Southern food, unique art, horse racing and intriguing history shine in this Kentucky town

Thank the limestone.

Louisville — Kentucky’s cultural showcase on the Ohio River — is where “the horses are fast and the pour is slow.”

That’s how locals boast about the town built on Derby Day and bourbon. Limestone makes the beloved liquor’s water pure and the horses’ bones the strongest in those bluegrass pastures. Maybe it also stiffens the spines of those citizens who lobby: “Keep Louisville Weird.”

Towering 120 feet into the sky at the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, The Big Bat is an exact-scale replica of Babe Ruth’s 34-inch Louisville Slugger. Copyright Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory

Weird is wonderful

Weird, as in the hats on Derby Day. And the Outsider Art at the Speed Art Museum, newly reopened after doubling in size; the cutting-edge premieres at Actors Theater and its annual festival of new plays; the scene at Wagner’s restaurant and general store — a people-watching paradise aside Churchill Downs racetrack, selling both healing liniments and biscuits with sausage gravy to the track’s trainers and their fans since 1922.

A double-size replica of David — inspired by Michaelangelo’s original creation — stands outside the 21c hotel in downtown Louisville on Museum Row.

Weird, as in a golden, three-story riff on Michelangelo’s David flashing passers-by outside Main Street’s 21C Hotel, which boast more out-there art (and food) inside.

Then there’s the equally humongous Louisville Slugger outside the baseball bat factory-turned-museum and try-your-skill attraction nearby.

Downtown’s Museum Row on Main continues with the Kentucky Museum of Art & Craft and yet another museum devoted to the life of local son Muhammad Ali — boxing champ and Vietnam War protester. (You can visit his grave in Cave Hill Cemetery, not far from that of another hometown hero, Col. Sanders, whose Kentucky Fried lives on.)

Muth’s Candies in Louisville has turned out its signature hand-dipped bourbon barrels since 1921, using 100 proof bourbon and rich, semi-sweet dark chocolate.

Exploring it all

Louisville was founded just steps from Main Street’s redbrick sidewalks and iron-pillar facades when George Rogers Clark set foot on land in 1778.

Nowadays, the inviting city of 750,000 — the state’s largest, a mere two-hour flight from MSP — sports a circle of distinct neighborhoods worth a wander, aided by the free ZeroBus system that patrols the core.

At Hi-Five in Louisville, customers can build their own donut creations with a variety of glazes and toppings.

It’s just as well, for downtown’s Whiskey Row now boasts half a dozen distilleries open to tour and sip.

Old Louisville is eye candy for fans of super-glam Victorian mansions — the largest such enclave in the entire country, centering around Central Park (designed by Olmsted, who did another one somewhere).

The Highlands — sliced by Bardstown Road, aka restaurant row — boasts plenty of unique shopping ops.

Please & Thank You is a small-batch southern bakery and coffee house with two retail locations in Louisville.

NuLu is the newly gentrified base for Bohos who live to eat, shop and gawk at galleries. Here, Please & Thank You sells coffee, cookies and vinyl records. Joe Ley has turned an entire redbrick schoolhouse into an eponymous trove of tempting antiques. Muth’s Candies has turned out Bourbon balls since 1921, while Revelry is new at the game of selling handmade local giftware.

Butchertown claims honors as the ’hood on the rise, winning points for side-by-side establishments Hi-Five (doughnuts to die for), Stag + Doe (home accessories) and Louabull — sassy gifts like soaps dedicated to the Pope (“wash your sins away”) and Lady Macbeth (cleans damn spots). Butchertown Market is a near-zipcode-size cache of jewelry, accessories and chocolate.

The NuLu neighborhood in downtown Louisville is home to restaurants, shops and galleries and the First Friday Hop, a monthly art show, tourist attraction and street-party celebration.

Downtown’s Fourth Street Live area sizzles with a marathon of bars we’re all too old for. Instead, head to bars like Check’s Café in Germantown, since 1944 serving fried bologna sandwiches, fried oysters, fried chicken livers and other winners. Or head to Lola’s, a spacious lounge for cosmo cocktails (mine: Lady Midnight). Or Mr. Lee’s — an intimate club with no sign on the door and lighting so low you might not recognize your spouse.

Check’s Cafe in Louisville’s Germantown is famous for fried bologna sandwiches and bean soup.

Local delicacies

The national travel magazines are finally touting what I knew about Louisville all along: It’s the dining Mecca of the South. Think classic comfort food with a splash of bourbon and you get the idea.

In fact, there’s an Urban Bourbon Trail, with designated stops for such restaurants, and another official crawl for those addicted to the city’s famous sandwich, the Hot Brown — turkey, bacon, tomato and cheese sauce on toast. (Both lists are available at the visitor center.)

At Corner Bar in the new Aloft Hotel, we pigged out on pulled pork bourbon tacos. At Goss Avenue Bar in Germantown, it’s burgoo — a traditional beef stew with a shot of heat.

Gralehaus chef Andy Myers poses with some of his signature dishes. Photo courtesy of Greater Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau

Gralehaus, off Bardstown Road, touts Southern icons including a pimiento cheese and sweet-pickle sandwich, plus biscuits with duck-sausage gravy and maple syrup, duck cracklings and a sunny egg. And the best grits for miles around.

Proof on Main, in the 21C, also markets killer grits, dolled up with bleu and Gouda, pickled peanuts and jalapenos.

A sculpture of a satyr named Randy graces the bar at Proof on Main, the restaurant inside the artsy 21c hotel in downtown Louisville.

Fat Lamb earns its fame with Chef Dallas McGarity’s lamb ragu, along with fried oysters and shrimp and grits, cooked like he learned in South Carolina. Butchertown Grocery also does some mean shrimp and grits, as well as chicken ‘n’ waffles and a benedict that favors porchetta and kale on a mega-biscuit.

Or you can slip off the beaten track and join longtime local fans at Le Relais, housed in a former terminal aside a small airfield, where the chef/patron puts a French spin on whatever comes from the farms around him.

Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville hosts a variety of races, including the hat-happy Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May, capping the two-week long Kentucky Derby Festival. Photo by Thomas Kelley / Shutterstock.com.

The Kentucky Derby

Derby Day, the first Saturday in May ever since 1875, is hailed as “the greatest two minutes in sports.”

Actually, the Kentucky Derby (May 6 this year) is the 12th of 14 races on that day, and the momentum starts building at dawn, when those with tickets to the grounds of Churchill Downs begin to party.

Derby season actually kicks off in late April with Thunder Over Louisville — the biggest fireworks display in the North America, lighting up the Ohio River. Throughout Derby week, Dawn at the Downs offers spectators a chance to watch the horses work out on the world-famous track. And the Kentucky Oaks race draws in folks before Derby Day, too.

Photo by Dan Dry & Associates

Never mind aspiring for a seat in the grandstand; they’re long gone and priced for princes. Most folks mill around (last year’s attendance: 158,000), watching TV monitors, placing bets and adjusting the tilt of this year’s bonnets (selfies mandatory).

Churchill Downs (just a few bucks admission outside of derby season) hosts races for three and a half months each year on the 11/3-mile track. Daily behind-the-scenes tours include the stables, Millionaire’s Row in the stands (where Queen Elizabeth reigned on a Derby Day not long ago) and admission to the fascinating Kentucky Derby Museum.

Here you can learn what makes a superior thoroughbred; salute every past winner; study the life and training of a jockey, trainer, hot walker and vet — and ogle a wall of famous Derby chapeaux. The tour includes a surround-screen filming of Derby Day, climaxing in a song more dear to a local’s heart than the national anthem — My Old Kentucky Home. Not an eye was dry, including mine. And I’m from Minnesota.

Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.

Plan your trip

See churchilldowns.com and gotolouisville.com.

If you’re traveling this fall, check out live bluegrass music, offered with “a side of bourbon and savory barbecue” at the Kentucky Bluegrass & Bourbon Experience Sept. 2–3, held at Water Tower Park, Louisville.