By Bruce Allar
YOU’RE NEW TO LOUISVILLE, you’ve probably heard the most about two places: Freedom Hall and Churchill Downs. “The Hall” is where the University of Louisville’s men’s basketball team is fast-breaking to national rankings under head coach Rick Pitino; “The Downs” is where the Kentucky Derby has been electrifying horse racing fans for 130 years.
But this community is renowned for much, much more, and you’ll want to introduce yourself to those amenities. Louisville is an arts town with resident theater, opera and ballet companies as well as an orchestra. Actors Theatre of Louisville each March mounts a new-play festival that is known for launching works that later hit the stage in New York and other cities. And the Speed Art Museum, thanks to some recent large endowment gifts, continues to build its collection and bring attention-grabbing exhibits to town.
Equally worth getting to know are some of the smaller arts and entertainment options — from the Louisville Slugger Museum, where visitors learn about the 120-year history of baseball’s most famous piece of equipment, to the Youth Performing Arts School, a public school arts magnet program that stages tomorrow’s talents today, to the Jamey Aebersold Jazz Studies Program, which each summer brings in musicians from all over the nation and presents many in concerts open to the public.
You get the idea. Though Louisville is now the 16th-largest U.S. city — thanks to last year’s city-county governmental merger that placed all of Jefferson County’s nearly 700,000 residents under one jurisdiction — it is in many ways still a small town. Newcomers will marvel at discoveries that turn up here in unexpected places. There’s one set to open this spring, in fact — the Frazier Historical Arms Museum on West Main Street, which promises to exhibit the most distinctive collection of weapons and armor in the nation.
The Louisville metropolitan area includes 12 other counties in addition to Jefferson: Bullitt, Henry, Meade, Nelson, Oldham, Shelby, Spencer and Trimble in Kentucky and Clark, Floyd, Harrison and Washington on the Indiana side of the river. With just over 1.1 million residents, the area is compact enough to get to know without too much difficulty but big enough to keep you exploring indefinitely.
WHAT DRIVES THE LOUISVILLE economy? To the outside world the city’s economic laurels have rested largely on its bourbon-making and horse racing traditions. But there is remarkable diversity in the local marketplace. Yes, it’s home to distillery and spirits-distribution giant Brown-Forman Inc., known for Old Forester and Woodford Reserve bourbons (and its Tennessee import, Jack Daniel’s). It’s also a manufacturing center, with 10,000 Ford Motor Co. employees at two local plants and 5,800 workers at General Electric’s Appliance Park leading the pack. As a regional health care center, the city excels in medical breakthroughs. Of particular note are the Kleinert Kutz and Associates Hand Care Center, pioneers in hand transplant surgery and other procedures, and Jewish Hospital’s heart transplant unit, which has been involved in some of the first AbioCor artificial heart implants.
Other companies with sizable presences include United Parcel Service, the region’s largest employer, which operates its main cargo hub at Louisville International Airport; Yum! Brands, operators of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and, of course, Kentucky Fried Chicken; and Papa John’s International, the nation’s third largest pizza company.
Louisville is also a popular convention town, ranking ninth among the “Top 200 Trade Show Cities” in 2003, according to TradeShow Week magazine.
MAIN STREET DOWNTOWN IS A performing arts hub, with the Kentucky Center hosting its own programming there as well as providing a home to resident companies in three different theaters. Actors Theatre stages high-quality productions year-round. The East Market Street neighborhood has become an attraction with its restaurants and art galleries (it’s a focal point on popular monthly Trolley Hops for visual arts fanciers). And back on East Main, 13,000-seat Slugger Field, opened in 2000 as the home for the Cincinnati Reds’ top minor league affiliate, the Louisville Bats, is one of the gems in all of professional baseball.
Louisville is also a great restaurant town, with memorable dining experiences downtown at the two top hotels, the Brown and the Seelbach, as well as at Vincenzo’s, Morton’s and other establishments. And restaurant rows on both Frankfort Avenue and Bardstown Road are teeming with excellent menu choices in all price ranges. There are also a few outposts of local culinary excellence — Limestone, Napa River Grill and Z’s Oyster Bar and Steakhouse among them — spicing up the dining choices in the far eastern suburbs. Lilly’s, a Bardstown Road institution, has received national renown for chef-owner Kathy Cary’s inventiveness with high-quality local ingredients. And Lynn’s Paradise Cafe on Barret Avenue, a playfully decorated eatery favored by locals for brunch and breakfast, is on most must-visit lists for its local color and cuisine.
VIBRANT NEIGHBORHOODS NOT far from downtown give Louisville much of its charm. Old Louisville, to the south of the central business district, wows visitors with 19th century, Victorian-era homes, many of them well preserved. It’s possible to envision a gentile life over 100 years ago, when horses and carriages conveyed residents along the tree-lined streets. The Filson Historical Society on South Third Street houses an impressive collection of books, manuscripts and artifacts from the city’s fascinating history as first a frontier town and then a gateway to the west.
The Highlands, southeast of downtown, one of the early streetcar suburbs, now is home to perhaps the city’s most eclectic population — a wide range of families with children, seniors and young singles —all attracted to the busy shops, galleries and eateries along Bardstown Road and the quiet beauty of adjacent Cherokee Park. Morbid as it may sound, one of the highlights of Louisville sightseeing is a journey through nearby Cave Hill Cemetery, filled with marvelously landscaped sections and spectacular monuments.
East of downtown, the Crescent Hill neighborhood is a slightly less hectic but equally enchanting melting pot of upscale consignment shops, artist-owned galleries and casual-but-inventive dining establishments. All are packed along Frankfort
Avenue, a former stagecoach and streetcar route that runs parallel to what are still some of the busiest train tracks in the area. Another feature newcomers to this region generally enjoy is how quickly they can get to the wide open spaces. You can head east toward the bluegrass and drive through verdant rolling hills dotted with thoroughbreds grazing in picture-postcard, fence-lined pastures. Or go south toward Mammoth Cave, the world’s largest known cave system with over 340 miles of passageways. To the north and west, the hills, or “knobs,” of Southern Indiana are crisscrossed with scenic two-lane roads through small towns, well-kept farms and woodlands.
Now that you’re a Louisvillian you’ll want to explore all of these directions, and soon you too will be comfortable calling this area home.