It’s not easy to keep a historic town beautifully preserved…and even harder to update it to 21st-century sustainability standards. But Franklin, Tennessee (est. 1799) has accomplished the rare combo of National Historic Register of Places and LEED-certification…citywide! They are just one of 120 cities (of the ~20,000 in the USA), to have earned this Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design accolade for their forward-thinking systems and improved quality of life. Locals are proud of where they’re from so they take good care of their hometown and are happy to share it. Walking the historic streets full of independent shops and cafes, canoeing right from our hotel, and tapping our feet to live music all over town, we quickly fell in love with this place too. Long overshadowed by its big-city neighbor Nashville, Franklin is no longer a day-trip destination. We stayed four nights in the area and still have more we want to come back and explore. Get to know one of the most charming and sustainable towns in America with our Franklin, TN Travel Guide.
Franklin Walking Tour
You might not think a downtown that’s 16-blocks big would need a walking tour (especially when Visit Franklin has crafted some great self-guided options), but exploring with a local guide is the best way to get your bearings and the inside scoop. So we set out with Alicia Marshall, the owner and self-proclaimed history nerd at Franklin Walking Tours, for the two-hour “Franklin Charm” walk. Tours meet Monday-Saturday at 9am in front of the beautiful Landmark Booksellers, the oldest commercial building in town. Before the Civil War, Williamson County was one of the richest in the state and they have lots of opulent Antebellum architecture to show for it. But the Battle of Franklin on November 30th, 1864 devastated the town, with over 8,500 casualties turning virtually all their buildings into field hospitals. Alicia pointed out blood stains soaked into the wooden floors and bullet marks pocking the walls of buildings. Like any former confederate state, their story isn’t pretty but we appreciate that Franklin isn’t sugarcoating its past. The city is making ongoing reparations with initiatives like their “Fuller Story” markers and the March to Freedom Statue on the main square, honoring the role and sacrifices made by African Americans in making Franklin what it is today. We loved our stop at ANC Williams’ house, who was the first African American business owner in downtown Franklin, and learning that the city just named a street after him. Continuing our walk around town, Alicia showed us the row of houses where Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and other musicians often stay when they have projects in Nashville and that many stars (Keith Urban, Nicole Kidman, Brad Paisley, and more) have made Franklin their home. After stopping at places like the Heritage Foundation (the old jail) and an 1820s house-turned art gallery, we quickly realized that each building had a deeper story behind its pretty facade. The tour ended at Bakehouse with a warm sprinkle cookie for good feelings all around.
Shopping Main Street
Franklin’s Main Street is so charming and well-preserved the National Civic League named it a “Great American Main Street.” The building facades are a wonderful mix of Victorian, Tennessee Federal, Art Deco, and Craftsman architecture, and the interiors are renovated to contemporary perfection. Virtually no chain stores or tchotchke shops, the boutiques are authentic and hip, like Holly Williams’ (granddaughter of country legend Hank Williams) White’s Mercantile offering a collection of her favorite things with Southern style. Or Rooted From Yarrow Acres aka “Franklin’s Little Plant Shop,” run by a mother-daughter team who offer “fresh” decor and workshops on how to build your own terrariums. And Philanthropy who donates 10% of their fashion and home goods proceeds to charitable causes (and 100% when you shop online)! Strolling under lamp posts, adorned with hanging flowers and flags, we found ourselves stopping every few feet for a cute new store. For the ultimate Main Street experience, we caught Franklin’s First Friday Art Scene, when shops stay open late to display new artworks and share a glass of wine with the neighborhood. This event brought us into cute businesses that we wouldn’t have otherwise visited, like Parker House Salon that had painter Lorrie Fowler making live art with a blow dryer (which is now hanging on Buddy the Camper’s wall and gave us the chance to meet so many lovely locals.
Tip: Don’t miss Cards of Care. In front of city hall you’ll see a yellow mailbox with pens and paper where people leave anonymous notes of positivity for anyone who needs a smile. Take a note and leave a note to keep this circle of good vibes going.
Where to Eat
Southern cooking is done to perfection in this town, with some restaurants serving up the classics (BBQ, biscuits, hot chicken, sweet tea) and others giving it a contemporary twist. We loved Frothy Monkey for their artsy vibe and bountiful vegan options and impressive coffee bar, and Red Pony was the perfect spot for a date night. Voted “Best Restaurant in the County” and earning a half-dozen Open Table awards, Red Pony is an upscale local favorite. We saw Jerk Eggplant Meatballs on the menu and were immediately intrigued, and when we asked about other vegan options, they crafted a cashew-cream stuffed portobello and an almond-milk & dark chocolate mousse for dessert. What a treat! And for true southern fare and one of coolest stories in town, there is no better place than Gray’s. With its iconic neon sign and a front door painted with the names of all the previous owners of Gray Drug Company over the past century, you’ll know you’re in the right place. The latest owners have honored its Rx history and used old prescriptions (they unearthed during a renovation) for wallpaper and kept the graffiti-style dairy of a past employee (starting with the birth of his son in 1950 and ending 30+ years later with “Gone Fishing”). Another reason to visit Gray’s is the live music and cocktails. Their Anthym Spirit was voted the “South’s Best Whiskey Drink,” with its smooth mix of apricot brandy, benedictine, and chai bitters. We indulged in a mid-day cocktail, fries, and crispy Brussels sprouts and were happy vegans. (see our TikTok about Gray’s). As for coffee shops, don’t miss The Coffee House at Second and Bridge in a historic cottage with a beautiful yard to sip your espresso.
Fun Fact: The circular town square is nicknamed is the “Squircle.”
While you should certainly hit up Gray’s for live music and their next door neighbor Oh Be Joyful for creative cocktails, a visit the Legendary Kimbros Pickin’ Parlor is mandatory. An old corner store smashed together with a Victorian cottage, this funky spot is where Franklin gets down. We walked through the series of rooms-turned bars and hang-spaces and felt like we were at an awesome house party. The main stage has seen names like John Prine, Wynonna Judd, to Emmylou Harris, and you never know who’s gonna show up on open mic night or in their free-for-all jam room. Also, check which shows are playing at the iconic Franklin Theater (saved by the Heritage Foundation!), they have plays, stand-up comedy, movies, and more for a great date night.
Factory at Franklin
This actually isn’t our first time to Franklin, TN. Years ago we came for a meeting at the Lonely Planet offices in The Factory at Franklin. While that travel publisher is no longer headquartered there, The Factory is getting cooler by the day…in fact, come fall 2022 they’re having a grand reopening of their incredible complex of shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues. Originally a 1920s stove factory, it was on the verge of being demolished in the ’90s, but a local developer Calvin Lehew saw the beauty in the industrial space and its potential for a community hub, and now it’s on the National Historic Register of Places. Keeping the original water tower, steel beams, paned windows, and concrete floors, it’s home to 80 local businesses, like the Luna Record Shop, Five Daughters Bakery, The Mockingbird Theater, Mojo’s Tacos (sooooo good), and the weekly farmer’s market. We got chatting with Bonnie, the owner of the gift shop Times Past & Present, who was the second tenant in the building and so proud to still be here 23 years later and beyond excited for where The Factory at Franklin is heading.
Where to Stay
We checked into downtown’s hot new hotel, the Harpeth. It’s in Hilton’s Curio collection of boutique hotels with contemporary decor and personal touches. Their 1799 Kitchen & Cocktails is one of the nicest restaurants in town, and McGavock’s coffee shop is cool enough that locals come for lattes. We adored our corner suite with chic decor, spa-like bathroom, seating area, and a balcony looking over town. Cleverly designed, they placed the bed in the middle of the room and made a headboard with a fold-out desk—as a couple that works together, we totally appreciate this space solution! That said, with a bottle of champagne and sunset view from our balcony…we didn’t get much work done!
Tip: For a luxury hotel in Franklin’s countryside, Southall Farms is poised to be the area’s premier getaway with its 62-room inn, farm-to-table cuisine, spa, and trails stretching across 325 acres. Opening winter 2022.
Harpeth River Blueway
Where does the Harpeth Hotel get its name? The river that runs behind their hotel and through downtown Franklin! To give citizens more human-powered transportation and recreation opportunities, the city joined the Harpeth River Blueway Project to make the river easier to kayak and SUP. Downtown has six access points; we chose Harlinsdale Farm, a historic 200-acre park (and home of the annual Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival), and paddled upstream towards our hotel. When it’s a calm river, we like to paddle upstream, then have a leisurely float back (no shuffling of cars or hitchhiking required). The Harpeth water levels can get a little low by mid summer so spring is the best time, but we didn’t mind picking up our kayak for short stretches—especially because we had the river all to ourselves! We saw multiple great blue herons, dozens of turtles, and huge bass splashing about in this biodiversity hotspot. We hopped out at the lovely Bicentennial Park for a stroll then paddled upstream until we hit our hotel.
Tip: For rentals and guided trips on the Harpeth, Paddle Dog has you covered.
The Village of Leiper’s Fork
Eight miles west of Franklin lies another world…Leiper’s Fork. This was a near-forgotten whistle stop town until the 1990s when a handful of Tennesseans turned its fate around. Aubrey Preston and Bruce & Marty Hunt started renovating the historic buildings and hand-selecting artists, antiquarians, entrepreneurs, and people who would love and care for this place. They weren’t looking to turn a huge profit and they never wanted it to grow too big. Fostering community and dreams was always at its heart. Today, Leiper’s Fork is just a village of around 650 people, but some of the residents include Chris Stapleton, Mike Wolfe (host of American Pickers), and Justin Timberlake. The arts run through the veins of this town—from David Arms Gallery, a century-old barn dispalying the artist’s paintings and decorative curiosities, to Leiper’s Creek Gallery that features internationally recognized artists (many of which are local). Serenite Maison has a gorgeous collection of home decor and about 15 instruments…that aren’t for sale. That’s Picker’s Corner, where guitars and fiddles are at the ready if any passerby feels like playing a tune. (We were there all of five minutes before someone started pickin’!) Sadly, after twenty years, the lovely proprietress Alexandra is retiring, but with the building still owned by Leiper’s Fork matriarch Marty Hunt, there is no way this space will lose its Leiper’s magic. Many visitors come for a day trip, but we’re so glad we stayed the night at Pot n’ Kettle Cottages. Owners Sam & Eric were also wooed by this place around the time of its restoration and their magazine-worthy rentals helped put Leiper’s on the map as a destination in its own right. Our 1939 “Picker’s Cottage” with its entertaining kitchen, three bedrooms, and cool hangout spaces made us feel local for the night. Someone saw our camper parked on the residential street and welcomed us like we were moving in. Everyone in town is so darn friendly!
Tip: Don’t miss Tennessee Turquoise in the old smokehouse tucked off the main street behind Leiper’s Creek Gallery. This is Morgane Stapleton’s (Chris’ wife) jewel box of a shop where each purchase of their new and antique turquoise gives back to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center.
Fox & Locke Open Mic Night
It wasn’t luck that we arrived to Leiper’s Fork on a Thursday night, this is when Fox & Locke hosts their legendary open mic. This music venue and homecookin’ restaurant got its fame as Puckett’s, but they’ve just gone back to its original name from when it was a grocery store in 1947. In terms of talent, nothing has changed, with artists that tend to be past or future Grammy nominees. We arrived at 6pm and the patio was bumpin’ and inside was standing room only, but our friend Matt scored us a front row seat for one of the most intimate and awesome music experiences. Musicians come from all over (one band drove from Detroit through the night and another guy flew in from Canada!) to audition day-of for their chance at one of the 20 spots on stage. We were blown away by every act—be it a teenage girl with a big set of pipes or the writer for that “Night Shift” song that’s all over the radio. When the show was over and the bar was closed, the creative energy was still flowing with musicians still jamming on the front porch. Get yourself to Leiper’s Fork on a Thursday and stay the night!
Tennessee Whiskey Trail
Tennessee is world famous for its whiskey, but did you know that only three counties in the entire state could legally make the stuff until 2009?! Before prohibition, Tennessee had hundreds of distilleries, though even after the federally-enforced dry spell, the state’s laws remained tight and only two were allowed to reopen. That said, there will always be moonshine and the stills kept cooking in old barns and backrooms. Come the 21st century, lawyer and distiller, Heath Clark decided to take on these antiquated laws and fight for small-batch makers. After a long battle, he successfully rewrote Tennessee law and whiskey production has opened up across the state with over 60 distilleries bringing craft spirits back to the people! The Tennessee Whiskey Trail connects the dots between the distilleries, so we grabbed a passport and got stamped at two in the Franklin area. Starting with Heath Clark’s very own, Company Distilling. He partnered up with former Jack Daniel’s master distiller, Jeff Arnett, to make some of the best bourbon, whiskey, and gin around. Leiper’s Fork also has their own fantastic distillery. We rolled up to their 200-year-old cabin-turned-tasting-room, and people were having a grand ole time playing cornhole on the lawn and drinking on the porch. On the Leiper’s Fork Distillery guided tour, we met “Ginger” their massive copper still, peered inside the cypress-wood tanks, and sipped their double-gold-winning bourbons until we felt warm & fuzzy. Excited to see where our passport takes us next! See our Instagram gallery above for photos from these excellent distillery tours.
Natchez Trace Parkway & Timberland Park
Leaving Leiper’s Fork, it was well worth the detour to the hop on the Natchez Trace Parkway, a National Park-protected 444-mile byway following the historic footpath used by Native Americans, European settlers, Mississippi River traders, Civil War troops, and future presidents. You’ll know where know where to turn when you see the 1,572 ft-long double arch bridge soaring over the road. We pulled over for Buddy the Camper to get his signature photo opp in front of the national park sign and realized you could hike to the base of the bridge and climb around this architectural marvel. Driving across, the views are fabulous of the lush Birdsong Hollow and a mile later you’ll reach the delightful Timberland Park. Fun fact, this county park is the only one in the country allowed to operate on federal land. They proved their worth and self-sufficiency by running entirely off-grid, planting an Audubon-approved butterfly garden, and offering guided walks and classes for the community. We really enjoyed our hike along their forested trails and thinking about the generations of people who walked these hills.
A totally unexpected highlight of our time in Franklin? Scoring concert tickets at one of the coolest venues in the country! Once a quarry, tall limestone walls and 140 acres of forest encircle the brand new FirstBank Amphitheater. To reclaim the rock-quarry-turned-trash-heap, they recycled and reused 900 tons of material and rebuilt to the highest standards of sustainability. Plus, they’re committed to being zero-landfill with plastic-free concessions, where everything is either recyclable or compostable. In less than a year of operation they’ve already won the Tennessee Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award! We would have seen any concert here just to experience this sweet new venue, but we had the good fortune of catching the great Willie Nelson. Eighty-nine-years old and still rocking strong, the guy is truly living legend. Singing along to On The Road Again…“Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway. We’re the best of friends, insisting that the world keep turning our way…” we felt like he was singing just for us. Watch our TikTok video from the concert.
In every destination we partner with, we find ways to give back to the community that would also be fun for other travelers. The Giving Garden is just that! We spent the morning among the FFUMC’s five acres of fields, flower beds, and greenhouses, learning from their master gardeners and chatting with the locals as we boxed up freshly harvested produce for those in need. The farm produces 30,000 pounds of food a year and rescues 15,000 pounds more from the farmers market to distribute healthy food to Middle Tennessee’s underserved communities, plus flowers to the elderly. Anyone can volunteer (their children’s garden is adorable!) and you can just show up any Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday from 8am-11am April-October. We were so inspired by the work at the Giving Garden that we donated $150 and decided to keep the giving train going with another $150 donation to the Harpeth River Conservancy for keeping this ecosystem thriving for the flora, fauna, community, and visitors like us.
A big thank you to Visit Franklin for inviting us to their inspiring community and for supporting our content creation.