By Annette Gallagher Weisman
There’s something in our driving DNA that says the fact we arrive bleary-eyed and exhausted after a long journey can somehow add cachet to the destination. But the best places to visit, I find, are often closer to home.
From my home in Cincinnati, Louisville, Kentucky is less than a two-hour drive, perfect for a weekend getaway or overnight stay. My husband and I visited recently and within a few hours I was in love with a city I’d bypassed for years.
Louisville has a lot more to offer than bourbon and horses. Whether you’re a fan of the theatre, museums, antiques or sports, it’s all here. History and architecture buffs will delight in Louisville’s many classic styles, especially Old Louisville’s Victorian homes. And we discovered beautiful parks, most notably a system of green spaces designed by Frederick Law Olmsted of New York City’s Central Park fame.
Art enthusiasts will love the 21c Museum Hotel. The flagship of four boutique hotels, it displays enough international art and sculpture to warrant a guided tour. “Our exhibits at 21c address topics that are relevant to the world today – cutting-edge works by artists from as far away as Asia and South America,” says Karen Gillenwater, museum manager, “alongside those by local and regional artists.”
21c’s “exhibit space” extends outside the hotel, where you’ll see a jaw-dropping, 30-foot golden fiberglass sculpture, David (inspired by Michelangelo) by artist Serkan Özkaya. And on the roof is a waddle of four-foot-high red penguins, created by Cracking Art Group, an Italian collective. These faux penguins show up in the most unexpected places, so don’t be surprised to find one lolling outside your hotel room.
We lunched that day at 21c’s Proof on Main, a hot restaurant and one of Louisville’s best. My fantastic Gulf shrimp roll, overflowing with shrimp, was served on a light brioche bun, accompanied by a glass of Les Hexagonales Sauvignon Blanc. My husband enjoyed his Belgian Blonde beer along with a succulent bison burger and fries.
Next stop was Louisville Glassworks, Kentucky’s only gallery devoted exclusively to glass, where we watched artists at work and browsed through a stunning and colorful display of glassware ranging from enormous vases to tiny bowls. The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft nearby tempted us with hats, clothing, jewelry and other handcrafted items; I fell for a ring with a beautiful iridescent blue stone.
Bourbon is now the most popular spirit in the US, but with less than two days in Louisville there wasn’t time to explore the Bourbon Trail, nor take the Urban Bourbon Trail along Main Street’s Whiskey Row. Our solution was the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, demonstrating every aspect of distilling bourbon with a tasting at the end of the tour. Their “bourbon balls” were a dreamy accompaniment to Elijah Craig 12-year-old bourbon.
The culinary scene in Louisville is thriving. Our options included 610 Magnolia in Old Louisville, which has one seating nightly; Vincenzo, an upscale Italian restaurant downtown in an old bank building; and Harvest, a casual restaurant which focuses on farm-to-table fare in the trendy Nulu district. Finally, we chose an American contemporary restaurant, Decca, also in Nulu. The streamlined menu featured eclectic dishes such as “crispy wild wreckfish,” with desserts to die for, such as the strawberry Genoise. A bottle of Roederer Estate Brut added sparkle to the occasion.
The next morning we headed for the Kentucky Derby Museum located at Churchill Downs, stopping for breakfast en route at the Gralehaus in a hip neighborhood called The Highlands. This restaurant is so laid back the “slow food” movement could have started here. I was glad we had time to savor the creative crepes and luscious waffles.
We’d reserved a Barn Backside Tour of Churchill Downs through the Museum, worth the extra fee on top of admission. As we drove around the stables, we spotted the names of famous trainers. “The best time to see the racehorses being exercised on the track is before 10am,” says Angie Edwards, our tour guide. The regular admission price includes two floors of interactive exhibits in the museum and an historic walking tour of Churchill Downs. All good.
That evening, sipping mint juleps from our new Kentucky Derby glasses, we discussed the highlights we missed, such as the Butchertown Market, the Muhammad Ali Center, the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory and a tour of Copper & Kings, the new brandy distillery. We already know we’ll return to Louisville; a city no longer bypassed by us.