Louisville: A Quietly Cool City

The dark winter hibernation of the Pacific Northwest had got me itching to travel somewhere warm and sunny.  While I am thankful for all of my travel situations, both for pleasure, work, or a stressful cross-country move, paradoxically, I keep feeling disappointed that I haven’t been able to leave the country, much less North America for about 15 years.  However, I continue to remind myself to be thankful and accept what domestic trips fall into place naturally.

So on that note, my friend Jess had recently relocated from Portland, Oregon to Louisiville, Kentucky, which had already piqued my interest thru my research on Bourbon (considered America’s greatest contribution to the world of spirits) and the cultural analysis of Southern foodways.

Months ago, I sent a text message to Jess, to ask her which time of the year is the sweet-spot to visit Louisville.  I figured that I should get down there asap, because who knows where we end up a year from now.  I wanted to come down to see her new home, as well as to discover bourbon country and the Louisiville/Kentucky style of southern culture.  The verdict was out that late May and early June was great, and all of a sudden, a flight was booked!

From my experience of American perceptions, I think that it is safe to say that Kentucky is lumped in with a stereotype of backwards, impoverished hillbillies, perhaps barefoot and missing teeth.  It is more likely that if you have had the luck or privilege to travel around this large country, then you will see the regional stereotypes both dis-proven and validated in certain ways.

By this point in life, I have lost what little negative stereotype of Kentuckians had made its way into my imagination, and I was now influenced by the knowledge of the Kentucky Derby horse races, high quality Bourbons, and I was already a fan of one of their underground music scenes (1990’s early emo and hardcore to be exact…not what most people would think of for a southern city)- to create the imagination of a more genteel, affluent, and strong tradition-holding culture.  Our first stop after landing at the airport, was proof, that Louisville in particular, would be so much more than imagined.

Originally, I was a little shocked when I had learned that our hostess and ambassador, Jess (a self-described “Jewish girl from Connecticut” and a classic Portlander for the past 15+ years), had decided to move to Louisville, because I didn’t quickly see why it would be a good city for her.  In a conversation about how much I love and miss the welcoming and friendly nature of New Orleans (my favorite home-base for nine years), she said that it felt like that upon her visit to Louisville.  With that insight, I felt better for my friend, feeling like it would be a good fit for a people-person like Jess.  I couldn’t wait to feel it for myself, as the stand-off-ish nature of Portland (as someone who has spent half of her life in the South) has been bumming me out since I returned a year ago.

Upon arrival, I felt the Southern Hospitality and friendliness of strangers that I had hoped for, and our Ambassador, Jess, seemed right at home.  She played travel-buddy matchmaker for myself and another friend of hers (Amanda), who ended up being my travel partner on the way there and back, and the three of us had a wonderful girls weekend, celebrating our love and curiosity of new cities, by way of food and drinks.

As a food/beverage industry professional, my selfish priority was to visit some bourbon distilleries, so I was extra excited when Amanda had sent me a message before the trip, hoping to visit some as well.  It felt serendipitous, when on the first night, Jess exclaimed something to the likes of,  “Isn’t this incredible! Three women who actually like bourbon are able to get together to do this”  Why yes, this was exactly what I have been waiting for!

Regional cuisine, horse racing, and bluegrass music were next on our list, and while we found a lot more than we expected, we unfortunately did not cross paths with any bluegrass.  I was disappointed that the only live music that we came across was a contemporary radio-rock cover band playing in the main plaza was at Churchill Downs, the most famous American horse racing venue and home of the Kentucky Derby.

I was unable to get a feel for the popularity of bluegrass music with the citizens.  As a music and culture lover, it bums me out when event producers book American radio-hit cover bands, when they could be showcasing their local talent or unique musical identity, even if it means a cover band that is covering legendary local hits- I believe that it is the sense of place that a traveler or newcomer is looking for.  I am a former event producer with a degree in cultural anthropology, so I can complain about this..from that angle.

But it has occurred to me: maybe Louisville-ians don’t care for or associate themselves with bluegrass in the greater scheme of cultural identity.  From what little I know, bluegrass is a “roots style” of American music, which usually has roots in rural areas, often burdened with poverty.  I am not sure if we were in the right region to find it, but truth be told, I didn’t have time to research it.  Maybe it was right below my radar, or maybe it is a low priority in the city or maybe I was too busy shoving my face in a glass of bourbon to notice.  I will definitely be seeking out this information for the next trip!

What I did notice most of all, was that after talking to the dozens of friendly locals, I was left with a sense that Louisville was about to explode in the sense that Portland, OR and Austin, TX have been over the last several years.  While this also means traffic jams if the city doesn’t make quick adjustments to its transportation infrastructure, it also means that people will be seeking out Louisville to live, work, learn, and play in.

From an outside perspective, it appears that the bourbon industry has already brought in enough tourism, that some distillers, such as Evan Williams, have built a downtown “Experience” that appeals to knowledge seeking tourists just blocks away from cheesy convention-tourism style streets, similar in nature to Bourbon St. in New Orleans, Beale St. in Memphis, 6th St. in Austin, etc.

As Amanda and I walked around a clean and colorful downtown, we commented on all of the nice touches we noticed: giant wind chimes as architecture, boutique-art gallery-museum-hotel combos with bizarre and cute installments along the outside of the building, a nod to historic eras with an enthusiastic freshness oozed from restaurants and bars, and we compared it to other cities: Portland, Austin, Brooklyn.  All while noting that there were no “cooler than thou” hip PR campaigns being shoved into your eye sockets, full of hashtag-this, and social network-that; no one screaming that they are the best (perhaps since we all know that Louisville native, Muhammad Ali, is “The Greatest”) or the next big thing; it was humble, it was cute and quirky, it held on to the good parts of its past and it was QUIETLY COOL.

Throw in the small but growing interest in locally produced food and goods, along with a city full of gorgeous historic buildings that have escaped the wrath of the Great American Bulldozing (to make way for lame shopping malls and gut-distressing corporate chain restaurants), add a welcoming social atmosphere, lots of sunshine, a few rivers, fountains, green spaces, and more live music- and you’ve got yourself another great American resurrection!

Below are some snapshots of our adventures in Louisville and a little out in the countryside and small towns near the capitol of Frankfort, KY.  Enjoy!

Please feel free to inquire on what we liked, what we ran out of time to see and do, or to share your pics or stories.  I can’t wait to return, and see what has become of all of the buildings that are sitting pretty, leftover from the old river-traffic days, and there are still a hundred more bourbons to try!

[Special thanks to Jess Lawrence for making this happen faster, and treating us to her home-made breakfasts’, afternoon snacks, driving us to the country, loaning us bikes and her whole bedroom and being the Mom and bringing sunblock and water everywhere. My friend of 15 years- I love you!]




New2Lou.com A fun social organization to help new Louisville residents in meeting new people, finding their niche and getting to know their new city.  (Co-founder Stacey Servo helped with information and our opportunity to enjoy Churchill Downs more thoroughly!)

CairnGuidance.com (Jess’ School Health Consulting company)


Further Tips from fellow wanderluster, Davie Kaufmann:

DONUTS: Nord’s Bakery (go early, like 7-8 early). Other breakfast: gralehaus, Wiltshire Pantry Bakery and Cafe. Treats (besides the donuts and baked stuff you’re gonna have for breakfast, that’s simply nutritious cause it’s the most important meal of the day): Please & Thank You for the chocolate chip cookie, Muth’s Candies for candy especially bourbon balls, The Comfy Cow for ice cream but don’t be shy about samples cause there can be duds and seriously why don’t they have the sorghum & grits flavor right now, Homemade Ice Cream & Pie Kitchen for lemon chess pie. BEST BURGER: Holy Grale. Just do it. Please. BEST LAMB RIBZ: Hammerheads. Best neighborhood old man bar lunch, cheap pitchers and stuff like fried bologna sandwiches and Chicken Liver Tuesdays: Checks Cafe (sadly the place that was serving bologna late-night, Norm’s Club 21, has closed). LUNCH INVOLVING BAGUETTE: Blue Dog. You will also find their bread served in restaurants all over; I like getting it alongside my mussels at El Mundo for A+ dunking. Surely you will need some beer cheese in the late afternoon; go to Eiderdown for an appetizer. BEST PORK CAKES AND BOURBON SLUSHIES ACROSS THE RIVER: Feast BBQ. Best local brews: Apocalypse Brew Works Fallout Dust (the tasting room is only open Friday/Saturday but you’ll see their stuff around town a bit); Great Flood Brewing Company (try a Kentucky Common, one of the only two beer styles born in Amurrica); I am actually not super cuckoo for Against the Grain but it’s definitely good. Same goes for Cumberland, BBC less so. Karaoke: Groucho’s Bar & Karaoke (GROUCHO’S!!!), Big Al’s Beeritaville (BIG AL’S!!!). FISH FRY: I’ma let you know once I hit Suburban Fish Fry tomorrow. It’s Saturdays only. STORE FOR RANDOM CHEAP & TACKY CRAP: Tickled Pink Memorabilia Mall – I found Carly a really great pillow from SkyMall that we’ve been obsessed with for years. ~THE END~


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