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Trip Report Louisville KY trip report -- attractions and food

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Recently spent three days plus in Louisville, KY. Perhaps not my first choice among places I haven't been, but there you go…Anyway, was able to find a surprising amount of stuff to see and several good food options.

Did not have a car as usual, so I relied on walking and public transportation. Had considered taking a day trip via bus to Lexington, but with the Mary Todd Lincoln House still not open for the season I decided against this option. And unfortunately, no tours or public transport go to Mammoth Cave National Park. So Louisville by itself it would be.

Day one

Begin day at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. Being a big baseball fan, this was a fascinating place to visit. After a short introductory film, went on the factory tour. First thing seen was a worker turning out bats the old-fashioned way, on a lathe with shaving instruments and calipers for measuring. But nowadays, the company uses two machines to carve out bats, one turning out large quantities for minor leaguers and laymen, a second employing computer programs for the more exacting specifications of major league hitters. Another station burns in labels on the wood, the next provides various finishing touches, and a final worker dips bats in either plain or colored varnish and then hangs them to drip dry. There's also a small museum containing bats used by famous players (Ruth, Williams, Mantle, Wagner, etc.), information about the company's history, and information about the wood used and how the large dowels that eventually become bats are turned out. It was fascinating. The Frazier History Museum holds a large collection of armor and weaponry (guns, pikes, arrow tips, knives, daggers, you name it), but has the good sense to present everything within historical context. The top floor deals with British history from William the Conqueror to the 19th century, while American history from Jamestown to Teddy Roosevelt occupies most of the second floor. There was also a huge collection of toy soldiers manufactured during a broad time frame (some tin, some wood, some plastic) depicting armies from ancient Egypt to the 20th century and covering several nationalities. Very enjoyable, as was a temporary exhibit of the American flag depicted in history, art, and everyday life -- on quilts, fans, playing cards, dresses, posters, and lots more. The nearby Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft is small and has no permanent collection, but made for an enjoyable short visit thanks to its impressive exhibit of wood carvings by primitive outsider artist Elijah Pierce, including a large multi-piece crucifixion scene and a huge book with carved wood planks replacing pages. Also in the same area is the Muhammad Ali Center, a history museum dedicated to the famous Louisville-born boxer. Ali's life is presented chronologically punctuated by memorabilia (boxing gloves, trophies, awards, etc.) and shown within a broader context of major 1960s issues such as civil rights and the Vietnam War. There's also information about boxing along with accompanying equipment, as well as details about Ali's charitable work (particularly on behalf of Parkinson's disease, which he now suffers from). You can also see footage of various bouts he fought. And there's a nice view of the Ohio River at one end.

Day two

This proved to be a full and rewarding sightseeing day. Took the bus south of the city center to the Kentucky Derby Museum, located on the grounds of Churchill Downs. Began with a surround-level (and nearly deafeningly loud) video presentation showing images of Derby Day. The admission price includes a half-hour tour of Churchill Downs; it's historic and attractive in its understated way, got to see the track, open grandstands, and covered indoor luxury areas (Queen Elizabeth II even came to the Kentucky Derby one year, and this is where she watched the race from). The museum shows a list of all the Derby winners (with extra information on the major Triple Crown winners), fancy hats and clothing worn by celebrities at Derby Day (apparently this is a real dress-up occasion for most who attend); artifacts relating to the breeding, raising, care, and racing of horses; and descriptions of jockeys, trainers, grooms, farriers, exercise riders, and others who work with racehorses. Taking the bus halfway back towards town from here lands you smack in the middle of Historic Old Louisville, now a section of town with lovingly preserved architecture, mostly huge brick Victorian-era homes. Two of the largest and most ornate houses are open for tours. The Filson Historical Society indeed contains a research library and small museum (the latter holding Kentucky-based Civil War artifacts), but the best thing here is the house itself which is seen self-guided. It's loaded with intricate woodwork and other ornament, full of paintings (mostly 1800s-period portraits) as well as a wraparound dining room mural depicting scenes from the opera "Der Freischutz.” Splendid place, as was the nearby Conrad-Caldwell House, which easily rivals the Filson in size and grandeur. The exterior is stone with H.H. Richardson Romanesque features, while the inside is elaborate and detailed, featuring lots of fancy carved wood in a style different from that in the Filson as well as lovely stained glass, attractive metalwork, and period furnishings. The guided tour was as good as any I've ever experienced, led by a descendent of the house's owners who had plenty of interesting first-hand stories behind the families and furniture. Both houses are a must. Took a bus to an area southwest of downtown to the Farmington Historic Plantation. The house is from an earlier era (ca. 1815) but nonetheless impressive in its understated way, with several artifacts of the time and interesting trompe l'oeil painted fancy wood grain on the doors and painted flecks on the moldings to suggest marble. And there are some attractive outbuildings, including a barn, blacksmith shop, smokehouse, and the like.

Day three

Saw some of the city's minor attractions on the final sightseeing day. Took a bus east of downtown and found the Callahan Museum at the American Printing House for the Blind, which was unusual and interesting. One room presented the history of the APHB, dealing with both its endeavors in publishing and education. The rest of the museum contained information and artifacts related to the blind, including braille books, tactile maps and globes, sound recordings, canes, braille typewriters, large-print books, information on US schools for the blind, and other things. There's even a Hall of Fame for the blind and those who work with them, such as Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. A bus halfway back towards downtown landed me in the East Market District, home to several good restaurants as well as the tiny Thomas Edison House. Edison rented a small room in this double shotgun dwelling as a young man while working in the telegraph office in Louisville. He was apparently fired for causing an accident at work and promptly left town destined for bigger and better things. One room here is furnished in turn-of-the-century boardinghouse style, while the rest of the building contains vintage 19th and early 20th century Edison inventions such as cylinder players and phonographs, dictaphones, telegraphs, and light bulbs. Unfortunately, the Speed Art Museum has been closed the last three years for renovation and will be closed for the next few years as well. A few blocks away from the Thomas Edison House is the museum’s temporary outpost, only open two days a week and showing a pitifully small number of so-so recent contemporary art items. Took the bus to the city's eastern fringe to locate two attractions. First found the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery, where this president and his wife are interred above ground in a small, dignified mausoleum within an otherwise standard-issue military cemetery covered with simple gravestones. Decided afterwards to walk the ca. 2 miles from there to Historic Locust Grove, which was no fun given that the road was narrow, curving, lacking sidewalks, and not lacking traffic. Nevertheless, this was interesting to see. There's a small history museum placing the complex within context of its time as well as several out-buildings such as a kitchen and icehouse. And the house itself, one of the first built the area, is large and impressive of its type. The tour was both informative and interesting.

Food

There's a surprisingly large number of good restaurants in Louisville. With a few exceptions, decided to get small plates or sandwiches so I could try several places.

Lilly’s: got a duck confit salad that perfectly mixed sweetness from dried cranberries and orange sections, crunch from pecan pieces, savory smokiness from duck shreds, and tartness from mixed greens. Excellent.

Roots: got a green papaya salad at this vegetarian spot. It looked similar to what one usually finds in a Thai restaurant, but tasted quite different -- there was shredded green papaya, tofu, veggie “ham,” shallots, apple, and a soy-vinaigrette without a hint of spiciness. Subtle, not bad.

Toast on Main: tried one each of a bread pudding pancake (with rum raisin syrup) and a lemon soufflé pancake (with lemon curd, blueberry compote, and powdered sugar). Very tasty.

Taco Punk: got a chicken mole taco with shredded cabbage, cilantro, and pickled onion. Delicious.

Comfy Cow: this is the go-to ice cream place in Louisville. Tried a kiddie-size cup of gingersnap ice cream, very rich with surprising ginger bite. Enjoyed it.

Mayan Cafe: this is a Mayan/Yucatan Mexican place where "grilled chicken" turned out to be one of the best dishes I had in this city. Consisted of a perfectly grilled piece of chicken breast covered in a tangy smoked chili sauce accompanied by their signature Tok-sel lima beans. Please note that I normally despise lima beans, but these were utterly delicious, sauteed with onions and parsley and garnished with lemon and ground pumpkin seeds. Yum.

Doc Crow’s: primarily a barbecue place, but also has seafood. Got a pork cutlet sandwich, perfectly cooked and seasoned with a hint of spice. The accompanying greens showed a nice complex mix of tartness and heat. Fine stuff.

Brown Hotel: lovely, fancy hotel which is home to a local specialty, the hot brown sandwich. Like Quebec's poutine and Springfield IL’s horseshoe sandwich, this is one of those heavy guilty pleasure comfort food specialties to try once. It consists of turkey slices and tomato pieces on Texas-style toast, covered with Mornay sauce and garnished with bacon. Get ready for a nap after this indulgence.

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