A whirlwind three-day visit to Louisville is not enough to see it all
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Trying to compare cities can be a weird business. Why does the smaller St. Louis feel bigger than Milwaukee, for example?
Typically, despite tons of similarities, a new city feels a bit foreign. Exploring these commonalities and differences is what I love most about wandering in urban areas.
A perfect example is Louisville, Kentucky, which, though it feels a lot like Milwaukee in terms of size and walkability, you wouldn't mistake one for the other.
Last summer, I returned to Louisville – a city I've visited a handful of times – for the first time in more than a dozen years (RIP Ear-X-Tacy). Comparable in population – Louisville has about 20,000 more people than Milwaukee – there is a lot to see; more than I could get to in my three days there.
Here's some of what I saw and what I recommend you check out when you go. Surely, you'll go, right?
Hit West Main Street and you'll find a lot to see. The Kentucky Center for Performing Arts is here, the Kentucky Science Center is here and so is the Frazier History Museum. Look for the giant baseball bat leaning on a building and you've found the Hillerich & Bradsby Louisville Slugger museum, which has interesting displays and a great tour of the factory.
There are a number of Milwaukee-related things here, including a tribute to Yount out on the street and, in a LEGO gallery, the brick-built Miller Park created by a former MSOE student. At the end of the tour everyone gets a free mini bat, which could help parents dodge the usual "give me, get me, buy me" routine in the gift shop.
Also worth a visit is the Muhammad Ali Center, which traces the life of one of Louisville's most famous sons. In addition to looking at and celebrating Ali's contribution to pugilism, it also delves deep into his place in 20th century American history and the struggles for civil rights.
You can buy a "Main Ticket" that gets you into all six attractions (the above plus the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, see below), at a savings of 50 percent off the regular entry prices.
While you're here, stop in at 21c Museum Hotel, 700 W. Main St. It's a hotel AND it's an art gallery. I was skeptical, so I stopped in and was pleasantly surprised to see that – at least based on the lobby – it's a nice boutique hotel AND is really does have a rather large, curated art gallery with a proper show on view.
If it's in your budget, why wouldn't you stay here?
There's bourbon everywhere in this town, as you'd expect. A number of the tours on the Urban Bourbon Trail are out of Downtown, so convenience led me to the Evan Williams Experience, 528 W. Main St., which offers an in-depth tour, a view into a barrel-a-day microdistillery and a tasting experience in a recreated speakeasy.
It's fun and informative and easy to reach if you're staying in the city center. Also down here is Angel's Envy, a smaller and newer distillery on East Main Street, and a tad farther east is Rabbit Hole. I hope to get to these next time, along with some of the other tours farther afield, like Bulleit, Buffalo Trace and Kentucky Peerless.
I attempted to stop in at the Jim Beam Bourbon Experience on 4th Street downtown but it was closed despite the fact that I tried during what were supposed to be operating hours.
The Ohio River
Louisville is a city on a river and while that freeway running along it suggests that the city had turned its back to the water at least for a while, that is changing. You can hop a riverboat like the Belle of Louisville for a leisurely ride upriver, which offers great views of the skyline and some other sights, like the old water tower and its White House-like building.
Or you can enjoy the sprawling Waterfront Park, with its wandering paths, shaded benches, vibrant water feature, playgrounds of all kinds and a link to the former railroad bridge that now allows bikers, joggers and walkers to head over to Jeffersonville, Indiana and back.
We also drove across the river to the Indiana side to see the falls of the Ohio, which is interesting, but not necessarily essential.
Food & drink
There is some amazing food in Louisville. We wanted to make sure we tried the key dishes, so we had a Hot Brown in the cafe at the stately Brown Hotel on 4th and Broadway, where the hearty dish was invented by Chef Fred Smith in the 1920s.
It's thick-sliced turkey smothered in a rich mornay sauce and topped with bacon, tomatoes and cheese. Super delicious and surely your entire recommended caloric intake for the day.
Out in NuLu, east of Downtown, we sampled the hot chicken at Royal's Hot Chicken, 736 E. Market St. Order at the counter and the food comes to your table, either inside or outside in a reclaimed shipping container.
Being a weakling, I went mild but it was hot enough for me. Palates with tastebuds nearly dead can go gonzo and notch it up another four or five levels.
The chicken was crunchy and tasty, topped with pickles and boosted by the grits I chose as a side because any time I'm in Waffle House territory, I want me some grits. Savvy diners (of the adult variety) won't want to miss the bourbon Coke slushy.
Just up the street, we dined the next night at Feast BBQ, 909 E. Market St., where, again, you order at the counter and grab a table to wait for your food. In this case, our ribs arrived lightning fast and were beautifully crusted. The kids loved their hearty mac and cheese and, again, there are boozy slushies, as well as an impressive list of microbrews from Louisville, Lexington and Cincinnati.
For dessert, the kids demanded (go ahead, twist my arm) we visit the Macaron Bar, 707 E. Market St., which is an explosion of cookie color. (Tip: We didn't visit this time, but in the past we've wandered the treasures at the nearby Joe Ley Antiques, which fills an 1890 schoolhouse at 615 E. Market St. Definitely worth a visit.)
When it comes to cocktails, there is no shortage in Louisville, but the legendary hometown quaff is the Old Fashioned, made here with bourbon, of course, instead the brandy that's preferred in Wisconsin. Vive la différence!
Like any town, there's a mix of the beautiful and brutish. If, like me, you're a fan of late 19th and early 20th century architecture, you won't want to miss South 4th Street, which has a stretch of blocks lined with gorgeous old theaters, retail and other buildings. At the southern end you'll reach the Brown, where you can lunch.
On the opposite end, just before you reach the 4th Street Live! pedestrian nightlife block – like the "live block" planned for the new Bucks arena, coincidentally also on 4th Street – is the Seelbach Hotel, which is simply not to be missed.
The lobby bar is a popular place for a cocktail (it has an eponymous one made with bourbon, Cointreau, bitters and Champagne), but head downstairs to see the Rathskeller – now an event space. The arched low ceiling and stunning decor will take your breath away.
If you're more interested in earlier Southern residential architecture, stroll the shaded streets of Old Louisville, out of downtown, for a real treat.
There's way more to do in Louisville than we could pack into our three days, so next time, in addition to more stops on the Urban Bourbon Trail, I've got Riverbats AAA baseball on my list, along with a visit to the Derby Museum and the Olmsted Parks Conservancy, which works to save and preserve Louisville's Frederick Law Olmsted-designed green spaces.
For more information on Louisville travel and tourism, visit gotolouisville.com.
Enjoyed reading your breezy trip through the Ville. How was that old fashioned? The picture must have been taken from Captain's Quarters dock at the Confluence of the Ohio river and Harrods Creek. Great place for summertime cocktails. Do you recall what bourbon the bartender use?
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