Louisville

Long considered only a stopover on the way to Nashville, Louisville has exploded in the past few years—but still maintains its relaxed Southern vibe. New businesses pack East Market Street (see “Hot Hood,” below), bringing bona fide buzz to the downtown area, and neighborhoods are hopping with fun new destinations. The Kentucky Derby overruns the city in May, so do the smart thing and visit after the chaos subsides. You’ll find hotel rooms galore and the best seats at all the hot spots.

Louisville Slugger Museum
The Louisville Slugger Museum’s big bat
 

The most Kentuckyian thing to do when visiting Louisville is to take a leisurely drive to one of the nearby bourbon distilleries. About two hours south, Maker’s Mark (3350 Burkes Spring Rd., Loretto; 270-865-2099) is the first choice of many a concierge for its bucolic grounds and visitor-friendly tour (you can dip your own mini bottle!).

A 45-minute trek east on I-64 will take you to Woodford Reserve (7855 McCracken Pike, Versailles; 859-879-1812), another famous distillery in the heart of Kentucky horse country. The tour—from mash tub and bottling to warehouse and tasting—takes about an hour, and you’ll want to stay for lunch afterward. Ouita Michel, the James Beard-nominated chef at Holly Hill Inn in nearby Midway (426 N. Winter St.; 859-846-4732), runs the kitchen and, we hear, incorporates Woodford Distiller’s Select into her chocolate bread pudding.

You’ll be within striking distance of a third great distillery: Buffalo Trace (1001 Wilkinson Blvd.; 800-654-8471), just 20 minutes north in Frankfort. Free daily tours run every hour on the hour, but make a reservation for the comprehensive Hard Hat Tour. The distillery is now also offering the Ghost Tour (Thursdays through Saturdays at 7 and 8:15 p.m.), during which you might have a run-in with the long-deceased Colonel Blanton, a former president of the company, or his housekeeper. This popular tour books up fast, so reserve your spot.

Back in Louisville, spend at least a day running around downtown. Start your morning with coffee and a cinnamon roll at Cake Flour (909 E. Market St.; 502-719-0172) or café au lait and a croissant at Ghyslain (721 E. Market St.; 502-690-8645), both in the burgeoning NuLu area (see “Hot Hood,” below). If you’re in the mood for a proper Southern breakfast—say, pork belly and corn pone or a skillet pancake—sit down at Hillbilly Tea (120 S. First St., 502-587-7350; entrées from $7).

From there, activity seekers can go in a few directions, all while staying in the downtown area. Art lovers might want to visit the Glassworks building (815 W. Market St.; 502-992-3270), which houses two glass-art studios—Flame Run and the Mark Payton Glass Center, which offers walk-in workshops and guided tours. Follow with a stroll through the permanent collection of contemporary art at the 21C Museum Hotel (700 W. Main St., 502-217-6300); works are scattered throughout the public areas. While you’re at the hotel, try the charred octopus appetizer as part of a big lunch at Proof on Main (702 W. Main St., 502-217-6360; entrées from $9), one of the city’s best restaurants.

Baseball fans will enjoy the factory tour at the Louisville Slugger Museum (800 W. Main St.; 502-588-7228), where you can buy a full-size custom-engraved bat ($50). In the museum’s batting cage, you can also swing a replica of Babe Ruth’s club. Take your newfound appreciation for the sport to Louisville Slugger Field (401 E. Main St.; 502-212-2287) and root for the Louisville Bats, a minor-league farm team for the Cincinnati Reds; they play 13 home games in June. You can enjoy a postgame pint at Against the Grain (401 E. Main St., 502-515-0174; entrées from $10), a local microbrewery conveniently located in the same complex as the field.

If the humidity starts to rise, beat the heat at the Muhammad Ali Center (144 N. Sixth St.; 502-584-9254), a building-size tribute to a Louisville native son, or stroll down to the city’s Waterfront Park, a cooling patch of greenery along the Ohio River. Nearby, try newfangled barbecue in a kid-friendly dining room at Doc Crow’s (127 W. Main St., 502-587-1626; entrées from $9).

Get back in your car to explore Louisville’s neighborhoods, since they tend to be separated by long residential stretches or blocks of generic retail businesses. The Crescent Hill neighborhood is where you’ll find Blue Dog Bakery & Café (2868 Frankfort Ave.; 502-899-9800), worth a stop for its freshly baked baguettes and pastries. About four blocks down Frankfort Avenue, Carmichael’s Bookstore (2720 Frankfort Ave.; 502-896-6950) is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon, especially since it is right next door to a branch of Heine Brothers’ Coffee (2714 Frankfort Ave.; 502-899-5551), a local organic fair-trade coffee chain.

In the Highlands, Jack Fry’s (1007 Bardstown Rd., 502-452-9244; entrées from $25) is the go-to special occasion restaurant for Louisvillians; keep your eyes peeled so you don’t miss the tiny shacklike façade on a busy street. More casual fare can be found at Holy Grale (1034 Bardstown Rd., 502-459-9939; small plates from $5), a beer bar that also makes snackable foods such as pork rillettes on grilled bread and gravy-smothered frites. Frederick Law Olmsted’s ravishing Cherokee Park (745 Cochran Hill Rd.; 502-458-9450) is also in the Highlands. Do what the locals do: Load up on picnic provisions and paninis at Lotsa Pasta (3717 Lexington Rd., 502-896-6361; sandwiches from $5.50), located on the other side of the park in the St. Matthews neighborhood, and make a day of exploring the 2.4-mile scenic loop.

Of course, the Kentucky Derby Museum (704 Central Ave.; 502-637-7097) is de rigueur for horseracing fanatics. But Churchill Downs (700 Central Ave.; 502-636-4400) will run night races on three Saturdays in June, opening the doors at 4 p.m.—right around happy hour. That may be the ticket for the rest of us.

Photography:  Hillerich & Bradsby Co.

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