Visitors discerning whether Louisville, Kentucky, belongs to the South or the Midwest should leave their arguments at home. Local Louisvillians are much more concerned with cultivating a cultural outpost that draws its own boundaries. After a city-county merger in 2003, Louisville jumped in ranking from America’s sixty-fifth to eighteenth largest city, but organic growth has nurtured a cool-city vibe that reflects a respect for history and an eye toward the future.
Louisville likes to hold onto old stuff. It’s said the city has some of the largest stock of historic buildings in the United States. It’s clearly visible, but also subtly felt while dawdling in shops and restaurants whose bones are well over 100 years old, and with all the ancient architecture, developers are forced to think creatively about the use of space.
‘Ville Vibes // A Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Award for Top Hotels in the South 2017, the 21c Museum Hotel is a contemporary art mecca.
Despite the weight of history, Louisville is a place to stay up late, with a remarkable amount of fun to be had during the wee hours of the night. Linger into the midnight hour at Bardstown Road restaurants, or enjoy bars across the city until 4 a.m. A must-see, the 21c Museum Hotel houses a world class contemporary art museum open 24 hours every day.
In fact, art is everywhere. It’s common for the walls of a low-key eatery to display covetous canvases from local artists. Throughout the city, murals appear unexpectedly on side streets or tower above main roads. They depict anything from dancing figures to geometric color explosions, heralding a neighborhood entrance or maybe a hardware store. Sometimes, they’re just a bit of plain good street art.
For their lack of concern with broad regional affiliations, Louisvillians are fiercely protective of neighborhood identities. A distinct community character emerges every few blocks. As a result, shopping is best tackled by neighborhood. Eclectic style reigns in the Highlands, where blouses at Discoveries boutique might be five-of-a-kind, and Clay & Cotton aims to bring quotidian rituals to life with artful and unusual household basics. Crescent Hill, on the other hand, is the neighborhood for more classic looks and styles.
Lively, casual eateries abound in Louisville, but one neighborhood spot that stands out for laid-back finesse is Caffe Classico in Clifton. Owner Tommie Mudd has cultivated a European ease that easily balances attention to detail with a lack of fussiness. Most nights, live flamenco guitar performances set just the right tone for dishes that cover European flavors—from fish and chips to Spanish Jamon Iberico and legendary Viennese coffee.
Louisville is decidedly its own, except for one time of year, when the atmosphere is unabashedly Southern—The Kentucky Derby
In Butchertown, redevelopment is accelerating after a slow burn. Amid exquisite Victorian homes, there still exists the kind of industrial meat processing plant that gave the area its historical name. But old industrial spaces have also turned over, now housing diverse destinations such as Cellar Door Chocolates, a small-batch, bean-to-bar operation that was the official chocolate sponsor of multiple Emmy Awards.
At nearby Butchertown Grocery, everything but the ketchup is made in-house. Yet perfection need not lead to pretention. The restaurant’s exposed brick walls and ductwork signify a “let it be” attitude more than a stylistic affectation, the name a nod to the family-owned grocery store that once operated there long ago. Chef Bobby Benjamin might obsess over the perfect biscuit before even considering the gravy, but says once it’s right, “Don’t get weird about it. Just put it on a plate and that’s it.”
Fare Play // Butchertown Grocery’s Bobby Benjamin crafts scratch-made fare, from locally grown greens to imported Italian beef. Photograph by Erin Trimble
Famed distilleries such as Jim Beam and Woodford Reserve strip things down to the essentials, and have helped define the regional economy and culture for more than two centuries. Today, however, the Urban Bourbon Trail offers a spirited romp across neighborhoods to distilleries, bars, and restaurants with at least 50 bourbons on the list.
A classic spot for respite after long days or nights exploring “The ’Ville” is the century-old Brown Hotel, a monument to perfectly appointed luxury. The hotel prides itself on past guests including figures such as the Duke of Windsor and Queen Marie of Romania, as well as hometown “royalty” boxer Muhammad Ali.
Louisville is decidedly its own, except for one time of year, when the atmosphere is unabashedly Southern—The Kentucky Derby. The horse race and official events last only one day, but for the entire first week of May, offices close early and the mint juleps flow. Out come the vibrant flowers and front-porch affairs. Fedoras and bowlers for gents, wide-brimmed hats or sculptural fascinators for the ladies. It’s a time when old-fashioned ways are celebrated with modern panache and uninhibited self-expression. In other words, it’s perfectly Louisville.
21c Museum Hotel / Spend time with the works of some of the biggest names in contemporary art, displayed in more than 9,000 feet of exhibition space. The clean, creative vibe is echoed in the hotel rooms, where original art is featured and in-room dining comes from the award-winning Proof on Main restaurant downstairs. 700 W Main St. (502) 217-6300,
The Brown Hotel / A Louisville tradition since 1923, the AAA Four-Diamond hotel is the epitome of classic luxury. It’s also home to J. Graham’s Café, where you can try the legendary Hot Brown, Louisville’s own open-faced turkey and bacon sandwich with a generous Mornay sauce topping. 335 W Broadway, (502) 209-7346
Butchertown Grocery / Familiar fare gets a place of honor from scratch-made everything and sourcing that runs the gamut from locally grown greens to imported Italian beef, and excellent cocktails to match. 1076 E Washington St. (502) 742-8315
Mayan Café / Indulge in the rich flavors of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and its distinct indigenous culture at Mayan Café, a favorite for more than two decades. Choose at least one item you can’t pronounce: you will not be disappointed. 813 E Market St. (502) 566-0651
Kentucky Science Center / Children rule the daytime, but “Eat, Drink, and Do Science” evening events cater to adults who want to learn the science behind how their brains process dinner flavors, and then play around the insanely cool hands-on exhibits without their kids. 727 W Main St, (502) 561-6100
Urban Bourbon Trail / Bourbon connoisseurs and wannabes can explore classic tastes and modern takes at more than two dozen bars and restaurants, some with up to 150 bourbons behind the bar. Track your journey with a passport from the Visitors Center or any participating business. Louisville Visitors Center, 301 S 4th St. (502) 379-6109
The Kentucky Derby / The horse race is now in its 144th season, continuing at the famed Churchill Downs racetrack. The fashion, fanfare, and big betting at the official event are accompanied by lively tailgating and unofficial outfield events that are also part of the tradition. 700 Central Ave. (502) 636-4400
Clay & Cotton / In the business of household happiness, Clay & Cotton offers a variety of apparel and home goods. Why buy any old gravy boat when you could purchase one that feels like a gift to yourself? 1341 Bardstown Rd. (502) 456-5536
Discoveries / Adventurous souls, take note. One-of-a-kind jewelry and conversation starters for the rest of the wardrobe make nearly everything in this shop feel like the first step on a personal quest. 1315 Bardstown Rd. (502) 451-5034
Scout / Although the store claims to peddle “whatnots, knickknacks, tchotchkes, thingamajigs, and doolollies,” many of the gifts and home décor are smart, understated, and well-crafted. Modern and quirky live happily side-by-side at Scout. 720 E Market St. (502) 584-8989