From its founding as a backcountry trading post to its ascendancy as the “Country Music Capital of the World,” Nashville has played a significant role in the nation’s history for over two centuries. The city offers historic landmarks, buildings, museums and attractions that are fun and educational for the whole family. Located in and around Music City, several of these historic places are stops along the Old Town Trolley Tour, making it easy to visit and learn more about these popular attractions. This guide will help you explore the city’s fascinating historic sites while on vacation.
President Rutherford B. Hayes laid the Customs House cornerstone in 1877. Opening five years later, the federal building housed the post office as well as the area offices for the Treasury and Justice Departments. Designed by William Appleton, the ornate stone building features a Victorian Gothic-style with a soaring central clock tower. Exterior architectural details include lancet windows and a deep inset triple-arched entrance. Considered nonessential by the federal government in the 1990s, the building was repurposed as private office space.
The late-Victorian Romanesque Revival-style Union Station was completed in 1900. A passenger terminal for several rail lines until 1979, the site was a way station for Al Capone during his trip to a Georgia penitentiary. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the landmark building experienced years of neglect until it was converted into a luxury hotel. The majestic lobby features a barrel-vaulted, 65-foot-high ceiling enclosed by Tiffany-styled stained glass. Modern conveniences combine with the opulent public spaces that are filled with architectural details like wrought iron and Italian marble. The likeness of Mercury adorns the clock tower.
Headquartered on Music Square East, Curb Records is an independent music label founded by Mike Curb in 1964. The label’s top recordings include hits by legendary artists like the Righteous Brothers, Roy Orbison and Tim McGraw as well as Gloria Gaynor, the Judds and LeAnn Rimes. A philanthropist, Curb has been instrumental in restoring historic buildings, including Columbia’s Historic Quonset Hut, a recording studio originally established by Owen Bradley, and the Johnny Cash Museum. Curb is honored with a star on the Music City Walk of Fame. The company operates a retail shop that offers a wide selection of vinyl records, DVDs and specialty merchandise.
The Renaissance Revival-style Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged buildings were constructed in 1916. The complex occupies more than two acres on Horton Street between 17th and 18th Avenues. The main, E-shaped four-story building is a historically significant example of early-20th century architecture. The Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic relief agency, operated the home until 1968. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the buildings have been repurposed to house the Nashville offices of BMG Music Publishing. The main building’s chapel has been converted into a concert hall for various live music and video performances.
Situated southwest of downtown, Music Row is home to several businesses and attractions related to the city’s musical heritage. Considered the heart of Nashville’s entertainment industry, the Music Row area is centered on 16th and 17th Avenues South, which are known as Music Square East and West respectively. Points of interest in the district include the historic RCA Studio B, Columbia’s Historic Quonset Hut, the first recording studio on Music Row, and Owen Bradley Park as well as numerous shops and upscale eateries. “Musica,” a large bronze statue designed by Alan LeQuire, is the centerpiece of the Music Row Roundabout.
A quintessential neighborhood watering hole, Bobby’s Idle Hour is the only live entertainment venue on Nashville’s famous Music Row. The bar’s stage features legendary acts as well as aspiring performers. In addition to pizza and other pub grub, patrons enjoy comedy acts as well as country and bluegrass music in this haven for singers and songwriters. A guitar hangs on the wall for anyone who wants to perform an original score on the tavern’s stage.
The West End Methodist Church traces its origins to an 1869 religious mission that originally met in a repurposed army barracks. The congregation erected a wood-frame church six years later. The building was replaced by a brick edifice in 1890. Fifty years later, the congregation moved to their current building. The completed sanctuary was dedicated in 1948. The towering stone church features customized stained glass windows by the Italian-born artist Nicola D’Ascenzo, a cloister garden and a 136-rank Moller organ, the largest pipe organ in the mid-South. Renowned for its music program, the church sponsors a variety of concerts throughout the year.
The Marathon Motors Factory is a popular must-visit on any Nashville sightseeing itinerary, located in the heart of downtown Nashville. The four-block complex of cultural offerings, includes an array of music recording studios, numerous shops, a film production company, artist’s and photographer’s studios, a radio station, a distillery, a winery and more. Read on to learn more about this attraction and what you can expect when you visit during your vacation in Nashville.
The 1,400-foot-long Pathway of History is an engraved wall featuring important historical events that played an integral role in the culture and heritage of the Volunteer State from 1776-1996. Granite pylons, representing each decade, serve as stone tablets. There’s a symbolic break in the wall during the Civil War period to denote how the state was divided during that period. The pathway also includes a World War II Memorial with its floating 9-ton granite globe, a memorial to the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Walkway of Counties that includes time capsules from every county.
Located on the northern edge of Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park near Jefferson Street, the 95-bell carillon represents the musical heritage of the citizens of Tennessee. There is a bell for each of the Volunteer State’s 95 counties. Each quarter hour, the carillon plays a portion of the Tennessee Waltz. At the top of every hour, the 50-tower carillon plays the entire song. A 96th bell on the capitol grounds rings an answer symbolizing the government answering the call of the people.
The limestone Greek Revival style Tennessee State Capitol was designed by William Strickland whose remains are interred near the building’s cornerstone. The tower was inspired by the monument to Lysicrates in Athens. Completed in 1859, the national historic landmark is one of the country’s oldest working capitols. In addition to large ornate chandeliers, the interior features incredible frescoes, portraits and other artwork. The Capitol Grounds display statues of Presidents Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson as well as Sergeant Alvin York. The site also includes the tomb of President James Polk. The building and grounds are open for public tours.
The plaza is located adjacent to the east wing of the War Memorial Building, which was constructed to honor Tennesseans who died during World War I. Overlooked by the State Capitol, the plaza is a central connecting point for the statehouse, the War Memorial Building, the State Museum and the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. It is an open space used for various public events. The plaza contains a statue designed by Belle Kinney that is dedicated to the Women of the Confederacy and a monument by Russell Faxon that honors the state’s Korean War veterans.
Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is a renowned honky-tonk bar located behind the iconic Ryman Auditorium. The lounge, featuring three stages, hosts a variety of live musical performances every night by local artists. Located on Broadway in downtown, Tootsie’s nurtured the careers of several country music legends. According to local lore, Willie Nelson received his first songwriting job after singing at Tootsie’s. The interior walls are decorated with memorabilia from numerous famous and not-so famous artists who have performed on an Orchid Lounge stage.
A native of the Volunteer State, Chet Atkins was a highly regarded musician and producer who signed Charley Pride, country music’s first African-American singer. After Atkins’ death in 2001, Bank of America commissioned Tennessee sculptor Russell Faxon to create a statue in his honor. The life-sized bronze statue of Atkins is situated outside their Nashville headquarters at the corner of Fifth Avenue North and Union Street. Atkins is depicted sitting on a stool and playing a guitar.
A National Historic Landmark, the Downtown Presbyterian Church was built in 1851. State Capitol architect William Strickland designed the building, which is one of the country’s largest and best-preserved examples of Egyptian Revival style architecture. Serving as a Union military hospital during the Civil War, the church was renovated in the 1880s. The interior, painted to resemble an Egyptian temple, features walnut benches and vivid motifs like winged globes representing the Egyptian sun god Amun-Ra, which signifies eternity. The 4,000-pound church bell, donated by Adelicia Acklen, served as the city fire alarm for more than two decades.
Founded in 1947 by Grand Ole Opry star Ernest Tubb, the music store is a one-stop shop for country and bluegrass sheet music, records and memorabilia. This charming store offers a wide variety of works by contemporary and classic artists. The store is famous for stocking obscure and forgotten musicians as well as their ability to locate hard-to-find releases. With its creaking hardwood floors and walls lined with autographed photos, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop is an essential stop for people interested in Nashville’s rich homespun cultural legacy.
Johnny Cash Museum is across the street from the Goo Goo Shop, a confectionery store that offers a wide range of retro candies and other sweet treats. Visitors can watch confectioners make handmade Goo Goo clusters.
Also known as the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, the span over the Cumberland River connects downtown Riverfront Park on the west bank with Cumberland Park on the eastern shore. It is one of the world’s longest pedestrian-only bridges. Dramatically lit at night, the overpass offers expansive views of the river and Nashville’s skyline. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Cumberland Park features sandboxes, spray fountains, a climbing wall and walking trails. Riverfront Park is home to a 1,200-seat amphitheater that hosts summer concerts as well as the New Year’s Eve and July 4 festivals.
Containing a full-scale replica of the original statue of Athena, the Parthenon was constructed in 1897 for the Tennessee Centenary Exposition. The 42-foot tall Athena Parthenos sculpture is the tallest indoor artistic work of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. While other exposition buildings were removed, the Parthenon was preserved as a museum. In addition to its elaborate statue, the building houses sculptures and paintings by 19th- and 20th-century American artists. A precise copy of the original Parthenon in Athens, the edifice sits atop a rolling hill in Centennial Park adjacent to a duck pond.
Situated in Nashville’s West End Neighborhood, Centennial Park is a lush oasis that offers a tranquil respite from the glittering lights of Lower Broadway, Music City’s Honk Tonk Highway. One of the most beloved parks in town, this gorgeous natural setting occupies 132 acres. The site has served as a fairground, a racetrack and the location for the 1897 Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition. The recreation area welcomes visitors of all ages with a variety of attractions and activities.