Staying In: Louisville, Kentucky

I usually do my travel guide on Mondays, but I’m about to move from Louisville, and I’m getting in my “last ______s” right now. People ask me about what to do in the city all the time, so maybe I’ll just make a list for you right now. It’s timely, right? You’re coming for the Derby, I hope.

Horses may be our civic religion, but there's so much more than that here.
Horses may be our civic religion, but there’s so much more than that here.

After the jump, there’s all I know of the place, condensed into a long-but-Reader’s-Digest-length list.

So before we go any further, you should know that I have always said that I’m a Kentuckian, a Southerner, and an American, in that exact order. Kentucky is my beloved and deeply flawed home, but if they for some reason decided not to be part of the country anymore, I’d probably surrender my passport. I wish I were exaggerating in any way: I am provincial, sentimental, and overly attached to my beautiful, imperfect home. There was a long, long time when I was a teenager when I hated this place and everything in it, but you know what? That’s boring and stupid. This place is great and I am perhaps its greatest cheerleader.

All this said, if you’re visiting, here’s what you should know. You need a car. Our public transit system is very much broken and it’s a spread out place. There are weeks upon weeks of places to go, but a nice long weekend should give you a really good feel for the area. I recommend you stay downtown. If money’s no object, I recommend the Seelbach (F. Scott stayed here when he visited Zelda), the Brown (an opulent jewel from another time that is a world apart), or 21C (one of the best hotels in America, very arty, very new and now a mini chain). It should go without saying you MUST have a drink, regardless of where you stay, in these three different-but-unmissable bars. Less expensive options I like are the Old Executive West (now called the Crowne Plaza, but no one knows what that is) and sometimes the Galt House. If money IS indeed an object, know that there are no hostels, but there is a very active Couchsurfing and Air BnB community in the area. Alternatively, call me and I’d probably let you sleep at my house if you promised to love Kentucky as much as I do.

Here are some photos to get you started. You can always, always reach out to me to ask any questions you’ve got about Louisville. I love to talk about it.

Moving on from those photos, here’s where to go, do, and be.  Grab a copy of the LEO when you get in to town– that’ll tell you the happenings that week. If there’s a good show at Zanzabar, Headliners, Uncle Slayton’s, or the Rudyard Kipling, you should definitely go!

Eat: 

  • Proof: This was the place that I figured out I was going to be a food person for life. Chef Emeritus Mike Paley is now in Cincy doing his thing for 21C there now, but my buddy Levon Wallace will take care of you, no question. It’s pricey, but everything they serve is perfect and amazing. If nothing else, go here to look at the art, have a drink, and go. That’s good, too.
  • Vietnam Kitchen: This is a hole-in-the-wall in the deep South End, adjacent to a dry cleaner and ValuMarket (great deals on exotic fruits, I tell ya), and I probably eat here once a week. Closed Wednesdays and every so often for reasons unknown, so call before venturing out there.
  • Please and Thank You: My wonderful friends own this coffee shop/record store, and they have the finest chocolate chip cookies on this earth. The thing I will miss the most about Louisville is the great people who work here and make me delicious beverages and snacks. Also, they have fantastic new and used music for your enjoyment.
  • Holy Grale: Beer and upscale pub grub in an old church. Word on the street is they’re building a four-room inn in the back, which will be amazing. Outdoor seating, and a good place to relax for a really long time. Ask for Lucy or Leslie– those girls will make sure you get the best there is.
  • Nachbar: without a question, this is my favorite bar in the known world. Cheap as hell, but has upscale options for fair prices, too. You can bring your dog, everyone who comes here is a babe, and it looks like your basement at home. I never want to be anywhere but here.
  • Eiderdown: The good folks at Nach own Eiderdown, which does German-Southern fusion and serves late. Cozy, mid-price, great beer.
  • Feast: my buddy Ryan owns this BBQ joint across the river in New Albany. Ordinarily, I do not recommend going to Southern Indiana for any reason, but this is some of the finest barbecue I’ve ever had. He knows his stuff: dude worked at Momofuku and employs a big-deal pastry chef and London-trained guy who can make you just about anything.
  • Silver Dollar: Skip everything but brunch at this honky-tonk joint that’s housed in an old firehouse. I’m not nuts about it for dinner or as my nighttime hangout place, but their steak and eggs and waffles are among the finest things in life.
  • Dairy Kastle: This is going to sound creepy, but the best thing about March every year is seeing the new crop of adorable teenagers that serve cones and chili dogs for Depression-era prices at DK. Cash only, closes at 10, and picky eaters should stay away.
  • Four Pegs: Another beer bar. They have a good selection (Holy Grale’s is better), but their chicken and waffle sandwich is the thing dreams are made of. Kitchen opens at 4, but I’ve been known to stand outside the door hopefully.
  • Seidenfaden’s. Just an old dive that sells Twizzlers behind the bar and lets you bring your dog.
  • Meat: This place is currently closed, but I have high, high hopes that it will reopen after the lawsuit settles. The decor is very speakeasy and they make fussy, delicious cocktails. Get the punch of the day ($5) and get to people watching. Marie and Reina will make sure you have a great time.
  • Rye: I worked here for a year and can’t say enough good things about the outstanding, strange foods they serve each day. They’ve got a sommelier behind the bar, and the genuine article in the kitchen. They serve the full menu until pretty late and are open every night of the week. Win.
  • Wagner’s Pharmacy: Actual pharmacy, terrible, unfriendly service, plastic utensils. It sounds like I’m telling you not to go here, but it has only one thing on the menu, which is biscuits and gravy. It’s directly across from the track, so you never know who you’ll see here. Expect to lay down less than $5 for breakfast.
  • Wiltshire on Market: Wiltshire primarily makes its dough as the best caterer in the area, but they serve dinner a few nights a week at their tiny restaurant on Market. The menu changes weekly and they usually have just about a dozen things on it. If you’re picky, this isn’t for you, but it’s maybe my favorite place in town.
  • Blue Dog Bakery: My weekend wheelhouse. Ask for Carly, my favorite waitress. They make the best bread in town, and it’s proudly served at the best restaurants. I am partial to their macarons, and my boyfriend always gets the breakfast pizza.
  • Nord’s Bakery. Maple bacon doughnuts are like 80 cents and better than Voodoo. I’m completely serious.
  • Hillbilly Tea: I managed their events for nearly a year, and they have great Appalachian food at fair prices. They’re also vegan/vegetarian/gluten/child friendly, and the place could not be cuter.
  • 610 Magnolia. It’s a major splurge and open just a few nights a week, but there’s a reason Ed Lee is as famous as he is, okay?
  • Claudia Sanders Dinner House. Everyone ALWAYS wants to eat fried chicken on a trip here (hint: KFC is the same everywhere), but if you really, really want to do it right, go out to the Colonel’s old house in Shelbyville (25 minutes out of town) where they serve the original recipes family style for a very low price.
  • Hammerheads: Expect to wait for 30 minutes or more here. This is some of the worst service I’ve ever had– I eat here maybe 2 times a month and have been served what I ordered I think twice. I have never, ever been upset about what I was served because it is truly that good. It’s in someone’s basement in a totally residential area- blink and you’ll miss it.
  • Honorable mentions that are good, but not mandatory on your first/only visit: Garage Bar, Toast, Cakeflour, Mayan Cafe, the Village Anchor, Sunergos Coffee, Hill Street Fish Fry, Milkwood, Jack Fry’s, Cheddar Box, Morris Deli, Harvest, Wallace Station (Versailles), White Star (Frankfort), Asiatique, Jeff Ruby Steakhouse, Louisville Beer Store, Cahoots, Sergio’s World Beers, the Outlook Inn, Zeig’s on the River, New Albanian, Apocalypse Brew, Against the Grain, Havana Rumba, Lonnie’s Taste of Chicago

Shop:

  • Butchertown Market: Local vendors, including the incomparable Cellar Door Chocolates. Amazing stuff at inexpensive prices. I do ALL my gift shopping here, and I think you’ll love it.
  • Flea Off Market: First weekend of the month, there’s an outdoor flea market in the street in Butchertown. Local crafts, the ASPCA, food trucks, records, and everything else.
  • Caufield’s Novelty: You can get some real weird stuff here.
  • Louisville Stoneware: Women from Louisville often make this their everyday china, and for good reason. They hold themselves to a very high standard, so you can get slightly imperfect (you’ll never, ever find the flaw) pieces for a song.
  • Dot Fox: Sally Bird, the proprietress, has been dressing my well-dress bones since I was 12 years old. Woman does NOT miss.
  • Cargo: One of my favorite girlfriends owns this place, and it’s a tightly edited collection of women’s clothing, shoes, and homewares. She’s friendly, and there are sometimes Please and Thank You cookies for your enjoyment. Don’t skip this place– it’s where the young/fashionable crowd goes.
  • Nitty Gritty: this is probably the best vintage place in town, and they have costumes and furs, too. I’ve gotten some amazing pieces here. Spare a scratch on the chin for Itty Bitty the Kitty at Nitty Gritty.
  • Greenhaus: I think the premise of this shop is that the owners sell whatever they like the most, so it’s mid-century furniture, great wine, gardening supplies, and vintage records. Next to Nord’s, so you’re already in the neighborhood.
  • Lotsa Pasta: Friends of the family own this Louisville institution that has been importing foreign groceries for many, many years. Their cheese counter is a work of art.
  • Joe Ley: Bizarre, multistory antique place that specializes, I think, in creepy stuff. You really must go here. They make you “buy” a lifetime membership card for a dollar (dollar later refunded), presumably to keep insane people out.
  • Crazy Daisy Antique Mall: cheap and vast, this is where I source a lot of my craft materials. Make sure to check out the rough room if you need furniture– they have a ton of very cheap furniture that is rough and in need of love.
  • Carmichael’s Books: Louisville’s independent bookseller since forever. Don’t come here looking for something specific. Decide you want “a new book for ____” and let the very knowledgeable staff guide you.
  • Why Louisville: The inimitable and aforementioned Will Russell owns both locations of this kooky, fun, cool gift shop. Will is the only person I know that loves Louisville as much as I do, and it shows.
  • Scout: Beautiful interior decorating shop owned by the nicest guys. Check out the sale room if you’re like me and a little bit really broke.
  • Liquor Barn (multiple locations). These are housed in old Walmarts and car dealerships around Louisville and while their prices are not the lowest, it’s a warehouse of liquor. Head out there to get bourbons you can only get here and basically anything your heart desires. Take advantage of Kentucky’s lenient liquor laws and competitive pricing! I consider this a great tourist attraction.
  • Honorable mentions: Elizabeth’s Timeless Attire, 80/20, Margaret’s, Dandelion, Rainbow Blossom Natural Foods, Goss Ave. Antique Mall, A Taste of Kentucky (corny but a good standby), Wild and Wooly Video (best video store EVER, but you have to get an account; owned by Todd Brashear of Slint!), Acorn, The Dandy Lion, Regalo, Revelry, Just Creations, so many more I can’t even remember anymore.

Do:

  • Museums of all stripes. There are so many museums in this damn town, and I’m not going to run through them with you. They’re all great, but be forewarned the Science Center is kid-focused and the Arts and Crafts Museum and the Portland Museum are both criminally underrated
  • The Greatest Thing in Louisville. There’s no link to this because this isn’t a thing, exactly. Take Barrett Ave. to Royal Ave. and drive until you see it. You will know what it is the moment you see it.
  • Cave Hill Cemetery. Journey to the Colonel’s grave, and see the final resting place of the twins who wrote Happy Birthday to You. If that’s not your thing, you’ll still be in awe of the statuary.
  • Cherokee Park. We are really proud of or F.L. Olmstead parks here, and this one is my favorite. It’s beautiful and enormous. Olmstead said he was just messing around in Central Park in New York, and that Louisville is where he really got it right. Walk your dog, go jogging, do whatever feels right.
  • Iroquois Park Ampitheatre. This is in another Olmstead park (near Vietnam Kitchen, too!) and has great outdoor entertainment. I can’t recommend seeing a show here enough.
  • Lebowskifest. If you’re here during the right time, Louisville’s biggest cheerleader Will Russell will show you a Dude-approved good time, complete with costume contests, bowling, White Russians, and all the rest. You’ve been to others, but this is where it all began.
  • Vernon Club Lanes. Tiny, vintage bowling alley with cheap food and beer. Great people watching and tons of fun. Call ahead for reservations– you need them.
  • Old Louisville. Really beautiful homes with great stories. This is the world’s largest collection of Victorian-era homes and almost all of them are still standing. I could tell you the background, but maybe you don’t care that much. Skip all the historic house tours, but wander Saint James Court, where I used to live. Be forewarned that this is not a particularly safe area, so be wise, particularly at night. Stop in at the Root Cellar and get a local, organic apple for your walk.
  • Mammoth Cave. Awe-inspiring and only an hour south. You go right past Fort Knox if you like military history, and there’s also Dino World to consider (CONSIDER IT STRONGLY).
  • Waverly Hills Sanatorium: People like to go here and scare themselves senseless. I am not one of those people but you know, by all means.
  • The Humana Festival. If you’re in town for this, it’s the Rolls-Royce of new American playwright showcases.
  • Forecastle Music Festival: If you’re in town for this and skip it, you’re insane. One of America’s best music festivals, full stop.
  • Honorable mentions (come back and do this stuff when you can): Riverfront Park, the Belle of Louisville, Thomas Edison House, American Printing House for the Blind, the Louisville Zoo, the Megacaverns, the Bourbon Trail (which I love and is amazing, but is TRULY an undertaking and deserves its own vacation. I’m going to do a post about it some other time, but you can’t rush this, and it takes more than a long weekend to enjoy), the Trolley Hop.

Okay, that’ll do you, I think. Have you been to these places? Did you love them? What’s your favorite Louisville attraction? What did I leave off that hurts your feelings? Tell me in the comments.

9 Replies to “Staying In: Louisville, Kentucky”

  1. I don’t know who you are, but I feel like we’ve probably been in the same room at the same time about a thousand times, based on this list. Good choices!

    1. Thanks! I freelanced at the LEO and worked at Headliners in high school, upping the odds you have seen me somewhere. Get in touch and we can grab a drink before I go!

  2. Amazing list. I’m a Louisville native who moved away about 10 years ago after college, and finally found the opportunity to return as of a few months ago. I missed it dearly, and am amazed how much it’s grown and advanced while I was gone. The beautiful irony is that there are soooo many things that are the same, but are now finally gaining their due appreciation. I now have the privilege of being a tour guide to my family, and at the same time rediscovering old favorites and new additions. Nice job.

    1. Thank you! I left for 7 years to do college and grad school far away, and when I came back, so much was the same, yet everything was different. Welcome home, Matt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *