A diverse food scene, buzzing nightlife and great music venues (as well as record stores) make Louisville a hotspot that you can bet on … and there’s the Kentucky Derby, too

Outsiders tend to equate Louisville with three famous vices: bourbon, horse racing and fried chicken. Bourbon; absolutely. Horse racing – only for those two debaucherous, weather-turbulent weeks of spring for the Kentucky Derby. As for fried chicken, well, most locals will be more excited to offer a suggestion for cheap tapas or where to get humanely raised, farm-to-table fare than where to find a local alternative to Colonel Sanders.

This city has a rich vocabulary in food and drink. Its people have increasingly embraced a kitsch and pervasively funky je-ne-sais-quoi over the Gatsby-esque old-world glamour and seersucker suits that the tourists associate with the Derby. The best way to glean the vibe? Visit the quirky gift shop meets sideshow attraction WHY Louisville to know what you’re getting yourself into. Both stores are jammed with carnival games, movie costumes, fortune tellers, wax statues, and other fringe decor that truly keep Louisville weird.

Once you’ve crossed that off the list, it’s time to hit the town … When it comes to music Zanzabar, nestled in the Germantown neighbourhood, is the go-to small room for great shows. Through either sorcery or good karma, Zanzabar seems to grab talent that traditionally plays venues twice the size of this cosy retro dive with a capacity of just 250, stuffed with vintage arcade games. Concert-wise, Zbar runs the gamut of indie rock, hip-hop, experimental, alt country, and more, splitting its calendar between buzzworthy international talent and the best of the local scene. Before the shows, you can enjoy smoky barbecue and inspired comfort food. Afterwards, DJs of both local and national fame take full advantage of Louisville’s generous 4am last call. And yes, they serve lots of bourbon.

Should you need a ride back (and you may), CityScoot will swing by on a fold-up motorised scooter and drive you and your vehicle safely back to your hotel. For bigger names and a more spacious atmosphere, enjoy the crisp sound system and beautiful frescoes at Headliners Music Hall (1386 Lexington Road). Feel free to provide your own narrative concerning the crashed Cessna plane in the rock wall just outside the entrance.

Thanks to the hugely influential band Slint, Louisville is often considered to be post-rock’s cradle of civilisation, and today the Derby City sound is all over the map. Find a huge collection of local tunes on wax, along with rare new and used titles across all genres at Astro Black Records (930 Baxter Avenue), a small operation at the back of Quills Coffee in the Highlands. You’ll find many of the artists that keep the local scene chooglin’ at Seidenfaden’s (1134 East Breckinridge Street) on Saturday nights, when a rotating cast of guest DJs spin their favourite vinyl.

While you’re in the eclectic Highlands district, a dining and nightlife strip where white-tablecloth and greasy spoon often share the same storefront, drop by The Holy Grale (1034 Bardstown Road). This former church turned-craft-beer shrine embraces its former life with a Munich-style biergarten adorned with stained glass, along with hops plants, various portraits of The Last Supper, three bars (including an upstairs choir loft), and a meticulously curated menu of high-ABV, hard-to-find international beers and exotic pub grub. Move north to the burgeoning East Market food scene, where sourcing from regional family farms and sustainable food options are the norm.

Louisville doesn’t have to be just about bourbon. A mint julep can help soothe the southern-heated brow. Photograph: Alamy
For an inexpensive, fast, casual experience, drop by Taco Punk (736 East Market) for freshly caught shark or delicious local pork on top of homemade, gluten-free tortillas under a bed of shredded cabbage, cilantro and pickled onions. Smother everything in the freshly made pineapple habanero salsa. Finish off your experience with a fresh cup of joe and the world’s best baked goods at Please & Thank You (800 East Market Street). Oh, and it’s a carefully curated record store as well.

Before you leave town, cross over the mighty Ohio river to sample the region’s finest barbecue at Feast (116 West Main Street, New Albany). Its chopped chicken may not be fried, but the explosion of flavours (at cheap prices) will more than satiate your comfort-food needs and cure that bourbon hangover.

Original article at The Guardian.