In his booth at the St. James Court Art Show in Louisville, Peter Robinson Smith shines a flashlight through a wire mesh torso. The beam casts a striking shadow on the tent wall, each muscle perfectly shaded as if sketched in charcoal. Peter used to have a website but gave it up. “People would see photos online and e-mail me with questions, but they never ordered one. They got it here,” he says, touching his head, then his heart, “but not here.”
Similarly, thanks to Louisville’s sports icons, you might have an image of this Ohio River town in your head—but knowing is different from experiencing. Baseball fans grip genuine Derek Jeter bats at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. The turmoil of the 1960s erupts at the Muhammad Ali Center, which honors the Louisville native. At Churchill Downs, tour groups stand trackside as thoroughbreds train at dawn. No doubt about it, Louisville (or “LOO-vul,” as locals say) knows how to work its legends to stirring effect.
But another part of Louisville’s charm is discovering that jocks alone don’t own this city’s soul. The St. James Court Art Show draws more than 700 artists to Old Louisville, the country’s largest Victorian district. Over three days, 300,000 people circulate through the leafy neighborhood, an astounding number in a city just twice that size. Affordability adds to the appeal; you’ll find plenty of art under $50.
Accessibility also inspires the 21c Museum Hotel, a boutique property with an art museum in its public spaces. Free and open 24 hours, the 21c embraces walk-in visitors. On a typical Saturday night, the lobby fills with hotel guests, a wedding party and wandering bar patrons toting bourbon glasses. Everyone talks about the art around them. This is the new Louisville, and it’s as much a part of the city’s identity as a frosty mint julep or the thundering staccato of hooves on sand.
Click to the next page for our Trip Guide.
What to do
Frazier History Museum This polished downtown armory museum will engage History Channel fans but might leave others craving more variety. Admission charged. (502) 753-5663; fraziermuseum.org 
Kentucky Derby Museum Immerse yourself in the “most exciting two minutes in sports” at Churchill Downs. Admission charged; tours available. (502) 637-1111; derbymuseum.org 
Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory Admission includes a great factory tour. (877) 775-8443; sluggermuseum.com 
Louisville Stoneware Browse the showroom of this nearly 200-year-old company, or get crafty in the paint-your-own area. Tours are worth the $7 charge. (800) 626-1800; louisvillestoneware.com 
Mark Payton Glass Center Stop by for glass-blowing experiences and a glittering gallery. Admission for tours and classes. (502) 992-3270; paytonglasscenter.com 
Muhammad Ali Center Multimedia exhibits re-create the tempest of controversy and adulation surrounding the boxer and explore his legacy. (502) 584-9254; alicenter.org 
St. James Court Art Show Allow at least a half-day to see hundreds of exhibitors in Old Louisville. Shuttles run from downtown, or bring cash to park nearby. (502) 635-1842; stjamescourtartshow.com 
Urban Bourbon Trail Rather than hit all the stops, use the passport as a guide to the city’s best grown-up bars. (888) 568-4784; bourboncountry.com 
Click to the last page for our guides on where to eat and where to stay.
Where to eat
Harvest White walls and plain tables let the details shine: attentive service, exquisite seasonal fare and oversize portraits of the farmers whose, ahem, harvest fills your plate. (502) 384-9090; harvestlouisville.com 
Hillbilly Tea A sunny cafe offers loose-leaf brews and a creative menu with backwoods flair. (502) 587-7350; hillbillytea.com 
Lilly’s This “Kentucky bistro” serves inventive dishes like fried oysters with grits, chipotle butter and spinach. (502) 451-0447; lillyslapeche.com 
Mayan Cafe The cuisine of the Yucatán Peninsula inspires innovative dishes. The lima beans are legendary. Don’t hold your nose. Just try ’em. (502) 566-0651; themayancafe.com 
Toast on Market Our pick at this popular breakfast-lunch cafe: lemon souffle pancakes. (502) 569-4099; toastonmarket.com 
Wagner’s Pharmacy Featured in Secretariat, this utterly unfroufrou drugstore diner serves the Churchill Downs crowd. (502) 375-3800; wagnerspharmacy.com 
Where to stay
Brown Hotel Historic hotel fans will love the updated rooms. In the ornate lobby bar, try a Hot Brown, a turkey sandwich created here nearly a century ago. From $159. (888) 387-0498; brownhotel.com 
21c Museum Hotel Everything just works: stylish rooms, free exhibits, hip hospitality and delicious food at Proof. From $260. (502) 217-6300; 21cmuseumhotels.com 
For more information: Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau (800) 626-5646; gotolouisville.com 
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® September/October 2012.)