Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to 24 hours in Louisville: Louisville tours edition. I was first made aware of the existence of Louisville, Kentucky as a young girl because I liked to play the ponies. Of course the first thing many people associate with Kentucky’s largest city is swilling mint juleps, wearing giant hats, and attending the largest horse racing event of the year.
But Louisville is so much more than whiskey and ponies. Join me for 24 hours in Louisville, and I’ll show you Louisville tours, history, art, architecture, witchcraft, and penguins. Also there will be bourbon. It’s Kentucky, after all. I’m not a monster.
24 Hours in Louisville: Louisville Tours
Where to Stay?
Louisville is a fairly spread out city with attractions in many different neighborhoods. But I still found that the best neighborhood to stay in, both in terms of restaurants and attractions, was Downtown Louisville. That’s why I chose to stay in the Hyatt Regency Louisville.
It was right in Downtown Louisville near all the major attractions like the Louisville Slugger Museum and the Muhammad Ali Center. The rooms were huge and comfy, but it was still affordable. Plus they have citrus water all the time in the lobby, which always makes me feel like a Fancy Lady. I’d definitely stay there again.
24 Hours in Louisville: Louisville Tours
What to Pack?
You’ll need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do today. If it’s summertime, I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
Louisville can get very hot, so don’t forget the sunscreen. My favorite is the Neutrogena spray bottle because it’s so easy to apply. And as a solo traveler, I can actually use it myself on my own back. I just put it in my purse and re-apply throughout the day.
Finally, since we’re going to be out all day, you’ll want a battery for your cell phone. I always use the Anker charger. It’s light enough to fit in even a small purse. Plus the Anker lasts for several full charges of a phone, so I’ll never run out of juice!
24 Hours in Louisville: Louisville Tours
Morning: Louisville Historic Tours
Louisville is one of the oldest cities west of the Appalachia Mountains, so it has a rich and fascinating history. (I like my history like I like my bourbon, rich and fascinating.) What better way to start 24 hours in Louisville than with a historical walking tour of some of the city’s most beautiful homes?
During my 24 hours in Louisville I booked a tour with Louisville Historic Tours because they were recommended by the New York Times. As a native New Yorker, I need to believe everything the Times tells me. Their tours leave more than once a day, at 11 and 1. For this itinerary you’ll need to take the 11 AM tour. There are more anecdotes about these homes than you can shake a bottle of bourbon at, but let me get you started with…
Approximately top 5: Louisville historic homes
1) Breakfast at Proof on Main
Before we spend the morning walking, we’re going to need to get some energy. And what better way to get started than with Fancy Breakfast at Proof on Main? Fancy Breakfast is probably something that I invented. (I invented the name, not eating Fancy Breakfast.) Fancy Breakfast just means eating breakfast at a really nice restaurant.
There are only two rules for Fancy Breakfast. One is that it needs to take place before 10 AM. Otherwise it is brunch. Brunch is NOT Fancy Breakfast. The other rule is that you need to feel exquisitely glamorous while you’re eating Fancy Breakfast. Fancy Breakfast is largely a state of mind.
24 hour treat: pimento cheese
Proof on Main is the restaurant inside the 21c Hotel. The name refers to the fact that the hotel is on Main Street. I assume the Proof is somehow related to bourbon because literally everything in Kentucky is related to bourbon. For Fancy Breakfast, I ordered the egg sandwich because it came with bacon and pimento cheese.
Both my parents are Southerners, and pimento cheese is one of those delicacies I crave every time I cross the Mason-Dixon line. You make pimento cheese by mixing cheese (my preference is cheddar), mayonnaise, and pimento hot peppers. It is simply divoon. Also, you pronounce it “pimenno”.
24 Hour treasure: 21c art gallery
If you have a little free time after Fancy Breakfast, you should peruse the free art gallery located in the 21c Hotel. My favorite piece is this penguin made for the 21c Hotel by the Belgian art group Cracking Art. One reason Cracking Art makes penguins is to draw attention to the fact that their habitats are endangered because of global warning. Also penguins are adorable and everyone loves them and their chubby tummies.
2) Shotgun style homes
Now that we’ve fed ourselves and met a giant red penguin, it’s time for the promised architecture tour. With Louisville Historic Tours, you’ll soon become an expert on Louisville’s eclectic architecture styles. I had no idea that Louisville was famous for its shotgun style houses. A shotgun house is a residence in which each room is located directly behind the next. My mother is from New Orleans, and I thought shotgun homes were only a thing there. But just like bourbon, a shotgun house is something that can be enjoyed in both New Orleans and Louisville.
Apparently no one knows exactly why they are called shotgun houses. Some say the name might come from a West African word for meeting places. Others say that the buildings are called shotgun houses because if you shot a gun through the front door of the house, the bullet would pass through the back door. I really don’t know who is going around shooting bullets through people’s front doors in Louisville, but they seem very untrustworthy.
3) Fountain Court
You might be wondering why there is so much stunning architecture in the Old Louisville neighborhood of Louisville. Well the reason can be summed up in two words: Southern Exposition. This was a recurring World’s Fair-type exposition that displayed American inventions and ingenuity to the world. The Southern Exposition brought fame and fortune to Louisville, and after the Southern Exposition concluded, the surrounding neighborhood was turned into the fabulously glamorous area you see today!
I don’t know why we don’t have more World’s Fairs and Expositions anymore. It seems like they brought a lot of excitement to the city that hosted them. After all, the Eiffel Tower was built because of the World’s Fair. But then I saw Men in Black and I remember that the Queens World’s Fair Globe attracted a giant alien bug, so maybe people just don’t want to repeat that situation.
4) Conrad Caldwell House
The Conrad Caldwell House is probably the most famous historic home in Old Louisville. It is possible on some days to take tours of its interior. The house was built (though not designed) by a wealthy French businessman named Theophile Conrad. After his death it was sold to the Caldwell family, and then eventually ended up in the hands of the Presbyterian Church. When the Church owned it, it was a home for widows.
I really wonder what Monsieur Conrad would have thought if he had known his glorious mansion was going to end up a home for impoverished widows. I’ve visited a lot of historic homes, and most of them have the same story. Rich man builds a fancy house, his descendants can’t afford to maintain it, house gets sold and falls into disrepair. You’d think rich people would sell their houses just before they die and do something useful with it like donate the money to charity or experience space tourism.
5) Pink Palace
My favorite home in Old Louisville is this pink catastrophe pictured above. It started life as an exclusive Gentleman’s Club. (Obviously that’s Victorian code for a brothel.) Then it was purchased by none other than the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. They painted it pink to show the house had turned over a new leaf. Knowing Southerners as I do, I can’t imagine the pink made people forget it had been a house of ill repute. I really can’t decide whether to admire or criticize the WCTU for re-purposing an old brothel in such a fashion. Maybe both?
6) Tobacco Leaf House
My guide told me that there were only three ways most people made money in Louisville back in the Victorian days: the highly reputable fields of tobacco, bourbon, and gambling. Those Victorians knew how to live it up! Some houses were so proud of their tobacco fortune that the owners would actually have tobacco leaves used as a motif as part of the decor.
This just goes to show how much cultural norms have changed in a short period of time. I think some people would be just as likely to decorate their mansion with a Satan flag as they would with a leaf of tobacco.
7) witch tree
The spot where this tree stands now was apparently a popular gathering place for witches in the late 19th century. Apparently some locals wanted to chop the tree down. The witches warned the other residents of Old Louisville that a bad moon would rise if they chopped down the tree. The locals had apparently never seen a ghost story or horror movie before because that tree went WHACK!
Soon afterwards, a devastating tornado rolled through town and killed about 100 people. Then lightning struck the witches’ tree stump and this bumpy monstrosity sprang up in its place. Is it wrong if I say that I don’t think it’s appropriate to kill a whole bunch of people just because someone cut down one tree? Please don’t send a tornado after me for saying that, witches! I live in New York City, so a tornado will really stand out here.
24 Hours in Louisville: Louisville Tours
Afternoon: Speed Art Museum
One of the best things I can say about the highly enjoyable Louisville Historic Tour is that the guide David gave me a great idea about where to go next. He said that since I am interested in art and culture, the Speed Museum would be the perfect place to spend the afternoon. I had sadly never heard of the Speed before this excellent suggestion.
In fact, it is the greatest art museum in Kentucky, which is definitely not damning with faint praise. As we’ve already learned this morning, Kentuckians more surely know how to have a good time. And when they’re not profiting from bourbon, baccy, and ponies, they’re loving themselves some high culture. Allow me to present to you…
Approximately top 5: speed art museum edition
1) Native American bottles
These bottles pictured above were made by Kentuckian Native Americans sometime in between 1000-1500. (That’s not me being vague. Those are the dates on the docent cards.) These bottles are examples of how Native Americans were able to combine form and function in their pieces. These bottles are useful and practical, but they also incorporate animal imagery. The bottle on the right is an adorably abstracted owl.
Also, these bottles are proof that the bottle has been popular in Kentucky for thousands of years. Hey-O!
2) untitled by ed hamilton
This sculpture is a smaller version one of the faces off of the monumental sculpture The Spirit of Freedom in Washington, DC. This monument is dedicated to black soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War. This sculpture isn’t just historically significant; it’s also significant to Kentucky. The artist, Ed Hamilton, is a local sculptor who still teaches and works in Louisville today. I love when regional museums highlight local artists. It’s not possible for a community to really thrive without art!
3) Lincoln’s Last Portrait
This work could easily be the creepiest piece in the Speed. It’s the last portrait of our beloved president, Abraham Lincoln. It’s by Matthew Henry Wilson, am English-born American artist. Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy commissioned the painting. Was that something Cabinet members did back that? Do we still have a Secretary of the Navy? Could one commission a portrait of our current President? I hope not!
4) English Renaissance Room
The English Renaissance Room is perhaps the most famous object in the Speed Museum. It was donated to the museum in the 1940s by the fabulously named Dr. Preston Pope Satterwhite. This room was literally taken from its entirety in Devonshire and brought to Kentucky. Personally, I think it belongs in Kentucky because it’s brown and aged like a fine bourbon.
One thing that fascinates me about this room is that it’s a different style of carving than you would usually see in a museum. That’s because this room was built in the English countryside in the early 1600s. Transportation was much less efficient back then, so the nobleman who created this room used local artisans who weren’t as highly trained as the ones you would find in London.
I wish someone could go back in time and tell those peasant carvers that their room would be famous on the internet! But it might be hard enough to explain museums to 17th century peasants, let alone the internet.
5) l’attente by Chagall
This work is one of the more famous paintings you’ll see during your 24 hours in Louisville. It is a representation of Chagall’s hometown of Vitebsk. Chagall is my favorite artist because he sets no limits on his imagination. Is Vitebsk entirely populated with red houses? Sure! Is there a giant yellow horse in the picture? Why not! Can we have a floating ghost woman inexplicably in front of a massive pea-green smiling chicken? Yes please! If only we all lived our lives with as much enthusiasm as Chagall paints with.
6) Ethel by Hank Murta Adams
With all due respect to Ethel, she is quite possibly the ugliest thing I have ever seen in a museum. She is the glorious creation of an American artist named Hank Murta Adams. I spent an awful long time staring at this sculpture. From the coils around her neck reminiscent of a poop emoji to the bulbous nose to the scraggly blue mullet sprouting from the top of her misshapen head, she is a vision of vileness. But maybe she is beautiful to the artist. And who says everything in a museum needs to be beautiful? Isn’t art supposed to unsettle you?
7) Madame de Pompadour by Cindy Sherman
When I first spied this soup tureen, I assumed it was from the 18th century. But then I read the docent card and saw it is by Cindy Sherman, who is a contemporary artist. Apparently she dressed up like Madame de Pompadour, who was mostly famous for being Louis XV’s mistress. Then she imposed her image on an old-fashioned soup tureen. You tricked me, Cindy Sherman! I definitely believed this was an old object because who uses soup tureens anymore?
This piece expanded my horizons and made me reflect on objectification of women and society’s harsh beauty standards. Also I realized more people should use soup tureens. They are a classy form of tableware.
24 Hours in Louisville: Louisville Tours
Evening: Dinner at Jack Fry’s
Jack Fry’s is often rated the best restaurant in Louisville. (I do NOT mess around when it comes to food, Internet Stranger. We are maximizing our 24 hours in Louisville.) It used to be a speakeasy and gambling establishment run by a dapper gentleman named Jack Fry. (Please Google him because his suits and hats are TO DIE.) Fortunately for us, Prohibition has been repealed, and Jack Fry’s is a classy establishment serving things like Brie and duck. I wonder what Jack Fry the bootlegger would think about that.
24 Hour treat: bourbon
In Kentucky it’s actually illegal to get a cocktail with anything but bourbon. My drink of choice this 24 hours in Louisville is the Bluegrass Mule, a Moscow Mule made with Maker’s Mark. I have often wished Moscow Mules had more whiskey, so this drink was made for me. Also I think it tastes a whole lot better than the original Bluegrass Mule from the 1930s, which used bathtub gin.
For an appetizer I chose the Brie salad on Bibb lettuce. I usually don’t like Brie so much, but it tastes amazing melted and covered with a lemony dressing. You need a sturdy leaf like Bibb to stand up to all that melted cheese without disintegrating.
24 Hour Treat: Duck
I’m sorry this picture is so grainy, but let me assure you it was a completely scrumptious medium-rare duck. Listen to how many vegetables came with this dish: red pepper butter, pea shoots and pea shoot puree, haricots verts tempura, and zucchini bread and butter pickles. I definitely think all those veggies means my dinner was extremely healthy. Everyone knows vegetables cancel out things like bourbon and melted cheese.
Molten chocolate cake is one of my five favorite desserts. (The others are cannoli, diner cherry pie, key lime pie, sticky toffee pudding, and rice pudding. Also it’s entirely possible that I change my mind every time I try to list my favorite desserts. Desserts are delicious and I love them all.) The cake came with salted caramel and salted caramel ice cream. Here’s what I wrote in my notes about the salted caramel ice cream: AMAZING!!!! I usually don’t write that many exclamation marks, so that should tell you something about my level of enthusiasm.
That’s 24 Hours in Louisville: Louisville Tours
What would you do with 24 hours in Louisville? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Louisville right now? What exactly is the penalty for ordering liquor that’s not bourbon in the state of Kentucky? And would you kill 100 people just for cutting down a tree? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Louisville. If you have another 24 hours in Louisville, add this itinerary. And if you’ve got another 24 hours in Louisville and are dying to see Churchill Downs, try this itinerary.