Showdown: Memphis or Nashville? Which Tennessee City is For You?

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A Tough Decision: Memphis or Nashville?

When I was planning the most recent incarnation of The Great US Road Trip, we had to make a tough decision when it came to our stop between Atlanta and Washington DC.

With time allowing us one more stop in the south before heading north to tackle DC, Philly, and NYC – my mate and I found ourselves torn between the two great Tennessee cities: Memphis and Nashville.

With both offering a very different Tennessee experience, we debated long and hard before eventually settling on our last southern stop.

Both Memphis and Nashville boast a lot of attractive features for somebody looking to encapsulate the spirit of the US on their US road trip. There’s their differing but equally important contributions to US music, their food, and little quirks such as the Memphis wrestling scene.

It was a tough decision to make, but we ultimately opted for Nashville due to it being just ten hours drive from DC instead of almost 14 hours from Memphis.

Still, if you’re facing the same conundrum, let me do a little bit of the hard work for you.

Showdown: Memphis vs. Nashville: Which Tennessee City is For You?

Obviously, what you look for in a city will depend largely on your own tastes, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that there are a few musts that any city needs to have.

It’s got to have a happening night life, it’s got to have delicious food, and there has got to be enough to keep you occupied each day.

And, of course, there’s got to be someplace for you to hang your hat at the end of the day. We looked long and hard at hotels in Memphis and Nashville hotels ahead of our trip.

The Night Life

From a nightlife perspective, Nashville’s honky tonks and bars offer a little something for everybody. The District is famous for its vibrant party scene any day of the week.

Even if you’re not a fan of country music, it’s hard not to get your toes tapping and your hands clapping when there’s a righteous fiddle solo taking place or a crowd of college kids singing along to their favourite Garth Brooks, Toby Keith, or Keith Urban.

While you certainly can’t turn your nose up at Memphis’ Beale Street for its blues bars, it’s a smaller selection and a more laid-back vibe. From a straight-up ‘we’re here to have a good time perspective’, Nashville was a runaway winner in our eyes.

broadway honky tonks nashville
Image courtesy of spablab

The Music

Country Music in Nashville

You can’t talk about Nashville or Memphis without commenting on both city’s contributions to music.

Nashville isn’t known as Music City for nothing, and it’s the place to be if you’re a fan of country music. Whether you’re bouncing from honky tonk to honky tonk, attending a concert at the Grand Ole Opry, wandering the Country Music Hall of Fame, or taking a swinging Nashville music tour with Nash Trash Tours – there are plenty of ways to engage with the genre.

country music grand ole opry nashville
Image courtesy of Ron Cogswell

Soul, Blues, and Rock in Memphis

If blues, soul, or old-fashioned rock and roll are more your speed, Memphis is the place to be.

With names such as Elvis, BB King, Al Green, and Justin Timberlake hailing from Memphis, the city is heaven for those who ache for that delicious blend of soulful sounds and smooth voices.

For many, the pilgrimage to Graceland would be a highlight of any trip to Memphis, but for my buddy and I – it was all about smoky clubs and live music along Beale Street.

memphis music tennessee
Image courtesy of Sean Davis

The Food

Just as they both have a little something special to offer when it comes to music, so too do Nashville and Memphis have their iconic foods.

Spicy chicken is the famed dish in Music City, while Memphis is all about that delectable southern style BBQ.

Truth be told, it was the food in Memphis that gave me pause when we were making our decision. While I do like me some fried chicken, it’s not meat unless it’s red meat in my opinion. I’d have loved to sink my teeth into some smoky Memphis BBQ.

In the end, though, we opted for Nashville and I can’t say I regretted it.

memphis tennessee bbq
Image courtesy of Funky Tee

Where to Eat in Nashville

I’m by no means an expert on where to dine in Nashville, but Hogg and I made an effort to eat as much delicious food as humanly possible while not violating his inexplicable vegetarian lifestyle.

Highlights for me included delicious burgers and BBQ at ACME Feed & Seed and some delicious hipster treats at Silo.

Things to Do

There’s more to a city than food and drink (whaaaat!?), and so it’s important that wherever you go has something to entertain you.

In this area, perhaps, it is Memphis that has the slightest of advantages in the battle.

Things to do in Memphis

Graceland, Sun Studio, the Memphis Rock ‘n Soul Museum, and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music are a must for fans of the music industry, with each exemplifying a different element of Memphis’ rich contributions to American and world music.

If that kind of thing isn’t for you, however, there is still plenty to do in Memphis.

The Memphis Zoo is one of the few zoos in America with pandas on-site, while the National Civil Rights Museum is a must-see for people from all walks of life.

i love memphis mural
Image courtesy of Sean Davis

Things to do in Nashville

It’s all about country music in Nashville, and the most popular sights in the city tend to reflect that. The Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium, and Country Music Hall of Fame all top TripAdvisor’s list of things to do in Music City.

My own visit saw me on the Music Row Confidential tour with Nash Trash tours, and while a lot of the relevance was lost on me, it was still an informative look into the music business.

For those who don’t appreciate a little steel guitar and banjo, Nashville doesn’t offer quite as many options. Country music is the main draw here, and the city isn’t ashamed of that.

Why We Chose Nashville

If we’re being completely honest, a lot of the above didn’t come into our minds when we were deciding between Nashville and Memphis.

As we were trying to get from Atlanta to Washington DC, Memphis would just have been out of the way.

Couple this with the fact that the main reason we wanted to visit Memphis (Memphis wrestling) isn’t really a thing anymore, and it made more sense for us to head to a town with honky tonks, corn-fed country girls, and a shorter drive to DC.

We Loved Nashville

Despite Hogg not being even remotely interested in country music (I was indoctrinated by an Idaho girlfriend back in the day), we still had a blast in Nashville.

Our night wandering from honky tonk to honky-tonk singing, drinking, tipping, and making random new friends was one of the best nights of the trip, and our stay at the Hotel Preston was a blast. They even have room service fish bowls!

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