Louisville, Kentucky, is a charming old river town. Rich with Victorian architecture and a legendary reputation for horses, bourbon and bluegrass music, Louisville also cherishes its extensive city park system.
Visitors who first learned of Louisville from their Louisville Slugger baseball bats are pleased to see the giant bat that stands in downtown Louisville. It marks the spot where the Sluggers are made.
Louisville is on the upswing: There's a revitalized riverfront area, an excellent museum at the Slugger factory, the Frazier International History Museum, the Muhammad Ali Center and Fourth Street Live!, an energetic entertainment and shopping area. Louisville's classic attractions are as enticing to visitors as ever, including a healthy fine-arts scene, an abundance of excellent restaurants, interesting architecture both old and new, and, of course, the Kentucky Derby.
As it has done for more than 130 years, the Kentucky Derby and associated events transform Louisville each spring. Visitors will find reminders of the city's signature event—dozens of theme-decorated horse models can be found on the sidewalks, in the gardens and in the entrances to some of the buildings.
Centered along the northern border of Kentucky, Louisville sits on the southeast bank of the Ohio River in the Bluegrass Region. However, don't look for blue grass when visiting—the term applies to a variety of grass originally used in the area's pastures. The soil is limestone based, and therefore rich in calcium, the secret to strong bones in slender Thoroughbred legs. Louisville is bordered by the river to the north and west, and it is surrounded by a ring of hills called the Knobs in all other directions. The area's rolling plateau becomes more rugged near Louisville, most evident as you drive along some of the major highways into the city center.
Founded in 1778 by Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark, Louisville was named for King Louis XVI of France in appreciation for his assistance in the war. The city's river location has long been its key to growth. As the steamboat became a new mode of industrial transportation in the early 1800s, Louisville became a hive of industrial activity, and then an important supply and operations base for the Union army during the Civil War. Successive waves of immigrants from Ireland, Germany and Italy arrived in the city by riverboat, establishing a variety of businesses, including factories, breweries, restaurants and bars.
In the latter part of the 19th century, Louisville continued to grow as an economic center of the region as merchants and suppliers moved in, thanks to the expansion of the U.S. railroad system. During this time, John A. "Bud" Hillerich, the son of a local woodworker and an amateur baseball player, saw his hero—a local pro player—break his bat during a game. The boy offered to fashion a new bat, and the Louisville Slugger was born.
Following the repeal of Prohibition in the early 1900s, Joseph Seagram chose Louisville as the location for his distillery—at the time, it was the world's largest. No one industry put Louisville on the map, and today, the city's business leaders hail from industries as diverse as meat packing, health care and financial services. Downtown Louisville is experiencing a renaissance with the revitalization of historic buildings, growth in conventions, tourism and a burgeoning arts scene.
The landmark that most people associate with Louisville is Churchill Downs, the racetrack where the Kentucky Derby has been run since 1875. Even if you aren't in town for the race, you should still make a trip to the track and visit the beautiful Kentucky Derby Museum, which may actually be more fun than the race itself. You'll quickly come to grips with the race's mystique—as one commentator observed, in the Derby a horse has only two minutes out of its whole lifetime to prove itself. Because only 3-year-olds run in the race, a horse has only one shot at winning.
After Churchill Downs, Louisville's other center of sightseeing is downtown, which sits on the Ohio River. The waterfront has seen a true renaissance in recent years—and while construction continues, the newly expanded Waterfront Park is a good place for a brown-bag lunch, as well as games of favorite sports and children's activities.
Louisville's Main Street Historic District downtown is a blend of past and present, where cast-iron facades from the 1800s line the streets and are juxtaposed against a backdrop of high-rise buildings, making for a picturesque skyline. Museum Row includes everything from high-end art, crafts and one-of-a-kind glass pieces to history museums, the Louisville Slugger factory, the Louisville Science Center and IMAX Theater, and the wonderful Muhammad Ali Center. Another downtown treat is the entertainment complex known as Fourth Street Live!, with its variety of restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
Although many people have bluegrass music and bourbon associated with Louisville in their minds, the city offers a much more varied nightlife. Those yearning for a taste of Ireland will find it in one of the many pubs, a legacy left by the city's large Irish population. Meanwhile, revelers looking to dance the night away have several options. Music lovers can chill out with some blues at Stevie Ray's.
The one local dish everyone will insist you sample is the Hot Brown, which was invented at Louisville's Brown Hotel: It's an open-faced sandwich of sliced turkey, cream gravy, melted cheese and bacon. Some locals refer to it as a "heart attack on a plate." Be sure to sample other traditional Kentucky favorites such as country ham, fried chicken, beaten biscuits, hickory-smoked barbecue and spoon bread. We're especially fond of burgoo—a stew of multiple meats (sometimes made with rabbit) and vegetables. Try it at the Kentucky Derby Museum's cafeteria.
You may want to wet your whistle with two classic cocktails—the old fashioned and the mint julep (made with fresh mint and Kentucky bourbon).
And don't forget derby pie, a gooey concoction of sugar, pecans and chocolate chips, baked exclusively by Kern's Kitchen in Louisville. The name is patented, but you can find it elsewhere if you ask for race day pie.
Expect to pay within the following guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$25; $$$ = US$26-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.
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