I recently returned from the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky – home to fried chicken, bourbon and thoroughbred racing. My husband and I share a mutual love of horses – me to ride, he to race. While these four-legged animals were the primary motive for our trip to Kentucky, we were there to also celebrate. After all, it was 13 years ago when my husband got down on one knee and proposed on a trip to the Kentucky Derby in 2001 at one of the most beautiful stud farms in the world, Ashford Stud (in front of a non too amused Fusaichi Pegasus, the 2000 Kentucky Derby winner who still resides at Ashford as a stud).
We were married exactly one year later on Derby Day at the St. Regis hotel in New York City, holding off our walk down the aisle so that we and our wedding party could watch the ‘most exciting 2 minutes in sports’. Since then, we celebrate our anniversary on the first Saturday in May by him going to Kentucky with the boys to watch the races and me staying home. Yup, you read that right.
It was due time for an intervention.
As it was my first time back in Bluegrass Country in many years, I opted to escape the frenzy of Derby weekend to celebrate our anniversary a bit earlier during the first weekend in April, when Spring racing begins and everything is a bit quieter and less crowded. How was I to anticipate that the University of Kentucky would make it to the Final Four that weekend?
So off we went, leaving the kids behind at home, for a long weekend of touring world-class horse farms (where we were able to see some of the most famous horses in the world and their wobbly newborn foals), watching the horse races at the picturesque Keeneland racetrack and eating at restaurants in Louisville and Lexington that could hold their own against many notable eateries in NYC. It is worth noting that both Lexington and Louisville are going through a bit of a renaissance and there is quite enough to do to keep you entertained outside thoroughbreds. Such as excellent antiquing, world-class museums and bourbon tasting (You can tour the many distilleries in the area such as Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam or Woodford Reserve. Or, better yet, just hobble your way through the well-known Urban Bourbon Trail – a collection of restaurants and bars each with over 75 bourbons to sample. Sadly, we just didn’t have enough time to partake in it all.
Even though most of our time was to be spent in Lexington, an hour and half drive away from Louisville, I have wanted to check out the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville for some time and see what all the fuss was about. Voted the #1 hotel in the South by Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards for the last two consecutive years and known for its on-site art museum with rotating exhibits, my curiosity was piqued. To soften the toll of driving back and forth between the two locations, we ended up hiring a deputy sheriff named Rusty one day to be our personal driver.
That’s the kind of place Louisville is – where sheriffs named Rusty still exist who you can find in a moment’s notice. With Rusty driving us with his holstered gun tucked in his jacket, we never felt safer.
The 90-room 21c Museum Hotel, located on beautiful West Main Street adorned with 19th century cast iron-facaded buildings, is itself housed in what was formerly five 19th century bourbon and tobacco warehouses. It was opened as a hotel in 2006 by two contemporary art collectors looking to combine a boutique hotel and contemporary art museum. Terming itself an experience rather than just a hotel, 21c aims to showcase 21st century art as an everyday part of life to experience. Each of the 21c hotels (There is one in Cincinnati and Bentonville. Thankfully another is coming to Lexington in early 2015) features rotating exhibits of emerging and acclaimed artists.
Art is surrounding you everywhere at 21c, even before you check in. An oversized David, a 30 ft. golden replica of the real statue made for the 9th International Istanbul Biennal in 2005, stands in front of the hotel on Main Street beckoning you in (you can get a pretty nice back view of him when eating breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant, Proof). So is the hotel’s pimped out stretch limo covered in red crystals that you can hire when you hit that trifecta at the track.
Once you check in, the fun really begins. You encounter clever, surprising (and in some cases, risqué) art installations anywhere, even in most unexpected of places. You might find something on your room TV, at the elevator banks, or at check-in. Even in the lobby bathrooms (you will just have to satiate your curiosity by checking them out yourself). For visitors and guests alike, there is a large 9,000 exhibit space, open 24 hours a day, featuring rotating installations.
What’s up with red penguins you ask? The penguins, now unofficial mascots of the 21c Museum group of hotels, became famous as a commissioned public art project for the 2005 Venice Biennale. Made out of recycled plastic, they were created as reminders for environmental conservation. The owners purchased all of them on first sight. 65 of the 4-foot birds can be found throughout the property (Louisville property has red ones. The other locations have different colored penguins). 21 of them alone are guarding the hotel along the roof outdoors with the remainder dispersed all over hotel. And they are constantly migrating throughout the hotel. Some guests found one inside their room. We were visited by a single penguin at breakfast one morning (he was a cheap date!).
With all that art, don’t be surprised to find security hanging around the front lobby (that is, after all, how we found our sheriff to drive us around) as rowdy visitors on that last round of the bourbon trail may get too interactive with the art installations. One of these cute red penguins was in fact stolen and found later at the county courthouse – I am sure that made for an interesting story.
With all the fascinating art displays around us, our particular room (a Deluxe King) was unremarkable – a disappointment really. We clearly didn’t get one of the better rooms with floor to ceiling windows and interesting art on the walls that were shown on the website. While the room was comfortable enough, it was dark (our room faced a building on the side street) and plain, with very little closet space and a bathroom that was just too small for two people. The Malin & Goetz toiletries and Tcho chocolates were nice touches. Next time, I would definitely request a Luxury King or suite facing the main street
We experienced breakfast and dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, Proof on Main and both were consistently excellent. Housed in an attractive loft space with – you guessed it – lots of art, the restaurant served inventive and tasty dishes. The adjoining bar is on the Bourbon Trail with its own superb collection of bourbons (if you can’t drink it, you will find bourbon in many of the dishes). Not surprisingly, the bar is a popular stop for many and consistently packed on weekends.
I really enjoyed this unique hotel for the art, food, authenticity and wonderful southern hospitality and highly recommend it to anyone coming to Louisville (or Lexington, soon) to experience the 21c Museum Hotel.
What To Do
There is so much to do in the Louisville/Lexington area that would interest young and old alike. Louisville, with its cast iron facades is a town undergoing a rejuvenation. To really enjoy it, skip the craziness of the Kentucky Derby and go another weekend in April or May to take in the beauty of the area and visit the newborn foals on the farms in the area.
- Visit the many distilleries – such as Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, or Woodford Reserve or the bars on the Urban Trail featuring over 75 different bourbons to sample).
- Stop by the Louisville Slugger Museum, located just down the block from the hotel (you can’t miss the oversize bat on the building).
- Check out the many interesting museums – including Glassworks, The Muhammed Ali Center, and Frazier History Museum and of course the Kentucky Derby Museum.
- Catch some races at Churchill Downs or Keeneland racetrack – check in advance which is open.
- Horse farms – Book ahead (click here for your best resource). There are many group and private tour companies that will take you to some of the most beautiful horse farms and operations in the world. Ashford Stud, Winstar, Lane’s End, Three Chimneys, Calumet, and Claiborne are some of the most notable where many of multi-million horses are breeding. Many of these farms may be closed in April or have limited schedules as it is breeding season so check ahead to see what is available on the circuit.
- Restaurants. There are too many to mention. We loved Jack Fry’s, a local institution – adorned with old black and white photos on the walls – open since 1930 and still ever popular with locals and tourists. Jeff Ruby’s is the quintessential steakhouse in Louisville. Proof on Main, 21c Museum’s restaurant, is a popular hangout and serves consistently delicious fare.
- Between horse farm tours, stop in the town of Midway – the true epicenter of thoroughbred racing as it is equi-distant between the towns of Versailles and Lexington. Midway is a time warp with an active railroad going through the middle of town surrounded by lush rolling countryside. It is also home to a few great restaurants like 815 Prime (you can get your fill of grits and fried chicken here as well as contemporary fare).
Rooms To Get
Ask for a 2nd floor (they have the largest windows) Luxury King room or suite facing main street (these rooms have more light). Some rooms have terraces as well. Want the ultimate art-immersive experience? Ask for the Cyclone suite, designed by New York-based artists Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe.
If you don’t want to splurge for the decked-out PIP Mobile, complimentary bikes are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.