This definitely is no one-horse town. It's not even a one horse-race town.
They run a full season of racing in Churchill Downs, although the one race everybody knows about is the Kentucky Derby, especially this time of year. But Louisville is much more than beautiful horses and fast women, as the joke goes. It's a town with a rapidly gentrifying downtown, a beautiful riverfront park, a vibrant restaurant scene and some cool, one-of-a-kind museums.
The town is extraordinarily visitor-friendly, clustering many of its charms into a compact, easily navigated downtown. You can't walk to everything, but you can take in a lot on foot.
On the last morning of my September trip, while wolfing down excellent pancakes at the irresistibly quirky Lynn's Paradise Cafe, I looked at my fellow travelers and declared, "I could live here."
Pretty country, a lively and growing downtown, and a long list of outdoor festivals, for starters. It has major-college sports, courtesy of the University of Louisville Cardinals. The Actors Theatre of Louisville is a nationally known resident theater. The Kentucky Center provides a steady stream of opera, ballet, orchestra and Broadway-tour performances. Just about all the top touring musical acts stop here; indeed, the thing that had the town buzzing the weekend of our visit was the pending arrival of the Rolling Stones, who performed the first-ever major concert at Churchill Downs. That event was such a success that Churchill Downs booked another rock band this year — the Police will play on July 14. About 90% of this country's disco balls are produced in Louisville. What more do you need?
Here are some places we checked out on our visit:
You can't miss this tourist attraction, not with a 120-foot replica baseball bat leaning against (and rising above) the building. There are a few interesting interactive exhibits — my friend Jeff and I took turns humiliating ourselves in the batting cage — and displays of historical bats going back to the century before last. But you can't pass up the factory tour ($9), where you can watch bats being made and receive an 18-inch mini-bat (which is $4 without the tour) to take home.
Stop at the Bat Store and order your own Louisville Slugger, engraved with your signature. Order the bat as soon as you arrive and it might be ready when you leave. Or pick it up the next day, or have it shipped home. (Note: The factory doesn't operate on Sundays, though the museum remains open.) The museum has a couple of Chicago references that I enjoyed. One area, dolled up to resemble a ballpark, uses a photo mural of Wrigley Field as its backdrop. And during the tour, our guide deciphered the bat-model coding.
"This model number is C271, which means the model was ordered by the 271st player whose name begins with C," he said. "In this case, Jose Cardenal." Well, it took me back.
Muhammad Ali was born in Louisville (as Cassius Clay), has a downtown street named after him and is the focus of this spiffy museum, which opened in November 2005.
Though the museum doesn't shy away from Ali's most polarizing moments, including some of the harshest things he said after his conversion to Islam, the focus is more on the man's accomplishments, from his stellar boxing career to his decades of humanitarian and civil-rights work.
The five-story museum (a sixth level is for private functions) offers clips of Ali's TV interviews and boxing matches, some nice analytical bits from people who observed the man at close range, and displays of Ali's poetry and drawings. There's an interactive "train with Ali" station, and several exhibits, aimed at youngsters, that preach core values such as respect, spirituality, confidence and conviction, with parallels drawn to a man many believe embodies all these virtues.
Fourth Street Live, 4th Street between Liberty Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard; (812) 282-5483, www.4thstlive.com.
Louisville's glitziest tourist attraction is probably my least favorite. It's a fine idea, covering a two-block stretch of 4th Street with a soaring steel-and-glass canopy and turning the area into a somewhat-weather-protected outdoor entertainment mall, boasting bars, restaurants, a pool hall, bowling alley, retail shop and food court. Only pedestrians are permitted here on weekend evenings, and the whole place turns into one huge block party.
But the dining, retail and entertainment options are dominated by chains (Hard Rock Cafe, T.G.I. Friday's, Borders, Howl at the Moon, Lucky Strike Lanes), which robs the area of any real sense of place. It's fun, no question; my wife and I listened to a very good country band playing in a bar called Saddle Ridge. But we could have been anywhere in the world.
Anybody can appreciate the majesty of Churchill Downs, the oldest continually operating racetrack in the United States (it opened in 1875).
The track was closed to racing when we visited (the Spring Meet runs late April through mid-July; the Fall Meet runs late October to late November), but if you visit during the racing season, admission is $2. (It's 20 times higher on Derby Day.)
But the Kentucky Derby Museum, located by Gate One, is open just about every day of the year, except Christmas, Thanksgiving, Derby Day and the day before Derby Day.
There, for $10, you can see a 360-degree video dedicated to Derby Day, try to ride like a jockey (the better your form, the faster your horse will "move"), and see various static and interactive exhibits.
For an extra $10, you can take the Backside Track Tour, a guided walking tour of the grounds and a bus tour of the stables. This is highly recommended — if it's not raining.
The Belle of Louisville ( 574-2992, www.belleoflouisville.org), a 92-year-old steamboat and a National Historic Landmark, conducts cruises on the Ohio River (along with its sister boat, the Spirit of Jefferson), embarking from the 4th Street Wharf. Prices run $15 for excursion cruises to $35 for dinner and dance cruises.
Old Louisville is a neighborhood containing Louisville's oldest and largest homes, and one of the largest concentrations of Victorian homes in the country. The Visitors Center for Historic Old Louisville is at 218 W. Oak St., where you'll find maps for walking tours and information on bus tours. You also can find walking-tour maps at vwww.oldlouisville.com.
The Bourbon Trail is a collection of seven independent bourbon distilleries, all within an hour's drive of Louisville. Most offer free distillery tours and sample tastes (Woodford Reserve charges $5 admission; Maker's Mark doesn't offer free tastings). Find details on six of the distilleries at vwww.kybourbon.com; for information on Woodford Reserve Distillery visit vwww.woodfordreserve.com. If you don't feel like driving, most good-sized bars in Louisville boast impressive stockpiles of America's Spirit, and bartenders are happy to chat about their favorites.
Glassworks, 815 W. Market St.; (502) 584-4510, www.louisvilleglassworks.com, has glass-blowing classes and workshops and a gallery full of serious glass art I wished I could afford.
The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, 715 W. Main St.; (502) 589-0102, www.kentuckyarts.org, is a free museum dedicated to local arts and crafts, and has a really neat gift shop.
The Jazz Factory, 815 W. Market St.; (502) 992-3242, www.jazzfactory.us, is a performance and dining space, open Tuesday to Saturday, that held great appeal for my jazz-loving buddies. We showed up on Jam Session night, but I guess attendance had been very sparse, because the place had already closed when we arrived at 10 p.m. In retrospect, the open parking spot by the front door should have been a tipoff.