It might just be my dream trip: I’m on business and my husband and kids are on vacation. While I do my thing, they do theirs. When my business is over, they show me around town and what they loved.
That was our trip to Louisville recently. I was there to participate in a test drive of the all new Chrysler 200, so my husband researched, planned and took the kids on an adventure (shhhh… I was touring the country side in a gorgeous, luxurious hot-off-the-line car).
First, my husband taught us to say Loo-uh-vul to get us in the spirit, then, he filled the Toyota Sienna with golf clubs, bats, helmets and sports clothes, and off we went for four days of touring and adrenaline pumping.
Here’s what my family found.
1. Louisville is one of the most livable cities in America.
Downtown has been revitalized. Art is everywhere: in galleries and on street corners. The architecture is a wonderful blend of 19th century grace and detail squeezed between magnificent and at times whimsical modern and post-modern towers. The re-gentrified West Main section is the home to row after row of boutique ad agencies and creative shops, and at every turn you can feel its vibrancy. The NuLu section on East Main is moving quickly beyond the urban pioneers and we walked at night without a hint of trepidation. On top of that, it is a quick jaunt to the liveliness of the Bardstown Road hipster corridor or the Victorian splendor of Old Louisville and the other neighborhoods of the Highlands to the east. The city is a feast for the eyes.
2. The Magnificent Parks and the Louisville Loop.
There are spectacular parks all through the city, many designed by Frederick Law Olmstead who designed Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York. There is also a walking and biking path called the Louisville Loop that runs from the Waterfront Park hard against the Ohio River and covers about 100 uninterrupted miles around the entire city, through every type of neighborhood and the diversity of its lowlands and highlands terrain.
3. There are nine public golf courses within the city limits.
From the Shawnee course right on the river to Crescent Hills on Brownsboro Road (a 9-hole course without water or sand traps that is perfect for beginners), golf is extraordinarily accessible and downright cheap. Weekday rates are $12.50 at most of them, and weekend rates, when the courses crowd up in season, zoom up to a paltry $14.50. If you can’t afford those rates, they’ll let you do some work for a couple hours and play for free.
4. The Urban Bourbon Trail is a hoot.
You can download the app and get “stamped” at every participating bar throughout the town. I think if you hit them all you get a commemorative tee-shirt or something, but if you do that you probably can’t remember to pick it up. That said, even a single bourbon tasting at the remarkable Doc Crow’s Smokehouse & Raw Bar (the sweet vanilla of the aptly named Angel’s Envy, the manly essence of Eagle Rare and the poof of the pure sipping splendor of Booker’s), will not only change your mind about bourbon but introduce you to the intricacies and variety of the pride of Kentucky.
5. The Bourbon Capital, Bardstown, is a short drive but a world away.
Just 45 minutes south of Louisville is one of the most beautiful small towns in America. We agree, but that’s not our proclamation, it’s USA Today’s. So picture perfect that it could have been the inspiration for Main Street USA at Disney, Bardstown is filled with classic architecture, fun restaurants and intriguing shops, and the homes that line its streets are Americana at its most charming. We had lunch at the home-spun Mammy’s Kitchen and afterward headed to My Old Kentucky Home State Park where Stephen Collins Foster wrote the state song of the same name, and toured the actual Old Kentucky Home—Federal Hill, built by attorney and congressman John Rowan in 1790. There the Rowan family hosted politicians, dignitaries and Foster, who wrote a number of ballads while there. The home site features tours, theater during the summer, weddings, and the park has camping and other activities.
Bardstown has a number of other worthy tours, but we wanted to see how bourbon is made, so we toured Barton 1792 Distillery, one of the many distilleries in town. Learning the process of baking grains and art and science of barreling and aging bourbon made the tasting experience all the more interesting, and even the kids found it fun. 6. The music scene is robust. There are music clubs for every music taste, although most only admit those over 21 year old. Still, you can’t miss the fact that Louisville has become the home, or the home away from home, of many important musicians.
7. The food isn’t good; it’s great.
From Atlantic No. 5 on West Main, where you’re lifted up by the aromas of the fresh, hand-crafted artisanal lunchtime foods, to the rich and barbecue-drenched ribs at Doc Crow’s, and the Sunday brunch at Proof on Main that rivals anything from New York to San Francisco, it is hard — maybe impossible — to have a bad meal. Surprisingly, our search for the best Kentucky fried chicken (KFC does not qualify) was the most difficult to find. There are chicken nuggets on almost every menu, but it wasn’t until we stumbled into Dish on Market that we found real fried chicken on the menu. And it was so extraordinarily good, we went back the next night to do it again (although the girls had burgers the second time and declared them the best ev-ah).
8. Louisville is filled with must-do sights for kids.
The Mega Cavern is a thrilling zip-lining course in an underground limestone mine. Ninety feet above ground in near total darkness with a series of heart-thumping 900-foot runs that end with two parallel lines for a race to the finish line. This is a can’t-miss two-hour thrill ride. Don’t be dissuaded by how touristy-commercial it might seem from its ads. It takes hours afterwards to wipe the smile off your face.
The Louisville Slugger Museum is baseball nirvana. The exhibits are terrific and standing behind a dummy catcher as Cole Hammel fires a 90 mile an hour fast ball at you makes you realize how great ballplayers really are. The factory tour is well done, and if your kid plays ball, there is nothing greater than picking out your very own Louisville Slugger bat and getting in the batting cages on site.
The 21c Museum Hotel would be a stand out in any city. Artworks are everywhere. The design of the upper and lower lobby areas is moving. The video gimmick by the elevators makes people miss more lifts than they expected to. Red penguins adorn the roof top and the lobbies. And the rotating sidewalk art is brilliant. Oh, yeah, and they have a red sequined stretch limo parked outside.
The Galt House Hotel is the central location for big-occasion visits to Louisville. It is huge and bustling and grand, with prom nights to armed service formals to weddings going on all at once while we were there. Through all that, our suite was grand and the location put us at the epicenter of everything to do — and everywhere to eat — in downtown Louisville. A must-see is the gymnasium on the top floor with wrap-around views from the downtown skyscrapers to the Ohio River below.
The Seelbach (Hilton) Hotel lobby bar is an old grand hotel where F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have conceptualized The Great Gadsby. It’s a wonderful place to sip bourbon while regaling your daughters about the greatest American novel ever written.
But the best place in all of Louisville, bar none, is the Muhammad Ali Center. Please, please, don’t miss this. You start on the fifth floor and wind your way back down to the lobby. It captures Ali’s career as a boxer and his essential contributions to America’s civil rights awakening. His poetry and eloquence is captured as well as his artistry as a fighter. It is the most brilliant museum I’ve ever been in, and it was by far the favorite stop as voted by my teenaged daughters who neither knew who Ali is nor ever watched or appreciated a boxing match. I cannot express how thankful I am for the spectacular and moving experience.
Louisville was a wonderful time and the girls emerged seemingly unscarred by their dad’s parental supervision. At least until we left. When I returned from the test track and we got back in the Sienna to head out of town, our youngest daughter soon barfed into a plastic bag we happened to have in the car.
I immediately ordered everyone to use disinfectant wipes on our hands, avoid all contact with our eyes, and go into lock-down mode to prevent the spread of whatever vile disease our poor, suffering, youngest daughter had. With a guilty smile, my daughter confessed she was not suffering from illness, but rather the back-to-back nightly visits to The Fudgery in the Fourth Street Live! promenade and the triple fudge ice creams her father had permitted. The fun had to end some time.