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 TWO | You begin your day with a brief nod to healthy living, grabbing a bowl of granola at Atlantic No. 5, an airy breakfast spot not far from your hotel. You scrape your big enamel bowl clean and, feeling revived, walk to the Muhammad Ali Center, a multimedia museum devoted to the colorful, controversial life of Louisville’s most famous son. Wandering the museum’s halls, you happen across Ali’s two-tone 1977 Rolls-Royce, which packs nearly as much punch as its owner. Next up is a quick round of computerized boxing, in which you are once again vanquished by schoolkids.
From here, you head over to J. Graham’s Café at the storied Brown Hotel, whose English Renaissance design—hand-painted reliefs on the ceiling, ornate woodwork everywhere else—provides an elegant counterpoint to the gluttony you are about to engage in. You take a seat in the café and order a Hot Brown, an open-faced roast turkey sandwich served in a skillet with bacon and tomato and doused in a Mornay sauce. The sandwich was invented here in the 1920s, and your waiter tells you they dispense nearly 300 of them a week—800 during Derby week—which, by your calculation, adds up to about 13.2 gazillion calories.
Trying to get back on the healthy track, you head to Cherokee Park, a 400-acre expanse bordering the Highlands neighborhood, east of downtown. Frederick Law Olmsted designed this space in 1891 (18 of the city’s parks are his), and like his other creations (New York’s Central Park among them), Cherokee reflects Olmsted’s belief that a large component of human happiness is access to open spaces. You happily walk the park’s 2.4-mile loop, pausing atop Baringer Hill, known locally as “Dog Hill,” to watch a couple of puppies wrestling in the grass.
Next, you’re off to NuLu to grab a drink at the Haymarket Whiskey Bar, a pleasantly divey Market Street spot that has more than 100 bourbons on the menu. After a brief conference with the bartender—a sharp-tongued young woman in a spectacular pair of polka-dot pants—you order a Weller 12-year on the rocks. “Attagirl,” the bartender says as you empty your glass.
A short walk down the street, the small theater space Dreamland is screening rare silent films featuring vintage amateur footage of 1930s Louisville, set to a soundtrack of 78 rpm records. You arrive during a stretch of Derby coverage and, within moments, are utterly transported. The horses charge; spectators jump with joy or (silently) curse their luck. Afterward, out in the lot, a musician performs an acoustic set, plucking spare, lingering songs on his banjo while a rapt crowd gathers on the pavement.
Now it’s time for culture of a different sort: dinner at MilkWood, the downtown eatery where Edward Lee—a veteran of “Top Chef” and “Iron Chef America”—serves Asian food with a Southern twist. The atmosphere is lively; the room is cozy, with exposed brick and an array of mounted antlers. You sip a Smoke and Pickle—Scotch, Pernod, pickle brine and mesquite—then order the organic pork burger, served with napa kimchi, a heap of thick cracklins, Havarti cheese and a rich remoulade. Lee stops by the table to tell you that he once ate this burger every day for three weeks. (He had to tell the kitchen to stop making it for him.) You finish the meal with sorghum and grits ice cream and, with some difficulty, make your way outside.
You get a little lost walking the three blocks back to your hotel and find yourself on the corner of Fourth and Walnut, reading a plaque commemorating an epiphany the Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton had on this spot in 1958 (“There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun”). You wend your way back to 21c with this thought in your head, and it is still there when you collapse, perfectly exhausted, onto your bed.