I have a weird fascination with visiting state capitols, so when I found myself with an unexpected afternoon in Nashville, I headed in for a visit. It’s a great activity if you’re looking for free things to do in Nashville or if you’re a just a history buff. The Capitol is located near Broadway Street, and can be easily reached on foot from the main tourist area. You can visit the Tennessee State Capitol building by yourself or as part of a free guided tour during opening hours, so head on over and check out the beautiful architecture. The Capitol building was constructed just prior to the Civil War and has all of the gorgeous touches you’d expect from a grand government building from that era. You’ll even find the tomb of the architect on site, as he was buried right in his own creation after dying during construction.

Statue on the steps of the Tennessee State Capitol

Guided tours of the Tennessee State Capitol

You can take a free Tennessee State Capitol tour on weekdays on the hour from 9-11 and 1-3 pm. Visitors can meet at the information desk on the main floor right across from the visitor entrance. The tours last a little under an hour and give you the history of the building and some of the most important rooms. Groups of 10 or more can make tour reservations, but everyone else can just drop in when they’re able to. A tour guide will walk you through all of the main rooms and chamber in the building and give you some history about the sights you’re viewing.

Visiting the Tennessee State Capitol without a tour

I happened to hit the capitol during a time when there were no tours available (noon aka lunchtime – the tour guide has to eat too). I decided to explore on my own with the help of a visitor’s guide with a numbered map showing important locations. I tend to prefer wandering at my own pace anyway, so I was perfectly happy to visit the Capitol without a tour. The brochure was one of the better ones I’ve gotten from various state capitols and had explanations of the functions of various important rooms as well as some history about the history of the capitol building.

The Tennessee Senate Chamber

Tennessee Senate Chamber viewed from above

You can visit the Senate Chamber two different ways if the Senate isn’t in session at the time. I was able to walk in at the ground level to see the relatively small room, though visitors are only allowed in the very back. Afterward, I discovered that the gallery was also open, so I climbed the long staircase up a level to see it from above too. I liked the view much better from up there.

The Tennessee House Chamber

The House Chamber can also be visited if the House isn’t in session at the time. Just like the Senate Chamber, you can enter the very back of the room, though the House Chamber is much larger. You can then climb another long staircase to get up to the gallery and see even more of the room. It’s cool to see the touches of technology in the room that otherwise looks very much like it’s from a different century.

Tennessee House of Representatives Chamber as viewed from above

A post-Civil War bullet hole

One of the interesting spots pointed out in the guide was a mark on one of the huge banisters from a bullet that was fired during the debate surrounding the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War. For more info on that, check out this great story about how there came to be a pockmark from a bullet in the railing that’s been left unrepaired for over 150 years.

The Capitol Library

Ornately decorated spiral staircase in the Tennessee Capitol Library

I love libraries, so this was my favorite room in the state capitol. I really wanted to climb the gorgeous spiral staircase, but sadly, it was barricaded off. I was unable to let my library nerd fly free, but it was happy just to enjoy the beautiful décor.

The Tennessee State Capitol grounds

Out on the grounds surrounding the Tennessee State Capitol, you’ll find tributes to the Tennesseans who’ve served as president. Statues honoring Andrews Jackson and Johnson can be found, and the other Tennessee native to occupy the White House, James Polk, is buried on the grounds with his wife.

Various other memorials dot the grounds commemorating individuals and tragedies. If you take your time to explore, you’ll find a Holocaust Commission memorial as well as one for Africans on the Middle Passage (the journey enslaved Africans endured on their way across the Atlantic), which is especially important here as slave labor was used for some of the construction of the Capitol building. If you’re into architecture, you can also view broken columns and limestone fragments that were removed during a renovation.

Statue in front of the Tennessee State Capitol Building

Tennessee State Capitol Hours

The Capitol building is open and accessible to the public from 8-4 Monday-Friday. If the legislature is in session, the building’s hours may be extended to allow public viewing of the Senate and House. The building is closed on weekends and public holidays.

Getting to the Tennessee State Capitol

The Capitol Building is located just blocks from the main tourist area on Broadway, so parking is a little tricky. I managed to find a metered spot on the street just a couple of blocks away after circling around a few times, but it wasn’t easy. There were several garages around, but I didn’t want to pay the full flat rate for only a couple of hours. Once you’re parked, the building is easy to find as it’s located atop a hill. Look for the dramatic giant dome and head toward it.

Numerous bus routes have stops within two blocks of the Capitol, so getting there via public transportation should be a breeze. You’ll be able to take bus lines 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, 10, 15, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 24, 25, 27, 33, 34, 36, 37, 42, 43, 44, 52, 60, 61, and the Megabus will all get you close. Check out the bus maps and routes here.

You can also easily walk to the Tennessee State Capitol from the main touristy area on Broadway. It’s a little over half a mile away and can be done in about fifteen minutes.
Visitors enter on the west side of the building and must pass through a security screening before entering. Find out more information on the official website here.

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