The city has also expanded its appeal with the new National Museum of African American Music, as well as Woolworth on 5th, a restaurant that preserves the site of a civil rights sit-in.
Other restaurants include Rolf and Daughters, whose chef was named a James Beard 2022 finalist, and classics such as Loveless Cafe, known for its cookies, country ham and red-eye sauce, and Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, where the spicy Nashville craze began.
You’ll need to book in advance for a room at places like the 21C Museum Hotel, which is part of a group of artsy hotels with curated exhibitions. And there’s always the elegantly renovated Hotel Hermitage, which opened in 1910.
Location: Nashville is in north central Tennessee, with direct flights from many major airports.
Musical icons found in Florence decades ago, and travelers still follow
There is an alternative only about two hours away. Florence, Ala., and three other nearby towns, collectively called the Shoals, have much of Music City’s appeal without the traffic and crowds. In fact, many studio musicians choose to live here and travel to Nashville for gigs.
Centered on the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama, the area is best known for its recording studios, Muscle Shoals Sound in the city of Sheffield and Fame in the adjacent town of Muscle Shoals, where icons such as the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and Aretha Franklin made music.
Both studios offer tours, and it can get emotional at Muscle Shoals Sound. “I’ve seen grown men cry when they walk into the studio,” says Judy Hood, wife of bassist David Hood, one of the legendary Swampers, a group of session musicians heard on many songs recorded there.
You’ll often find a live band at places like FloBama in Florence or Rattlesnake Saloon, a restaurant and bar tucked under an overhanging cliff in Tuscumbia.
Tuscumbia is also home to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, honoring stars such as Hank Williams Sr., and featuring exhibits such as the Alabama band’s tour bus.
Like Nashville, the Shoals have appeal beyond music. Florence is a university town with an artistic vibe. Fashion designers Billy Reid and Natalie Chanin live and have shops here, the latter offering multi-day clothing design workshops. It is also home to the Rosenbaum House, a cozy building by Frank Lloyd Wright open for tours.
Just outside of town, you’ll find Tom’s Wall, an amazing piece of environmental art. Created over 30 years ago by the late Tom Hendrix, this approximately one-mile-long stone fence winds through a pine forest. It honors his great-great-grandmother, a Native American woman who was forced to leave Alabama on the Trail of Tears, but missed her home so much that she walked back from Oklahoma.
In Tuscumbia, you can visit Ivy Green, the birthplace of Helen Keller, and see the pump where teacher Anne Sullivan spelled the letters of water onto the hand of her deaf-blind student, who would become internationally renowned as an advocate for people with disabilities.
The local menu offers more than barbecue, although it is also available. Celebrity chef John Currence of Oxford, Mississippi, runs an outpost of his aptly named Big Bad Breakfast cafe. Odette serves produce and meats from surrounding farms and serves pours from an extensive and acclaimed list of bourbons.
To call it a night, check into one of Florence’s boutique hotels. The GunRunner has a large open living room and 10 themed suites. Or try the Stricklin Hotel, a converted retail building with a vintage-style bowling alley in the basement.
Location: Florence is in northwest Alabama, approximately 200 miles southwest of Nashville or 110 miles west of Huntsville, Alabama.
Bleiberg is a Charlottesville-based writer. Find him on Instagram: @lbleiberg.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.