Louisville, just south of Indiana across the Ohio River, is firmly embedded in the American national consciousness for its multimillion-dollar Kentucky Derby. Each May, the horse race attracts over half a million fans to this cosmopolitan and well-diversified industrial city, which still bears the traces of the early French settlers who came upriver from New Orleans. Louisville also produces a third of the country's bourbon.
The city's history revolves around a perennial rivalry with Cincinnati, a mere one hundred miles upstream. Thus, despite being pro-Union during the Civil War, it promoted itself thereafter – erecting Confederate statues and so on – as the place for Southern business to invest. Today, besides a lively arts scene and lots of citywide festivals, Louisville boasts an excellent network of public parks. One native son who took advantage of the recreation facilities was three-times world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who used to do his early-morning training in the scenic environs of Chickasaw Park.
Louisville's major districts are best described as a series of spokes emanating from a central hub. Downtown sits on the southern bank of the Ohio river, and a number of happening thoroughfares jut more or less southward from there.
Louisville was one of the original frontier cities. Downtown, that personality remains in many respects. Firstly, a gaggle of frontier-era buildings give the area a distinctive visual feel. Second, and more important, a no-holds-barred approach to urban revitalization keeps Downtown Louisville on the cutting edges of fun and culture. Still-vital relics like the Seelbach Hotel (inspiration for beloved sections of The Great Gatsby) anchor certain corners, while hotspots like Proof on Main (purveyor of specialty cocktails and modernized American cuisine) anchor others.
During the day, attractions like the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory and Louisville Science Center brim with activity, catering to tourists and locals alike. After sunset, the party starts. Follow the flashing lights and bumpin' beats to Fourth Street Live, a centrally located and densely packed complex of fine dining and raucous nightlife.
Despite Downtown being home to the Muhammad Ali Center, Bardstown Road is the undisputed heavyweight champion of happeningness in Louisville, and the foremost of the aforementioned spokes. Dozens of the best bars, restaurants and retail are located along Bardstown or its companion boulevard, Baxter. This strip is perhaps most notable for its defining physical characteristic, which affects visitors in a somewhat jarring manner. Bardstown is a serious four-lane transportation corridor, but the catch is that each of the four lanes is subject to change. During certain hours, multiple lanes may be devoted to inbound or outbound traffic. During others, center lanes may be reserved for left turns only. On weekends, the curbside lanes are likely set aside for parking. Beware if you're behind the wheel on Bardstown. Nonetheless, businesses here thrive. For miles and miles, there's nothing but bustling storefronts and happy citizens striding up and down the walk.
The surrounding area is lovely as well. To the east is Cherokee Park, an expansive municipal park with rolling hills, wildflowers, a creek, a lookout, a golf course, and miles of trails. It is very easy to venture into Cherokee Park with the intention of taking a quick stroll, and then find yourself two hours later parched and beat. Luckily, cute neighborhood streets wind in and around the park, and they all feed back to the Bardstown corridor at one point or another, where electrolyte replenishment is a snap.
Due south of Downtown, along the vertical spoke that is 3rd and 4th Streets, Old Louisville is a grand old district. Breathtaking southern mansions line street after street, with majestic fountains and grassy medians adding class throughout. Central Park is the neighborhood's focal point, with tennis courts, a modest amphitheater, and a visitors center keeping things lively. Branch out from the park, and you'll find homey coffee shops like Old Louisville Coffeehouse, and charmingly grungy neighborhood taverns like the Magnolia Bar & Grill (known affectionately around here simply as "Mag Bar").
Not nearly as energetic as Bardstown Road, Frankfort does show some major signs of life. It is Bardstown's sister spoke to the north, in the grand scheme of things, so a certain amount of trickle-up action is to be expected. Galleries, shops, bars and eateries line the way, and way out at the end, Frankfort turns into Shelbyville Road, the main drag leading into the cute little community of St. Matthews.
Germantown is easy to write off as something of a post-industrial wasteland one passes en route from Downtown to the Bardstown Road strip. This is a grand mistake. Choose your route carefully, and you'll find some treasures tucked away into the hidden recesses of this sleepy district.
Downtown Louisville has dining options aplenty. Proof on Main is a hotspot like none other. Located on the heart of Main Street, they celebrate classic American comfort food -- by spicing it up with some new-millenium-style creative thinking. Its bar is similarly tempered, putting bourbon on a pedestal of course (We're in Kentucky!), but spicing up tired old cocktail standards with new ingredients and feisty presentations. They also put a new spin on bar snacks, serving up rabbit pate, squid and a very forward-thinking cheeseburger. In terms of atmosphere, it must be noted that Proof is affiliated with and housed on the ground floor of the 21c Museum Hotel, a 24-hour contemporary art museum and hotel. Thus, the restaurant and bar are graced with some epic spillover -- works of art as exciting as anything in the region.
While Proof is exquisite, it's something of a lone outpost in its corner of the neighborhood. More action can be found at Fourth Street Live, a shining example of the city's revitalization efforts. More than a dozen large-and-in-charge dining and nightlife staples, from well-known chains like Hard Rock to Midwest-only efforts like the Maker's Mark Bourbon House & Lounge, keep party people fed (and sauced) into the wee hours. Certain nights see the street out front closed to traffic for live music and block-party-style shenanigans.
Kitty corner from the 4th Street hubbub lies another very notable hotel bar, the Old Seelbach Bar, often included on lists of the best bars in the world. This place is pure class. Dim lighting, comfy leather, and a long and inviting bar make for a prime place for a steak and a Manhattan (or two). And if you ask the barkeep about the ghost running around upstairs, you'll be treated to one wild tale after another. Just be sure to extricate yourself before ordering that third drink.
Downtown's got plenty of lower-key dining options as well. Bearno's is a classic local pizza joint, and the downtown branch is perched just up from the river, where the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge meets Main Street. And, of course, those new to the Midwest will likely be happy to know there's a White Castle right around the corner. For low-key drinking, Third Street Dive is the only choice. Lots of beer on tap, lots of graffiti on the walls, lots of locals shooting pool, and lots of metal on the jukebox. The name says it all: it's not on 4th Street, and it's a dive.
Bardstown Road is block after block after block of tempting eats and thirst-quenching drinks. Cumberland Brews has both, in spades. The fried green tomato appetizer gives way to the fried fish on rye, and all can be washed down with house-made ales. And they do get crafty here. One seasonal specialty includes the addition of a helping of Yerba Mate, that heart-rate-boosting Amazonian tea.
If you order coffee there, they'll make some for you, or they might recommend you grab yourself a cup from next door. Ray's Monkey House makes a killer cup, and they do the organic thing, and, actually, they pour beer too!
At Spinelli's you can get a big satisfying slice or a big satisfying pie, and though they do deliver all over town, it's best to stop by their Bardstown Road headquarters, if only for the giant-size, hand-painted mural of a shirtless Burt Reynolds on their wall.
One can't-miss section of the strip is the Irish quarter. A handful of Irish Bars (exhibiting different degrees of authenticity) are grouped together on one block like a bonnie nuclear family. O'Shea's is the patriarch for sure, having held court here since the 1950s. That said, patio seating and live music keep it young. Nearby Flanagan's has a jolly-good beer selection, even jollier employees, and serves perfect pub grub.
It's called Old Louisville for a reason. Walking its streets -- and imbibing in its watering holes -- one gets a profound sense of the personality of the Old South. Take it all in at Third Avenue Cafe, where sidewalk seating makes everything great. At Mag Bar, there's Van Halen on the jukebox, cheap beer on tap, colorful conversation, and big plate-glass windows looking out onto a calm neighborhood corner.
North End Cafe is the jumping-off point for this stretch of yum. Located at the tip of the strip, they serve a little bit of everything and do it all well. They have artful vegetarian and vegan options for the conscientious set, as well as fabulous southern comfort (like the biscuits and gravy plate, wow!) for those with fewer scruples -- ethical or healthical.
Further up, you'll find the Irish Rover, an Irish pub many trek to for its authenticity and good humor, despite the great abundance of Irish pubs mentioned above.
Germantown is a modest little section of town, known mostly for industrial ruins and quaint homes. It's also a great place to drink. Here it's all about neighborhood, and the neighborhood keeps its drinking establishments on their toes. At Seidenfadens, you can grab a cold can of Pabst and talk mess with your friends. On occasion, Seidenfaden's will host a little dance party, with somebody from the neighborhood spinning records and more somebodies from the neighborhood tearing up the dancefloor.
The Nachbar is similarly homey, but it's got a leg up in one respect: its draft list will bring out the connoisseur in you. Sought after microbrews and imports like Dogfish Head's 60-Minute IPA from Delaware mean aficionados come from near and far for a pint or four.
More on the beaten path than the other two, Lisa's Oak Street Lounge is an inviting place. Motorists zip by on their way from Downtown to Bardstown Road (and points in between), but few stop in here for a tipple. Again, neighborhood folk make up the clientele. That said, big front windows, occasional live music, and a long, sturdy bar make Lisa's a fine spot for a drink. And when hunger strikes, head from Lisa's to Lynn's, Lynn's Paradise Cafe that is, arguably one of Louisville's most renowned dining hotspots.
Maker's Mark Distillery
No trip to Louisville is complete without an excursion into Bourbon Country. Dozens of the finest distilleries in the world are short car rides away, and the crown jewel of the lot is Maker's Mark. The Maker's Mark Distillery Tour is touted as one of the best even by some of its fiercest competitors, noted for a laundry list of qualities that set it apart. Maker's makes one product and one product only, unlike other distilleries that sometimes produce whole ranges of different bourbons. This focus lends an unparalleled quality to their bourbon, and makes for a distillery tour that goes down easy -- with a smooth finish. Furthermore, Maker's Mark is a family-style operation in many ways. The distillery grounds are beautiful but modest in scale, and are staffed by a small but extremely dedicated workforce. Such an environment is a lovely place to spend an afternoon. The tour itself is a thing of beauty in and of itself. Visitors are invited to see firsthand each and every step in the distilling process, from cooking and fermentation to aging and bottling. Charming and informative tour guides explain the intricacies of the processes and act as very human windows into the one-of-a-kind culture that is the Maker's Mark family. At tour's end, it's time to taste! Here, visitors are treated to an opportunity to sample the finished Maker's Mark product right alongside the unfinished bourbon-eligible distilled spirit (or BEDS), essentially the unaged moonshine that eventually becomes whiskey. Finally, the gift shop has its own wax station, where any citizen can strap on some gloves and goggles and dip their own bottle of Maker's into a vat of the company's signature bright-red sealing wax. Never in the history of civilization has there been a better tour souvenir.
There's plenty more to do in the vicinity as well. Quaint Downtown Bardstown is full of history, as is the Jim Beam American Outpost's friendly visitors center, which also offers tastings. Beam of course is home to a line of high-end premium bourbons, and these are often available to sample.
Louisville's waterfront is a fascinating place, and it's all about contrasts. Decaying remnants of eras past sit shoulder to shoulder with spanking-new developments, the glum and the glossy facing off in a silent battle of wills. A culprit in the aforementioned decay is certainly the elevated Interstate Highway that separates the city from the river. It looms like a concrete behemoth discouraging pedestrian access to the waterfront. That said, it is worth braving the shadows it casts. After all, on the other side, there's the mighty Ohio River and a very walkable promenade lining its banks, the very banks from which Lewis and Clark began their famous journey into the unknown. Add to that the vista created by the series of stalwart bridges spanning the river's width, and you've got one awe-inspiring little outing. And it just gets better if you add a visit to the Belle of Louisville Steamboat, hit the ramps at Louisville Extreme Park, catch nine innings at Louisville Slugger Field, or see it all on two wheels via one of many bike rental kiosks.
Just a couple blocks off the high-energy Bardstown Road strip is the hidden calm of Cherokee Park. More than an average neighborhood park, Cherokee's got a range of geography to rival even the best national parks -- and amenities on par with the best municipal recreation areas. Littered amongst its woodlands, creeks, marshes, meadows, gardens and hillsides, you'll find facilities for every activity: archery, baseball, basketball, birdwatching, fishing, grilling, hiking, horseback riding, horseshoe tossing, mountain biking, picnicking, soccer and tennis. There are multiple playgrounds for the kids, a dog run for the canines, an historic fountain, and a 2.4-mile scenic loop.
Wander in, follow the scenic loop for a while, perhaps deviating over to a flower bed or toward a hilltop lookout. There are cute bridges to traverse and serious inclines to climb -- and the pro shop at the golf course has ice-cold bottled water for sale when you find yourself panting. Alternatively, you could head back to Bardstown for a thirst-quenching pint at Flanagan's Ale House or some post-workout carbo loading at Spinelli's Pizzeria.