by Andrew Collins
Every year in May, all eyes fall upon Kentucky’s pastoral Bluegrass region. During the first week of the month, the city of Louisville holds the Kentucky Derby, the most celebrated Thoroughbred racing event in the country. But from spring clear through late autumn, it’s a fine time for touring the hilly, verdant swatch of northern Kentucky that includes the state’s two largest cities, Louisville and Lexington. Despite the region’s generally conservative demeanor, Louisville has a growing core of hip neighborhoods, an increasingly locavore-driven restaurant scene, first-rate arts and culture, and one of the world’s largest gay nightclubs. And collegiate Lexington – just 75 miles away – makes a charming base for exploring nearby horse farms and acclaimed small-batch bourbon distilleries.
A large, modern metropolis (city-county population 721,000) on Kentucky’s Ohio River border with Indiana, Louisville (pronounced loo-uh-vull) grew from its 1778 founding into a prominent transportation hub, first for riverboats, then for the railroad, and more recently as the worldwide air cargo hub for UPS. As with other cities along Midwestern waterways, the population boomed throughout the 19th century with Germans, Irish and other European immigrants as well as a sizable African-American community. Today the city is a center of education and medical research at the University of Louisville, and a production center of everything from trucks to Kentucky bourbon.
Downtown near the Ohio River, along West Main Street and nearby streets, you’ll find an impressive stock of grand, Victorian cast-iron buildings that date to the city’s shipping days – this is also where a few of the city’s gay nightspots are. A paved RiverWalk affords great views of the city skyline and many bridges connecting with Indiana. Synonymous with the city is the Louisville Slugger Museum, where the famous wooden bats used by Major League Baseball are manufactured (actually in the adjacent Hillerich & Bradsby factory) – it’s part of the riverfront Cultural District that includes the excellent Frazier International History Museum, Louisville Science Center, and Muhammad Ali Center.
Louisville excels when it comes to the arts, with respected opera and ballet companies, the highly regarded Louisville Orchestra, and the Actors Theatre of Louisville, which hosts the acclaimed Humana Festival of New American Plays every spring. Many major musical and dramatic events are staged at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts.
You’ll find a number of gracious residential districts both downtown and south of it, and a particular lively and gay-popular stretch of businesses and restaurants along Bardstown Road in southeastern Louisville’s Highlands and Cherokee Triangle neighborhoods. Anchoring this part of town are leafy and beautifully kept Cherokee Park and historic Cave Hill National Cemetery.
Due south of downtown, Old Louisville is an impressive neighborhood of Victorian mansions bordered by the sprawling campus of the University of Louisville, which enrolls around 20,000 students. The school’s Speed Art Museum has fine collections of American antiques and art by both European and American masters. Not far from here you’ll also find the world-famous Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby – a museum here traces the history of this renowned event.
Many of the city’s most gay-popular eateries are on Bardstown Road, including the community’s favorite java joint, Days Espresso http://www.dayscoffee.com, a two-room space with local art and great coffee. Also along this stretch is Lilly’s http://www.lillyslapeche.com, where you can sample such contemporary regional American specialties as catfish spring rolls with Asian dipping sauce, and locally farmed pork confit and braised shoulder.
One of Louisville’s most distinctive emerging neighborhoods for shopping and eating is the East Market District, a relatively compact stretch of cafes, galleries and funky shops that’s just a short drive east of downtown. Here be sure to check out Bodega at Felice http://www.thebodegaatfelice.com – a trendy market, deli, and coffee bar all in one – and Toast on Market http://www.toastonmarket.com, which serves tantalizingly tasty breakfast and lunch fare, including a memorable Monte Cristo.
Other dining standouts include downtown’s modern take on down-home cooking, Hillbilly Tea http://www.hillbillytea.com – try the “road kill stew” of venison, chicken and mountain vegetables with braised greens and corn pone – and a handful of spots along lively Frankfort Avenue, including Heine Brothers Coffee http://www.heinebroscoffee.com and Blue Dog Bakery http://www.bluedogbakeryandcafe.com, which serves tapas on weekend evenings.
Louisville’s gay bars are spread around the city, with a few standouts downtown, including the legendary Connection Louisville http://www.theconnection.net, an immense nightclub with several distinct spaces, from a drag show bar to leather lounge (Boots, with its own entrance) to an area with male erotic dancers – there’s something for all tastes here. Around the corner, Tryangles is locals-oriented cruise bar with male strippers on weekends.
At the other end of downtown, in the Cultural District, Starbase Q http://www.starbaseq.com is a popular, handsomely decorated bar with a welcoming staff, fun theme nights (country-western line dancing, cabaret, karaoke) and a great mix of guys – all ages and styles. Gay neighborhood spots south of downtown include Teddy Bears, Marty’s Tavern and the mostly lesbian bar Tink’s Pub. Also of note is the famed Magnolia Bar & Grill (aka Mag Bar), an Old Louisville institution with a mixed gay-straight crowd and a fantastic juke box.
Downtown’s Cultural District is home to one of the most fascinating accommodations in the country, the 21c Museum Hotel http://www.21chotel.com. This luxe property with 90 sleekly designed rooms has been crafted out of a row of warehouses that once held bourbon and tobacco producers. The multilevel public areas comprise a dramatic, 9,000-square-foot contemporary art museum, and the hotel also contains a chic spa, a full fitness center and one of the hottest restaurants in the region, Proof on Main, which fuses mod Italian and Southern culinary traditions.
Stylistically, Louisville’s grand Brown Hotel http://www.brownhotel.com is the polar opposite of 21c, but this regal 1923 property is every bit as cushy, its nearly 300 rooms outfitted with classic Old-English-inspired dark-wood furnishings and baths with Spanish marble. Make every effort to dine in the hotel’s formal English Grill, and plan a breakfast or lunch in the more casual but renowned J. Graham’s Cafe, which is famous as the home of the “Hot Brown” sandwich, a local take on a Welsh rarebit.
Other nice downtown options include the Hyatt Regency Louisville http://www.louisville.hyatt.com, which is steps from nightlife and dining, the Residence Inn Louisville http://www.marriott.com, and the bargain-priced but extremely basic Econo Lodge Downtown http://www.econolodge.com – the latter two are very close to The Connection. The city’s historic Old Louisville neighborhood has several gay-friendly B&Bs, all of them set in stately old homes with ornately appointed rooms – they include the Austin’s Inn Place http://www.austinsinnplace.com, the Culbertson Mansion http://www.culbertsonmansion.us and Columbine B&B http://www.thecolumbine.com.
A gentile, attractive city that’s the state’s center of higher education, Lexington (population 296,000) is surrounded by picturesque countryside graced with lovely old horse farms. Although the city has just one gay bar, the presence of the University of Kentucky has given the city a more progressive bent than much of the region, and in 2010 the city elected openly gay man Jim Gray as mayor.
For an appealing sidewalk stroll, walk south along Limestone Street where it passes through the campus of the University of Kentucky – you’ll find a small strip of engaging shops and eateries here. The residential neighborhoods around the university comprise one road after another of gracious brick and limestone homes with neatly tended gardens and broad green lawns. A highlight is Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, whose shaded grounds and ornate mansion is definitely worth touring. Another fine museum is the Hunt-Morgan House, a Federal 1814 mansion.
You can learn about the region’s esteemed equine heritage at the Kentucky Horse Park, an actual thoroughbred-training facility where you can have a behind-the-scenes look at training and caring for these magnificent animals. If you’re headed to Lexington from Louisville, go by way of U.S. 60, stopping for a look at the historic downtown of the state capital, Frankfort, the state capital, and passing through the quaint town of Versailles, which is home to one of the most respected single-batch bourbon makers, Woodford Reserve, which offers excellent tours.
Excellent dining options in Lexington include Metropole http://www.metropolfinedining.com, which serves imaginative, regionally inspired cuisine, and the cozy French bistro Le Deauville http://www.ledeauvilleresto.com. Also consider Alfalfa http://www.alfalfarestaurant.com, which specializes in healthful veggie-oriented fare, and the legendary breakfast joint, Doodles http://www.doodlesrestaurant.com – just beware there’s always a long wait for brunch on weekends.
Live performers and open-mic nights account for the success of Common Grounds Coffee House http://www.commongroundsoflexington.com. You can also get full lunch here, a wide range of baked goods. The Bar Complex http://www.thebarcomplex.com is the city’s most popular gay nightspot, right in the heart of downtown – it’s always packed at happy hour and well into the evening. Also worth a look is the loveably gruff neighborhood joint Al’s Bar http://www.alsbarlexington.com, an eclectic but gay-friendly spot great burgers, live bluegrass and stiff drinks – note the extensive list of small-batch Kentucky bourbons. The upscale dance club Soundbar http://www.soundbarlex.com also has something of a gay following, especially with students from University of Kentucky.
Lexington has a nice mix of hotels and inns, with the upscale Gratz Park Inn http://www.gratzparkinn.com a particularly charming, centrally located option. The three-story 1906 hotel contains 41 pleasantly furnished rooms and a fine restaurant, Jonathan’s, specializing in modern Kentucky cuisine. The seven-room, gay-friendly Lyndon House B&B http://www.lyndonhouse.com is perhaps the most romantic and luxurious inn in Lexington. Recommended chain hotels include downtown’s Hyatt Regency Lexington http://www.lexington.hyatt.com and the more affordable Holiday Inn Express Downtown Lexington http://www.hiexpress.com.