A Backpack’s-Eye View of East Nashville

I find it really silly and almost cute when people say that the United States has no culture. First of all, just on logical grounds that’s a ridiculous statement — the definition of ‘culture‘ is basically just all the stuff that happens when a group of people get together and live in the same area for a long time.

But also because of cities like Nashville, and especially East Nashville.

There are some American cities that are just fucking cool in a very American way. New Orleans, Austin, and Portland all come to mind, and Nashville definitely belongs on that list with them. I think what makes these cities all so attractive is their distinct local culture: cuisine, music, the arts, nightlife, or just that special vibe that some cities have.

east nashville backpacking mural

Public art, a church, the tail light of a pickup truck, with the Country Music Hall of Fame just hidden on the other side of the building in the foreground. Oh yeah, this is definitely Nashville.

Nashville has all those things, and they’re particularly concentrated in East Nashville, a magical little land where yuppies, hipsters, and evangelical Christians coexist peacefully and get drunk together in Five Points every night.
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After missing a train in Palatka and exploring the Bosnian immigrant community in St. Louis the week before, Nashville was my next stop on my latest backpacking trip. My first day in town, I headed straight for East Nashville. It was a work day for me, so I headed to Barista Parlor, a coffee shop hidden behind a strip mall on the side of Gallatin Avenue, the main commuter road otherwise lined by dollar stores and churches and other things of suburban need.

Barista Parlor looks like it used to be an auto repair garage or something. The building alone gives it an entirely novel atmosphere and, with an open garage door where a wall would otherwise be, leaves the place straddling the line between indoor and outdoor venue.

east nashville backpacking barista parlor

The parking lot that sort of doubles as a front yard for Barista Parlor. Doesn’t exactly scream coffee shop when you walk by.

You’ll see big beards and thick glasses and tattoo sleeves everywhere here (especially behind the counter), attached to friendly faces that seem pretty genuinely jazzed by the fact that you’re visiting Nashville. The coffee is around $5, but you get a fancy little glass caraffe filled with 12 ounces (~350ml) of flavor, and nobody seems to mind if you just sort of hang around all day after that. It’s perfect for backpacker types who need somewhere to spend the day getting work done like I did.

east nashville backpacking barista motorcycle

The open-air interior of Barista Parlor, with decor like this all over.

After leaving the parlor I met my Couchsurfing host, a laid back French musician named Melvil, who lived up on the northern edge of East Nashville in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Melvil is one of the least French French people I’ve ever met, but I still ended up getting an ornate home-cooked meal and a glass of imported wine prepared for me before we headed out to East Nashville for the night.

First we went to see some live music in an art collective/record label hybrid in East Nashville. Fond Object Records looks like a shabby residential house, and in the back yard they host some small shows. Five bucks each got us all the music and as many beers from the keg as we wanted. All of the bands except one just randomly happened to be Spanish-speaking, and at least one of them was pretty damn good, I thought.

Once we had our fill of tunes and cheap beer, Melvil took me down a bit further into the heart of East Nashville, Five Points.

We headed to 3 Crow Bar, where I tried the local drink, the ‘Bushwhacker’ (basically a vodka milkshake, kinda gross actually). The place had a fantastic local young vibe, and I’m so glad we went there, because by the next night it had been destroyed by a drunk driver.

 


Thankfully, they had their priorities in order: no matter how many walls remained standing, the beers keep coming at 3 Crow Bar.

east nashville backpacking Varallo's

For backpackers on a budget, I aggressively recommend Varallo’s downtown. For $5 you can start the day disgustingly full of good Southern breakfast.

East Nashville is the logical go-to for backpackers, and otherwise pretty much unanimously agreed to be the coolest part of town, but the rest of Nashville is doing a good job of keeping up with it. The downtown area has heavy tints of country music and Vanderbilt students, but aside from the main tourist drag and the honkytonks on Broadway, there’s something for every backpacker.

After two days my host had another Couchsurfer coming in, so for my last two nights I relocated to the Nashville Downtown Hostel. There are two backpackers’ hostels in Nashville (under the same ownership), and they’re both an insane $40 a night, but aside from that, Nashville Downtown was one of the nicest hostels I’ve stayed in in a while. Right on the river and in the heart of downtown, the location is perfect. With it being a larger hostel, the common areas are very well separated from the dorms, which means you can play with the other backpackers downstairs as long as you like without interrupting anyone’s sleep. Friendly staff, well-equipped kitchen, and rooms as clean as can be.

I probably spent more time in Varallo’s Chile Parlor and Restaurant than I did in the hostel, simply because the hostel had nothing that looked or tasted like the picture to the left. This hole in the wall has got a lot of local history, and holy fucking oh my god this breakfast was one of the most invigorating physical sensations I think I’ve ever felt. I shed a little tear when my $5 breakfast bowl was empty, and started counting down the hours until I’d come back for a new one (which I definitely did).

 

I had four days in Nashville and spent about two and a half of them working in coffee shops or the public library. That was nowhere near enough time for a city with such vibrant local culture, and I definitely intend to go back. Based on the live music and the colorful local restaurants and businesses alone, I don’t see how you could call Nashville anything other than one of the great cultural capitals of the South.

Ever been to Nashville, or know any other American cities that are also killing it with local culture? Share your thoughts in a comment below or a tweet to @JakobGibbons!

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5 comments

  1. Pingback: How a Year of Language and Travel Made Me a Better Global Citizen - Globalect
  2. LaVonna · November 22

    Hi Jakob! Have you ever been over to Denton? I could describe it as a smaller, hipster, university town but packing a decent punch of culture hybrid of Dallas and Austin. If you like jazz, there’s an festival held every April down in the heart of Texas, which for some is arguably little d (aka., Denton). That was probably a confusingly terrible description, but maybe you’ll be intrigued enough to stop by anyway! Lovely blog, by the way!

    • Jakob Gibbons · 16 Days Ago

      Ahh ok, looks like it’s on the edge of Dallas? It sounds awesome – I’ll definitely add it to the list for my next Texas trip!

  3. Cat · 3 Days Ago

    Hi! I’m curious, how did you find Nashville in November? I’m thinking of heading there but the heard the city “comes to life” in April to October, it sounds like you still had a good time though! Are there many backpackers around in November? I went to Austin in December and I definitely loved it and met some great people but I could’ve been lucky because it was definitely pretty quiet. Would love to hear what you think.

    • Jakob Gibbons · 3 Days Ago

      It was beautiful in November! I thought it was a perfect city to watch the leaves turn colors, and it wasn’t cold enough to make walking around outside unpleasant. It did seem relatively quiet (the hostel I stayed in wasn’t very full if I remember right) but I’d still recommend it in the fall!