While perhaps best known for May's Kentucky Derby and the Old Fashioned cocktail, Louisville has also established itself as a bright pink, progressive spot on the LGBTQ travel map over the past five years. In fact, the Human Rights Campaign scored Louisville a perfect 100 on its annual Municipal Equality Index in 2019 (and also the preceding four years, from 2015 to 2018, to boot).
The city, pronounced "loo-uh-ville," or just "Lou" for short, ranked 11th in a 2015 Gallup survey for having the most LGBTQ-identified people per capita in the country and is home to several annual LGBT Pride events. Kentuckiana Pride, which celebrates 20 years in 2020, typically takes place in June at the Big Four Lawn at Waterfront Park, while the Louisville Pride Festival happens in mid-September. September also sees Kentucky Black Pride, the schedule of which includes a Pride In The Park Saturday afternoon event. Film fans should note the Louisville LGBT Film Festival each October, while Pandora Productions is a year-round LGBTQ live theater and performance company.
If you're searching for more LGBTQ resources in the Bluegrass State, the website Queer Kentucky features plenty of LGBTQ news and POV pieces. Read on for more top things to do, places to dine, drink, dance, and more.
The Best Things To Do
Begin with a stroll through the trendy, hipsterific Nulu district. Originally short for "New York Louisville" (according to politically progressive New York filmmaker-cum-Louisville developer Gill Holland), instead "New Louisville" stuck among locals, and this recently revitalized district is rife with outstanding indie restaurants and cocktail bars (Decca, Rye, Garage Bar), breweries (Akasha, Goodwood), craft coffee (Quills, Please & Thank You), and shops. Two must-visits include four-year-old, extremely LGBTQ-friendly, gender-neutral apparel store Blofish—its collections include "Love Is Love" and "Pride," while 10 percent of all sales are donated to nonprofit organizations—and Louisville-made craft-good boutique and art gallery, Revelry Gallery, which is souvenir heaven and akin to the local-centric stores that Portland, Oregon is beloved for.
Kentucky's largest art museum, the 92-year-old (and frequently upgraded and evolving) Speed Art Museum, explicitly states its commitment to "diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion," and has curated exhibitions that address LGBTQ life, artists, and representation. Its 2018 exhibition and series, "Breaking The Mold," included work by Barack Obama's presidential portraitist Kehinde Wiley and panels on drag- and trans-advocacy. You should also explore downtown's Museum Row, where you'll find the Muhammad Ali Center, packed with exhibitions dedicated to Louisville's iconic native son, the Frazier History Museum and Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center, and the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, where baseball fans can hold bats used by the likes of Mickey Mantle and get a customized new model.
Queer music fans, meanwhile, should try to catch Louisville's own "scream pop" band GRLwood (the members call themselves "Kentucky fried queerdos") and bear sonic semblance to queercore icons Team Dresch and Le Tigre.
The Best LGBTQ Bars and Clubs
Kentucky's largest LGBTQ+ nightclub, Play, is easily spotted thanks to the word "Love," painted in rainbow-striped letters, along its exterior. Located in the NuLu-adjacent Butchertown (named so thanks to its past as a meatpacking district), Play is an 18-and-up establishment with three bars, a dance floor, and patio, plus a fun lineup of drag performances—by both local queens and visiting "Drag Race" superstars like Tatiana, Yvie Oddly and Adore Delano. Play also hosts themed party nights.
Over in the lively Highlands district (there's even a cat cafe here!), the seven-year-old Chill Bar Highlands offers a specialty martini menu, dancing, undies-clad go-go boys, live music, and biweekly showtune sing-a-longs. Big Bar, once ironically named given its 728 square feet, grew in size in 2019 with a larger patio, while expansion is currently underway. The weekly lineup includes TV viewing parties (some hosted by local drag personality Zsa Zsa Gabortion), go-go boys, and drink specials like the $6 "Frozen Lizzo Juice."
Downtown's Tryangles mixes things up with a spate of themed parties, including bear and leather ("Rawhide 'n Furr"), underwear, and karaoke (every Tuesday), drag shows, and dirt cheap shots and happy hour specials. Opened in 1987, Teddy Bears Bar is Louisville's longest-running gay bar, and tends to bring in a seasoned male crowd (ages 30-65), offering karaoke fun on Wednesdays and Sundays plus a fun monthly drag show, "Beauties of the Bear."
Alas, Louisville's single lesbian bar, Purrswaytions, closed in 2019. Still, Highlands' Nowhere Bar offers a warm welcome and dancing to EDM tunes to all sexualities and genders and hosts Pride events and after-parties.
The Best Places to Eat
Marketplace Restaurant is part of The Village Louisville, a progressive and LGBT-friendly Smoketown district redevelopment project that includes a gay spa and boutique property, the Vu Guesthouse. The restaurant serves up executive chef Zac Young's globally-inspired Southern fare, including blue crab hushpuppies, a pulled duck leg pot pie, and fried green tomato caesar salad with thin-sliced country ham. A member of Kentucky's Urban Bourbon Trail, Marketplace also boasts a large selection of bourbons and a must-try Old Fashioned.
One of Food Network's "Best Steak Restaurants in the County," the modern Le Moo serves up eclectic design, decadent omnivorous menu (Mizayaki Wagyu!), and fun, enormously popular drag brunches and dinners. Each drag dining experience is themed (2020 has already seen "Star Wars" and "Dolly Parton & Country Divas"), and you can check out the line-up of local sassy talents online when making reservations.
At NuLu's outstanding Decca, chef Annie Pettry serves up locavore Southern-influenced delights including fresh pasta, hand-cut tartare, wood-grilled meat and veggie dishes, and seasonal cocktails, in a renovated 1870s building decorated with work by local artists—keep an eye out for paintings by the Sweden-born, Louisville-based Hawk Alfredson, whose wonderfully disturbing work brings to mind Salvador Dali and Hieronymous Bosch. His studio and home is located in the up-and-coming, artsy Portland neighborhood, which is well worth a look-see and meal at its pay-what-you-can, non-profit and community-centric The Table Cafe, where you'll find local and visiting movers and shakers, academics, and progressive politicians hunkering down on farm-to-table salads, sandwiches, and more.
Where to Stay
A fusion of edgy contemporary art museum and upscale boutique hotel, the 21c Museum Hotel was born in Louisville, and its 91-room flagship is smack dab in downtown. Impossible to miss thanks to the towering, golden double-size replica of Michelangelo's David marking its 7th and Main location, and a fleet of fuchsia toned penguin sculptures (which are continually being moved throughout the hotel, including guestrooms and the rooftop), the property is worth visiting even if not spending the night. Visitors can explore its 9,000 square-feet worth of ever-changing exhibitions and installations and superb farm-to-table restaurant Proof on Main, which boasts a selection of more than 120 Kentucky bourbons.
A 2018 opening (at a reported cost of $330 million), downtown's sleek 30-story, 612-room Omni Louisville Hotel is a full-fledged destination in itself thanks in part to its attached urban market, the Falls City Market: vendors include Mexican-influenced breakfast and lunch stall Con Huevos Craves, organic fair-trade coffee shop Heine Brothers, and Bourbon Barrel Foods, a soy sauce microbrewery.
Prolific local businessman and developer and LGBT activist George Stinson and partner Ed Lewis opened Louisville's first gay club in 1970 (and The Connection, which had a 27-plus year run before closing in 2016). More recently, the pair debuted Vu Guesthouse, an LGBT-friendly, 34-room boutique hotel, set in a converted Smoketown warehouse. It's part of a complex, The Village Louisville, which includes a three-story gay men's spa and sauna, Vapor, and 1,500-person capacity event space, C2.