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Established in 1778 by Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark (the older brother of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition), the city of Louisville, Kentucky, was named in honor of French King Louis XVI, who supported the colonists in their independence from Great Britain. What began as a sleepy frontier town on the Ohio River had become a major commercial center by the onset of the Civil War and was an important base for the Union Army. Today, the Bluegrass State’s largest city is best known for an exciting 120 seconds on the first Saturday in May, when the fastest thoroughbreds on the planet compete in the legendary Kentucky Derby.
While neighboring Nashville has received a lot of acclaim, low-key (and less-crowded) Louisville has a lively cultural scene, award-winning restaurants, hip hotels — and an Urban Bourbon Trail that can’t be beat. Here’s what to explore on your next visit.
Where to Stay
Downtown Louisville is home to the city’s most impressive hotels. The 1905 Beaux Arts beauty of the Seelbach Hotel is rumored to be where F. Scott Fitzgerald was inspired to write The Great Gatsby, and the billiard room was even used in scenes of the 2013 film adaptation. (Fitzgerald, stationed at nearby Camp Taylor, was reportedly thrown out of the hotel bar three times in four weeks.) The opulent Brown Hotel was constructed in 1923, while Galt House on the waterfront is the official host hotel of the Kentucky Derby and the largest hotel in the state.
If you prefer to stay closer to Whiskey Row, the Moxy has a sleek, industrial vibe, featuring a lounge filled with books, board games, and a large indoor fire pit. Guests receive a complimentary cocktail upon check-in. If bed-and-breakfasts are more your speed, the 1879 DuPont Mansion has fireplaces, crystal chandeliers, and Gilded Age grandeur. Meanwhile, art aficionados will love the style of the 21c Museum Hotel. The first of the 21c Museum portfolio, the Louisville location combines chic rooms, an acclaimed contemporary art collection, and an upscale restaurant with a bar featuring over 120 Kentucky bourbons to choose from.
Art and Architecture
You don’t need to be a guest to take a picture next to the double-sized, golden-hued David (inspired by Michelangelo) outside the 21c hotel on historic West Main Street’s Museum Row, or to stroll through the hotel’s 9,000 square feet of curated exhibition space. Around the corner, the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft has cutting-edge contemporary works along with an ongoing roster of events, including poetry performances, couture shows, and workshops for people of all ages.
For history buffs, the Frazier History Museum offers insight into the city’s (and state’s) past. Two permanent exhibits highlight the Lewis and Clark Expedition, as well as the beginnings of Kentucky’s world-renowned whiskey. The Speed Art Museum, near the University of Louisville, is the state’s oldest and largest collection, with more than 6,000 works including a particularly fine collection of paintings by Dutch masters.
Many of the city’s wealthiest families built their homes in Old Louisville — with neighbors competing to construct ever-more elegant and expensive dwellings. As a result, the 48 blocks of the current historic district boast the largest collection of contiguous Victorian-era houses in the United States. While many of the homes are private residences, a tour of the Conrad-Caldwell House Museum offers a glimpse into the grandeur of these well-preserved mansions.
“Conrad’s Castle,” built in 1893, is an astounding example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture, and had all the modern conveniences at the time, such as indoor plumbing, electricity, ornate wood carvings and stonework, and magnificent stained-glass windows. When walking through the district, follow the discreet brick path off Sixth Avenue to discover the magnolia-shaded secret charm of Floral Terrace.
Where to Eat
Louisville is gaining attention in national media as an increasingly attractive food destination. The bananas foster french toast and Monte Cristo sandwich at Toast in the East Market District (also known as “NuLu”) get rave reviews, as do the eggs Benedict and potato casserole at local brunch favorite Wild Eggs. Glitzy steakhouse Le Moo serves an awesome brunch six days a week, including a legendary fried peanut butter-and-housemade-jam sandwich with marshmallow creme. On Sundays, the brunch is extra extra, with a massive buffet and one of the state’s best drag shows.
Still hungry for lunch? Although fast-food restaurant KFC founder Colonel Harland Sanders called Louisville home, locals prefer to head to Royal’s Hot Chicken for their fried-bird fix. Mussel and Burger Bar brings them in for — you guessed it — mussels styled five ways and no fewer than 15 varieties of burgers. Enjoy a “Hot Brown,” the city’s most famous sandwich, at the Brown Hotel, where the open-faced, turkey-and-bacon sandwich was created.
Dinner options are almost endless in Louisville. In the Highlands, Ramsi’s Café on the World offers a vegan and vegetarian-friendly international menu in an airy, eclectic, art-filled space. (Be sure to try the asparagus frites and the spicy Jamaican tofu.) The seafood at River House Restaurant and Raw Bar is worth the short drive from downtown, offering a lovely view of the Ohio River.
Troll Pub Under the Bridge is a brick-walled, subterranean dining space on the site of the original Galt House hotel. Known for its well-executed pub food, it has craveable beer cheese dip with pretzel sticks and a killer club sandwich. Decca, located in an intimate 1870s building, has upscale Mediterranean fare and live music. And for late-night satisfaction, perennial pizza favorite Spinelli’s delivers downtown until 4:00 a.m. (when the bars close).
Louisville wouldn’t be the same without bourbon, the state’s signature spirit. Aged in charred oak barrels, the corn whiskey put Kentucky on the map, and draws enthusiasts from around the globe. Distiller Evan Williams started selling his namesake brand to residents back in 1783, and not even Prohibition stopped the flow. Start with a tour at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, and try them all — responsibly, of course.
Known as “the Greatest,” Louisville native Muhammad Ali was the world heavyweight champion and is widely regarded as the greatest boxer of all time. Born Cassius Clay, Jr., he was a Civil Rights and anti-war activist and a humanitarian who had an impact far beyond his sport. The Muhammad Ali Center on Museum Row celebrates and explores Ali’s life through interactive exhibits and artifacts, and often has a robust schedule of special events.
Baseball fans can’t miss the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, where 1.8 million of the iconic hardwood bats are produced each year. Take a tour of what Forbes called “one of the greatest sports museums in the world.”. During the racing season, watch the horses run at Churchill Downs, or check out the memorabilia from “the most exciting two minutes in sports” at the Derby Museum.
Stroll a mile across the Ohio River to Jeffersonville, Indiana, via the Big Four Bridge. The former railroad bridge now serves pedestrians and cyclists, offering great views of the city and access to the festivals and concerts on tap at Waterfront Park. Or indulge in a little retail therapy in NuLu, checking out galleries like Zephyr and chic boutiques like Revelry.
Late Night Fun
Spanning many genres including country, alternative, and bluegrass, Louisville’s lively music scene is home to well-known performers like Will Oldham, the members of My Morning Jacket, and Slint. Whether you want a small bar or a concert hall, there’s something here for you.
Hit Headliners Music Hall or the Louisville Palace for national acts, or wander over to the Highlands Taproom for live music with no cover charge seven nights a week. Historic “Whiskey Row” on Main Street is home to a stretch of bars and clubs, including under-the-radar Expo. (There isn’t a sign out front — just look for the green door at number 114.) For an Al Capone-worthy speakeasy, make reservations at Hell or High Water.