Nashville to New Orleans: the USA’s must-visit music cities

It’s no secret – America has a long and fascinating history of great music, and has been one of the most influential places in shaping each genre. Lose yourself in the rhythmic tales of some of the most famed music cities: from the Motown beats of Detroit to the Memphis blues and Nashville’s electric country music scene, these are the must-see musical cities to get your toes tapping.

The French Quarter streets of New Orleans. Image: iStock/Photoservice

New Orleans, Louisiana

Music is the beating heart of New Orleans, and there’s a cultural depth and history that gives it life like no other city. The ‘Big Easy’ is a melting pot of different cultures, traditions and flavours, from its fine Creole cuisine and colourful colonial architecture to voodoo rituals and Mardi Gras celebrations. Live jazz is everywhere you turn, whether its hypnotic rhythms on the streets of the French Quarter or in the clubs on Frenchman Street – Preservation Hall and The Spotted Cat boast some of the best jazz in the city and are not to be missed.

When it comes to NOLA’s culinary gems, you’re spoilt for choice. Indulge in beignets at iconic Café du Monde, enjoy fresh seafood at Oceana Grill, try a selection of po boys at Mother’s or Parkway Tavern and taste authentic fried chicken at Willie Mae’s. As well as paying Armstrong Park a visit, head to the nearby neighbourhoods of Treme, Merigny and Bayswater for even more classic New Orleans hospitality with less of a tourist crowd. For an insight into the city’s spiritual folkways and rituals, visit the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum or head on a voodoo walking tour.

Nashville’s downtown skyline on the Cumberland River. Image: iStock/Sean Pavone

Nashville, Tennessee

Staying true to its reputation as the ‘Music City’, Nashville retains much of its southern charm, with each neighbourhood offering something special, from the iconic neon-lit streets of Downtown to the new hotspot of Germantown. Feel the electricity in the air with an authentic honky tonk experience at legendary Robert’s Western World, get involved in line dancing at Wildhorse Saloon and sit back and enjoy an intimate performance at the sacred Bluebird Café, which has garnered world-wide recognition thanks to the hit TV show, Nashville.

The Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame are must-visits, and for a breathtaking view of the city skyline, head to Cumberland Park as the sun sets. The foodie scene is also something behold – think hot fried chicken at Hattie B’s, the best burgers at The Pharmacy, seafood dishes at beautiful Henrietta Red, and wood-fired pizza at Rolf & Daughters. When it comes to hotels, bed down in absolute style; Urban Cowboy offers laid-back southwestern deco vibes, while The 404 hotel is a chic and cosy boutique oasis in the urban city.

Beale Street in downtown Memphis. Image: iStock/benedek

Memphis, Tennessee

The birthplace of blues and rock ‘n’ roll, Memphis has a wild spirit that beguiles everyone who makes a musical pilgrimage to this river-town city. Neon-lit Beale Street is the home of the blues, with a plethora of bars, clubs and street performers feeding its magnetic allure. Head to Blues City Café for a generous helping of blues, brews and barbecues, while the open-air courtyard of Silky O’Sullivan’s boasts powerhouse vocals and cool vibes.

When in Memphis, explore the legendary residence of Elvis Presley, Graceland, and pay a visit to Sun Studio – the original recording space of Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. A trip to the Deep South wouldn’t be complete without a world-famous barbecue and fried chicken, either – Gus’s Fried Chicken and Central BBQ are local traditions. Other must-dos include watching the ducks do their famous daily march at the iconic Peabody Hotel, tucking into an award-winning breakfast at Brother Juniper’s and dining at Memphis’ oldest café, The Arcade.

View of Maggie Mae’s rooftop on Austin’s Sixth Street. Image courtesy of Maggie Mae’s

Austin, Texas

Aside from being home to the largest capitol building in the USA, Austin has been dubbed the ‘live music capital of the world’. Head to iconic Sixth Street and visit the local legend that is Maggie Mae’s for tunes with a view from the largest roof terrace on the street. Also take time to discover Midnight Cowboy, a former brothel turned speakeasy hidden in plain sight, and enjoy old-meets-new at hip Whisler’s. If you’re up for something with a different personality from raucous Sixth Street, top your checklist with the unique Rainey Street and the Red River Cultural District.

This Texan city also boasts a world-class foodie scene – try delicious French fare at Chez Nous, the best brisket at grill favourite Franklin Barbecue, and seasonal New American fine-dining at the charming Josephine House. For a completely different Austin experience, pay a refreshing visit to the natural Barton Springs pool, which is open year-round for a dip and a dive, or perhaps indulge in a little retail therapy – Charm School is the spot to pick up a vintage piece and East Austin Succulents is where you’ll find cool cacti aplenty.

Detroit skyline during sunset. Image: iStock/pawel.gaul

Detroit, Michigan

Detroit is a city of reinvention, and as the saying goes, ‘nothing stops Detroit’. But most of all, the music never left. Detroit is synonymous with Motown music thanks to the iconic record label of the same name, and it has been one of the biggest gifts to the world. Now the Motown Historical Museum, the label is where it all began, and you can visit Studio A where the likes of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson all sang – a back catalogue like no other.

Embrace the city’s comeback spirit by discovering its emerging food and drink culture: enjoy an American brunch with a twist at Dime Store, forward-thinking meat dishes and a cocktail programme at Grey Ghost, hand-crafted artisan doughnuts at Donut Bar and experimental Tarot card-inspired drinks at Bad Luck Bar. Alongside a changing foodie scene, boutique hotels are popping up – stay at Foundation Hotel for super stylish interiors and a touch of New York glam. Elsewhere, marvel at the Art Deco masterpieces of the Guardian Building and the Fisher Building, and Detroit’s crown jewel – Fox Theatre.

The Apollo Theater at 125th Street in Harlem. Image: iStock/Torresigner

New York City, New York

The Big Apple is the undisputed king of hip-hop. It all began in the Bronx in the early 70s by DJ Kool Herc and evolved not only as a music genre, but as a culture that’s now part of New York City’s heritage, having nurtured the likes of Notorious B.I.G, Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan, Run-D.M.C and Tupac. The Apollo Theater in Harlem is the undeniable palace of hip-hop and has a legacy as the epicentre of American culture, while collaborating with the dynamic artists of the 21st century – a must-visit venue for your bucket list.

The future of hip-hop can be found in SoHo at live music venue SOB’s, where you can watch rising stars perform, while Brooklyn’s Social Butterfly lounge is great for old-school tunes and a low-key vibe. When it comes to food, Miss Lily’s is a retro-style Jamaican diner, juice bar, Caribbean rum bar and jerk shack all in one, and Harlem’s Jacob Restaurant serves up soul food and salad buffet-style, in a no-frills environment. To top off a tuneful experience, head on a Harlem and Bronx tour with one of hip-hop’s Grandmasters who heads up Hush Hip Hop Tours.

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