re looking for more outdoor adventure, try Montgomery Bell State Park and Cedars of Lebanon State Park, which offer sites for RV and tent camping as well as cabins.
When You Go
Nashville International Airport (BNA) is about 15 minutes from downtown and offers service with multiple national and international airlines, including Southwest, American, and British Airways.
For lodging, there are a wide variety of hotels in the downtown and midtown areas of the city. For a local experience, try a vacation rental in the East Nashville or 12 South neighborhoods.
Plan on renting a car or using rideshare services. Public transportation is limited. (Shoutout to the girls’ trip that I ferried to the car rental place after they discovered the bus did not go anywhere near their Airbnb.)
Now that I’ve shared a few of my favorite spots, you’re set to begin your Nashville trip planning. And all this? Just a taste of what my city has to offer. See you soon!
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