As any Louisvillean will tell you, geography is destiny: happy to be pulled by every point on the compass, this crossroads city has one foot in the East and one in the West, its head in the North but its heart in the South. The result is a frontier salad of big-town sophistication and small-town charm. Louisville is celebrated for its state-of-the-art theater, some of the best antiques shopping this side of the Ohio River, an extraordinary diversity of architecture (from winsome Victorian to world-class postmodern; call the Main Street Association, 502/568-2220, for tours, or the Old Louisville Neighborhood Council, 502/635-5244, for a free walking guide) and, of course, the Kentucky Derby. And did we mention a percolating youth scene?
Repeat after me: "It's 'Loo-uh-vul,' never 'Loo-ee-vil.'"
—Thomas Meeker, CEO of Churchill Downs
out and about
Whitehall 3110 Lexington Rd.; 502/897-2944. An 1855 Italianate farmhouse that was converted in the early 20th century into a larger mansion with two magnificent acres of terraced Florentine gardens.
Water Tower 3005 River Rd.; 502/896-2146. You haven't been to Louisville if you haven't visited this National Historic Landmark, a Classical Revival pumping station built in the form of a Greek temple. The famously elegant example of industrial architecture dates to 1860.
Louisville Slugger Museum 800 W. Main St.; 502/588-7228. Another can't-miss, this time because of the 120-foot bat that projects surreally over the five-story building's roofline. The museum exhibits historic Sluggers swung by Henry Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Roger Maris; a tour of the adjoining factory shows how the Slugger is crafted from the wood of 50-year-old ash trees.
Actors Theatre of Louisville 316 W. Main St.; 502/584-1265. The theater's Humana Festival of New American Plays, February 24 to March 28 this year, is one of the most important events on the American theatrical calendar. Agnes of God, Extremities, and Crimes of the Heart all premiered here. Two- and three-day Tourist Ticket Packages offer seats to multiple productions at discount prices (502/585-1210).
The Connection 120 S. Floyd St.; 502/585-5752. At more than 20,000 square feet, this gay but straight-friendly dance club-cum-entertainment complex seems large enough to serve the entire mid-South. Is there a bigger drag theater in America than the Connection's?I don't think so. (No, that wasn't Diana Ross.) Plus go-go boys right off the pages of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue.
Sparks 104 Main St.; 502/587-8566. A straight but gay-friendly warehouse-style haunt that continually makes Details magazine's list of the country's top nightspots. Rave, house, techno-industrial, and jungle.
take home fabulous treats!
A bag of stone-ground Weisenberger grits. "They have more texture and flavor — earthy flavor — than people are used to."
Woodford Reserve, a small-batch bourbon from Labrot & Graham. "Drink it as you would a great cognac, not a cocktail."
—Kathy Cary, chef at Lilly's
Jack Fry's 1007 Bardstown Rd.; 502/452-9244; dinner for two $50-$60. This is where Louisville's professional class takes out-of-towners to impress them. Salmon with wasabi vinaigrette and pickled ginger, and veal with Swiss chard strudel are served in snuggly booths under a pressed-tin ceiling.
Le Relais Bowman Field, 2815 Taylorsville Rd.; 502/451-9020; dinner for two $60-$75. French fare in a working Art Deco air terminal. The restaurant offers a 25-minute pre-meal flight over Louisville in a Cessna 172 for $50.
Kurtz's 418 E. Stephen Foster Ave.; 502/348-8964; dinner for two $20. Since 1937, serving fried chicken so crisp it crackles, cooked in cast-iron skillets.
Lilly's 1147 Bardstown Rd.; 502/451-0447; dinner for two $65. Pan-cultural cooking using lamb from Jamison farms and local organic vegetables. Kathy Cary has been a guest chef three times at New York's prestigious James Beard House.
Lynn's Paradise Café 984 Barret Ave.; 502/583-3447; breakfast for two $15. Cloudlike buttermilk biscuits and bourbon-soaked French toast are served until 3 p.m. by a pierced Gen-X staff at this funky mainstay. Decorations might include milk-carton cats and dogs made by grade-schoolers.
Related: Seven Secrets of Churchill Downs
Louisville Antique Mall 900 Goss Ave.; 502/635-2852. Some 200 dealers are spread over 75,000 square feet in this late-19th-century brick cotton mill. Look for the highly collectible mint-julep glasses commemorating past derbies.
Shelly Zegart Quilts 12Z River Hill Rd.; 502/897-7566. Even Japanese collectors are onto Zegart, a kinetic woman who sells museum-quality quilts, some dangling six-figure tags, out of her home. By appointment.
Ear-X-Tacy 1534 Bardstown Rd.; 502/452-1799. "Any recording brought in by a Louisville artist, we'll carry," vows the manager of this alternative record store.
Objects of Desire 3704 Lexington Rd.; 502/896-2398. Romanian-born Julia Comer should get a prize for creating a market for avant-garde contemporary furniture — much of it limited-edition or one-of-a-kind — in Louisville.
Hadley Pottery Co. 1570 Story Ave.; 502/584-2171. Naïve and rustic blue-and-white ceramics, made here since 1940.
Discoveries 1315 Bardstown Rd.; 502/451-5034. A daring, delicious, vigorously stirred melting pot of Third World fashion (Nepal, Tibet, India), including such off-the-wall exotica as late-19th-century Congolese currency.
"Who would have thought that Louisville has sunsets to rival New Mexico's?Watch them from the Falls of the Ohio State Park, with its incredible fossil beds." (201 W. Riverside Dr., Clarksville; 812/280-9970)
—Jon Jory, producing director, Actors Theatre of Louisville
where to stay
Lodgings are difficult to come by during the derby — it's not unusual for rooms to be reserved a year in advance. Also expect grossly inflated prices and minimum-stay requirements.
Old Louisville Inn 1359 S. Third St.; 502/635-1574; doubles from $95. This stately 1901 inn, on one of the city's loveliest streets, has 10 pretty rooms with antique quilts and, in some, Victorian furniture, bay windows, and working fireplaces. Many bathrooms (nine en suite, one down the hall) have their original fixtures. Owner Marianne Lesher coddles guests with breakfast popovers and her own granola, and there's always a jigsaw puzzle in progress in the parlor.
Seelbach Hilton 500 Fourth Ave.; 502/585-3200; doubles from $129. For many well-heeled derby veterans, only this 95-year-old classic will do. Fitzgerald stayed at the Seelbach, then set a scene in The Great Gatsby here. Guest rooms have pencil-post beds, lavish window treatments, marble bathrooms. Stop in if only to see the lobby's barrel-vaulted ceiling, Hello, Dolly! staircase, and murals depicting early events in Kentucky history.
Camberley Brown 335 W. Broadway; 502/583-1234; doubles from $199. Opened in 1923, this is the only hotel in Louisville that gives the neighboring Seelbach a run for its money in grandeur. Think potted palms, ormolu chandeliers, old-world glamour. Traditionally decorated guest rooms have a distinctly American feel. In the clubby, paneled English Grill, try chef Joe Castro's salad of mâche and endive or confit of duck with white asparagus (dinner for two $80).
Louisville has one of the most impressive public park systems in the United States, with more parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted's firm than any other city in the country. Cherokee Park has a Scenic Loop that attracts walkers, runners, cyclists, skaters, and slackers. The great draw at Iroquois Park is the beautiful view from its 260-foot hill. Shawnee Park hugs the Ohio River and has facilities for almost any game that requires a ball.
the greatest two minutes in sports
It's already too late: for reserved seating at the 125th running of the Kentucky Derby, to be held on May 1, your written request had to have been in by September 1 of last year (Churchill Downs Derby Office, 700 Central Ave., Louisville, KY 40208; 502/636-4400). Those lucky enough to secure a six-seat box in sections 116 or 117, which flank the finish line, paid $510.
But all is not lost. General admission tickets are available on Derby Day for $30 at the gate, which opens at 8 a.m. The Kentucky Derby Festival (502/584-6383) ignites on April 17 with Thunder Over Louisville, the largest annual fireworks display in the country. Other festival highlights: the Great Balloon Race at the Kentucky Fair & Exposition Center, April 24; the Great Steamboat Race, on the Ohio River, April 28; and the Pegasus Parade, on Broadway, April 29. All four events are free except for bleacher seats and chairs for the parade ($8 and $10; call 800/929-3378). At Brown-Waterhouse-Kaiser Jewelers (332 W. Broadway; 502/583-2728), you can buy a 12-inch-tall sterling silver Official Kentucky Derby Mint Julep Cup, engraved with the year and winner.