For the first time in my life I visited my parents’ hometown without them. My parents met in Louisville, KY in 1960. They had dreams bigger than the seemingly small and slow-changing town they grew up in, so they eventually made their home in Los Angeles, where I was born. Louisville is an interesting place with a long history, but the largest city in Kentucky famous for horse racing and bourbon, and gaining notoriety for its food, art, and college sports culture, is anything but a small town of the past.
Situated at the northern edge of the state on the Ohio River (which forms the natural border separating Kentucky from Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio), Louisville is a low-key, big city with a small town, Southern hospitality vibe. It’s also a quick-ish drive to major cities, including Nashville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago, and St. Louis, signifying the importance of its physical and cultural place in American history.
I won’t go into the long-standing debate about whether Kentucky is considered the Midwest or the South, but I’ll give my quick opinion that it’s both. If you want to have a conversation about it, feel free to chat me up.
As a child, my parents’ stories of Louisville and family trips to the surrounding cities seemed so far away, like wild and fun adventures in a time I could never know. As I grew up and got to know my parents in different ways, I saw more of myself and my experiences in their own adventures. I wanted to do this trip justice and live it up the way they would have if they were there. I spent the days literally walking in their footsteps strolling down streets they were once on, visiting relatives’ houses they spent countless hours in growing up, sitting in rooms they played in as kids and had family dinners and conversations with their parents in, and exploring neighborhoods they frequented.
I’ll skip all the family reunion stories, except a quick shout out to my amazing 91 year old grandma for continuing to be so full of life, and get straight to the rundown of things to do and see in the three cities I visited on this trip.
1. Muhammad Ali’s Childhood Home
When my mother was growing up, one of her good friends lived two doors down from Muhammad Ali (who was still Cassius Clay then) so they spent a great deal of time at his house. They also used to watch him as he jogged through the neighborhood training and throwing jabs at the air. She even has tales of riding around town with him in his pink Cadillac convertible at the start of his career when he was just becoming world known. Muhammad Ali is Louisville’s hometown hero and seeing his quaint beginnings that hold so much history is humbling.
2. Louisville Slugger Bat Museum and Factory
Louisville Slugger has been making baseball bats since 1884 so they know a thing or two. Whether you’re a baseball fan or not, it’s a pretty cool experience. And if you are a baseball fan, you definitely won’t want to miss this. The factory tour gives you a behind-the-scenes look at the production process and the unique techniques to produce different style bats, as well as some insight into certain player’s specific requests from the type of wood they prefer to the finishing paint.
Photos aren’t allowed in the production area, but there are a lot of hands-on opportunities to hold bats that will eventually be used by your favorite players. Without doing the tour, you can still hold game-used bats of some of baseball’s most famous players. I held Babe Ruth’s, Hank Aaron’s, and Justin Turner’s (Go Dodgers!) bats, and it felt like holding priceless pieces of history.
3. Gold David at 21c Museum Hotel
Just down the street from the bat factory is a 30′ tall gold replica, nearly twice the size of Michelangelo’s Statue of David in front of the 21c Museum Hotel. The artist, Serkan Ozkaya, apparently built the statue without ever having seen the real David in person. The museum is attached to a boutique hotel and claims to be the first museum in North American to only exhibit 21st century art.
4. Churchill Downs Racetrack
Louisville is home to the most famous racetrack in the world, Churchill Downs. The track opened in 1875, but is continuously expanding. It’s capacity is now around 170,000 and it has hosted over 150,000 people during the Kentucky Derby in recent years. I went to their Thursday evening Twilight Racing while there, which features races from 5-8pm in addition to live music and food trucks. The Twilight events are hosted in the Spring and September meets according to the Churchill Downs website.
5. Bardstown Road and Baxter Ave. in The Highlands Neighborhood
The Highlands neighborhood has often been referred to as Louisville Weird. It’s really just the former hippie, turned new hipster, artsy neighborhood that would remind you of somewhere like Echo Park in LA, but still with a Midwest, unassuming flair. My parents used to hang out at their hippie friends’ houses here in the ’60s. There are plenty of restaurants, bars, and shops to explore here.
6. Cave Hill Cemetery
Cave Hill is a Victorian era National Cemetery, where the founder of Louisville, George Rogers Clark is buried, along with Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of KFC, Patti and Mildred Hill, who composed the Happy Birthday song, and of course Louisville’s most notable hero, Muhammad Ali. I recommend just a quick drive through.
7. Kentucky Burbon District (Aka, Whiskey Row): Main St.
I’m pretty sure everyone knows Kentucky is basically the godfather of bourbon. Main Street downtown is considered Whiskey Row and there are multiple options for tours and tastings. Alternatively, you can probably have a decent tasting at any restaurant or bar that serves alcohol. It’s literally everywhere in the city.
8. Cherokee Park
Not pictured, but worth a visit. The 409 acre Cherokee Park was designed in 1891 by Frederick Law Olmsted who was the father of landscape architecture and the city park movement, and designed Central Park in New York. Louisville has a robust park system with 123 parks, that I hope will make the Bluegrass State a model for greening other cities.
After a couple days touring around Louisville and visiting family, I crossed over the river to Jeffersonville, Indiana. This is a cute town right next to the river with a variety of restaurants, galleries, and shops.
Jeffersonville Gateway Arch at Chestnut and Pearl Streets.
1. Underground Railroad Locations
Quick history lesson: Jeffersonville was an important place, particularly after the Emancipation Proclamation. Kentucky was a border state during the Civil War and was the only state that declared neutrality. It had significantly more soldiers on the Union side, but neutrality was violated by the Confederate soldiers. But still tied to the South for other reasons, the state technically wasn’t a rebellion state, and skipping a bunch of details, the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to Kentucky. So Jeffersonville, became the first stop for many blacks escaping to the free North after the war.
2. Schimpff’s Confectionery
Schimpff’s Confectionary has been at its Jeffersonville location since 1891, but they were making candy in Louisville since the 1850’s. They’re the longest continuously operational, family-owned candy business in the US. They have their famous Red Hot making process down to a science, which you can get a free tour of when you visit. These tasty cinnamon squares are a must-try! The store also features a museum area, a historic soda and ice cream shop, and a variety of candies in old jars and cases. Check out my photos of the production process below.
3. Abbey Road on the River Festival: Jeffersonville, Indiana
This is an annual event so you’ll have to wait until next year to attend if you’re interested. The Abbey Road on the River festival takes place just across the Ohio River from Louisville at the Big Four Station (soon to be renamed Fab Four Station according to the mayor) in Jeffersonville, Indiana. It’s about a 20 minute walk across the footbridge between the two cities. The event is the world’s largest Beatles and 60’s music festival. Beginning in 2002 it took place at Louisville’s Riverfront Plaza, the Belveder, but moved to Jeffersonville in 2017 and intends to stay there for the foreseeable future.
The last few days of the trip were spent in Cincinnati.
Further down the Ohio River sits Cincinnati, just across another bridge from Covington, KY. It took about an hour and a half to drive there through nothing but greenery and a good old Midwestern rain storm.
1. Duckpin Bowling, Over the Rhine
Over the Rhine (OTR) is a neighborhood north of downtown Cincinnati where many German immigrants first went and has historically been a working-class neighborhood. It’s now in transition which brings complications of gentrification and displacement, but it’s supposedly one of the largest urban historic districts still intact in the US.
There are plenty of good restaurants to choose from and nightlife to take in there. After having a delicious dinner at Ché, an Argentinian tapas restaurant and bar, I decided on duckpin bowling as the activity for the first night. The game doesn’t have a definitive origin but there are references of it being played in New England in the 1890s. It’s essentially miniature bowling with skee-ball type balls that weigh less than 4 pounds. It’s definitely a rare sport with very few alleys in existence so I recommend giving it a try.
2. Museum Center
Cincinnati’s Union Terminal is a uniquely re-purposed train station that now houses several museums and a theater. I went for ice cream and stayed for an educational exhibit on ancient Egypt.
3. Taste of Cincinnati
I guess I have good timing because by chance I arrived in town during the Taste of Cincinnati. This is an annual event so be sure to mark your calendar and plan accordingly. This was the 41st year of it and apparently it’s the longest running, free culinary festival in the country. It was four city blocks lined with food and beverage vendors, and live music every block. A perfect event to kill time before an evening baseball game, which was my next adventure.
4. Great American Ballpark
The Cincinnati Reds were founded in 1882, although their origins go back nearly 150 years to 1869. The team was actually part of the National League in 1876 before getting expelled in 1880 for selling beer during games and allowing games on Sundays (imagine that!). Baseball has come a long way since then.
If you go to a game, be sure to take in the city views as you walk around this stadium. Also, don’t forget to try Cincinnati’s famous Skyline chili that has hints of chocolate and cinnamon in it. If it’s not served with a giant heap of shredded cheese, you’re not doing it right. The secret recipe, created by Greek chef Nicholas Lambrinides in 1949, is stored in a bank vault somewhere and has been unchanged since 1962.
5. Skystar Wheel
The Skystar ferris wheel over Cincinnati’s Riverfront Park in downtown is a great way to get views of the city if you don’t mind the height. At around 15 stories high, it prides itself in being “American’s Largest Portable Observation Wheel.” This was the last experience of my trip and a fitting way to end it in a peaceful gondola with beautiful night sky images of the city to reflect on the past week.
My only regret in Cincinnati is that I didn’t make it to the American Sign Museum. That will have to be saved for the next time I’m there, but you if happen to go, I’d love to see photos and hear about your experience.
After a week of activities in three different cities, it was almost bittersweet to wake up with nothing to do but travel home. I left with experiences and memories to last though, signifying a trip well done and one that I can only hope to tell stories about to my children one day the way my parents told their stories to me.