Image: Honky-tonks on Broadway in Nashville, Tenn.
Mark Humphrey  /  AP
People walk among the honky-tonks on Broadway in Nashville, Tenn., on March 5. Many of the bars feature live music, and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop is home to the Midnite Jamboree every Saturday night.
updated 3/9/2009 8:10:14 PM ET 2009-03-10T00:10:14

There is no beach. No theme park. No casinos.

No Super Bowl. No Mardi Gras. No World Cup.

Nashville is the city that tore down its theme park to build a (gasp) shopping mall.

Yet this central-Tennessee city, famous worldwide for its records and rhinestones, is a worthy destination for tourists pinching pennies — recession or not.

There's plenty of free music plus educational and cultural attractions to fill up a few days without lightening the wallet. You can stay, eat and be entertained at less cost than in many comparable cities.

"We look at it as a value destination," said Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau. "You can have an instant vacation at minimum expense."

Nashville has built much of its reputation on fiddles and fringe, marketing itself as "Music City USA."

So check out the cluster of a dozen or so honky-tonks along a three-block stretch of downtown Nashville near the Cumberland River. The beer is cold, the music is loud and the admission is free. The joints stand together like sturdy soldiers in formation, awaiting the jean-clad, cowboy-hat wearing patrons with well-worn boots on their feet and anticipation in their throats.

Just walk in, find a table (if there is one), order a brew and have a good time. The only concession to revenue is a tip jar passed around periodically. The especially savvy bars leave it near the door to signal customers coming or going.

"It's an experience that can't be duplicated anywhere else," Spyridon said.

These aren't just a collection of bars run by fly-by-night rubes. Most have been in business several years. Tootsie's, one of them, even has a public relations firm.

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"You get to partying, and pretty soon you're dancing on the bar," Steve Smith, Tootsie's owner, said in describing a typical visit.

The most upscale of the businesses is the Wildhorse Saloon, though its Web site doesn't describe it as a honky-tonk. It's referred to (sniff, sniff) as "a mecca of entertainment."

It has three levels, 66,000 square feet and has sold around 10 million bottles of beer since opening in 1994.

It's $4 to $8 to get in, and there are three dance instructors on staff giving free lessons nightly except for Monday when the club is closed — possibly to give all involved a chance to recover.

Beer specials at the honky-tonks are as little as $2.50.

At a Nashville shrine, in the heart of the downtown entertainment district, you can request your favorite country song and hear it from a friendly guitarist — for free.

Image: David Andersen, Kristn Garstka, Mitchell Romano
Mark Humphrey  /  AP
Kristin Garstka, center, and Mitchell Romano, right, both from Detroit, listen as guitarist David Andersen performs in the atrium of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tenn
David Andersen performs daily at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, strolling throughout the atrium before patrons pay their $17.95 to enter the museum area.

On his 15-year-old Epiphone wireless guitar, he'll play just about anything you want to hear: "You Are My Sunshine," ''I Can't Help Falling in Love," ''Spanish Eyes."

Andersen will politely ask you to sign his journal — and it's helped him keep track of the people he's met. He claims it's more than 1 million.

"I just really enjoy playing these songs and meeting so many people," he said.

Tickets for the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville's legendary country music show, are $38 to $53 for around 2 1/2 hours of performances.

For nightowls, the Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree is held every Saturday night (actually early Sunday mornings) at a theater near the Grand Ole Opry House northeast of downtown. Entertainment is free with performers like Michael Martin Murphey, Charlie Louvin and Jack Greene. Gospel music great Dottie Rambo made one of her final appearances on the show last May before she was killed in a bus wreck.

Cheap eats
Nestled between the honky-tonks sits Jack's BarBQue — and tourists must get some Southern pork barbecue or they'll remain virgin visitors. A pork shoulder sandwich, baked beans, cole slaw and tea or a soft drink cost just $8.66. A slice of chess (a custardy pie) or chocolate fudge pie is $2.50.

A few miles away, for another traditional Southern meal, the At The Table cafeteria offers fried chicken, collard greens, sweet potatoes and hot water cornbread for a mere $7.25.

Throat need a jolt? Prince's Hot Fried Chicken Shack 15 minutes north of downtown has been burning mouths since 1945 with its 500,000-volt chicken fried in cast iron skillets and served with white bread and pickles. Add a couple of sides and you can still leave (likely steaming) for around $10.

History and culture
Feeling guilty about honky-tonkin' and want to get a little culture? The Hermitage, antebellum home of President Andrew Jackson, is open daily, 12 miles east of downtown. Tours cost $17 for adults, $11 for students 13-18 and $7 for children 6-12.

Jackson would certainly welcome the common man to his 190-year-old home. But don't insult the place! Jackson, a feisty geezer in his day, might rise from his grave on the grounds and challenge you to a duel.

In Nashville's midtown area, across from Vanderbilt University in Centennial Park, is The Parthenon, a replica of the original Parthenon in Athens. Inside is a re-creation of the 42-foot statue Athena and an art museum featuring 63 paintings by 19th and 20th century American artists. Admission is $6 for adults and $3.50 for children. But if you don't go in, you can still get close to the structure by driving through the 91-acre park. There's a small lake in the park with reasonably friendly ducks, two free craft fairs a year and free musical entertainment on most summer weekends.

"Our arts and cultural offerings are our best-kept secrets," Spyridon said.

For those who like history, the city also offers the civil rights room at the Nashville Public Library, a Grand Ole Opry museum, the Tennessee State Museum, the Tennessee Agricultural Museum and self-guided tours of the 150-year-old state Capitol — all free.

A short walk from the honky-tonks is the elegant Union Station Hotel, which opened as a train station in 1900 and became a hotel in 1986. The Richardsonian-Romanesque design structure has a 65-foot, barrel-vaulted lobby ceiling featuring gold-leaf medallions and 100-year-old original luminous prism stained glass.

At each end of the lobby are two bas-relief panels of a steam locomotive and horse-drawn chariot. The structure became a National Historic Landmark in 1977.

Enjoy the free walk through the lobby because to spend the night, the rate posted on the hotel Web site is $206 to $279 for two adults for one weekend night in April.

Other attractions
Northeast of downtown is the Gaylord Opryland Resort Hotel & Convention Center — a little town all its own. It has about 2,900 rooms, nine acres of indoor gardens, cascading waterfalls, a free dancing waters show nightly and an indoor river with its own delta flatboat. You can spend half a day just walking around this site, but the cost to park is $18 ($25 for valet). It's $9 to ride the flatboat.

Opry Mills, next door to the hotel, has 1.2 million square feet on the former site of the Opryland USA theme park, which was torn down in 1997. It has more than 200 places to shop, eat or play.

For other shopping, there's an outlet mall 30 minutes east of Nashville on Interstate 40 with more than 40 stores. There's a free flea market every weekend at the Farmer's Market near the state Capitol, and a much larger free one on the fourth weekend each month at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. This one boasts of dealers and vendors from 30 states and patrons by the bus load. Parking is $4.

A 90-minute drive southeast of Nashville, via either I-24 or I-65, is the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg. Tours are free and lively. How many people work there? "Oh, about half," guides like to say.

Also away from the blazing fiddles and rhythm guitars is the quiet, picturesque Natchez Trace Parkway, which can be accessed just south of Nashville. There are no tolls, and for the adventurous, it goes 444 miles south through Alabama and into southern portions of the Mississippi River. You may find dulcimer demonstrations along the way.

Staying on the quiet, outdoor side, fishing in the Nashville area is extraordinary. Bass (and others) is waiting to be caught at J. Percy Priest Lake and Old Hickory Lake. A one-day fishing license is $5.50.

Elsewhere, a half dozen wineries are within an hour of Nashville.

Lodging and getting around
The Courtyard Nashville Downtown is $109 a night and you can walk to all the downtown attractions. A Red Roof Inn off I-65 15 minutes south of downtown averages $47 a night.

Parking downtown is up to $12 a night. Taxis cost around $10 for a downtown ride and twice that for transportation from outlying areas to the center of town.

The city normally has 11 million visitors a year, but expects a 5 to 8 percent decline until the economy improves.

The Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau is offering discounts of up to 50 percent at

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