Long before Nashville earned the nickname Music City, it had a different moniker: The Athens of the South. It’s called that because of the more than 20 colleges and universities that call the city home (and also, there’s a replica of the Parthenon). While many of these schools cater to music and the arts, most are traditional academic institutions. The architecture and specific cultures of each school has shaped the surrounding neighborhoods, with Vanderbilt University’s New England feel, Fisk’s stunning towers, and Belmont’s classic, early 20th-century aesthetic. While serving as a hub for higher learning, Nashville doesn’t feel like a college town.

Here’s a start to exploring the culture of one of the south’s brainiest cities.

The Parthenon - West End

Statue of Athena within the interior of the Partenon

It might seem counterintuitive or even random, but an appreciation for Nashville’s Parthenon is key to understanding why Nashville is called “The Athens of the South.” The centerpiece of Centennial Park in Nashville’s West End neighborhood, this full-scale replica of the the Parthenon in Athens, Greece was originally an installation for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897. During this time in history, Nashville was known for its education networks and no one could have imagined the reputation it would later garner as a music city. The interior of the structure houses a 42-foot statue of Athena as well as a fully operational art museum. A testament to a time before music was Nashville’s primary export, this piece of local history roots Nashvillians in the tradition of academic excellence for which the city has long been known.

Fisk - North Nashville

Fisk University

Founded in 1866, Fisk University is the oldest college in the city and a key player in Nashville’s reputation as an academic leader. Fisk is one of the most famous historically black colleges in the country, and influential alumni include NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois, journalist Ida B. Wells, poet Nikki Giovanni, and congressman John Lewis who was attending Fisk in the 1960’s when he participated in historic civil disobedience to protest the segregation of lunch counters in the city.Located in North Nashville, The Fisk campus has been designated a National Historic District not only because of its historical significance, but also the architectural features that make the campus stand out against the backdrop of the city’s modern skyline in the distance. As the surrounding neighborhoods like Germantown and Buena Vista expand and evolve into specific districts known for their arts and cuisine, Fisk is an anchor for local painters, poets, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs of every sort.

Vanderbilt - Midtown, Music Row

Vanderbilt University

Widely recognized as one of the most prestigious institutions in the state of Tennessee and consistently ranked among the top 20 colleges and universities nationwide, Vanderbilt University has long been a pillar of Nashville’s academic scene. Founded in 1873 as a result of a $1 million gift from Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the university sits on over 300 acres of land between Midtown and Music Row. Notable alumni include former Vice-President Al Gore, and music luminaries such as Amy Grant, Dierks Bentley, and Rosanne Cash. As a private, research university, Vanderbilt’s state of the art medical center in the Hillsboro-West End area is regarded as a leader in the region and contributes significantly to Nashville’s healthcare industry.

Belmont - Belmont-Hillsboro

Belmont University photo courtesy of EVula

Just a few miles from Downtown and adjacent to Music Row and 12 South, Belmont University is nestled at the heart of the Belmont-Hillsboro neighborhood and also at the heart of Nashville’s teeming music industry. A long and eclectic list of notable alumni who went on to work as artists and songwriters includes Minnie Pearl, Trisha Yearwood, Brad Paisley, and, more recently, the popular indie band Moon Taxi.

Once rolling hills and pasture, the land that the university sits on was originally the Belle Monte estate, home to one of the South’s most notorious and wealthy women, Adelicia Acklen. Her lavish, historic mansion still sits atop a hill at the center of the university’s campus, and her antebellum sculptures and gazebos pepper the grounds. From its earliest days as Belmont College for Young Women to present day, Belmont has cemented its place as a touchstone of Nashville’s evolving identity.