Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to the Louisville food tour! Louisville, Kentucky is famous for many things, most of them vices. Of course you can do fun tourist things here like take a Louisville food tour.
But arguably its most famous son is legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. Before visiting Louisville, I didn’t realize that Ali was from the city, nor that he had created the Muhammad Ali Center to be a major attraction in his hometown.
The Muhammad Ali Center has special significance for me. I once taught a student with learning disabilities who said that Muhammad Ali’s ability to overcome obstacles was an inspiration to him. We’ll visit the Muhammad Ali Center later today, but we’ll also spend a fine day in Kentucky’s most beautiful city drinking ghost bourbon, riding imaginary horses, and fine dining on sandwiches. You know, just an ordinary day’s work for this blog.
A Perfect Louisville Food Tour
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. If you take the Louisville food tour, the bus will pick you up at the door.
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: Louisville Food Tour
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: Louisville Food Tour
Morning: City Taste Tours Louisville
As I always say, food tours are generally the best bang for your buck you can get while traveling. If a food tour is good, you get historical information, amusing anecdotes, and generally enough food for two meals. (You won’t need breakfast or lunch on the same day at this Louisville food tour. We’ll have dinner but it will just be a light sandwich. Well, light for Louisville, that is.)
Ordinarily I prefer walking food tours, but as Louisville is kind of spread out, I was happy to partake in City Taste Tours Louisville food tour by bus. You know it’s authentic because the bus is dressed up like a horse. Also, you know it’s an authentic Louisville food tour because it actually begins in Indiana.
approximately top 5: louisville food tour
1) Schimpff’s Confectionary
Kentucky is actually closer to Indiana than most people realize, so it was just a quick hop, skip, and a trot on the Louisville food tour horse bus to Jeffersonville, Indiana to grab a snack at the historic Schimpff’s Confectionary. This candy shop was founded by German immigrants in the 19th century, and they still make candy the old-fashioned way.
The best part of visiting Schimpff’s is getting to watch them make their famous red hot candies by hand. I usually don’t choose to eat red hots because if I’m going to spend the calories on a sweet, why would I want something that will set my mouth on fire? Tabasco does that for no calories at all.
But these red hots are a true treat, especially after you watch the candymakers mix the ingredients with love, pour out the resulting glutinous red substance, and mold it into itsy bitsy red pieces that will melt in your mouth.
24 Hour Treat: Modjeska
The red hots are included with the tour, but I suggest you pay a little extra to sample the Modjeska candy. This chocolate covered marshmallow was created in Louisville in honor of a Polish actress named Helena Modjeska. When she performed Ibsen in Louisville in 1883, a candy shop decided to name this fluffy treat in her honor.
This doesn’t 100 percent make sense to me because I’ve read Ibsen and he doesn’t seem like a guy who had a lot of chocolate covered marshmallows in his life. Maybe they would have helped him be less depressed.
Also, in some ways I think the 19th century was a more exciting time. I know I’ve performed Ibsen monologues on my street corner many times, and not even once has someone offered to name a candy in my honor because of it.
2) Benedictine sandwich
When we got back on the bus, our Louisville food tour guide had made a special plate for each of us, full of local tastes. The maple donut and locally made potato chips were most delectable, but the more interesting items were the drink and the bright green sandwich.
The drink was an Indiana fruit wine. Apparently these sweet wines have been all the rage in Indiana for generations. You can make them with any fruit from apples to cherries to nectarines. I personally was very glad that this food tour included some Indiana treats. After all, I have been to Indiana, and let me tell you, it is not easy to find a food tour in that state.
The real treat on this plate was the benedictine sandwich. The benedictine spread was invented in Louisville by a caterer whose last name was Benedict. It was designed to be served on tea sandwiches, and it is made largely with cucumbers and cream cheese. (The cucumber gives the spread its striking green cucumber. At least, I hope it’s the cucumber.)
You really can’t pass up the chance to try this refreshing tea sandwich when you are in Louisville, as it’s almost impossible to find it outside the state of Kentucky.
3) Ghost Whiskey
Of course, what would a Louisville food tour be without a sip of the local specialty, bourbon. Technically, bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky. To count as bourbon, it only needs to be made in the USA. But almost all our bourbon comes from the Bluegrass State anyway.
Before letting us get a taste of that Kentucky Gold, our guide parked us outside the Waverly Hills Sanatorium. This is a former hospital that is now considered one of the most haunted places in the United States. To get us in the mood, she poured us a sample of Jim Bean’s Ghost, which is a white whiskey. (A white whiskey is whiskey that hasn’t been aged. The taste is harsher than a properly mature spirit.) I love a good pun, especially if whiskey is included with the wordplay.
4) Bristol Bar and Grill
One of the best things about a Louisville food tour is that you can get a sampling of specialties from well known restaurants without having to pay for an entire meal or risking ordering a dish the establishment doesn’t make particularly well. (After all, even the best restaurants usually aren’t amazing at everything.)
On this tour, while we were given some time to explore downtown Louisville outside the bus, our guide picked up a sampler plate from the restaurant Bristol Bar and Grill. When we returned from our rambles, the two most popular dishes from the BB and G were waiting for us! I assume the horse bus just trotted into the Bristol on its hind legs and neighed until he was given our order. I mean, that’s what I’d do if I were a horse bus.
The first app was a warm artichoke fritter served with a vegetable remoulade. This dish would be a good choice for any vegetarian who wants to feel a little decadent. But even a carnivore like me can appreciate a well-fried artichoke. The second snack was the most famous dish from The Bristol: the green chili wonton served with homemade guacamole.
I have no idea who first came up with the idea for this treat, but the strong fried wonton skin certainly stands up perfectly with the spicy green chili filling. I would eat either of these items while wearing a giant hat, drinking bourbon, and watching horse races any day of the week.
5) Art Eatables
Did you think the only way to consume bourbon was to drink it? Silly you! At Art Eatables, you can try a perfectly handcrafted bourbon trifle. The only thing better than bourbon or chocolate is bourbon AND chocolate. And at Art Eatables, each truffle is made by hand, which is pretty impressive in this day and age.
In fact, Art Eatables is so well regarded in Kentucky that bourbon makers commission them to make chocolates featuring their whiskey. (But never fear, nondrinkers/small children! Art Eatables definitely has booze-free sweets for sale as well.)
6) Hot Brown Pizza
It’s not entirely unusual for a city to have its own particular sandwich. New Orleans has the po’boy, Los Angeles has the French Dip, and Minneapolis owns the Jucy Lucy. But Louisville might just have the most famous sandwich specialty of all: the Hot Brown. We’re going to have a real Hot Brown for dinner tonight, so I don’t want to spoil too much about its origin story. But our tour gave us a little twist by allowing us a mini slice of a Hot Brown pizza.
The Hot Brown pizza has just the ingredients in common with a Hot Brown sandwich: turkey, bacon (not turkey bacon, yikes), and Mornay sauce. Once you broil the sandwich (or cook the pizza) it all comes together in a swirl of salt and fat. Your blood vessels will burst and your arteries will clog and you will regret nothing!
7) Derby Pie and Mint Julep
For our final food stop on the tour, the horse bus had to stop at Churchill Downs, which is the legendary racetrack where the Kentucky Derby takes place every year. (We’ll pay this place a longer visit tomorrow.) Our guide needed to stop here to pick up our dessert. Most people don’t get their pie at a racetrack, but then most people are not from Kentucky.
The scrumptious pie in question also goes by Derby Pie. You make it with pecans and chocolate. (Don’t eat this if you have a nut allergy.) It is also the only trademarked pie that I know of. The company Kern’s Kitchen owns the name Derby Pie and they are famous for suing anyone who tries to make a pecan and chocolate pie and call it Derby Pie. I’m actually a little afraid they are going to sue me for simply referring to the name Derby Pie on this blog. Please don’t sue me, Kern’s Kitchen! I don’t even know how to bake anything!
Of course, the only drink to have with Derby Pie is a mint julep. After all, the MJ is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. You make it by mixing mint, sugar, water, bourbon, and ice. (Technically you can make it with any whiskey, not just bourbon, but I don’t really approve of any newfangled julep shenanigans like that.)
As you can imagine, with all that mint and sugar, the mint julep is very drinkable and it’s pretty easy to put three or four away before you’ve realized what you’ve done. I suppose it’s the might of the julep that explains all the insane hats people wear on Derby Day. After several bourbon cocktails, no one is going to care what anyone thinks of their headgear.
24 Hours: Louisville Food Tour
Afternoon: Muhammad Ali Center
Now that we’ve spent the morning drinking ghost whiskey and mint juleps, it’s time to make an abrupt about face and get serious with the Muhammad Ali Center. You can find their website here. As many of you Internet Strangers probably know, Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam.
Ali co-founded the Muhammad Ali Center to share his six core principles with the world: Confidence, Conviction, Dedication, Respect, Giving, and Spirituality. Though Ali passed away in 2016, the Muhammad Ali Center serves as a museum to share his life story and his ideals with the city of Louisville and the world.
Of course, as with any public figure, Ali had his strengths and his weaknesses. Some might speak of misogynist comments he made in his youth, and others might complain that he had a “lean and hungry look”. But I always prefer to focus on the positive when evaluating other people, as I hope that others will look at me with charity. So it is my pleasure to share with you…
Three (Sometimes) Fun Facts: The Muhammad Ali Center
1) How did Ali Start Boxing?
The Muhammad Ali Center taught me that if it weren’t for petty crime, Muhammad Ali might never have become a boxer. When he was a 12 year old boy growing up in Louisville, Ali’s bicycle was stolen. He went to the police to report the crime and, showing the fiery spirit he would later become famous for, he said that he was going “whup” the thief.
Fortunately, the police officer he spoke to, Joe E. Martin, was also a boxing coach at the Columbia Gym. (Most of the gyms in Louisville at the time were segregated, but the Columbia Gym was integrated.) Officer Martin said that if Ali wanted to whup the thief, he better learn how to fight first, and he offered to give Ali boxing lessons.
There’s only one sad part to this adorable story. No one ever caught the bicycle thief. He’s still out there, snatching bicycles from the 12 year olds of Louisville. (Dun, dun, dun!)
2) If you can meet with triumph and disaster?
Ali is famous for his eventful and surprising life. One of the most unexpected things I learned about him at the Muhammad Ali Center was that he carried around a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” with him all the time for inspiration. (You can buy a bookmark with “If” written on it at the Muhammad Ali Center store, if you’d like to emulate the boxer in this respect.)
I think of Ali as being such a firebrand and revolutionary in the 60s and 70s, so it’s striking to hear that he admired the work of a 19th century imperialist Brit like Kipling. But we often find inspiration in the most unexpected places.
3) What were Ali’s politics?
Of course it’s important to mention that Muhammad Ali’s life wasn’t all adorable police officers and inspirational poems. The most famous political incident involving Ali was that he refused to serve in the US Army even though the country drafted him to fight in the Vietnam War. Ali claimed that he had religious objections to fighting, and he also did not want to fight on behalf of a country that did not have racial equality for all its citizens.
As punishment, Ali lost his boxing license, was stripped of his Heavyweight Champion of the World title, and was convicted of draft dodging. (The Supreme Court eventually overturned the conviction.) Man, the 1960s were really another world, weren’t they? I can’t imagine an athlete nowadays being penalized for standing up to racism. Better to live in the 1880s, when people were still naming marshmallows after actresses just for performing Ibsen.
24 Hours: Louisville Food Tour
Evening: Hot Brown Sandwich
Once our trip to the Muhammad Ali Center is done, you’ll want some dinner. After that jampacked food tour this morning, I’m sure you won’t have much room for dinner. That’s why I said we’d stick to a light sandwich. And what’s lighter than grilled toast points with white turkey meat, bacon, Mornay sauce, cheese, and then broiled to a crispy perfection?
And the best place to try Louisville’s legendary Hot Brown sandwich is at the hotel that invented it, The Brown. For dinner, you can get the Hot Brown at the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, the English Grill.
Like any good superhero, the Hot Brown has a fascinating origin story. It was created in the 1920s by the chef at the Brown Hotel, Fred Schmidt. The guests at the Brown Hotel used to stay up late dancing until dawn. (It’s the 1920s, so I suspect bathtub gin was involved somehow.)
Of course, after hours of dancing and swilling hooch, you need something on your tummy. Schmidt decided to make the most decadent sandwich possible by using rich Mornay sauce as well as carved turkey, which is usually a food for holidays. And thus a sandwich legend was born!
The Hot Brown is now on basically every travel/cooking show from Man vs. Food to Throwdown With Bobby Flay. (Bobby Flay lost the throwdown with the Brown Hotel, which makes me happy. I always like it when Flay flops. Also spellcheck tells me throwdown isn’t even a word.)
But whether Bobby Flay or the ghost of Fred Schmidt himself is making your Hot Brown, I can guarantee you’ll love it. As I always say, glop a whole bunch of carbs, fat, and salt together, heat it up, and you’ll make all the people happy, all of the time.
That’s 24 Hours: Louisville Food Tour
What would you do with 24 hours in Louisville? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Louisville right now? Does it surprise you that the Muhammad Ali Center sells Kipling bookmarks? And is it really true that every time Bobby Flay loses a throwdown, an angel gets its wings? 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.