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If you’re the kind of person who likes to travel to hear live music, particularly country music, you’ve probably already considered Nashville and Austin, Texas and even Branson, Missouri. You’d be forgiven for overlooking Bristol, the small twin-state town in Tennessee and Virginia (combined population about 40,000).

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But you ought to reconsider. This mountain getaway has great food, history, museums, live music, shopping, and the very roots of country music.

It all started 90 years ago, when a producer named Ralph Peer decided to record some of the “hillbilly” music that was being made in Appalachia. He brought people—such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family—together for several weeks of music-changing sessions. The hybrid of gospel, blues and bluegrass resulted in the 1927 Bristol Sessions, what folks have called the “Big Bang” of modern country music…country music existed before this, but afterwards everything changed. Johnny Cash himself considered this the most important event in country music history.

Plan a trip to this mountain music oasis. Make sure to do these seven things while in town:

1. Walk the (state) line

If you’ve seen a Geico Insurance commercial, you know that the state line between Tennessee and Virginia runs down the middle of Main Street (literally between the yellow traffic line). While, of course, you have to watch out for cars, drivers are accustomed to pedestrians clamoring to take a photo of themselves straddling the states. There are crosswalks along Main Street to aid you in your photo question.

Photo courtesy of the Bristol TN/VA Convention and Visitors Bureau

2. Go a little bit country

Downtown’s gem is the Bristol’s Birthplace of Country Music Museum, an interactive auditory wonderland, which also happens to be a Smithsonian Affiliate. The brick building houses exhibits about Peer and the artists he made famous. It also traces sound from their roots to contemporary pop and country, so you can see and hear how music made its transitions. The Birthplace Museum is also home to Radio Bristol, which broadcasts online and at 100.1-FM and, depending on your timing, may allow you to catch a live show. The “Farm and Fun Time” show is particularly charming.

 

3. See a slew of bands live

Perhaps the biggest success of the Birthplace of Country Music organization (the umbrella group) is Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, a three-day live music festival held each September. More than 45,000 people come to town to hear bluegrass, roots and other live music with the town’s charming skyline and murals as a backdrop.

ALSO: Hear that twang? That’s the sweet sound of travel rewards piling up when you join Orbitz Rewards.

4. Feast on local treats

It’s unlikely you’ll go hungry for any period of time while in Bristol, as it’s so chockfull of good eats. Blackbird Bakery is open 24 hours a day, six days a week (closed Sundays). Show up for sweets and coffee for breakfast and go back at night to listen to live jazz with your dessert. Burger Bar is legendary, as it is the last place country music icon Hank Williams is believed to be seen alive. But it’s not just a place for history; they make a mean burger. too. Order yours with Parmesan fries.

 

5. Rev your engines

Bristol Motor Speedway is one of NASCAR’s favorite tracks (it’s short and steep and loud), and certainly during racing season, local hotels and campgrounds max out, as fans come to cheer on their favorite drivers. The track is huge—among the largest sports venues in the country—and in 2016 broke records for the “Battle at Bristol,” the largest attendance at a college football game (156,990 people, in case you were wondering).

Photo courtesy L.C. King Manufacturing

6. Shop downtown’s charming indie stores

Downtown Bristol is dotted with fun antique stores, fudge shops and home décor destinations. For more than a century L.C. King Manufacturing, has been one of the highlights. L.C. King’s American-made work-wear clothes (imagine Carhartt with denim). Ask for a tour of the factory, which is above the store, and purchase a sturdy tote to take home all your treasures.

Photo courtesy of Loch & Key Productions

7. Get some great shots

After country music and NASCAR, pretty Bristol is know for some great signage. State Street’s “the Bristol Sign” is actually on the National Register. Don’t skip the selfie on your way out of town.

For more information on visiting Bristol, check out Discover Bristol.

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Margaret Littman
Margaret Littman is both an old-timer and a relative newcomer to Nashville. After graduating from Vanderbilt University, she left Tennessee for points north over the course of her writing career. But after 17 years she could no longer resist the siren song of the Parthenon, bluegrass music, or fried pickles, so she returned to Nashville, where she writes about Music City, Southeast travel, food, entrepreneurs and more. She's the author of Moon Tennessee, and the upcoming Moon Nashville to New Orleans, a guide to the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Margaret Littman

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