For young travelers looking to visit cities with an interesting food scene and a quirky culture, Portland and Austin might come to mind, but certainly not Louisville. Most people associate the city with the Kentucky Derby and bourbon, two relics that point to its more traditional past, rather than its progressive potential. However, a closer look at Louisville reveals a forward-thinking city brimming with talented, locally-minded chefs and energetic social entrepreneurs. Although the community is small, it is very friendly and accessible, and your time spent there will feel more impactful than in a bigger, anonymous city. For an offbeat, weekend getaway, Louisville definitely has enough to keep you occupied for some interesting memories.
Day 1 – Louisville bleeds Cardinal red, and thousands flock to the KFC Yum! Center to catch the Louisville team playing against top tier rivals. Watching a college basketball game may not be what you had in mind for a quirky weekend, but you can’t help but get swept up in the infectious team spirit that Louisville has for its players. Plus the Yum! Center is actually a lot nicer than your average national sports arena–the bathrooms are super clean, and there’s more to drink than just beer and water.
After watching the Blue Devils crush the Cardinals 63-52, we walked over to Hillbilly Tea for a late lunch. The Yum! Center may be new, but the food options are still the same old greasy pizza and corn dogs of yesteryear. As the name might suggest, Hillbilly Tea serves folksy southern fare in a whimsical country setting, and it also has an extensive tea selection. If the mountain dew pork belly sounds too heavy for you, try the lighter moonshine tofu scramble or the winter baby kale salad.
Walk off lunch by heading down towards NuLu on Market St. You’ll come across a stretch of antique shops, home furnishing stores and galleries that you can browse through. One that will occupy you for hours is the large and strange Joe Ley Antiques, which carries three floors of random, old objects. The toy section is particularly fascinating and at times freakish. I felt like I was in a weird dream sequence involving my piano teacher’s house and Something Wicked This Way Comes. For things you might actually want to buy, try checking out Revolver or Scout for their modern and eclectic home furnishings.
To take a break from the window shopping, we ordered a miele, a latte made with honey and cinnamon, and a gigantic chocolate chip cookie from Please & Thank You, a very cute coffee shop on the corner of Market and Shelby St. The cafe claims to make the best chocolate chip cookie in Louisville. It was the only chocolate chip cookie I had in the city, so I can’t really say if I agree or not, but it was very good and very, very chocolatey. They also make great soy lattes.
We ate dinner at Harvest, an acclaimed restaurant that was one of the pioneers of the farm-to-table movement in Louisville. There’s a wall in the back with pictures of all the farmers the restaurant sources its ingredients from, as well as a map with each farm’s location. More than 80% of the ingredients come from within a 100 mile radius. I found it very charming that one of the farmers personally greeted each table and shared his story on how he got involved with farming in the Louisville area.
We ordered the chicken wings and the spicy greens salad off of the specials menu, along with a bowl of burgoo, a regional specialty in Louisville, and the fried buttermilk chicken. The chicken wings reminded me of Korean fried chicken in the way that the skin was exceptionally thin and crispy, pure and unburdened by batter, and more effective in absorbing any accompanying dipping sauce. The fried chicken entree was much more traditional and hence a little less interesting, although the spicy hoecake really captured my attention. Spice seemed to be a recurring theme here, as the burgoo stew also had a little heat to it. In case you were wondering, burgoo is a stew similar to gumbo in terms of texture and flavor. I found it hearty and delicious, the sort of thing you’d want on a cold winter’s day. The salad consisted of wonderfully fresh and peppery greens in a light vinaigrette. Its clean and refreshing flavors were a nice offset to the pretty robust meal we were having.
We then walked to Garage Bar, a restaurant literally housed in a former auto service garage, in case you couldn’t tell by the two car collision out front. We had some after dinner drinks, involving bourbon of course, and chatted with some very friendly locals. Southern hospitality is alive and well in Louisville. We finished off the first day feeling full and very welcome.
KFC Yum Center!
1 Arena Plaza, Louisville, KY 40202
120 South 1st Street, Louisville, KY 40202
Please & Thank You
800 East Market Street, Louisville, KY 40206
624 East Market Street, Louisville, KY 40202
700 East Market Street, Louisville, KY 40202
Day 2 – Kentucky is synonymous with the Derby, so a tour of the famous Churchill Downs racetrack was definitely in order. We woke up early to catch the first walking tour of the day at 11:30 am, where our tour guide led us to the racetrack and pointed out items of interest such as the starting and finishing lines, the Winner’s Circle and the infamous Infield, home to the cheapest and booziest seats in the house. My favorite part of the tour was seeing actual footage of old races in the digital archive–you want to see Seabiscuit or the filly Winning Colors blowing the competition out of the water? They have everything on file.
The last thing that comes to mind when you think of Louisville is Vietnamese food, but we had heard great things about Vietnam Kitchen, so we drove there for lunch after the Churchill Downs tour. The restaurant itself is located in a very unglamorous outdoor mall, but who cares about ambiance when you’re here for the authentic, homestyle cuisine.
The menu still lists the name of its dishes on the menu in Vietnamese, so many people refer to the item numbers on the menu when ordering. We ordered some shrimp spring rolls, the famous “K-8”, a spicy bowl of rice noodle soup served with ground beef, broccoli and bean sprouts, and the “G-9”, a platter of barbecue pork chop, a pork/vermicelli “cake”, shrimp and a side of rice with a fried egg on top. I found that the flavors here skewed a little sweet, including the broth in the K-8 and the marinade on the pork chop, but it was all very satisfying and comforting, especially that pork chop.
After lunch, we drove on over to the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, a museum dedicated to the company that created the famous Louisville Slugger bat. The tour lets you observe different phases of the bat making process from start to finish, and at the end, they give you a cute mini bat as a souvenir. Over in the museum area, you can pick up bats used by different celebrity players such as Derek Jeter and Babe Ruth. The highlight was definitely the batting cages, where for $1, you can hit 10 pitches speeding towards you at 50 mph. I had a newfound respect for baseball players afterwards, as I certainly struggled to swing the heavy Derek Jeter bat several times in row, and each swing became progressively less precise and much worse.
For dinner, we went to Wiltshire on Market, another well-regarded farm-to-table restaurant in the NuLu district. Wiltshire felt smaller and more intimate than Harvest, and I felt like the cooking was a little more refined. The roasted beet salad was complex and fantastic, I’ve never met fresher beets that had so much to say. The trio of tacos was nicely prepared, all the meat was tender and flavorful, and the corn tortillas were warm and fresh. The brisket was a little tough, depending on which part you cut into, but when you did slice into the right spot, it was very rewarding.
We made our way over to Zanzabar, a super fun but totally divey bar that features live music acts and walls of pinball machines. We went through a lot of dollar bills to get change for our favorite pinball game, Attack from Mars. It was the one game where we kept the ball in constant play, as opposed to the frustrating Addams Family game, where the deadly electric chair frequently killed off our attempts. We also took some time to check out the headline act, a Brooklyn-based band called Landlady who created odd songs with no hook, accompanied by really bad dance moves. Even though the music made me feel funny, I had a blast at Zanzabar and could definitely picture myself coming here regularly if I ever lived in Louisville.
Kentucky Derby Museum
704 Central Avenue, Louisville, KY 40208
Iroquois Manor Shopping Center, 5339 Mitscher Avenue, Louisville, KY 40214
Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory
800 West Main Street, Louisville, KY 40202
Wiltshire on Market
636 East Market Street, Louisville, KY 40202
2100 South Preston Street, Louisville, KY 40217
Day 3 – This was our last day in Louisville, and we couldn’t leave without making a stop at 21c, the famous museum boutique hotel that features modern art galleries on the ground and basement floors. My favorite was the interactive and whimsical “Text Rain” installation, which allows guests to “catch” falling numbers and letters on a projector screen.
With all that art under our belt, we went to Mayan Cafe for lunch, where we had the best meal of the trip. The cooking here was simply in a league of its own–it’s like Roger Federer and then everyone else. The food here is Mexican, although don’t expect your standard tacos and burritos. The standouts here are the tok-sel lima beans, which sounds like a strange choice, but these lima beans will blow your mind.
The scallop ceviche was fresh, bright and clean, a contrast to the robust, colorful salbutes that arrived next. Salbutes are like mini tostadas, in which deep fried tortillas are topped with meat and vegetables. We tried a trio of the roasted pork, the smoked salmon, and the lima beans, and of course, the lima beans rocked it out. Even though the lima beans were the stars of the show, the chicken shouldn’t be ignored. The thigh meat was delicious, juicy and tender, and the skin around the meat was nicely charred and very crispy. It was served with a full-bodied chile sauce that added some good heat and smoke to the meat. Everything was seasoned perfectly, and all the textures and components were vibrant but balanced.
Our stomachs were nicely coated for the upcoming bourbon tours. We drove about an hour to Frankfort to check out Buffalo Trace Distillery, home to the infamous Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. While there were definitely barrels of Pappy hanging out around us, the bourbon unfortunately was not included in the tastings at the end. We visited Willett distillery next, and I really liked how the tour was more hands-on and interactive, and we even got to taste some sweet mash straight out of the big vats. I suppose small-batch bourbon brands allow for a more accessible and intimate tour.
By the time we were done with Willett, we could squeeze in one last dinner before catching our flight back home. We drove straight to Hammerheads, a totally janky, fratty-looking place that serves all the gut bombs that your heart desires. Flavors and portions are big and bold and out of control, it was amazing. The angus burger was absolutely heavenly–juicy and dripping with umami. We ordered a side of Grippo french fries, which were seasoned with the barbecue rub that you lick off of your fingers after eating some potato chips, and they were totally addictive. We clearly wanted to go big, so we didn’t just stop at the fries, we also had the pork belly baked beans and the shrimp and grits.
The baked beans were sweet and smoky with a boozy kick. There was just so much food at this point that I didn’t really want to eat the shrimp and grits. The grits were more like a dense cornbread cake, and the jumbo shrimp were deep fried in a batter, so any bites would have quickly taken up space in my already packed stomach. I had to draw the line somewhere and put my fork down after a couple of bites. We settled into a nice food coma that made for a very pleasant plane ride back. I definitely wouldn’t rule out flying out here for a second visit.
21c Museum Hotel
700 West Main Street, Louisville, KY 40202
813 East Market Street, Louisville, KY 40206
Buffalo Trace Distillery
113 Great Buffalo Trace, Frankfort, KY 40601
1869 Loretto Rd, Bardstown, KY 40004
921 Swan Street, Louisville, KY 40204
For more tips on things to do in Louisville, check out The Crazy Tourist’s link: