Traveler: Southern Indiana & Thunder Over Louisville

Bank on it: During that festive event weekend, the Hoosier State’s river towns really steal Kentucky’s—well, you know.

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Thunder Over Louisville, the annual air show and fireworks display held each April on the Ohio River, is Kentucky’s most eye-popping spectacle (Derby hats notwithstanding). Organizers always find a way to send pyrotechnics shooting off the sides of the Clark Memorial Bridge, from end to end. But look here: Spectators heading down from northerly latitudes needn’t leave Indiana to take it all in. Across the water from the bluegrass metropolis, a cluster of Hoosier burgs offers visitors a view of the aerial extravaganza against a glittering skyline backdrop. And with a crowd of several hundred thousand people pouring into the area, stopping short of the river saves you from the region’s bane: bridge congestion.

This slice of Southern Indiana that boosters like to call “the Sunny Side of Louisville” has more to recommend it than just better views and lighter traffic. Much of the riverbank becomes a festival scene on the day of the show, complete with food vendors, lawn chairs, and coolers. Clarksville’s waterside Ashland Park (430 E. Riverside Dr., clarksvilleparks.com) allows for unobstructed gazing on a grassy, high-banked levee, and at the Jeffersonville riverfront, crowd-pleaser restaurants with picture windows and outdoor tables offer special daylong premium seating. One of those is KingFish (601 W. Riverside Dr., 812-284-3474, kingfishrestaurants.com), which serves workmanlike seafood on a two-level patio and hosts a biergarten with live bands.

Downtown Jeffersonville has an appropriate counterpoint to the sky-blazing Thunder show in the Vintage Fire Museum (723 Spring St., 812-948-8711, vintagefiremuseum.org), a stunning collection of rare fire engines, from wooden Colonial-era hand-pump carts to gleaming retro machines from the early 20th century. And down the street, Schimpff’s Confectionery (347 Spring St., 812-283-8367, schimpffs.com)—a sweet little candy-maker and soda fountain that has operated behind the same storefront since 1891—is famous for its old-fashioned Red Hots, made in an open kitchen before crowds of wide-eyed kids. Soon, the town will open its access point to the Big Four Bridge, a railroad truss turned into a pedestrian-only structure over the Ohio.  

Though Thunder-viewing isn’t possible in New Albany, located around a bend in the river, the historic city (and surprising cultural retreat) is fast becoming to Louisville what Brooklyn is to Manhattan: a haven for hipsters and foodies reviving long-neglected—but intact—downtown buildings on the less-crowded side of the water. The Carnegie Center for Art & History (201 E. Spring St., 812-944-7336, carnegiecenter.org), in a handsome former Carnegie Library, houses lively gallery shows by locals, a thought-provoking exhibit on the area’s Underground Railroad legacy, and “Grandpa Makes a Scene,” a collection of intricately hand-carved moving dioramas by area folk artist Merle Yenawine.

Trendy Louisville restaurants have set up New Albany outposts, notably Toast on Market (141 E. Market St., 812-941-8582, toastonmarket.com), a brunch spot with farm-fresh eggs and lemon souffle pancakes, and the sushi-and-tapas eatery Dragon King’s Daughter (202 E. Elm St., 812-725-8600, dragonkingsdaughter.com). Homegrown offerings are more than holding their own, too, particularly New Albanian Brewing Company’s Bank Street Brewhouse (415 Bank St., 812-725-9585, newalbanian.com), serving pommes frites and duck wings with some of the best craft beer in the state; the elevated home cooking of the bustling Exchange Pub + Kitchen (pictured, right; 118 W. Main St., 812-948-6501, exchangeforfood.com; featured “Destination Dinner” write-up here), which placed in Eater.com’s Hottest Burgers list recently; and, next door, Feast BBQ (116 W. Main St., 812-920-0454, feastbbq.com), an uber-hip shotgun saloon with pulled pork on tin trays and a connoisseur’s bourbon shelf. Which goes to show that providing a venue for fireworks-viewing isn’t the only thing Hoosiers can do as well as our neighbors to the south.

SOUTHERN INDIANA ESSENTIALS 

Drive Time: 2 hours

Watch: On April 12, Thunder Over Louisville (800-928-3378, thunderoverlouisville.org) features the U.S. Navy Blue Angels at 3 p.m. and fireworks at 9:30 p.m. Arrive early, or make reservations at a riverfront restaurant. 

Stay: The quaint Market Street Inn (from $89, 330 W. Market St., Jeffersonville, 812-285-1877, innonmarket.com), located one block from the river, has a rooftop viewing area. On New Albany’s historic Mansion Row, an easy walk from downtown, the Admiral Bicknell Inn (from $149, 600 E. Main St., 812-981-8000, admiralbicknell.com) accommodates in high Southern-living fashion.

Buy: An antique bronze skeleton-key necklace from The Dandy Lion ($32, 310 Bank St., New Albany, 502-550-7780, thedandylionshop.com), a quirky side-street boutique.

Eat: From-scratch eclairs and cannoli at Honey Creme Donut Shop (514 Vincennes St., New Albany, 812-945-2150).

More Info: sunnysideoflouisville.org

Schrimpff’s photo by Evan West; Exchange Pub + Eatery photo by Tony Valainis

This article appeared in the April 2014 issue.

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