Backpacker’s Guide to Louisville

The Belle of Louisville – Docked at Fourth Street Wharf

Louisville is a city that isn’t trying to be anything but itself, and that’s why you should visit.

More than just the home of the Kentucky Derby, visitors can take steamboat trips on the Ohio River, delve into the history of Thomas Edison (who lived there for two years), dine at some local staples or check out one of the largest brownstone collections in the United States.

I lived here for three years, and I love everything about this city (except for snow cleanup). I know that you will, too.

When to visit – Most people think the best time of the year to visit is the Kentucky Derby. If your life mission is to see the “Fastest two minutes in sports,” go ahead and go in late April and early May. However, I think the best time of the year to visit is late October into early November. The track is open again (although Breeders’ Cup won’t be in Louisville for 2013) without all the tourists, and the leaves are the perfect color for autumn. The storms of spring are long past, and the weather is still warm enough for you to enjoy the day. In addition, Louisville hosts several festivals in the fall, or you can head to Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium to watch Louisville football.

An actors warms up before a performance in Louisville’s Shakespeare in the Park – August 2012

What to do (Old Louisville) – One of my favorite neighborhoods in the city is Old Louisville. South of downtown, this historic district has the largest preservation of Victorian architecture in the United States. Most of these homes were built in the 1880s, and you can take a tour of the Conrad Caldwell House Museum for $10. The home is at the beginning of St. James Court, where some of the most beautiful mansions in Old Louisville are standing. This is also where vendors set up for the St. James Court Art Show in early October. Admission is free. If you visit Louisville in August, the city hosts Shakespeare in the Park (my review here). Admission is also free to that, but you are encouraged to donate during the performance.

What to do (Highlands) – This is the place to find all sorts of quirky shops and restaurants during the day, but at night, the locals come here to drink until 4 a.m. Most bars have some sort of happy hour special (More on nightlife later). This is also the home of Cherokee Park, where people walk, run or bike the 2.4 scenic route every day (even in snow or rain). In the winter, families head to Baringer Hill for sledding on snow days. Coffee is a big deal in the city. In the Highlands alone, there are three Heine Brothers (the largest local coffee chain in the city). I also like Highland Coffee and Quill’s. Most people head to these coffee shops to study, but you can find some interesting conversation, too.

Outside the Louisville Slugger Museum Bat – December 2009

What to do (Downtown) – This is the home of Waterfront Park, the Belle of Louisville and 4th Street Live! Almost every season has a major festival occurring in this section of the city. In the spring, locals are enjoying The Kentucky Derby Festival or Abbey Road on the River (a Beatles tribute festival). In the summer, fans are rocking out at the Forecastle Festival. In November and December, the Galt House has a Christmas display in the walkway between the two buildings, and a Christmas tree is placed at the center of 4th Street Live! The spring and fall are great times to head to the Belle and take a trip along the Ohio River, or you can stay on the shore and walk along the Waterfront (my walking tour here) to the new pedestrian bridge that crosses over to Jeffersonville, Indiana. Downtown is also where Cardinals fans watch Louisville play basketball at the KFC Yum! Center. In the summer, they walk over to Bats Stadium to watch minor league baseball. Downtown is also where the city’s museums are located within a few blocks radius. I recommend Louisville Glassworks and the Louisville Slugger Museum.

What to do (Indiana) – Four bridges connect Louisville to Indiana. Want to walk? You can take the new bridge along the Waterfront or cross on the 2nd Street Bridge. In Jeffersonville, go to Schimpff’s Confectionery, where they’ve been making candy in this same location for 122 years. In Clarksville, go to the Falls of the Ohio State Park and stop for a great view of the Louisville skyline. New Albany is the hipper town of the three and has its own array of festivals throughout the year, plus a few nice bars.

Louisville skyline from Indiana – Fall 2009

What to do (Other) – Head to Butchertown to find the Thomas Edison House. The inventor lived at this boarding house for two years while he worked as a telegraph operator. The museum has phonographs more than 100 years old that still work and a telegraph that guests can touch. The University of Louisville can be fun to walk around during the day, but they’re cracking down on people parking for free (“I’m considering an MBA,” only works for so long). Churchill Downs has two seasons for live racing. To see the horses, head to Louisville between April to June or September to November (fall dates vary if the track hosts Breeder’s Cup). Admission is $3 on normal days (not night racing, Oaks Day, Derby Day or Breeder’s Cup). Place a $2 bet and go to the stands and feel the ground shake when the horses cross the finish line. It’s an amazing feeling.

Out with friends at Akiko’s – December 2009

Nightlife (Highlands) – This is where the locals hang out, but it’s more of a hipster vibe in this part of the city. Most of the bars here are dives, but dancing does happen at O Shea’s, Molly Malone’s and Flanagan’s Thursday to Saturday. Expect to pay covers between $3 to $5 at these places. Any other night of the week, live music is usually playing at any bar along Baxter Avenue or Bardstown Road. Hot spots are Bearno’s and The Highlands Tap Room. Tap Room also has karaoke, along with Akiko’s and Anselmo’s. For pool, go to The Backdoor and Cahoot’s. The local standup comedy scene is huge in Louisville, and these comics are hilarious. Open mic spots in the Highlands include Comedy Caravan and The Bardstown. There are also bars off the main drag, too. Check out Monkey Wrench on Barret Ave., The Corner Door on the Douglass Loop and Shenanigans Irish Pub on Norris Place.

There used to be an open-mic comedy scene in St. Matthews, but it’s since moved on. This is me doing standup at Zazoo’s in February 2011.

Nightlife (St. Matthews) – This is where the young professionals unwind on the weekends. Molly Malone’s has a location out here, but for a more quiet atmosphere, head to 60 West for a martini. Dives are also common here: Gerstle’s, Zazoo’s and Diamond. Diamond has live music on weekend nights, but it’s mainly a pool hall.

Nightlife (4th Street Live!) – Most locals do not go to Fourth Street Live! I find it overpriced compared to the rest of the city. If you do go, this is where you’ll find most of the dancing in the city, along with frat boys and sorority girls. Still, there are some good times here. For late night-bowling, head over to the Sports and Social Club. For a ride on the mechanical bull, check out PBR Louisville. For clubbing, check out Sully’s, Tengo Sed Cantina and Maker’s Mark. Expect to pay $5 covers at most of these bars mentioned.

Nightlife (Other) – Downtown does have some good bars outside of Fourth Street Live! O’Shea’s has a bar next to the 2nd Street Bridge. For a dive, check out Stevie Ray’s Blue Bar. A lot of musicians hang out here. Mondays are open mic night. Germantown has some gems for bars, but the main club is Zanzabar. It’s a perfect spot for dancing, going outside for a smoke and having some conversation or fighting over a booth when it’s packed. Zanzabar has a $3 cover on Friday and Saturday nights. For some interesting characters, check out the Mag Bar in Old Louisville.

Must Eats/Drinks – Louisville has a pizza war, and you’ll find variations in the Highlands. I personally need my pizza as greasy as possible, so I enjoy Spinelli’s. The Philly-style pizzeria is open until 5 a.m. Papalino’s also has some of the best pizza that I’ve ever tasted. They’re close to Molly’s on Baxter. It’s New York style here. Wick’s and Impellizzeri’s also make pizza. For sushi, go to Wasabiya or Sapporo. And while you’re in Kentucky, drink some bourbon. Skip the mint julep.

Hanging out with a “lion” outside the Galt House – December 2009

Doing Louisville Cheaply – Hopefully you’re using Couchsurfing with someone so you can cook meals, even better would be if they live in the Highlands so you can walk to all your destinations. But the TARC (bus) will take you to most places that you’ll want to go. Don’t come in late April or early May. Prices are jacked up for the Kentucky Derby. Drink during happy hour. My friend Jasmine has put this great drink specials site for deals.

Summary – Louisville is a fantastic city. If you’re backpacking across the country, it can offer some relief from the prices of Chicago or the coasts. It’s also a natural stopping point if you’re heading to Nashville, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cincinnati or Lexington. Check it out. It’s worth it.

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