Did you know that Louisville, Kentucky ranks #1 in the top ten food cities in the world by National Geographic? Neither did we. My friend Sena and I made the 5-plus-hour-drive from Toledo to Louisville to see one of our idols, Madonna, who made her first-ever Kentucky appearance at the KFC Yum! Center. Not only did we see an amazing performance by the Queen of Pop during her Rebel Heart Tour, we also discovered that the Bluegrass State’s largest city is easy to get around and offers a friendly culture with culinary delights as well as luxurious accommodations and plenty of attractions.
Louisville bills itself as “The Gateway to the South.” With welcoming southern hospitality, the name seems to fit. The MSA has a population of almost 1.3 million, ranking 44th in the nation. Best known for the Kentucky Derby and the home of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Louisville is so much more.
The downtown offers several accommodations close to the Fourth Street Entertainment District. We opted for the Hyatt Regency because it was included in our premium hotel and ticket package for the Madonna concert. The Hyatt Regency is undergoing a major renovation. We stayed in one of the newly renovated rooms that feature enormous flat screen televisions, which we never turned on. The fact that we could walk to the concert from the hotel without having to step outside was a plus given the Arctic January chill. Kudos to the planning commission for making it easy and comfortable for pedestrians to navigate downtown.
However, there are other options downtown, including The Brown Hotel and The Seelbach, both on the National Register of Historic Places. The Brown Hotel is where the Hot Brown open faced turkey sandwich which with rich moray sauce on Texas Toast was invented. There’s also the Marriott and the Galt House Hotel.
Madonna stayed at 21C, so of course we had to check it out. During her show she commented that she loved the fact that her hotel had pornographic images on the walls. She was likely referring to the art installation of nude sculptures that preside over the registration desk in the lobby. Travel and Leisure magazine gave 21C a 2014 Global Vision Award. The boutique Museum/Hotel features contemporary art galleries and spaces as well as 91 luxurious sleeping rooms. Next time, we’re staying at this former bourbon warehouse where tobacco once hung to dry!
Speaking of Madonna, the show got off to a late start, as the singer notorious for late night revelry, didn’t take the stage until 10:30 p.m and didn’t leave until almost 1:00 a.m. It was a late night, and the singer/dancer was in rare form, bantering with the audience and playing the Kentucky Derby Bugle Call on her “nether regions.” She offended some of the audience with her antics, which included a playful southern accent and jokes about six packs with a reference to “finger lickin good.”
Before the concert, we dined at Jeff Ruby’s, which is a world-class steakhouse. This was also part of our premium package, and we were grateful. My dining companion raved about the lamb loin, while my filet Oscar melted in my mouth. Taking in the crowded lounge and supper-club décor, one can understand why the hallway is lined with photos of celebrities who have visited the legendary establishment. Impeccable service and chocolate butter pie rounded out the perfect dining experience. The high quality of food and exemplary service underscore the Jeff Ruby experience. According to Zagat, Jeff Ruby’s beat out top-name steak houses such as Peter Luger Steak House in New York City and Prime Steakhouse in the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.
The 50th issue of Food & Wine Magazine explains, “Louisville has been at the forefront of change in the national restaurant scene. The area has many small farms, raising an increasing variety of excellent vegetables, fruits and meats for our consumption. Increasingly, educated chefs work with these farmers to create a steady supply of the ingredients they and their customers crave. While the Louisville area has its share of chain restaurants, it has become known for its varied and vivacious independent restaurant scene by operators making their mark locally, regionally, and even nationally.”
Sunday Brunch at Bourbon Raw downtown did not disappoint. We shared the famous Hot Brown sandwich, a Brussels sprout salad with Caesar dressing, and a brule of yogurt and fruit. That night we had an incredible Italian dinner at Valore. Volare Italian Ristorante is a fine dining restaurant serving modern Italian cuisine with southern hospitality. “Volare,” “to fly” in Italian, is a fitting namesake for a dining experience that soars, ascending beyond the ordinary. Chef Josh Moore combines his expert skills with a passion for using locally-sourced and house-made products. Crafted with care, Volare’s menu changes seasonally to ensure quality and taste. Frequent deliveries from Chef Moore’s local farm fulfill the restaurant’s commitment to freshness.
Tarek the manager welcomed us and treated us as though we were his personal guests. Erin, our waitress with a smile reminiscent of Helen Hunt, went above and beyond, even dumpster diving for an extra Osso Bucco bone for my Yorkies, so they wouldn’t have to fight over mine. We shared a house-made pappardelle pasta course, and my dining companion raved about the beet salad. The house-made Caesar dressing is made the way it’s supposed to be, rich with anchovies accented by a bite of garlic and finished with lemon. Check out the custom-made chandelier, which serves as the focal point of the main dining room. It was imported from Italy.
While we had scrumptious dining experiences overall, the desserts were rather disappointing at 21C. There are culinary tours, but we didn’t have the time.
Along with food comes drink, and Kentucky supplies 95% of the world’s bourbon. Louisville provides 1/3 of that. There are distilleries popping up all over town. So if you enjoy good bourbon, this is your go-to destination. There are also a plethora of craft beer breweries.
A first-class city is not complete without world class attractions, and there is plenty to see and do in Louisville. Here’s a Top Ten: Louisville Mega Cavern, Conrad-Caldwell House Museum, Kentucky Derby Museum, Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, Cave Hill Cemetery, Big Four Bridge, Churchill Downs, Muhammad Ali Center, Locust Grove, and Louisville Slugger Field.
We particularly enjoyed the drive through Historic Old Louisville on the way to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum. The neighborhood features a collection of old mansions with storied pasts and architectural delights for the eyes and serves as home to the University of Louisville.
A shopping excursion to the Outlet Shoppes of the Bluegrass was only a half-hour drive from downtown. Imagine our delight when we found out they have a Gucci outlet. It was just the night before that a fellow concert-goer repeatedly referred to me as “Gucci Boy” while begging for a photo. Other premium discount shopping includes Saks Off Fifth Avenue, Polo Ralph Lauren, Kate Spade, and Tumi. It’s worth a trek for some retail therapy.
The Material Girl’s first visit to Louisville coincided with my own. Hopefully she was as impressed with the Derby City as I. She had better accommodations, but she is, after all, the Queen of Pop. While Madonna was certainly what drew us to the city, there are countless reasons to return.