A Few Days In

More Than a Derby Town, Louisville Is a Movable Feast

by Philip Ruskin
Louisville The old fashioned is Louisville's official cocktail. All photos courtesy of Louisville Tourism.

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky – While it might be best known as the home of the Kentucky Derby, held annually the first weekend in May, it’s not surprising that Louisville’s moniker has changed from “Derby City” to “Bourbon City.” Louisville is a movable feast — brimming with art, music, parks, food, and, of course, bourbon. The home of the true American spirit, Louisville has a vibrant spirit of local pride, Southern hospitality, and abundance of talent that make it intoxicating. (Forgive the puns, y’all.) I lived in Louisville part-time for five years, and even though I’ve since left, it’s never left me. I get back regularly and when I do, I make sure to hit these spots.

Cast Iron Architecture on Whiskey Row. Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism.
Old Forrester Distilling Co. Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism.
An homage to David outside 21C Museum Hotel. Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism.

Look Under the ‘Hood

Like Daniel Boone, who blazed the original trail in these parts, Louisville offers a rich road map for an adventure of the senses. A great way to explore Louisville is by neighborhood.

DOWNTOWN

Anchored by Main Street, this charming stretch boasts the country’s largest collection of Cast Iron architecture, second only to Manhattan’s Flatiron district. Once known as Whiskey Row, the area has returned to that status, with more than a dozen whiskey-drenched attractions and bars.

Explore
As the Gateway to Bourbon Country, Louisville has become an epicenter of bourbon culture with a dozen distillery tours that make up an Urban Bourbon experience, several within walking distance of each other in the city center. Offering a glimpse into the history and making of the amber liquor, Old Forrester Distilling Co. on Whiskey Row is educational, entertaining, and delicious. You can see the bourbon-making process from cooperage (barrel-making) through distilling and, for those over 21, tasting.

Eat
Proof on Main is the restaurant at 21C Museum Hotel. Given the striking art installations on the walls of this sleek and elegant eatery, you’d think you were in NYC’s Chelsea rather than the South. Tip: The bison-burger, whose meat comes directly from owner Steve Wilson’s farm, is among the best burgers I’ve had anywhere.

Stay
21C Museum Hotel is dedicated to visual art, food art, and the art of comfort. It’s no wonder they have a full-time curator. Instagrammable moment: The nearly four-foot-high red plastic penguin mascots that seem to mysteriously pop up everywhere are cute and photogenic. (Read more on Fathom about 21C: Spend the Night at the Hotel-Museum on Kentucky's Bourbon Trail.)

Cherokee Park. Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism.
On the menu at Holy Grale. Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism.

THE HIGHLANDS

The neighborhood that was Daisy Buchanan’s hometown in The Great Gatsby is an eclectic one that blends a college-town feel on Baxter Avenue, colorful murals on tattoo parlors, fun eateries and bars with live music pouring out of them. One block over, the vibe turns decidedly more genteel on Cherokee Road, a charming street lined with stately Southern-style brick homes.

Get Oriented
Carmichael’s is the kind of cozy independent bookstore we all feared had become extinct. Good news: There are two in town, with sections dedicated to local history, travel, and authors. Hunter S. Thompson, Wen

dell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, Sue Grafton, and Thomas Merton are a few of the many thinkers and authors from the area. A great way to plan your activities is to check out the many free papers for local arts and events calendar listings over a cup of organic java in the bookshop’s Heine Bros. Coffee outlet. (Locals call it "HBC.")

Explore
Take a bike ride through sprawling Cherokee Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (of Central Park fame). Watch out for the dogs barreling down the aptly named “dog hill.”

Eat & Drink
Holy Grale is an old church turned gastropub. The irony of Prohibition Repeal Day Celebration is not lost here, the home of amazing local microbrews.

Shop
Bardstown Road and Baxter Avenue are home to a surprising number of exceptional vintage clothing boutiques stocking everything from khakis to couture. German Town rivals the Highlands for vintage and funky-funky but chic boutiques.

Streetside in NuLu. Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism.
Outdoors at Garage. Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism.
Loaded tots at Feast BBQ. Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism.

NULU

Centered on East Market Street, the city’s restaurant row feels like it could be the love child of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Asheville, North Carolina. NuLu is short for “New Louisville.”

Play
Take a break from eating, drinking, shopping, and gallery hopping with a game of ping pong at sunset on the patio of Garage Bar. Just like the name implies, it’s a 1950s gas station turned pizza, ham, cocktail, and oyster bar.

Shop
Before you come back to the present, cross the street to pick up sweets at Muth’s Candies, whose neon sign and beveled glass display cases haven’t changed since they opened in 1921. Don’t leave without trying a Madjeska, butter-and-cream-caramel-covered marshmallows created at the request of a visiting opera diva in the Roaring Twenties. Revelry Boutique Gallery is a great bet for gifts made by local artists.

Eat
To experience the heights that BBQ pulled pork and brisket can reach, plan a meal at Feast BBQ, a satisfying joint that asks you to be patient because perfection takes time. The wait isn’t that long, but well worth it.

Stay
Boutique AC Hotel is in heart of some of the best shopping, eating, drinking in town. Somehow, the sleek and modern wood and chrome décor become a warm, inviting space that fits in surprisingly well with the cool vintage feel of Nulu’s East Market street. Challenge: Try to keep their golf ball-shaped soap from flying out of your hands.

Pastries at Blue Dog Bakery & Cafe. Photo by Philip Ruskin.

CLINTON HILL

Frankfort Avenue is another charming street with more than its share of great food and shopping.

Shop
At Bourbon Barrel Foods, chef Matt Jamie ferments his amazing soy sauce in bourbon barrels, which is itself great. He then burns the staves from the used barrels to smoke his spices, which gives them a special (and outstanding) flavor. I always pick up his smoked paprika, a favorite of chefs across the USA.

Eat
One would be hard-pressed to find a more perfect breakfast/brunch than a basket of perfect flaky croissants, piping fresh buns, and baguette accompanied with house-cured meats from pigs raised by the owners than at Blue Dog Bakery & Cafe. Sitting by the window watching the trains go by across the narrow street is a surprisingly enjoyable moment of mythic Americana.

St. James Court Fountain. Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism.

HISTORIC OLD LOUISVILLE

Block after block of impeccably maintained brownstones and Victorian mansions. The most resplendent are on St. James Court, which was once home to the biggest bourbon barons. Instagram moment: glorious St. James Court Fountain, which marks what was the center of the 1883 World’s Fair Exposition.

Explore
The city is making strides to celebrate its Black heritage through programs and tours that honor and celebrate African American history and culture. Lousiville Tourism organized eight immersive experiences under the umbrella The Unfiltered Truth Collection that examine histories of baseball, bourbon, horse racing, and slavery. The newly opened Roots 101 African American Museum explores Black history, culture, and art through exhibits and events.

The Conrad-Caldwell House Museum is, as their informative website points out, “one of the finest examples of Richardsonian-Romanesque architecture.” Filled with period antiques and everyday objects, you almost expect the original owners to walk in and give you a personal tour.

Eat
North Lime Donuts is a great place to take a break and use the Wi-Fi over artisan doughnuts and coffee.

Stay

Dupont Mansion Bed & Breakfast is a luxury hotel experience in a mansion. They serve a staggeringly good breakfast. Instagram moment: Well, pretty much everything, but the player piano is particularly cool.

Downtown Louisville. Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism.

What You Will Wish You Knew on Your First Day

It’s pronounced “LOU-uh-vuhl.” Emphasis on the first syllable. And don’t ever make the last one sound like “ill.”

Besides producing most of the world’s supply of bourbon, the area is one of the most fertile farm regions in the nation. After bourbon (as a drink and an ingredient), pork is the prominent item on most menus. Vegetarians may want to check meat-less options in advance. Naïve and Roots are two particularly good veg-friendly venues.

Many restaurants are closed Sunday and Monday, so check before you travel to avoid being disappointed.

What You Will Wish You Knew on Your First Day

It’s pronounced “LOU-uh-vuhl.” Emphasis on the first syllable. And don’t ever make the last one sound like “ill.”

Besides producing most of the world’s supply of bourbon, the area is one of the most fertile farm regions in the nation. After bourbon (as a drink and an ingredient), pork is the prominent item on most menus. Vegetarians may want to check meat-less options in advance. Naïve and Roots are two particularly good veg-friendly venues.

Many restaurants are closed Sunday and Monday, so check before you travel to avoid being disappointed.

Plan Your Trip

Fly: I strongly recommend booking direct flights, which are limited from major markets, but can be very reasonable when booked well in advance.

When to Go: Sure, the Derby is a blast, but unless you feel compelled to spend $900 for a $90 airport motel room and to fight for restaurant tables, you will do better coming any time but Derby weekend. Spring, summer, and fall are all great.

More Info and Resources and Events Calendar: Louisville Tourism keeps tabs on even more of the city's best offerings.