Louisville is best known for hosting the Kentucky Derby, famously dubbed “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” When you’re done with that, we’ve got a lot more to show you.
Author Amanda Petrusich Photography Sam Polcer
DAY ONE | In your recurring childhood fantasies about spending the night in a museum, you invariably ended up spooning a stuffed mink inside an old diorama. What you didn’t envision was reclining in a Herman Miller chair wearing a fat bathrobe and smelling like a particularly fragrant grapefruit (thank you, Malin + Goetz soap). But that’s what’s in store for you at 21c, a contemporary art museum that doubles as a boutique hotel in downtown Louisville.
There is art everywhere here: in the rooms, in the lobby and in the airy galleries, which are free and open to the public. Many of the works are interactive, such as the projected installation “Text Rain,” which allows those waiting for an elevator to kill time by grabbing at tumbling letters. Oddly, 21c is also home to a number of four-foot-tall red plastic penguins, which hover at the bar, gaze at artworks and appear unbidden in hallways.
You’ll be spending the morning getting to know a different kind of animal: thoroughbred horses, which in this town are a subject of devotion bordering on worship. Your first stop is Wagner’s, a diner-cum-pharmacy across the street from Churchill Downs. Wagner’s has been catering to the racing set since 1922, and its walls are littered with dusty photos of Derby winners, their necks draped with Kentucky roses. You take a booth and, on the recommendation of your fast-talking waitress, order Pam and Jack’s Omelette, an imposing concoction of eggs, green pepper, onion, tomato, ham, bacon, sausage and two kinds of cheese. “You did good!” the waitress says, eyeing your half-finished plate.
You leave Wagner’s wondering how a meal like that could possibly be deemed appropriate for a jockey, then lumber across Fourth Street to the Kentucky Derby Museum. After wandering around for all of 25 minutes, you decide you know enough about the subject to mount a mechanical steed and attempt to outpace two kids in a race simulator. You lose. Badly.
Next up is the adjacent Churchill Downs, where you’ve booked a “Barn and Backside” tour of the facilities. In the paddock, your guide pauses to describe the pandemonium of Derby weekend, when 80,000 revelers charge the infield to “picnic,” a euphemism for drinking ungodly amounts of booze and placing bad bets. Dedicated infielders, you are told, bury leftover bottles on the grounds to retrieve the following May, a method of bourbon-aging you won’t find in the guidebooks.
From here, you cab it to NuLu, a former industrial district that’s now a tangle of storefronts, galleries and cafés catering to the city’s artsy set. You settle in at Please and Thank You, an emerald-green coffeehouse and used-record store, and watch a bearded young man thumb through crates of vintage LPs, then order a toasted mozzarella and pesto sandwich, followed by the biggest chocolate chip cookie you’ve ever had. That riding career is looking unlikely.
Next, you stroll along Market Street, dipping in and out of shops, including Why Louisville, purveyor of more locally themed T-shirts than you could have ever imagined existed (“Gettin’ Lucky in Kentucky!”). Watched by a life-size Colonel Sanders doll, you drop a couple of quarters into an old fortune-telling console, causing a mechanical gypsy to jerk around for a bit before the machine spits out a card reading, “You’re Important.”
It’s close enough to cocktail hour, and this is Kentucky, so you head to nearby Decca, a bar and restaurant situated in a 19th-century row house. A tattooed bartender makes you an Old Fashioned, which you carry to a sunny garden. The people-watching here is supreme, but after your drink’s gone (and it goes awfully fast) you follow the sound of live music coming from the Flea-Off Market, an outdoor bazaar in a nearby parking lot. You browse the tables, picking up an old Derby pennant from 1957 and a Kentucky Gentleman–branded whiskey decanter shaped like a Revolutionary War soldier. Bingo.
Dinner tonight is at Harvest, a popular restaurant that showcases the city’s affinity for locally sourced food and that does much of the curing, smoking and preserving in-house. You order a couple of local specialties: burgoo (a thick stew of chicken, pork, turkey, potatoes, corn and heirloom tomatoes topped with pretzel croutons) and buttermilk fried chicken (doused with smoked peppercorn gravy and homemade hot sauce). It’s not until you’ve finished both dishes that you realize your fruit-and-veg intake for the day has fallen somewhere between “nil” and “Was there a cherry in that Old Fashioned?” Ah well, there’s always tomorrow.