Nashville is a weird place to visit sober.
Looking out at Lower Broadway on my first night in town, I’m surrounded by neon lights, a cacophony of competing electric guitars, and the kind of people who know how to party. They are singing. They are high-fiving strangers. They are drunk. I am not.
As someone who doesn’t drink alcohol, I came to Music City for … the music! I knew Nashville’s reputation for nightlife, of course. And I was excited to explore its Honky Tonk Highway, a strip of bars offering free live shows — not just country but rock, blues, and more — for the cost of a tip to the band. Eat some great Southern food. Maybe learn how to line dance.
Nashville is also the Bachelorette Party Capital of America, perhaps the world. There are more “Pedal Taverns” on some main streets than taxis. A popular 24-hour diner has a 23-hour liquor licence. Lower Broadway looks a lot like Las Vegas in a ten-gallon hat.
I’ve never been afraid to travel sober. Even when I’m the only one surrounded by drinkers, I find ways to have a good time. But it can sometimes be a drag to be the odd-person out in a group, especially in an environment as booze-soaked as Lower Broadway. Which is why I had decided to try something different for this trip: my first alcohol-free tour.
It’s called Friends in Dry Places, a three-day small-group trip organized by B.C.-based travel agent Darci Murray. Her company Hooked: Alcohol-Free Travel caters to the growing market of travellers looking to vacation sober. It’s not the first agency to do it, but it’s part of a new style of sober travel that recognizes the many different reasons someone might want that kind of trip.
“There are other sober travel companies out there, but they are focused on recovery,” Darci explained to me before we left. “Some have meetings in place, some are retreat-focused with yoga, etc. But you don’t have to be a (recovering) alcoholic to not drink alcohol. Our purpose is to get you hooked on healthy habits, to expose you to as many healthy experiences as possible during the full-sensory adventure we take together.”
And this is how I found myself amidst the bacchanalia of Nashville on a Saturday night not in a bar but on the back of a jacked-up Monster Truck taking a ridiculously fun sightseeing tour in the company of other women like me, here for the music, and the laughs and the adventure. Among our gang of five I was the only one who has been alcohol-free my entire life. Some had given up booze and were embracing sobriety for the first time. Others were drinkers who wanted a clean holiday for a change. We had diverse reasons for joining but all shared the same goal: squeeze as much fun out of Nashville as possible without drinking alcohol.
From a sober traveller’s perspective, daytime activities are a great way to explore a new city. There’s no hangover to shake off, you can just get up and go while the crowds are still sleeping in.
Nashville is rich with attractions that go deep into its history as one of America’s great music cities. We did our due diligence with visits to the Opry House, Johnny Cash Museum and Country Music Hall of Fame, which are all great options for things to do sober in Nashville. But Murray’s “full-sensory” philosophy means immersing yourself into a more hands-on experiences, too.
One afternoon we had the chance to roll up our sleeves at Hatch Show Print, an historic Nashville letterpress shop that keeps classic American poster-making alive from a large workshop tucked on to the side of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Peering through the glass walls of their workspace you can almost smell the ink being used on antique presses by young employees who churn out small batches of gig posters using techniques and hard-carved type dating back to the late 1800s.
In a small classroom behind the shop, our group was invited to create our own posters. I gingerly inked up my roller and ran it across a bed of wooden blocks, then was encouraged to press down not too hard and not too soft on the cylinder as I click-clacked it once back and forth like an old credit-card machine. And voila! I had my very own Hatch Show print, making me a part of a centuries-old legacy of American printmaking. Now I’m not suggesting you can’t do this after a few alcoholic beverages. But it was probably not something that I would have done solo or with my drinking buddies. And now I had a unique Nashville art piece to take home.
Fake rosé all day
Like most happening cities, Nashville has more and more bars and restaurants serving low- and no-alcohol options. Our tour promised we’d get to try some of Nashville’s most popular mocktails, which is something I’m generally excited about.
Arriving for brunch at the beautiful Hampton Social, the first thing I saw was a wall of fake flowers with a neon sign promoting “Rosé All Day.” And yet, even here in Bachelorette Brunch central, the menu had delicious zero-proof drinks section. I ordered The Lighthouse — a light and flavourful lemonade with rosemary in a pretty glass flute. My travel-mates stayed on the Hampton theme with Sparkling Rosé, a delightful non-alcoholic version.
Afterwards we continued with our own version of a bar crawl. To the hot pink Dolly Parton-themed White Limozeen pool bar atop the Graduate hotel, where bartenders crafted us custom mocktails with house-made shrubs and syrups. To Martin’s BBQ Joint, where I “discovered” Nehi Peach Soda, a soft drink with a history in the American South dating back to 1924. For years I’ve watched my beer-loving pals get excited about trying local beverages, and I enjoyed doing the same.
Even more than the variety and quality of the non-alcoholic drinks in Nashville, what made this fun is that all of us in the group were on the same wavelength. We could sample each other’s drinks, then cheers to our good life decisions that brought us together here. It was the kind of camaraderie I didn’t even know I’d been missing.
The Honky Tonk Highway
I live for live music and have no plans to give that up even as a non-drinker. I realize that’s not as easy for everyone, especially those going through recovery. I would encourage them to try a matinee show at Nashville’s Bluebird Café.
I’d not heard of Bluebird Café before it showed up on my tour itinerary, but I learned it’s one of the best places in the world to listen to songwriters. I mean really listen. The intimate venue on the outskirts of downtown was packed when we arrived. But unlike a spot that exists just for bar sales, the Bluebird is there to honour the music. So the environment is respectfully hushed. While sipping on drinks made with non-alcoholic spirits we were treated to an afternoon of great stories and beautiful songs.
And when the sun went down and the neon came up, we found ourselves back on Lower Broadway at Robert’s Western World, a true honkytonk dive bar. Even here, the most traditional of Nashville joints, we found non-alcoholic beers on the menu, and no judgment for not having more. The rockabilly band was smoking hot, and I was as happy as I can get on a night out in a new city with my new friends.
What it’s really like to visit Nashville sober
It did not take long in Nashville to prove to me you can have an awesome time there without drinking. But one moment stayed with me long after we left.
It was on our tour of the historic Studio B — the “house that launched 1,000 hits” including Are you Lonely Tonight by Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison’s Only the Lonely. Our guide played a black and white video of Jim Reeves singing a smooth, orchestral pop ballad. “Is this country music?” he queried. A show of hands voted no. And yet, this is in fact the quintessential Nashville sound.
This reminded me that just as music can be more than one thing, so can a person, and so can a place. Nashville is without a doubt a great party town, but after seeing it through the full-sensory world of a Hooked tour I know it’s also a really fun city even if your definition of party is alcohol-free.
Liisa Ladouceur is a Toronto-based travel blogger who writes at liisawanders.com. You can also follow her on Instagram. Liisa was a guest of Hooked Alcohol-Free Travel, who did not review or approve this story.