A blue oasis in a deep-red state, Louisville is well worth a visit for queer travelers, especially those with a taste for bourbon: The uniquely American spirit was perfected here nearly 200 years ago. Today, almost 95% of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky—and most Louisville distilleries offer tours and tastings.
But even if you’re a teetotaler, there’s plenty to see and do: Louisville offers visitors a delightful little-big town vibe, a diverse food scene, centuries of American pop culture, and a vibrant gay scene in the Highlands. (On September 15, Bardstown Road closes down to traffic for the Louisville Pride Festival.) The city’s earned a perfect score on HRC’s Equality Index and the University of Louisville continually ranks on Campus Pride’s most LGBT-friendly colleges list.
What’s Louisville got in store for you? I’m glad you asked.
Where to Visit
Horseracing wasn’t born in Louisville, but it was perfected here with the advent of the Kentucky Derby in 1875. The Kentucky Derby Museum offers a behind-the-stalls look at the event’s history and pageantry. (Don’t miss the amazing collection of derby hats) as well as regular tours of Churchill Downs itself. 700 Central Ave.
Closed for three years for a massive renovation, the Speed reopened in 2016 with two new pavilions adding thousands of square feet and tons of direct light. It’s diverse offerings include works by Rembrandt, Monet, Rodin, Chagall, Picasso and Rembrandt, as well as more contemporary artists like Chuck Close, Alice Neel and Frank Stella. On view through September 9, “Breaking the Mold” explores gender identity through art and includes pieces by Kehinde Wiley, Paul Cadmus, Kiki Smith and Barbara Kruger. 2035 S 3rd St.
The area’s rich limestone deposits are part of what gives bourbon its distinctive character, and the city’s mammoth limestone caverns have been outfitted with trams, bike paths and ziplines for truly unique urban exploration. 1841 Taylor Ave.
Check out historic arms, relics from the Civil War and Lewis and Clark Expedition, and a collection of military miniatures that’s actually quite massive. A recent temporary exhibit spotlighted Mona Bismarck, a Kentucky-born style icon (dubbed “The Best Dressed Woman in the World”) and muse and friend to Salvador Dali, Cecil Beaton, Truman Capote and others. The museum is also the starting point for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. 829 West Main St.
Get a taste of the potent potable that put Louisville on the map. After the passage of prohibition, Louisville’s distilleries left Whiskey Row. In recent years, an effort has been made to bring them back into town, with beloved distilleries ike Old Forester, Angel’s Envy, Bulleit, and Maker’s Mark all now offering tours, tastings, cocktail classes and more on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. (There are also 44 bars and restaurants on the Urban Bourbon Trail.)
On September 22 and 23, Louisville plays host to the Bourbon and Beyond Festival, with superstar chefs, tastings and performances by Sting, Lenny Kravitz, David Byrne and more.
Where to Eat
Can’t decide what to get? Order your pulled pork, brisket, chicken, ribs and (for whatever reason) crispy smoked tofu by the half-pound and mix it up. And wash it all down with a rum-infused tangerine dreamsicle slushie. 909 East Market St.
The brunch options at Kevin Grangier’s eclectic steakhouse are so inventive, you’ll feel righteous ordering dishes like “Ode to Wilbur” (candied bacon) and “Better than Xanax” (a giant bowl of Lucky Charms with a scoop of vanilla ice cream). Time your visit to the weekly drag brunch or book the iconic Vuitton booth, made from 17 pieces of vintage Louis Vuitton luggage. 2300 Lexington Rd.
It’s wild and exotic meat on the menu at this Irish Hill outpost, not Atari-themed plates: Menu items include roasted bison tongue, kangaroo meatballs, wild boar chorizo, and buttermilk fried frogs legs. 2295 Lexington Rd.
A place where vegetarians and carnivores can break bread together on dishes like roasted cauliflower with golden raisins, spicy carrot hummus, honey and calabrese chile. (The bone marrow shoot might be a dealbreaker, though.) The restaurant’s full menu is also available upstairs in Lola, the restaurant’s dimly lit romantic lounge. 1076 East Washington St.
Kentucky is synonymous with fried chicken, but this NuLu restaurant is where you want to be when you get the drunk munchies. (Though the Gonzo level might be a bad call if you’ve had a few.) 736 East Market St.
Small-batch ice cream with funky flavors like bourbon smoked pecan, pistachio honeycomb, and Camp Marshmallow (vanilla marshmallow creme with Rice Krispie treat pieces). 632 E Market St.
The food is as much a draw as the drinks at this converted service garage, where the kitchen whips up everything from brick-oven pizza and country ham to brussels sprout pie and fried turkey wings. If you’re stationed outside, keep your eyes on Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle, an art installation that’s actually two muscle cars crashing into each other at the slothlike rate of 1/8th inch per hour. 700 East Market St.
If you’re hoping to bring home some modjeskas or chocolate bourbon balls, Muth’s been whipping them up since 1921. 630 East Market St.
Map out your day at this combo coffeehouse-record shop with locations in NuLu and Frankfort Ave and chocolate chip cookies that’ll bring a tear to your eye. 2341 Frankfort Ave.
Where to Play
The sister club to Play in Nashville routinely welcomes Drag Race contestants, who can truly spread their legs on one of the biggest runways you’ve ever seen. 1101 E Washington St.
Size isn’t everything at this tiny Highlands bar, where the generous happy hour runs 4-8pm. 1202 Bardstown Rd.
You’ll find strong cocktails at the Bardstown mainstay, as well as karaoke, dancing, a backyard patio, and an always-friendly crowd. In fact the one thing you won’t find here is drama. 1117 Bardstown Rd.
Opened in 1987, this old-school neighborhood bar is Louisville oldest gay bar. So it’s not surprising that the crowd skews older (and bearish), though everyone is made to feel welcome. 1148 Garvin Place
Opened in 1994, this Louisville institution offers pool tables, go-go boys, and friendly bartenders with a heavy pour. 209 South Preston St.
At this Schnitzelburg dive, which started life as Tink’s Pub, the crowd is mostly lesbian but all are welcome (including straight folk). Check in for unique performances on weekends. 2235 South Preston St.
Though Nowhere doesn’t bill itself as a gay bar, more than half the folks on the dance floor are friends of Dorothy working it out to killer mixes from local DJs. 1133 Bardstown Rd.
Where to Stay
This 95-year-old Georgian-Revival gem got some sprucing up courtesy of a recent $12 million renovation, but the grand old glamour is still evident in the granite bathrooms, goose-down comforters and hand-knit throws. In 1926 hotel chef Fred K. Schmidt introduced the Hot Brown, an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and mornay sauce that’s become a Louisville institution (The hotel’s restaurant, the English Grill, serves some 15,000 during Derby Week alone.) 335 W Broadway
You can’t miss this hotel on 7th and Main — its the one with a double-size gold replica of Michelangelo’s David outside—but don’t miss the breathtaking contemporary art on view inside, including pieces by Kehinde Wiley and Titus Kaphar. (You can actually sleep in Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s Asleep in the Cyclone a multicolored site-specific installation that doubles as a guest room.) And there are few better ways to start your day than with the deliciously decadent carrot-ginger bread at Proof on Main, the hotel’s equally funky restaurant. 700 W Main St.
This five-story, 156-room offering from Marriott embodies a design-led European sensibility, with a minimalist look and a sleek, modern bar in the lobby you’ll actually want to have a drink in. Plus, it’s located in the heart of NuLu, a funky hood full of one-of-a-kind shopping, dining and drinking options. 727 E Market St.
To be sure, rooms in the Galt House’s the two towers are spectacular. But if you don’t book a room, it’s worth a visit to take a spin (literally) at Rivue, the revolving restaurant on the 25th floor that offers panoramic views of Downtown and Ohio River. 140 N Fourth St.
This historic four-diamond hotel was opened in 1905 by Bavarian immigrant brothers hoping to replicate the old-world grandeur of Europe. Today, its architectural and decorative splendor has been carefully preserved. (The Seelbach is listed on the National Register of Historical Places.) Throughout its long history, the hotel has been frequented by many notable guests, from presidents (Roosevelt, Kennedy, Clinton) to mobsters (Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz, Al Capone). F. Scott Fitzgerald took inspiration from the Seelbach for a hotel in The Great Gatsby. 500 S 4th St.