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Sophisticated & Progressive: Louisville, Kentucky

by Mark Chesnut

In the years since my childhood visits to my mother’s hometown, Kentucky’s largest city has grown to be a beacon of big-city sophistication and progressive values.

Mark Chestnut

They say that places you visited as a child seem smaller when you see them again as an adult. In the case of Louisville, that’s not quite true. In the years since my childhood visits to my mother’s hometown, Kentucky’s largest city has grown to be a beacon of big-city sophistication and progressive values. This mid-Southern metropolis has also become a welcoming place to fly the rainbow flag, as my husband Angel and I discovered while attending Kentuckiana Pride, one of the city’s two LGBTQ pride celebrations.

As a kid visiting with family, I spent my days in Louisville shopping for school clothes at sprawling malls, sipping frothy Orange Julius drinks, overeating at chain restaurants and visiting Cave Hill, the historic cemetery where my father was buried. At night, I’d camp out on the guest room floor at my Uncle Ed and Aunt Agnes’s house in the Highlands, a leafy, middle-class neighborhood.

During a recent visit to Louisville, my first in about a decade, things were decidedly different. I discovered far more sophisticated beverages (especially in the city’s burgeoning bourbon scene) as well as mouthwatering food that blend the best of southern and international cuisine. Angel and I also checked out world-class cultural institutions, and stylish accommodation. Plus, I was thrilled to learn that the neighborhood that my uncle and aunt once called home, the Highlands, is now one of the gayest places to stay and visit in the entire city. Indeed, Louisville has evolved.

For this visit, I relied on resources like the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau (Tel: 1-888-LOUISVILLE. www.gotolouisville.com) the city’s tourism office, which maintains an impressive “LGBTQ Louisville” section on its site that touts the destination’s gay-friendliness, as evidenced by its perfect 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index for three years in a row.

Our first stop after landing in the morning (Louisville International Airport is a rather quick flight from most cities in the eastern and Midwestern United States) was a place that I’d never visited in all my years here: Churchill Downs (700 Central Avenue. Tel: 502-636-4400. www.churchilldowns.com), the racetrack that hosts the legendary Kentucky Derby. My family may have already been slinking out of its Southern Baptist roots by the time I was born, but the traditional disapproval of supposed sins like gambling lingered for a few decades more, preventing me from ever stepping foot on these hallowed grounds (or sampling Kentucky bourbon, for that matter). But this visit was different.

Churchill Downs

Even if you can’t visit on the first Saturday in May, which is when the Kentucky Derby takes place, you can still tap into some of the excitement. The recently expanded Kentucky Derby Museum (704 Central Ave. Tel: 502-637-1111. www.derbymuseum.org) offers guided tours of the entire facility, and the extensive exhibits highlight memorable moments in what is often called the “most exciting two minutes in sports.” Unfortunately, we didn’t time our visit right, otherwise we could have also attended Downs After Dark, which stages events at Churchill Downs that include live music, DJs, cocktails, and nighttime racing.

Next, Angel and I drove downtown to check into our apartment. We opted to rent from Airbnb as we wanted the flexibility and space that an apartment affords.

If you prefer hotel life, there are some noteworthy hotel options, including the brand-new Omni Louisville (400 S. 2nd St. Tel: 502-313-6664. www.omnihotels.com/hotels/louisville), which opened in 2018, and the 21C Museum Hotel (700 West Main St. Tel: 502-217-6300. www.21cmuseumhotels.com/louisville), a cutting-edge, arts-infused property that spawned a growing portfolio of hotels around the nation.

That night, we retired early because the next day, National Bourbon Day (www.nationalbourbonday.com), would be jam-packed with activities. The uniquely American whiskey known as bourbon has been closely associated with the state of Kentucky for more than a century, and, in recent years, Louisville has reaped the rewards as the spirit has gained cache and recognition from a growing audience of fans.

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