Louisville is synonymous with fast horses and smooth bourbon. But there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes in this top horse-racing distillery town — from vibey speakeasy lounges to beautiful parks, notable restaurants, and a fascination for hats. To assist with our pre-Kentucky Derby curation (happening May 7, y’all), we called upon Bluegrass state native Debra Locker Griffin, who has twice made Louisville her home — first as a news producer for WLKY television and now at the helm of her communications firm The Debra Locker Group— to share her insider picks to Louisville.
The Famed Kentucky Derby
Although the Kentucky Derby is held the first Saturday in May, Griffin notes that “Derby season” actually kicks off two weeks prior with a huge fireworks show, parade, marathon, and hot-air balloon race. “The Thursday of Derby week has been coined ‘Thurby,’ so if you’re coming from out of state, try to be here for all three days of racing.” Among the highlights – the day-before ‘Kentucky Oaks’ race of three-year-old fillies (female horses).
On Griffin’s Derby see-and-do list
Don’t miss The Kentucky Derby Museum, located next to Churchill Downs. “The film, The Greatest Race, is a 360° experience shown hourly that will make your heart race and give you an appreciation for all things Kentucky. Gives me chill bumps every time I watch.”
The Backside of Churchill Downs
“Churchill Downs is a city in itself, a vibrant community of horses and horsemen who live and work on the backside of the famed track during the racing and training season. Here, spot the signature green-roofed barns that are home to 1,400 horses, along with views of the grandstand and historic Twin Spires.”
The Garland of Roses
“The blanket of red roses that you see on the back of the winning Derby horse is made locally at the grocery chain, Kroger. Starting Derby Eve, you can stop by and see the assortment made live. It’s often made at the Kroger location in the Louisville area known as Middletown.”
“Fashion is a big deal for the Derby. I love that regardless of where people live, they embrace the long standing tradition of wearing hats or fascinators to Derby parties. I’m often asked ‘which do you buy first – the hat or the outfit? I decide on the headpiece before selecting clothing. My go-to hat designers are The Hat Doctor and The Hat Girls.”
The Best Place to Stay in Louisville
Check into Louisville’s only waterfront hotel, The Galt House. Named after its original owner, Dr. W. C. Galt, a well-known physician, and botanist in the 1830s, the hotel underwent a recent ($80 million) renovation. The vibe is now super-chic with bright and airy rooms, and views of the Ohio River and city skyline. Make reservations at Swizzle, the hotel’s swanky, retro-style supper club on the 25th floor, known for its prime steaks, head-spinning cocktails (mint juleps of course), and signature just-bourbon menu. For a more intense bourbon tasting, hit Down One Bourbon Bar (starting point on the city’s famed Urban Bourbon Trail) showcasing over 140 bourbons.
Beyond the Steakhouses – Cool Places to Eat and Drink
This decadent Parisian-vibe bistro serves up southern comfort foods with a twist: shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, and sweet potato fries with bourbon marshmallow dipping sauce are staples on the menu. Brunch is especially popular with its menu of red velvet pancakes and grilled filet mignon on bleu cheese biscuits.
Located in Old Louisville, 610 Magnolia features a farm-to-table seasonal menu and is only open Thursday through Saturday, so making reservations is an absolute must. The menu changes weekly as chef/owner Edward Lee’s emphasis is on fresh and from-the-region ingredients: bison raised just a half-hour away; salad greens from the restaurant’s own greenhouse.
Chef Bruce Ucán, from Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, fuses traditional Mayan flavors, ingredients, and cooking techniques with local, sustainably-farmed ingredients. Try the cafe’s famed and authentic cochinita pibil, and creatively made chilaquiles and tok-sel lima beans. Check out the cafe’s food truck on Baxter Ave. for its specialty guacamole, nuevo nachos locos, and churros in Mexican chocolate sauce.
For an interesting behind-the-Derby scene, head to Wagner’s Pharmacy, where horsemen can be found conversing over a ‘track platter’ (two biscuits, two eggs). There’s also a tack shop – history is written all over the walls via a collage of past Derby winners along with famous figures who’ve graced the pharmacy’s fountain through the years.
Speakeasy: Hell or High Water
In true speakeasy fashion, you have to find the entrance in order to find the bar. In this case, entry is via a ‘gallery,’ Hello Curio, on the backside of Whiskey Row. A white globe light marks the entrance. Inside, a host points guests down a flight of stairs to a room where booths are covered in velvet and craft cocktails are served.
Tour a Distillery
Industrial-chic Angel’s Envy, on Whiskey Row, is rooted in 200 years of bourbon heritage. Here, the knowledge of three generations — inspired by patriarch and legendary master distiller Lincoln Henderson — converge, blending crafted batches of 8 to 12 barrels at a time. Tours of the distillery (reservations required) include a walk-through of the fermentation and distillation processes. An $8.2 million expansion of the distillery will be completed this spring.
Pick up a Souvenir
For the best bring-home Louisville souvenirs, Griffin again guides us to the perfect keepsakes: a wooden bat from the Louisville Slugger Museum, bourbon chocolates, a fascinator, and a bottle (or two or three) of bourbon purchased directly from the distillery. She adds, too, a fantastic vintage/consignment store, Stella’s, in the St. Matthews section of town. Plus, hand-crafted pottery by Stoneware & Co (founded 1815); the pieces are beautiful and handed down through generations.
Have a Spa Day
When it comes to prepping and coiffing for race day (or simply detoxing from those decadent bourbon tastings), Louisville has no shortage of high-glam spas. Included on Griffin’s insider wellness list: Clique Boutique for waxing, brows, and skincare. SKYN Lounge for facials and make-up. Xhale Salon Spa at the Galt House for massages and nails. Mokara Spa at the Omni has a nice relaxation area and cool rooftop pool.
Walk to Indiana
The pedestrian Big Four Bridge, a former railroad truss bridge in Waterfront Park, crosses the Ohio River connecting Louisville and Jeffersonville, Indiana. By day, the bridge offers the perfect pause for photo snaps of downtown Louisville; by night LED lighting wraps the iron fretwork in vibrant colors, creating a stunning rainbow effect.
Step into History
Head to the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory — home to Babe Ruth’s ‘Big Bat’ followed by a trip to the Muhammad Ali Center. End the day in historic Old Louisville, gazing at the country’s largest collection of Victorian mansions. In summer, the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival takes place here, outdoors in Olmstead’s Central Park; while in October, the St. James Court Art Show draws a crowd as does the Garvin Gate Blues Festival, celebrating Kentucky’s love of bluegrass.