Travel/Adventure

A Spirited Visit to Louisville

Step outside Kansas City for a sip of the city that doesn’t horse around when it comes to art, shopping and food.

Story by Katie Van Luchene  |  Photos provided by Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau

Nicole hands me an Old Fashioned crafted with 12-year-old bourbon in a lobby bar that’s slightly older. Built in 1923, the Brown Hotel quickly became the epicenter of Louisville’s social scene. As I admire the opulent hand-painted plaster ceilings, a Hot Brown arrives and my introduction to Louisville officially begins. Created by the hotel’s chef to sate the Jazz Age partiers (as many as 1,200 a night), the open-face turkey and bacon sandwich in a Mornay sauce became an instant hit.

No partying for us tonight; with a full day planned for tomorrow we turn left at the eight-foot-tall Chinese vase and take the elevator to our suite. With two marble bathrooms (his-and-hers; I’m spoiled for life) and a separate living room, my husband catches up on the news while I turn in. Looking for even more luxury? Book the Muhammad Ali Suite with memorabilia from Louisville’s favorite son.

Get your drink on at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, a multi-million dollar artisanal distillery, immersive tourism experience and retail location along downtown Louisville’s historic “Whiskey Row.” The state-of-the-art facility is across the street from Evan Williams’ original 18th century riverfront distillery.

After breakfast of fresh fruit and croissants in the Club Lounge (we’ll stop by for a wine reception that evening), we’re ready to take on this bustling town. Louisville’s culinary scene is on fire and revitalized neighborhoods like NuLu, SoFo and Butchertown beckon with art galleries, restaurants and shops.

It’s a safe, walkable city (our favorite way to explore), or hop a free, all-electric ZeroBus that runs along Main, Market and Fourth streets. The buses also transport art patrons on the First Friday Gallery Hop (sound familiar?), a combination of art show and street party.

The grand Brown Hotel features the beautifully gilded Lobby Bar, perfect for sampling a bourbon flight.

Artful Discoveries

There’s more art, along with history and science, at Museum Row on Main with 10 attractions in a four-block span. The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft features works of art by more than 250 regional artists, while the workshop at Glassworks really blows; you can create your own dazzling piece of art glass.

Not far away is 21c Museum Hotel with its own impressive art collection. You can’t miss it; a golden, two-story sculpture of David is a traffic-stopping sentry. The hotel’s famous penguins look down from the rooftop. While there, pop into Pour on Main, the adjacent bar with over 50 brands of bourbon.

Drinking It All In

Of course you’ll want to taste plenty of America’s only Native Spirit. Tour the Urban Bourbon Trail (download the app at bourboncountry.com) or pick up a passport at the Visitors Center at 4th and Jefferson; once you’ve visited at least six of the more than 30 stops you’ve earned swag to proclaim you’re an official trailblazer.

Or condense your education at Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, a working distillery in a renovated 120-year old building along Whiskey Row. The five-story upside down bottle creates a flowing bourbon fountain in the lobby.

Brandy in the land of bourbon? Copper & King serves up the finest at its distillery in Butchertown. Tour this sleek, art-filled space before sampling award-winning brandy and potent absinthe. And cue up to be one of the first to dine at nearby Butchertown Grocery, opening this fall. With a chef’s table, what promises to be a killer hamburger and service until the wee hours of the morning, this casual bistro will continue this area’s renaissance.

Dine Like a Local

When we mention to Nicole at the Brown Hotel that we’re having dinner at Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse and Raw Bar she says, “Good choice. Be sure to order the lima beans.” Not on my vacation, I mutter. I have the shrimp and grits, while my husband orders the brisket tacos. And a side of what turns out to be fantastic lima beans. With the largest selection of bourbon and whiskey in Louisville, we try a flight of four including Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bottled in Bond.

Another place for shrimp and grits, according to Susan Dallas of the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau, is Jack Fry’s in the Highlands area. And if you have Derby Pie, she says, order it slightly warmed with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I like the way she thinks. Susan also suggested a drive through Old Louisville, one of the country’s most extensive neighborhoods of lovingly restored Victorian homes.

We make this connection on our own; after a breakfast of crepes at Ghyslain in the NuLu District the next morning where we ogled the chocolates and pastries (think Kansas City’s Andre’s with a French accent), we order Quiche Lorraine and a lemon tart to go for a picnic at Waterfront Park, an 85-acre urban oasis. At dusk the LED lights on the Big Four bike/pedestrian bridge put on a brilliant show.

Post-breakfast chocolate gazing at Ghyslain in Louisville’s East Market District, known as NuLu.

We save our last night in Louisville for dinner at the Brown’s English Grill. There’s a reason we instantly like Executive Chef Josh Bettis—beyond his heirloom tomato and buratta salad and Dover sole with blue-cornmeal tart. Turns out he was born in Overland Park. His new culinary home has a masculine, clubby atmosphere with rich mahogany trappings, equestrian artwork and original light fixtures.

Oh. My. Gourd.

Fall is an ideal time to visit the Bluegrass State with brilliant colors along the Ohio River. And now through November 1 the Jack O’Lantern Spectacular in Iroquois Park features more than 5,000 carved pumpkins. Tour haunted habitats (including the Brown) or homes decorated for the holidays. And if you simply must have that Kentucky Derby experience before May, Churchill Downs offers live race meets and racing under the stars all through November. Now you’re on the right track.

To plan your Excursion to Louisville, visit gotolouisville.com.