The spell of winter and an incredibly rough couple of years in the tourism industry seems to finally have been broken. The flowers have come out of hibernation, the shop owners have opened their windows, and there’s a definite buzz as people emerge from their homes after a long, wet winter indoors. At least, that was my experience last week when I popped over to our neighboring town to spend a day in Bell Buckle.
Bell Buckle has always held a special place in my heart as it’s just that kind of destination: hopelessly authentic, a little postage stamp of a spot that has successfully branded itself as an iconic, small town American destination. It’s forever been on the route I take all out-of-towners when they’re visiting me in Tennessee for the first time.
Haven’t heard of it? Well, you’re about to get a crash course in this town that also bears the designation of being a Tree City USA. Here’s how to spend a day in Bell Buckle—and where to go next as you continue on with your Tennessee travels.
Getting to Bell Buckle
Bell Buckle is 54 miles from Nashville International Airport (BNA), which is likely where you’ll fly in if you’re coming from out of state. Just seven miles off Interstate 24 via Highway 64 and State Route 82, it’s also an easy detour if you’re driving to/from Chattanooga or Atlanta.
What to do in Bell Buckle
Once you’re in Bell Buckle, you’ll want to park on the square or in one of any other free lots on its perimeter and set out to explore the town by foot. Bell Buckle is small, barely encompassing the equivalent of one square city block, and you won’t need a car once you’re there as everything is walkable.
One of the main reasons Bell Buckle is on the map is thanks to its abundance of antique shops, each boasting its own brand of treasures across price points. These are legit antiques, and the owners take their jobs seriously: You’ll want to pop into Phillips General Store, and be sure you walk down to both Hilltop Antiques and Livery Stable Antiques, as well as stop at all the other smaller shops in between.
But antiques aren’t the only shops you’ll find in Bell Buckle. Shops like Simplicity, Doodle Bug and Farm Girlz Findery stock gifts ranging from T-shirts and textiles to cookware and tabletop decor. If you’re shopping for a gift for a friend or family member, I guarantee you’ll find something here in Bell Buckle.
As a serial home renovator, one of my personal favorite storefronts is Daffodilly Design, the public-facing arm of an interior design studio with impeccable taste in furnishings. The Daffodilly Design team tackles interior design for residential and commercial projects, as well as garden design and event styling, and all of this is reflected in their well-curated store with a workshop in the back.
Of course, you’ll also find art scattered around town, as you might expect in a town brimming with artists of all background. Bell Buckle’s postcard-style mural in the back alley of town was repainted a couple years ago, and there’s now a small bee mural and rain garden on the wall adjacent to it, as well.
You could easily find yourself spending the entire day in Bell Buckle as you bop in and out of the antiques shops, hunting for souvenirs or a special piece of history, so plan accordingly and arrive early as the shops begin to unlock their doors for the day.
Where to eat in Bell Buckle
Bell Buckle Cafe is a name known far and wide, quickly recognized by pretty much every Tennessean who has ever lived in the area, but it has quite the legacy outside of the region due to being prominently featured in national publications and on the television show Tennessee Crossroads in 2015.
People come from all over just for lunch at this down-home, railroad-style location, and for good reason: This is the place to get your fried catfish, a smoked pork chop platter or a country-fried steak with white sauce, among many main dishes. The sides, just as about exquisitely Southern as they can get, include fried okra, white beans and ham, red beans and rice, both kinds of slaw and, of course, mac and cheese!
Pro tip: Try the carrot soufflé if you’re looking for a sweet, unexpected side to go along with the meal and don’t be surprised if you’re referred to as “honey,” “darlin'” or “sugar”—that’s just how we roll out here in Middle Tennessee.
If you’re traveling on a Thursday, Friday or weekend, you’ll likely find a long wait at Bell Buckle Cafe during peak dining hours. Either get there early or be prepared to put your name on the list and shop while you wait for a table to open up. The cafe’s regular hours are 10:30am to 8pm, Wednesday through Saturday, with Sunday hours from 11am to 5pm.
Around the corner from the cafe is the most adorable coffee shop that I find myself driving to the town just to visit. It’s got Central Perk vibes with a delightful proprietor Lisa Scimeca and a darn good cup of coffee. For a small town, Lisa’s offerings are many: specialty coffee drinks, sandwiches, breakfast items, frozen coffees. Bell Buckle Coffee Shop is always my morning stop or, conversely, where I go after a lunch at the cafe when I need a pick-me-up.
Equally as charming are the bookshelves that line the seating area and the fact that Lisa also runs a book swap inside, with a free little library on the exterior, too. Bring a book to share, take a new one away to read, and get your caffeine fix while you do it.
Newer to Bell Buckle’s dining scene is Simply Sweet Bakery in the back of the shop Simplicity. Home baker Marylin got to pursue her dream of baking for the masses after her daughter Julie bought Simplicity a couple years ago and gave her the space in the back of the shop to sell sweets aplenty. Pies, cannoli, cookies, cheesecake and more are in Marilyn’s daily rotation, so save room for a treat after you’ve finished your shopping.
And at the very end of the row, tucked around the back stretch where the downtown curves along Webb Road, is a pair of specialty shops: Wellness Emporium, featuring homemade kombucha on tap and other natural health products like tinctures and mushroom extracts, and Bluebird Antiques & Ice Cream Parlor, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, which true to its name, doubles as an antiques shop and serves up their scoops in hand-made waffle cones.
While the “square”, i.e. the railroad strip along which the shops are positioned, may be Bell Buckle’s main attraction and the beating heart of all the action, you don’t want to miss taking a quick driving tour to admire the old homes that surround the downtown and the streets snaking their way around The Webb School. Painted in the whimsical Victorian style with bright colors and detailed woodworking that is a signature of the florid era, there are quite a few architectural treasures tucked into the verdant trees on these side streets.
When to visit Bell Buckle
Like everywhere in Tennessee, Bell Buckle is most pleasant from March through October, our best weather months, which also always translates to big crowds. That’s not to say you should go in the off-season, but if you want to avoid long wait times at the cafe, consider a Wednesday instead of a busy weekend. I’m also a big fan of spending the day in Bell Buckle during January and February when the shops are empty and I can move around freely.
Bell Buckle’s annual events
Bell Buckle has no shortage of annual events, and they all bring in tourists by the tens of thousands, some by car and others by motorcycle as these backroad sections of Tennessee are popular routes for bikers. Here are a few of the most beloved, many of which have been going strong for decades.
Bell Buckle Daffodil Day & Best of the Butts BBQ Cook-Off — March
Going on 50 years, Daffodil Day is on the third Saturday of March, and the town blooms bright with thousands of daffodils, paired with a craft fair, food trucks, live music and the Best of the Butts barbecue cook-off.
RC-MoonPie Festival — June
For more than a quarter century, the RC-MoonPie Festival in mid-June has been Bell Buckle’s banner event. The day kicks off with 10 Mile and 5K runs, followed by the RC and MoonPie parade and King and Queen Coronation. There’s music, clogging, food galore, crafts and prizes. And the ending of the day may be the sweetest part of it all: the serving of the World’s Largest MoonPie.
Webb School Art & Craft Show — October
One of the biggest arts exhibits in Tennessee, this craft show brings more than 800 booths to Bell Buckle, filling every street, nook, and cranny and featuring arts, crafts, and artist demonstrations.
Old Fashioned Christmas — December
Kiddos love Bell Buckle’s family-friendly holiday event that features sleigh rides with Santa, carolers, Letters to Santa and other Christmas cheer.
Beyond Bell Buckle: where to go next
Another convenient aspect about visiting Bell Buckle is how central it is to so many of Tennessee’s top attractions. In fact, it’s within an hour of so many of our favorite state parks, waterfalls and, of course, distilleries. Once you’ve spent the day in Bell Buckle, you’re ready to move on and explore more of Tennessee.
Wine and Civil War History in Williamson County
If you decide to head back north in the direction of Nashville, make your next stop Arrington Vineyards just outside of Nolensville. This pastoral hillside vineyard founded by Kix Brooks is on the local Masters & Makers Trail, which is the perfect excuse to hit up all the boozy stops in Williamson County while you’re exploring (don’t drink and drive, please!).
From Arrington, it’s an easy 20-minute drive to downtown Franklin where Civil War history is displayed at its finest. The community was at a major crossroads in this terrible conflict and shouldn’t be missed if you’re interested in learning more about how it all went down.
You can’t visit Franklin without heading out to Leiper’s Fork, an unincorporated town that is roughly the size of Bell Buckle and also boasts shops and galleries galore.
Once you’re in Leiper’s Fork, you can hop right on the Natchez Trace Parkway and drive to the northern terminus right next to Loveless Cafe, stopping to admire the views from the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge.
This route will take you about two hours without stops, though I recommend breaking up your trip and staying a night or two in downtown Franklin at the Harpeth Hotel.
Your Bell Buckle to Franklin road trip
Whiskey and Waterfalls in Tullahoma and Lynchburg
If you’re going south, you can pick up the Tennessee Whiskey Trail in my hometown of Tullahoma. Book a tour at George Dickel (otherwise known as Cascade Hollow Distilling Co.), then get your fill of whiskey before you head into Tullahoma’s great outdoors.
Machine Falls and Rutledge Falls are a spectacular pair of waterfalls not far from each other. Machine Falls requires a bit more of a hike—but the end result is worth it—whereas Rutledge Falls is on private property that’s open to the public and a quick, but steep climb down into the canyon which the waterfall flows into.
Your last stop on this road trip is for the Angel’s Share tour at Jack Daniel’s, the reigning champion of whiskey worldwide. Even if you don’t imbibe, this tour is impossibly fun and a must-do for understanding how the distilling landscape has shaped Tennessee.
You’ll also want to allot time for lunch at Miss Mary Bobo’s and a walk around the square. There aren’t many places to stay in the area, but if you’re not driving back up to Nashville or even Franklin, I’d recommend booking a room at the historic Tolley House in downtown Lynchburg.
Your Bell Buckle to Lynchburg road trip
To continue your Tennessee journey on from Bell Buckle, check out these nearby destinations:
- Plan the Perfect Day in Clarksville
- Drive the Natchez Trace Parkway
- Visit Centerville, the Home of Minnie Pearl
- Escape the Crowds and Head to Nolensville
- Take a Jack Daniel’s Tour in Lynchburg
- Opt Outside in Leiper’s Fork
- Explore Downtown Franklin’s History