According to Orbitz, Louisville, Ky., is one of the top-five hottest LGBT travel destinations in the world this year. The reasons and many and worthy, but they might not all be the ones you think of first.
(There’s never enough time on a first visit to a city to see everything. One place we sadly decided to wait for a second-trip visit is the Muhammad Ali Center (alicenter.org/). We had just been back one week when The Greatest passed on to the next level. Champ, we will return and honor you properly soon.)
In a recent poll, Louisville, Ky., ranked 11th in the percentage of people who identify as LGBT across the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States (Philadelphia ranked 27th). When you do an Internet search on Louisville, you’ll come up with such diversity you won’t know where to start, even when you narrow your search to those topics that interest you. Sage advice here: Order a copy of the current Louisville Travel Guide (gotolouisville.com) because the more you learn, the more you’ll want to go.
I took my time investigating Louisville before and during my recent trip. Beforehand, I recalled many connections: Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby, Louisville Slugger baseball bats, a couple of celebrities and bourbon distilleries all came to mind — and I’ll get to those. But don’t just plan ahead, plan to improvise as well. First, let me tell you about what I know now that I didn’t know then.
Let’s start off with the number-one-ranked favorite place to go in Louisville from several polls, which is … [drum roll] ... a former limestone quarry.
Mega Cavern (louisvillemegacavern.com) is a 100-acre, completely underground former quarry that has been converted into a recreational space starting with 320,000 square feet and more than 45 trails, jump lines, pump tracks, dual slalom, BMX, cross country and single track — all in a former limestone cavern 100 feet sub-surface. Bring your own bike or use one of theirs.
They also have a tram tour for the mild man and the world’s only underground zip lines for the wild woman! Speaking as a first-time zipper, the zip lines are absolutely exhilarating! From the sheer drops to the speed and angles, plus the world’s longest underground suspension bridge, you will definitely feel the rush.
If you prefer the rush of a good horse race, there is no other more iconic place to go for one than Churchill Downs. Go on a tour and check out the Kentucky Derby Museum (derbymuseum.org). Races are in spring and fall and not every day, so check the schedules before you plan your trip. So many people attend the derby that it’s nearly impossible to see the actual race, so you’re probably better off any other time, really.
It was suggested we do the early morning backside tour, something I was also unaware of prior to visiting. More than 1,000 horses are walked or run every day, especially in the cooler mornings, so you’re much more likely to see them then. The backside is a fascinating mini-town where hundreds of trainers, hands and assistants live to feed, walk, brush, bathe and otherwise take care of the horses 24/7, year-round. There are apartments, a chapel, a restaurant, general store and regular visits from vets and blacksmiths. (Did you know a horse needs a new pair of shoes about every month?)
Nearby is the Speed Art Museum (speedmuseum.org) with collections of Native-American art, African art, Kentucky arts and furniture and quite a selection of contemporary art. Philadelphia photographer Ray Metzker has work included, for one local connection. Speed is Kentucky’s oldest and largest art museum. Always a great possibility when the Midwestern weather acts out whatever the time of year.
One place I did know about and was my personal favorite stop (that didn’t include bourbon and, still, the zip lines were really close!) was the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory (sluggermuseum.com). Does it matter if you like baseball? Nope. But if you want to see the bat that Babe Ruth used for his 60th homer, or the one Joe DiMaggio used for his still-record-breaking 56th consecutive-games hit, they’re there.
The factory is super cool, speaking as a baseball fan. In here, you can watch both machine- and man-carved bats being made. From the lathing, the staining, the burning of the logos and the protective coating, the whole process is right there and signs will even tell you who the current batch of bats is being made for. Players order 50-100 at a time in their favorite of about 3,000 different styles. Fun fact: Since they started making Louisville Sluggers, only one type has ever been retired. That model is the P72, used by Derek Jeter and was retired in his honor.
One block away from the Slugger museum is 21c Museum and Hotel (21cmuseumhotels.com/Louisville/). One of six unique hotels in mid-sized cities across the Midwest, the concept is simple: The 21c refers to 21st-century art that regales the lobby, bar, restaurant, halls, rooms and even bathrooms. In fact, a one-way mirror in the men’s room allows guys at the urinals to look out into the hall at others looking at art or using the mirror. The museum is open 24/7 so it’s not uncommon to see people stroll from the bar at 1 a.m. with their drinks and peruse the collection.
The restaurant and bar in this 21c is called Proof on Main, referencing the huge bourbon presence in Louisville and all of Kentucky. The fare is cross-cultural fusion, the bourbons are plenty and the setting is fabulous. Ask for bourbon you can’t get at home and you’ll have a nice treat. I can personally recommend Green Label and Johnny Drum, for starters.
Where the spirit moves you
This is bourbon country. A few facts:
• Bourbon was officially named America’s Native Spirit in 1964.
• To be called bourbon, it must be at least 51-percent corn and distilled in the United States.
• 95 percent of all the bourbon in the world comes from Kentucky.
• The best bourbons made in the state never leave the state.
While I prefer my bourbon neat, it’s also the primary ingredient in the classic old-fashioneds and mint juleps. We even found a place that makes bourbon margaritas. But just for fun, there are several ways to explore Louisville and the surrounding area using bourbon as an excuse.
Statewide, there is the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (kybourbontrail.com/) within only a couple of stops in Louisville itself. This is a multi-day distillery tour process. To its credit, the newish Evan Williams Bourbon Experience (evanwilliamsbourbonexperience.com) is an excellent tour and part of this trail. It’s a multi-floor, multi-media experience that is reminiscent of Disney-like tours except it ends, like most, with sips of a couple of bourbons they make. Williams, the grandfather of bourbon, made the first whiskey in Louisville in 1870.
But for a Louisville exclusive tasting tour, I highly recommend the Urban Bourbon Trail (bourboncountry.com). You can walk to more than half of the sites on this tour if you’re staying downtown, and others are clustered around town. Here’s the thing: Get yourself a UBT passport book or an electronic version to start. When you visit a place, get a passport stamp and when you collect six, head to the visitor’s center and collect a free T-shirt.
Now it should be noted that you do not have to order a bourbon drink in order to play. Requirement for a restaurant or bar to participate is they must have a minimum of 50 bourbons available and there must be menu items that have bourbon as an ingredient, but no purchase is even required.
For instance, Sidebar (sidebarwhiskeyrow.com) has a burger called the “Philadelphia Attorney.” (Others are “Ambulance Chaser,” “Court Reporter,” etc.) The locally named burger is topped with braised short rib, bourbon mushrooms and onions, blue cheese and lettuce. I may never eat another burger anywhere, it was so good. Just getting that burger was good enough for a stamp. My partner got the “Hot vs. Brown” fries, which also qualified and were equally tasty.
At Bristol Bar & Grille (bristolbarandgrille.com/downtown/) we got our passport stamps drinking vodka. Why? Well, the Hot Brown Bloody Mary is a thing of wonder. The superb Bloody Mary is garnished with a skewer of turkey, cheeses, tomato and bacon and standing tall out of the glass is a slab of fried cheese. A drink with its own snacks!
Always ask the locals
You’ve heard Hot Brown twice now and you’re wondering what that is. Any local will be happy to tell you; the story goes back to 1926 and you can read about its history starting at the Brown Hotel (brownhotel.com), the home of the original.
Layer Texas toast points, Roma tomato halves, fresh turkey and Mornay sauce, broil it, then add more cheese, bacon and some nutmeg and parsley. It’s divine and you simply must have the original first at J. Grahams Café in the Brown Hotel. Variations on that theme abound, like the aforementioned Bloody Mary and Hot vs. Brown fries. There are others with substitutions or additions of crabmeat, fried eggs, a vegan one and even a hot brown slushie. The list goes on.
So, we like to ask the people living where we’re visiting where they would eat or take friends to see that isn’t the usual touristy stuff. We get many answers and sometimes we get the same answer many times. That’s what happened with Wagner’s Pharmacy (wagnerspharmacy.com). It’s on the perimeter of Churchill Downs, making it a great addition to a visit to the track and museum. Breakfast is enormous, with country ham and eggs, and they also make a savory biscuits-and-gravy dish that is complete Southern decadence. The walls are covered in photos and drawings of winning horses, jockeys and owners.
Louisville is one of the keenest cities around when it comes to locally grown foods. Restaurants with a focus on fresh are practically everywhere and are famous for using fresh ingredients from local farmers and creating regionally inspired menus. Some places even provide maps or lists of the local farmers and their locations.
We were also pleasantly surprised by a light meal at the Garage Bar (garageonmarket.com), which is entrenched in an old repurposed service station in the NuLu part of town. (NuLu refers to an up-and-coming area: New Louisville.) It is particularly known for its wood-fired pizzas with “farm-to-garage” ingredients.
A bit further down east Washington Street is the Butchertown Grocery (butchertowngrocery.com), where chef Bobby Benjamin has outdone himself with a two-story, two-themed dining extravaganza. Dishes include basil-fed escargot with herb butter and gruyère cheese, a short rib grilled cheese, a pig and goat burger, mushroom gnocchi and a tuna tartare made with cornichons, farm egg yolk, Iliada olive oil PDO, parsley and toast.
For us, Harvest Restaurant (harvestlouisville.com) in NuLu was the end of a long journey. Harvest is fresh, seasonal and an oh-so-homey place for a light lunch. With all of our research, planning and exploring, we finally found on the menu that other Louisville specialty dish: burgoo.
Burgoo is traditional Kentuckian stew commonly served at the Kentucky Derby, accompanied by cornbread and mint juleps. While meat options abound, from lamb to pork, beef, chicken, goat and on into more exotics that we won’t mention, the vegetables are more standardized, though variable, with corn, potatoes, lima beans, okra and tomatoes. It’s really a Southern take on a Mulligan’s Stew, or as some referred to it there, an “empty-the-fridge” stew.
Find a recipe online that suits you and try it. Hearty and wholesome, it’s great any time of year. So that's the skinny on one of my new favorite towns. It's worth a drive or flight to visit and as their promos say “We love you and the horse you rode in on!”
(click the photos below for a sidebar story on the Louisville riverfront)