When I visited Louisville, Kentucky in the early summer, a month after the Derby dust had settled at the Churchill Downs, locals were confused at why I’d chosen this particular weekend for my exploration. But the city has everything a tourist could want: natural beauty, excellent restaurants and nightlife, a draw-you-in history, and it’s the heart of bourbon country. Plus, it’s still gloriously underexplored. I suspect this won’t last long, and these are some of the reasons why.
Louisville’s downtown is very much worth wandering around. Its core looks like New York’s Soho, lined with the same signature cast iron buildings. The city also boasts an architectural time-capsule in the form of Old Louisville, the largest Victorian preservation district in America.
Sports enthusiasts will be kept busy here, though you need not be a boxing fan to appreciate the Muhammad Ali Center. The award-winning museum is a testament to civil rights, in addition to being an ode to the local hero’s impressive career. If you leave dry-eyed, you have no soul. And, down the street is the Louisville Slugger Museum. Even if you’re lukewarm on the sport (though one should never, ever admit that publicly in Louisville), you’ll geek out over the museum’s bat archive, home to the bat preference for every baseball player who’s mattered.
For a refreshing take on the town, The Urban Bourbon Trail is walkable(ish) self-guided tour of about 30 interesting spots that boast some of the best bourbon selections and historical points in the downtown core. Ensure you make it to the St. Charles Exchange. This bar, with delicious snacks and an excellent cocktail list, is housed in one of the city’s oldest buildings. A note on the downtown core: The hours of businesses curiously resemble those of banks, so check the hours of your destinations before venturing out.
Louisville’s downtown looks like New York’s Soho, lined with the same signature cast iron buildings
And a warning about those cocktails. Due to the beautiful and dangerous thing that is the American bartender’s freehand pour, you’ll likely get a hangover. The best place to acquire one is Haymarket Whiskey Bar. Built in 1855, it anchors the eastern most edge of the famed Whiskey Row. The bar selection is staggering and the service earnest. It’s here you will likely meet your new favourite bourbon, and most probably drink too much of it.
The food in Louisville is outstanding — barbecue and fried chicken of note — and served up in warming, welcoming hospitable venues. If you’re looking for a hangover prevention measure, you’ll want to search out a Hot Brown. In the 1920s, swing dancers tired of the late night eats found solace (and nourishment) at The Brown Hotel, where the resident chef at the time whipped up a new creation that marries turkey, bacon, a rich Mornay cheese sauce and roasted tomatoes, served open-faced on toast. Hot Browns can be found all over Kentucky, but your first should be eaten at its origin, the Brown Hotel, a quick taxi ride away from Haymarket Whiskey Bar. Eat it tipsy at 3 a.m. and chase it with Derby Pie.
Feeling achy in the morning? Head to Please and Thank You to caffeinate and thumb through the attached record store while waiting for your coffee to kick in, then make your way over to The Silver Dollar for breakfast. The menu is comfort food incarnate, with a Californian/Mexican twist on southern offerings. Order the chilaquiles verdes, cornbread pancakes or fried oyster sandwich. The portions are massive, the service warm and there’s a feeling of solidarity among the heavy-lidded, fuzzy-brained Saturday morning brunch crowd.
The dinner scene is as fun as brunch. Dine at award-winning Harvest for farm-to-table food in a non-hipster way. Their sourcing isn’t so much of a statement as it is a friendly coincidence that they have great relationships with local farmers. Whatever you order — the barbecue board and buttermilk fried chicken livers are recommended — pair it with a bourbon tasting flight. For an airy room with a view, eat at Decca for beautiful food and ambiance. Make sure to try the mussels. There’s often a jazz band playing in the lounge downstairs and the music creeps up into the dining room, or into the gorgeous sprawling outdoor garden.
For a chic, nouveau Southern meal, head to Proof on Main and have your dinner with a side of art. Savour some cocktails and order the charred octopus and nduja bison meatballs. Then take your drink and languorously tour the adjoining gallery space at the 21c hotel. Every turn in the space leads to a beautiful new little surprise: just like Louisville.
[Ed. note: The Churchill Downs were incorrectly named in a previous version of this story.]