Louisville is both a Midwestern and Southern city. Or one or the other, depending on whom you ask. I moved to Louisville two years ago from Minneapolis, and it's been both a warm, comfortable transition and a shock to the system. Folks born and raised around Louisville have liltingly twangy accents, or they don't. They call their grandparents Papaw and Memaw, or they just call them Grandpa and Grandma. Some say Lou-UH-vull, and others say Lew-E-ville. There's a quaintness to these inconsistencies, made even more charming by how little anyone seems to quibble about them.
Louisville natives are just comfortable with who they are. It shows in the firmly entrenched civic pride. It shows, too, in the warm, open hospitality and a firm but kind directness that feels almost nothing like Minnesota Nice. People will tell you what they think, and they'll tell you with a smile.
Louisville is a small city with big intentions. It's got everything the big cities do, but at a slower, warmer pace. If you're looking to dip your toes in Southern life but don't want to get too far away from the trappings of home, Louisville is a great place to start.
The Edison House (www.historic homes.org) is a little boardinghouse that Thomas Edison lived in briefly in his youth. On display are myriad Edison inventions — don't miss the guided tour. There's also the Louisville Slugger Museum, the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, Churchill Downs (you know, where they hold that popular horse race in May), the Muhammad Ali Center, the stunningly gorgeous Cave Hill Cemetary, and the Big Four Bridge that connects Louisville to Jeffersonville, Ind., by foot or bike.
The area is teeming with gorgeous places to hike, such as Jefferson Memorial Forest. The Falls of the Ohio in nearby Clarksville, Ind., boasts the largest exposed prehistoric fossil bed in the world; it's like walking on the moon (fallsoftheohio.org).
Where to shop
As in Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas, you'll see the slogan "Keep Louisville Weird" on bumper stickers and in store windows, signaling a community deeply rooted in small business. There are constant outdoor flea markets and art festivals, the biggest being the monthly Flea Off Market (facebook.com/thefleaoffmarket). There are amazing, affordable vintage stores such as Acorn, Nitty Gritty and Pink Door Boutique; lovely accessories, art and tchotchke shops such as Consider Boutique and Revelry; and places to get locally designed clothing and jewelry, like Gift Horse, Block Party, Regalo and Bermuda Highway.
Where to eat and drink
Louisville is a wonderful place to get your grub on, with small restaurants doing delicious, memorable things. The best tacos I've ever had can be found at El Molcajete (1-502-638-0300) in the historic Old Louisville neighborhood. The tacos are cheap and hearty, with the carnitas a clear winner, served with a warm, smoky salsa. On the other end of the spectrum is Eiderdown, with gorgeous small plates and entrees of rich, Old World-style foods, a complex cocktail list and well-chosen wines and local beers (eiderdown-gtown.com).
Pizza is a Louisville specialty. The style is somewhere between Neapolitan and New York, with big, soft slices with an extra-thin crust that has just a bit of char. Everyone has an opinion on the best; my pick is Pizza Donisi, located next to one of the best dive bars in town, Mag Bar. Donisi's weekly chef's special is usually the one to get; they are great about getting weird, but not too weird, and putting complex flavor profiles together in truly mouthwatering ways (pizzadonisi.com).
Louisville is also great for small neighborhood bars. At Seidenfaden's (1-502-582-9217), you can get a $3 beer and a shot of Old Forrester bourbon for another $3. (Did I mention it's cheap to drink in this town? And the bars are open till 4 a.m.) Another great neighborhood joint is Nachbar (1-502-637-4377), in the heart of Germantown. The extensive beer list ranges from Schlitz, to local brews from West 6th and Bluegrass Brewing Co., to fancy world beers. And if fancy world beers are your thing, try the Holy Grale; it's a small restaurant with affordable high-end food, plus beers that range from local fare to rare Trappist ales (holygralelouisville.com).
This being the heart of bourbon country, you can spend a whole weekend road trip touring the facilities of Jim Beam, Four Roses, Evan Williams, Bulleit and more. And while everyone in Louisville has a great bourbon selection, two great bars stand out with a virtual bourbon library: Haymarket Whiskey Bar (1-502-442-0523) and the Silver Dollar (1-502-259-9540), which also boasts a terrific just-this-side-of-fancy take on traditional Southern cuisine. Try the fried green tomato BLT.
Jim James of rock band My Morning Jacket is a fixture in the local music scene. You can also catch Will Oldham, aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy, jumping onto shows last-minute. In general, while the music scene is small and tight-knit, the music is pretty incredible. I'm a huge fan of the gorgeously intense dream-psych band Twin Limb, the tongue-in-cheek rap act Howell Dawdy, the anthemic hip-hop of 1200 and the hardcore-meets-Nick Cave sound of Young Widows. Check the live-music schedule at such mainstays as Zanzabar (zanzabarlouisville.com), Haymarket Whiskey Bar (haymarketwhiskeybar.com) and Headliners Music Hall (headlinerslouisville.com).
Where to stay
There are beautiful, historic lodging options downtown. The Seelbach, Galt House and Brown Hotel (birthplace of the infamous "Hot Brown," an open-faced turkey and bacon sandwich covered in Mornay sauce and cheese) are full of handsome charms and Southern hospitality. There's also the ultramodern 21c Museum Hotel, with its modern art gallery. Your best bet for a down-home welcome on a budget, however, would be Airbnb; there are plenty of beautiful homes in safe, comfortable neighborhoods close to restaurants and shopping.
When to visit
From March to mid-April, the magnolias and dogwoods are in bloom and it's in the low to mid 70s. From mid-October through early November, the leaves are changing, roses are still in bloom, and it's in the upper 60s.