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Summer Guide: Spiritual guidance, and bourbon, in Louisville

Camp in the hills, catch Shakespeare in the park, ride the Bluegrass Parkway—and don’t forget to come back for Lebowski Fest

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Some people have a spirit animal—a guardian creature residing within, acting as guide and patron and providing metaphysical kinship. In case you're interested, mine is the owl. (According to a quiz available at keshasparty.com—Ke$ha's spirit animal quiz. Yep.) But that's neither here nor there because what I really have is better: I have a spirit bar.

It's the Mag Bar in Louisville, Kentucky, on the corner of Magnolia and Second, in a neighborhood known as Old Louisville. I've rarely been there at night—it's reputed to get rowdy—but for an afternoon tipple this dusty, funky dive, which has a working cigarette machine among other amenities/necessities, is matchless. J. Edgar Hoover, in portrait, glowers behind the bar. A pair of women's legs is attached to the frame. The jukebox is sublimely appointed—"Jolene" was playing the first time I walked in, some spring night six years ago—and there's pool in the back. Back farther still there's a patio. Drink beer here. Drink whiskey, too! There's a generous selection of both. The Mag Bar owns my soul.

I've heard that Zanzabar (2100 S. Preston) is nice too. But is there more to Louisville than bars? There is.

Walking through Old Louisville, the third-largest historic preservation district in the country, is like touring a sort of midsouthern gothic—not as steamy and overgrown as, say, Savannah, but the houses are enormous, Victorian, and ornate. I particularly love the long courts that stretch between rows of houses, for pedestrians only. Central Park, between Magnolia and Park Avenues and S. Sixth and Fourth Streets, is home to Shakespeare in the Park, a free presentation of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival. This summer's play is Much Ado About Nothing, and it runs July 12-29.

Those seeking relief from beer or Bard can stop at nearby Juanita's Burger Boy (1450 S. Brook), a 24-hour diner in the classic style, where a breakfast of country-fried steak with gravy, two eggs, and home fries, toast, or biscuits will set you back $5.99.

Those seeking more beer or Bard should hit up Bardstown Road, in the city's eastern quadrant. Stickers on coffee shop doors say Keep Louisville Weird, and the neighborhood, called the Highlands, is a good excuse for them, with an eclectic smattering of bars, restaurants, and shops. Esteemed weirdo Will Oldham (Bonnie "Prince" Billy) lives around here, for one; My Morning Jacket are from Louisville, too. The road winds up and away from the city center—it's great for walking—and attractions on and around it include hipster joint Quills Coffee (930 Baxter); two options for pretty decent barbecue, the Frankfort Avenue Beer Depot (1202 Bardstown) and an outpost of Mark's Feed Store (1514 Bardstown); cute little Carmichael's Bookstore, which adjoins Heine Brothers, a local coffee chain (1295 Bardstown); and the leather store Leatherhead (1601 Bardstown), where I once blew way too much money on a dazzling pink-and-purple cowboy belt and matching riding crop. Why? Who knows. The stuff is gorgeous, but the belt doesn't even fit.

Weirdness peaks in July with Lebowski Fest, an annual tribute to the Dude. It features, of course, bowling and White Russians, plus a screening, costume and trivia contests, and special guests. This year it's July 21 and 22.

Recently the Megabus started servicing Louisville—fares from Chicago start at $1 and go up to about $40. The six-hour trips leave twice a day. But if you can stomach the Indiana flatlands—and boy do I mean flat—driving is really the way to go. Louisville is not noted for its public transportation system, and unless you were to rent a car once you got there, you'd miss the surrounding countryside, which is impossibly gorgeous—they weren't kidding about the bluegrass and the gentle rolling hills. It's always a surprise to be reminded that such a landscape is half a day's drive away.

There's not just nature out there—there's also bourbon. In fact there's a whole path of whiskey distilleries, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (kybourbontrail.com), which you can access in Elizabethtown, about an hour south of Louisville. (Those lacking the patience an hour requires can stop at Jim Beam, which is between the two towns.) It meanders northeast along the Bluegrass Parkway and provides access to distillery tours and tastings at such illustrious providers as Maker's Mark, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Wild Turkey, and Woodford Reserve.

Just southwest of Louisville, camping is available for $15 a night in the 6,000-acre Jefferson Memorial Forest, an unusually intimate array of "family" and "group" campsites, the latter of which, at $30 per, look like they'd give quarter to an army.

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