Last weekend, I took off on a short visit to Louisville, Kentucky. I was looking forward to the trip, but was surprised how quickly I fell for the city. From the extremely friendly people (I’ve never met a more cheerful car rental customer service associate) to the excitement at Churchill Downs, trendy neighborhoods and boutiques, beautiful old buildings and homes, a fascinating history, and a passion for great food and better bourbon, it’s no wonder #LouisvilleLove is the city’s slogan.
As most of you know, food is one of my favorite parts about travel. I was impressed with the farm-to-table restaurants and innovative menus I saw throughout the city, and equally enamored with the classics like BBQ and the Hot Brown, a salty, creamy, meaty heart attack worth every bite. I indulged in one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time at Proof, and on the opposite spectrum had a fantastic, light meal at Heart & Soy. With only four days, how did I choose where to eat? Bartenders. Bartenders always know best.
Speaking of bartenders, Louisville has a stellar cocktail scene as well. There’s bourbon, of course. An overwhelming, almost intimidating amount of it. Kentucky is blessed with limestone water that promotes fermentation and filters out impurities, namely iron, and adds minerals like calcium, altering the taste. “All the magic happens in the barrel,” I was told. I visited ReSurfaced, the unused lot turned cool pop-up space where all kinds came together to hear local bands and sip the best local bourbons and debate one central question: Neat or On the Rocks?
But most interesting to me was the creative ways bourbon showed up on cocktail lists around the city. While it’s typically served, like ReSurfaced asked, neat or on the rocks (and I’m sure that’s still the case for many, many bourbon drinkers), there were plenty of bars getting experimental with their cocktails, bringing in amaros and absinthe, for example, and turning traditional bourbon drinks on their heads. I also had the pleasure to visit Copper & Kings, a “brandy distillery in bourbon world,” according to my tour guide, and fell in love both with their spirits and awesome branding.
Kentucky is probably most famous for the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs. I visited twice, once for twilight racing and once for a tour of the barns and to watch morning training. Let me tell you something. Those horses are beautiful. And fast! So much faster than they look on TV. I was in awe and could have stayed for hours longer.
I stayed in the 21c Museum Hotel, a really cool boutique hotel that doubles as a contemporary art museum. Founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson wanted somewhere to store their growing art collection while helping revitalize downtown Louisville, so they opened a hotel with rotating exhibitions open to the public. The building itself is a rehabilitated 19th century tobacco and Bourbon warehouse, contrasting the modern installations like a giant gold Statue of David replica at the entrance. If you don’t stay here, at least stop in for the exhibits. (But you should stay here too, because the service was fantastic, the rooms beautiful, and the amenities everything you could need).
Aside from eating and drinking and wanting to live in my hotel and own a horse, I walked through the city’s elaborate park system designed by Olmstead, ran across the Big Four Bridge, visited the Frazier History Museum, and wandered around Old Louisville snapping photos of the largest preservation of Victorian architecture in the United States. The giant, pastel houses adorned with vines and set amid fountains and rose gardens are pretty much the definition of charming.
What really makes a place though is the people. Midwesterners are friendly in general, but Louisville takes it to another level. Smiles, advice, and friendly banter with some Southern twangs and ma’ams here and there. How can you not feel welcome?
With so many more restaurants on my list and a freshly acquired taste for bourbon, I can’t wait to go back. I think I’m in #LouisvilleLove.