Living

48 Hours In Louisville

The Kentucky city’s offbeat cultural attractions go far beyond bourbon and the Derby

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Tapping a barrel on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Tapping a barrel on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

A young man careens at highway speed through a semi-lit cavern, 100 feet above the floor. An abandoned hospital looms on a suburban hilltop, its derelict four-story expanse lending architectural credence to its ghostly reputation. A brick façade stands alone at the entrance to a city neighborhood, the words carved into its stone decorations proclaiming an immigrant mason’s civic ardor:

“HAIL TO THE CITY OF LOUISVILLE!”

Kentucky’s largest city attracts passionate advocates — and surprises visitors, who discover much more going on than its two-dimensional image may suggest. You can have a great time in Louisville without seeing bourbon or drinking a horse. (If you want to indulge in either one, of course, there’s no better city for you.)

A friend who has lived in Portland, Oregon, notes that everyone there is obsessed with the same few things — coffee, beer, and bikes — while in Louisville, people follow their individual enthusiasms. That may be one reason for the truism that, dating back at least to punk times, no Louisville rock band has sounded like another, from the Endtables to post-rock progenitors Slint to arena stars My Morning Jacket. And it helps explain the city’s vital restaurant scene (which might be the most universal local obsession).

The city teems with people willing to make the most of whatever happens to be here. Brett Ralph, a Louisville musician and poet who co-owns Surface Noise, a store selling “records, books, artifacts,” believes Louisville’s “natural expressiveness” dates back to the days when Kentucky was isolated from the rest of the world: “We’re proud in the pejorative sense. We don’t want to ask anyone for help, or how to do something, so we just cobble together our own way to do everything.”

That may elucidate how a former limestone quarry was transformed into the underground entertainment facility the Louisville MegaCavern, with zip lines, bicycle paths, and a tram. Or the reason the Waverly Hills Sanatorium, a former tuberculosis hospital, now offers both historic and paranormal tours, claiming to be among the “most haunted places on earth!” Or why the carved façade of the Charles Heigold House (River Road and Frankfort Avenue) was relocated from the city dump to a spot where everyone can enjoy Heigold’s expressions of affection for the city, for George Washington — even for then-president James Buchanan.

Louisville began as a river town, a fact best appreciated by walking across the Big Four Bridge — an abandoned railroad bridge turned over to pedestrian use — and observing the wide span of the Ohio. On nice days, a lively, diverse crowd strolls (and occasionally runs, or bikes) between the city and Jeffersonville, Indiana. The neighborhood surrounding the bridge’s Hoosier landfall presents abundant opportunities for a sandwich, a pizza, a beer — or a milkshake from the soda fountain at the 126-year-old Schimpff’s Confectionery, with maybe a bag of hard-candy fish for the walk back.

Farther downriver, at the southwest corner of the city, you’ll find one of Brett Ralph’s Louisville touchstones: Mike Linnig’s Restaurant, a sprawling joint that opened in 1925. Seating up to 1,000 patrons, most at picnic tables and gazebos, it seems, on a weekend night, like the world’s largest community fish fry. Along with huge pieces of chainsaw art, a kids’ playground, and riverbank access, the main attractions are the gigantic portions of fried fish — a particular Louisville enthusiasm — and the reliably vibrant crowds.

Louisville retains a river town’s raffish devotion to pleasure: Bars can stay open until 4 a.m., unusual for Southern and Midwestern cities but perfect for this stop on the Bourbon Trail, where multiple establishments boast shelves with more than 100 brands. But it’s not just taken straight — creative but sound mixology is practiced at Meta, Mr. Lee’s, Garage Bar, and Rye.

The last two are on Market Street, in the area east of downtown called NuLu. After you’ve finished imbibing at either one, walk a few blocks south to the nineteenth-century sanctuary of St. Martin of Tours, and end your evening in front of one final Louisville curiosity: the Shrine of Saints Magnus and Bonosa.

Few American churches possess relics like these, believed to be skeletons of martyrs from Roman times: according to local lore, one a virgin executed for her adamant Christian beliefs, the other a centurion moved to convert by witnessing Bonosa’s death. (Pope Leo XIII sent the remains to Louisville in 1901.) You can even observe the shrine after last call, because St. Martin’s stays open around the clock, with a guard on the premises. And maybe because Louisville believes that anything singular is wth sharing.

How to get there

Delta and American fly nonstop from LaGuardia, United from Newark. Also, Louisville is twelve hours or less by car, and it’s a city where you’ll want to have wheels.

Where to stay

Two swanky choices are the 21c Museum Hotel, and the Seelbach Hilton, a Beaux Arts Baroque establishment patronized by Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Where to eat

You’ll have to work to get a bad meal in Louisville. A few suggestions: Decca, whose executive chef, Annie Pettry, is a culinary magpie with Southern roots and global range; Harvest, which does right by its 80-percent-locally-sourced ingredients; Jack Fry’s, a 1930s neighborhood bar transformed into a casually upscale eatery that manages to seem both thronged and cozy; Food Network celebrity Edward Lee’s prix-fixe 610 Magnolia, which reimagines Southern food with surprising Asian touches; and the Mayan Café, which serves authentic, refined Yucatán cuisine.

What to see

A day of betting on races at Churchill Downs is never misspent; on days the track is closed, the Kentucky Derby Museum remains open to tell the story of America’s oldest continuously held sporting event. At the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory you can touch a bat used by Mickey Mantle or buy one inscribed with your own name. The Muhammad Ali Center teaches visitors why Ali was the Greatest, as a boxer and a humanitarian, while the champ’s touchingly restored boyhood home shows his humble roots. The vast Cave Hill Cemetery is the final resting place of Ali, KFC’s Colonel Harlan Sanders, and city founder George Rogers Clark.