Hello From Louisville!

Thanks to all those of you who offered Plan My Trip suggestions for my visit to Louisville last weekend. I had a great time in River City, in part because I got to celebrate the wedding of my two friends (my seventh and final wedding this year — phew!) and in part because I was able to explore the area and meet some fabulous people. Here are some of the highlights.

Red Penguins

The second I found out I was going to Louisville, nearly every person I encountered told me I had to stay at 21c, an award-winning hotel and modern art gallery (all of the art is from 21st century) that was featured on our Stay List in 2008. I was intrigued. And when I arrived, I was smitten. The hotel’s lobby also serves as a gallery space, and they were installing a new exhibit when we checked in. A collection of plastic four-foot-tall red penguins (an installation from the 2005 Venice Biennial by the Crackling Art Group) waddle around the hallways, perch over the alcoves, and peep around the doorways. Rooms come with iPods stocked with playlists and super-soft beds, and gourmet chocolates appear on your pillow every evening. Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, you can walk down into the massive open gallery space where rotating exhibits are shown, then wander over to Proof on Main, their incredible restaurant where you get a playful mix of Italian and Midwestern fare — followed by a pouf of cotton candy that arrives with your check. 21c also holds yoga and drawing classes on site on Sundays, and you can follow them up with a 20% discount for a meal at Proof.

Urban Soup Trail

Bourbon is what Kentucky does best, and to prove it, there’s an Urban Bourbon Trail through Louisville that takes to you nine of the city’s celebrated bars (you can get a passport in the tourism office downtown, and if you get enough stamps, you’ll take home special prizes). But I can only handle bourbon in very small doses, so I was content to tipple. Instead, I managed to create my own urban soup trail, which started with my visit to Proof on Main, where I got a sublime bowl of pumpkin bisque with crème fraiche and toast with chicken liver paté. Then, I happened upon a delightful cup of roasted tomato soup at Toast on Market in the NuLu (New Louisville) neighborhood on East Market Street. It comes as a side with the handful of inventive grilled cheese sandwiches served by this popular (and packed) lunch and brunch spot. And last but certainly not least, I took a spoonful of my husband’s seafood bisque (pictured, right) a the Mayan Cafe in NuLu, then immediately called the waiter over to order my own. The restaurant, a hot lunch spot which originated as a street cart, is known for its salbutes: small rounds of dough topped with fresh pork, chorizo and black beans, cactus and mozzarella, and other tempting offerings. But the soup was incredible: a combination of salmon, haddock, and shrimp in a slightly sweet creamy broth. I would bottle it if I could. Also good: the lima beans, which were among the more flavorful I’ve ever encountered.

Butchertown Market

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Unlike other trendy meatpacking neighborhoods (ahem, New York), meat is still very much being packed in the Butchertown section of Louisville. But there’s also a rising tide of restaurants and shops cropping up alongside it (AOL recently named Butchertown one of the “hot new neighborhoods” of 2010). The hub of which is in the Butchertown Market, a former feed and seed warehouse that’s now home to four independent businesses on its ground floor: Canoe, which sells international textiles and jewelery (pictured, right); Work the Metal, where you’ll find a smattering of eclectic housewares; Cellar Door Chocolates, which was offering wasabi pea bark and bourbon bonbons; and Moss Hill, a bath and body store where I picked up a bottle of mint julep lotion. It also houses the workshop of Bourbon Barrel Foods, where owner/brewmaster Matt Jamie has created the country’s first microbrewery…for soy sauce. Sourced with local soybeans (the farmer has been sending them to Japan for generations), and brewed in bourbon barrels straight from Kentucky, the result is a rich flavorful sauce that’s quickly being snatched up by James Beard award-winning chefs and will be appearing in Williams- Sonoma stores soon. And last but not least — there’s The Blind Pig, a gastropub across the street that I unfortunately missed eating at (it was closed when I visited) but which has been getting raves for its “swine dining.” All the more reason to return to Louisville.

Stay tuned for more findings from my visit to Louisville in an upcoming issue of Traveler this spring.

Photos: Top, courtesy of 21c; bottom, Janelle Nanos

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