Every May when I listen to the familiar strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses line up for the world-famous Kentucky Derby and see the women in the stands wearing wide-brimmed hats, I’m intrigued.
So soon after the Derby, I went to Louisville, home of the famous Churchill Downs, a National Historic Landmark where 1,200 horses are stabled, for a tour and a few races, which were fun even without the huge crowds. Visitors can eat, drink a traditional mint julep, make bets, cheer from the stands, walk around the well-groomed grounds for a close-up view of the sleek thoroughbreds and diminutive jockeys, and visit the Kentucky Derby Museum. Additional races are held in the late spring/early summer and in the fall.
Horses have long been an important part of Louisville’s heritage. Even before the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, people knew that horses bred and raised in this bluegrass region of Kentucky were stronger because of the large amount of calcium in the soil. Thoroughbred horse farms soon dotted the area.
Besides horse racing, Louisville is known for bourbon, Victorian homes, historic sites, sports, parks, unique neighborhoods and good food. “Lonely Planet” travel guide calls Louisville the top tourist destination for 2013 and a “lively, offbeat cultural mecca on the Ohio River.”
With 95 percent of the world’s bourbon distilled in Kentucky, Louisville set up an Urban Bourbon Trail to give visitors a fun way to taste the drink in various forms -- straight, with champagne or in a mint julep. My tour began with a mint julep at the Brown Hotel.
Then over at the Seelbach Hotel, which F. Scott Fitzgerald mentions in “The Great Gatsby,” we sampled their classic bourbon mixed with champagne. Fitzgerald reportedly wrote part of the novel on napkins and had Tom and Daisy married in the ballroom. The Seelbach is also famous for a secret back room where gangster Al Capone would regularly meet with associates during the Prohibition Era.
Then there’s the elegant Buck’s Restaurant and Bar, which was filled with vases of white flowers against a dark green background.
One night we toured the Buffalo Trace Distillery, a National Historic Landmark in nearby Frankfort. It has been in business continuously, even during Prohibition when it was one of four distilleries allowed to make medicinal bourbon.
Customers were allowed to buy one pint every 10 days for medical purposes, said our guide, Jeff Warnecke.
We walked among 24,000 barrels of bourbon and learned an episode of the popular cable TV show “Ghost Hunters” was filmed there. We took our own ghost tour and ended the evening with samples of bourbon and bourbon balls.
People can register at the Louisville visitors center or any bar or distillery on the Urban Bourbon Trail and earn a free T-shirt after six stops.
Victorian homes of Old Louisville
For an overview of this city of 120 parks, trees and gardens, and an occasional boulevard fountain, we took a narrated sightseeing trip with Leslie Burke of City Taste Tours. Louisville has the largest contiguous collection of Victorian homes and third largest historic preservation district in the U.S. We stopped at the 1895 Conrad-Caldwell House Museum, a three-story stone mansion with imported wood throughout the interior, arches and gargoyles. It has been restored to about 1908 and contains many of the original pieces from the Conrad and Caldwell families.
Later, we learned some juicy local history when re-enactor Ron Harris stood on the wide staircase performing as Alfred “Fred” DuPont, who lived across the street from the Conrad-Caldwell house and frequented a certain Louisville brothel.
DuPont was shot to death in 1893 by a distraught prostitute who claimed he fathered her child. He had refused to pay for the child’s expenses. The family, coroner and local newspaper covered up the place and cause of death.
Harris had us spellbound as he portrayed this immensely rich, powerful, arrogant man.
Ron and his wife, Jane Harris, were actors in New York before moving to their own 110-year-old Victorian house in Louisville. They soon discovered the upkeep was quite costly, so they opened Old Louisville Candy Company on the third floor of their house and make Happy Balls with an old recipe from Ron’s Aunt Happy to help finance repairs. They have fun with the name, and Jane told us, “The Happy Balls are like bourbon balls, but better.”
We continued through the Highlands, Elizabethtown, Irish Hill and NuLu, where in the last three to five years, artists and local independent businesses have revitalized the old neighborhood.
At Kizito Cookies shop, we talked to owner Elizabeth Kizito, who came from Uganda after a boarding school teacher helped her get into a college in New Mexico. Moving to Louisville after college, she started baking and selling cookies. Walking around with a cookie-filled basket on her head, she soon became a fixture around town.
Eventually, Kizito opened a shop where she sells her popular cookies as well as a variety of African gifts.
Then we stopped at Art Edibles, where Kelly Ramsey passed out handmade chocolate truffle bourbon balls.
Joe Ley Antiques, housed in an 1890s three-story red brick former schoolhouse, is crammed full of old posters, dishes, furniture, jewelry, chandeliers, doors, hardware, musical instruments, military memorabilia and more. The place is now popular for filming movies and for buying special pieces for decorating restaurants.
The Butchertown Market in the 1880 red brick Magic Flake Factory houses a collection of craft shops that are unique to Kentucky, with handcrafted bath products, furniture, gourmet chocolates, bourbon-infused sauces and seasonings, and clothing.
Downtown on the water
In a city that prides itself in its parks, the famous Frederick Law Olmsted Park System has 15 miles of greenways connecting major parks and was designed by the man who did Central Park in New York. The 85-acre Waterfront Park downtown along the Ohio River also beckons visitors.
From the wharf downtown, visitors can cruise and dine along the Ohio River on the Belle of Louisville, the oldest operating Mississippi River-style steamboat in the world and a National Historic Landmark. Celebrating 100 years in 2014, the Belle once carried lumber, grain and cotton and later served as a floating USO Club on the Mississippi River for World War II soldiers.
It is the most widely traveled river steamboat in the nation. I was enthralled watching the sky turn brilliant orange and pink as I stood at the rail at sunset.
Walking a short distance from the wharf, visitors can marvel at the 30-foot-tall gold statue of Michelangelo’s David.
It was commissioned by an artist in Istanbul and shipped to Louisville where it now stands in front of the 21C Museum Hotel, which has its own amazing contemporary art throughout the dining area, hallways and galleries.
Across the street the Kentucky Center for Performing Arts runs the “KentuckyShow!” film with AshleyJudd highlighting the history and culture of Kentucky. Rose bushes decorate street corners.
Horses and the Derby, bourbon, Victorian neighborhoods and a historic riverboat are some of the sights I saw in Louisville. To plan your own trip, go to www.louisvilleky.gov/visitors  for more information on attractions, accommodations and restaurants.
Pamela O’Meara can be reached at email@example.com  or at 651-748-7818.
Named after King Louis XVI of France, who sent soldiers to aid Americans during the Revolutionary War, Louisville sits at the Falls of the Ohio River across from Indiana. The city was established when the first Europeans arrived in 1778. In 1803, Lewis and Clark organized their western expedition from the falls.
In the early 1800s the town grew rapidly as a stopover for river boats, whose goods had to be unloaded and moved around the falls by mule.
Louisville became a major internal shipping port with the aid of slaves and also became a point of escape because Indiana was a free state.
Louisville was an important Union stronghold and a hub for transportation, supplies and planning during the American Civil War. Today, it’s the nation’s seventh largest inland port.