“We don’t strut here. We’re just folks...,” says Louisville music reviewer Mat Herron. It’s an apt quote to describe this unpretentious city bordering the Ohio River on Kentucky’s northern edge. During a four-day visit last fall with my friend Megan, I found myself admiring this “little, big city” everywhere I turned. From the compact downtown area perched on the banks of the river, where museums, art galleries, loft living, nightlife, and skyscrapers commingle harmoniously to the rolling highlands in the east where funky neighborhoods feature venues with names like the Karma Café, Amazing Grace Whole Foods, Ear X-tacy, and the Cage, where you’ll find the latest rock, metal, biker, and alternative gear—Louisville is an eclectic city, full of energy and passion, fun to visit and a hip place to live.
I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a city livable. The definition is different for each of us, of course, but I think most would agree that the people who inhabit a place are the essence of it. Wherever Megan and I went in Louisville, we met friendly folks who expressed a deep commitment to their city. Entrepreneurs, business execs, adventurers, philanthropists, artists—everyone seemed aglow with his or her mission, whether it was running a successful café or raising money for the arts. These people really look at you when you talk to them, and, even in these turbulent economic times, their eyes shine with the possibility of what’s to come.
CLAIMS TO FAME
While Louisville may be known first and foremost for the Kentucky Derby, it has many other claims to fame. As the Gateway to Kentucky Bourbon country, aficionados of the amber-colored libation will enjoy Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail, a self-guided tasting tour—complete with passport—to venues such as the Old Seelbach Bar, which inspired F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. There and at eight other taverns in the city you can sample dozens of varieties of bourbon, though I wouldn’t advise you to do so in one afternoon. You can also take day trips through scenic countryside to bourbon distilleries not far from the city .
Louisville is the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and at the visitor’s center downtown, you can have your photo taken with a life-sized model of Colonel Sanders. Louisville Sluggers are manufactured at a factory downtown, which welcomes visitors. Megan and I took a tour and learned that they produce one million bats per year and supply professional baseball players with most of the bats they use. In fact, a computerized lathe creates customized bats accurate to within 1/100”. Besides learning the history of Louisville Sluggers, you also get to visit the factory and can even try your luck in a batting cage. Don’t take a bat with you if you’re flying home and carrying on your luggage, however. For obvious reasons bats aren’t allowed.
Also downtown is the Louisville Science Center, where Megan and I caught a Titanic exhibit. You’ll also want to see “Kentucky Show!” a multi-media presentation at the Kentucky Center, which offers visitors an overview of Kentucky’s past, present, and future in a 30-minute montage of music, film, and photography. One attraction Megan and I missed was the Muhammad Ali Center, an award-winning venue that features exhibits, programs, and global initiatives designed to carry on Ali’s legacy. Incidentally, besides Colonel Sanders and Muhammad Ali, a slew of famous folks call Louisville home, among them Tom Cruise, Bob Edwards, Lionel Hampton, Diane Sawyer, and Wendell Berry.
ALIVE AND WELL
The arts scene is alive and well in Louisville. Just down the street from the Louisville Slugger Museum is Kentucky Arts and Crafts Museum, a colorful gallery with art from across the state. Megan and I caught an exhibit called “Water Quilts” along with a folk art exhibit featuring colorful sticks panted like snakes. We also explored Glassworks, a warehouse that houses a gallery, a workshop where you can take a glass-blowing class; the offices of a nationally renowned manufacturer of architectural glass; and urban loft living on its upper floors.
Theatergoers will have a field day in Louisville, where 22 theatre companies take to the stage. Ensembles specialize in improv, Broadway musicals, African-American drama, environmental theatre, Shakespeare, and much more. Megan and I took in a performance by the Actors’ Theatre, a Tony-award winning company that “put Louisville on the map,” according to a local culture guide. Set in a cozy theater-in-the-round, “Dracula” kept Megan and I glued to our seats as the tale of Bram Stoker’s famous vampire literally leapt to life. Special effects, excellent acting, great costumes, and of course a stellar story made for a fun evening out.
Another evening Megan and I headed to Historic West Main Street, one of the country’s largest extant Victorian neighborhoods, for a “Ghosts of Old Louisville” tour based on books by Louisville author David Dominé. We joined a group of ghost seekers and strolled around the neighborhood in the waning evening light, learning about voodoo priestesses and piano-playing spirits. While Peter, our guide, admitted to being a skeptic, he did accept the notion that “buildings attract energy from the people who live there.”
After our tour we were invited to stop by the Louisville Spirit Ball, an annual fundraiser/masquerade party which supports the Conrad-Caldwell House Museum, where the event is held, a gorgeous home—more like a castle really—with gargoyles, massive arches, and stained glass. The interior is decorated in period furnishings and features stunning woodwork and beautiful chandeliers. Local Louisville citizens dressed in elegant costumes welcomed Megan and me warmly and shared their love for Louisville history and their excitement about the future of their city.
The next morning I woke up early for a run and headed over to Cherokee Park, a gorgeous city park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, known as the father of American landscape architecture. While the rolling hills proved to be a challenge—I’m used to running in flat Virginia Beach—the autumn scenery kept me enthralled as I ran through forests, past meadows, and beside gurgling creeks. Finding this natural oasis in the heart of Louisville added to my admiration for this city.
KITSCH IS KING
After my run Megan and I headed to Wild Eggs, a terrific eatery where only the freshest of ingredients are served. I ordered Kalamity Katie’s Border Benedict, a flavorful dish which featured a green chili cheddar corn cake topped with chorizo, two poached eggs, cheese, salsa, sour cream, green onion, and fresh avocado. My, oh my. I will return to sample that amazing dish one day. Megan had the Bananas Foster Waffles, a decadent tribute to the famous New Orleans dessert with a Belgian waffle, banana rum caramel sauce, fresh bananas, vanilla bean ice cream, powdered sugar, and cinnamon. We also sampled Wild Eggs’ grits of the day and the everything muffin; both were utterly amazing. The owner is hoping to franchise the Wild Eggs concept, and I definitely think he has a winner on his hands.
Turns out every place we ate on our weekend getaway was knock-your-socks-off good. Another café we loved was Lynn’s Paradise Café, a funky out-the-way place where kitsch is king. Opened in 1991, Lynn’s specializes in home-cooked comfort food in a relaxed atmosphere where Formica tables and mismatched chairs suggest you’ve journeyed back in time to a 1950s kitchen. A disco ball hangs from the ceiling amid plastic palm trees and colorful castaway pieces of art—both beautiful and terrible at the same time. But it’s the food that will make you swoon. One morning for breakfast Megan and I tried the house specialty BLT fries, which consisted of home fries smothered in bacon, spinach, onions, tomatoes, cheese, and a horseradish sauce. We also loved the Greek scramble, eggs mixed with luscious chunks of artichoke hearts, flavorful sun-dried tomato bits, red onions, feta cheese, and kalamata olives. Also open for lunch and dinner, Lynn’s Paradise Café is an experience not to be missed.
Based on the recommendation of my brother who lives in Indiana, we lunched one day at J. Gumbo’s Cajun Joint, a fast-food restaurant that serves big bowls of amazing Cajun cuisine. And if you can’t decide on one entrée, you can mix it up and get two in one bowl. I tried a mixture of Drunken Chicken, slow-cooked in a beer-based sauce, and Voodoo Chicken, which lent a spicy heat to the dish. The gumbo and jambalaya are also amazing—and everything’s affordably priced. At BoomBozz, a local pizza joint that offers franchises, Megan and I enjoyed the Bourbon BBQ Chicken Pizza out on their patio in the cozy Highlands neighborhood.
We dined one evening at Proof on Main, an upscale restaurant adjacent to 21C, the hotel where we stayed. The joint was jumping on our Friday night visit, but we loved the high-energy vibe. The food was brilliant, from the appetizers—baked octopus bathed in garlic and olive oil and an amazing cured meat assortment—to our entrees—I had pork osso bucco and Megan had the bison burger—and finally to dessert, a chocolate caramel mousse. The restaurant features lights that changes hues overhead along with eclectic art including a continuously showing film of a boy eating soup and a moose created from high-heeled shoes.
In fact the art theme carries over from 21C, which calls itself a museum hotel and welcomes visitors 24 hours a day to view its changing exhibits of modern art.
A portrait exhibit was on display when we visited, but these weren’t your ordinary portraits. They ranged from images of faces created in sand and reflected in cylindrical mirrors to a headless Victorian woman to a life-sized painting of a rap singer. One exhibit featured a set of photographs depicting teens and young men, who, our guide explained, represent the top video-game players in China and the Netherlands. The photographer tracked down these young men based on their high scores and took portraits of their expressionless faces. The effect was eerily disturbing.
The hotel is known for its collection of plastic red penguins, which you’ll find poised along the roof outside and here and there throughout the interior. Guests sometimes move them around, our guide explained, making them an “interactive element of the museum.” The hotel rooms are hip, tasteful, and modern, as you might expect, and its location in the downtown area makes it perfect for visitors. Another popular hotel is the Galt House Hotel and Suites, a high-rise property beside the river with a classy vibe. The fitness center on the top floor is one of the nicest I’ve ever seen—its circular glass windows reveal an amazing view of the Ohio River and the Indiana countryside beyond.
Before leaving Louisville, Megan and I had to check out Churchill Downs, which offers a variety of tours for visitors. We arrived too late to see the horses training on the track, but enjoyed a behind-the-scenes tour of the clubhouse, media center, and the grandstands. The Kentucky Derby Museum, located at Churchill Downs, was closed for repairs due to flash flooding that occurred last summer, but is scheduled to reopen in April.
As Megan and I headed home, we talked about how much we liked the “little, big city” of Louisville. As we considered its small-town feel and big-city amenities, I wondered what sets it apart from other cities that offer a similar standard of living. The answer comes, I think, from the hearts of the people who live there and the ways in which they express passion for their city. There’s a creative undercurrent that rushes unseen along the streets of the city, lifting it up to new heights.
For more information, please visit www.gotolouisville.com