Story by Julie Campbell
Location: Clark & Floyd Counties
City: Jeffersonville & New Albany
About: A place with revitalized art-filled downtowns, rolling hills, riverside experiences, and centuries of history.
Perched along the banks of the Ohio River, the two charming southern Indiana towns of Jeffersonville and New Albany offer visitors the best of both worlds – easy access to the big city (Louisville) with the pace and appeal of small-town life.
Strolling the idyllic streets of Jeffersonville, it’s easy to see why Food Network’s “Chopped” champion, Chef Dallas McGarity, chose to open his latest restaurant, Portage House, here. First, there’s the river – a larger-than-life and breathtakingly beautiful character in the story of the town. Then there’s the charm, which simply radiates from the streets filled with historic homes and quaint shops.
“There is so much room to grow and so many beautiful views,” says McGarity, whose riverfront restaurant features his unique twist on modern American cuisine. “The downtown Jeffersonville area has a small town feel that is just inviting.”
In fact, the town, known by locals as “Jeff,” is so famous for its all-American, small town feel that Barack Obama once used it as a backdrop for one of his political ads when he first ran for president.
“He walked down the street, and you could see the awning of our store (in the ad),” said Diane Stawar, a certified mental health counselor who volunteers at Jeff Book, a not-for-profit used bookstore. “The Secret Service was on top of our building, and he gave a speech on one of our patios. I think his campaign thought of us as ‘downtown America’ – because we’re so cute and charming.” In fact, an entire section of the city, called the Old Jeffersonville Historic District, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 because of its architectural and historic significance.
Just across the street from Jeff Book is the iconic Schimpff’s Confectionery, where they’ve been creating candy and other sweet treats for over 128 years. Opened in 1891 by Gustav Schimpff Sr. and Jr. in the same building as the current location, Schimpff’s is the oldest, continually operated, family-owned candy business in the United States. Complete with an old-fashioned soda fountain and original tin ceilings, the shop’s vintage candy cases and turn-of-the-century equipment will transport you back to simpler, sweeter times. Be sure to try Schimpff’s famous Red Hots, hard candy fish or Modjeskas, a melt-in-your-mouth caramel and marshmallow candy created to honor late 1800s Shakespearean actress Helen Modjeska.
If you’re in need of a walk after your sugar overload at Schimpff’s, head over a few blocks to Big Four Park and Big Four Pedestrian Bridge, a former railroad truss bridge, for a two-mile round-trip stroll across the Ohio River to Louisville. Illuminated with LED lights in the evening, the bridge offers breathtaking views of the city skyline and the river.
After your stroll, check out Parlour Pizza, Pearl Street Treats, or Café 223 on Pearl Street, all restored houses and hot spots for Big Four adventurers. In the last 10 years, Jeffersonville has seen a revitalization of its downtown area, with new buildings being built and old ones preserved and adapted into new uses.
“We moved four houses that were threatened with demolition to a dilapidated parking lot on Pearl Street (401-407 Pearl Street),” says Jay Ellis of Jeffersonville Main Street, Inc. “Using grant funds, we restored the four houses, made one of them our downtown revitalization office, and made the other three spaces for businesses – two of which were complete startups (a coffee shop and a taphouse).”
Just a short drive from Jeffersonville is its equally charming sister city, New Albany. The crown jewel of the city is the Culbertson Mansion on Main Street, a stunning historic home that’s one of the Indiana State Museum’s twelve historic sites. Guided tours last one hour and include all four floors of the 20,000 square foot mansion, showcasing its awe-inspiring hand- painted ceilings, carved staircase and elaborate plasterwork. And the history of this Victorian-era house and its residents will fascinate you!
“We have been called the ‘little Biltmore,’ but this house was built almost 40 years before the Biltmore House in North Carolina. The house is really ahead of its time as far as Victorian architecture,” says Jessica Stavros, southeast regional director for the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites.
Speaking of architecture, be sure to take a drive or stroll around all five of the national historic districts in New Albany, including the downtown historic district, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. There you’ll find an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants like Seeds and Greens Natural Market & Deli on 1st Street, The Exchange Pub and Kitchen on Main Street, and the Copper Moon Gallery on Pearl Street, to name just a few. And while you’re in the area, check out New Albany’s Riverfront Amphitheatre, which is home to numerous free concerts, events and festivals each year.
“We have over 75 restaurants and shopping within a 15-block radius, and that’s not counting all the service- based businesses,” says Heather Trueblood of Develop New Albany. “In the last 10 years we’ve seen a huge surge in businesses coming back to downtown to call home.”
Russell Goodwin of SoIN Tourism agrees. “New Albany is going through a renaissance with new restaurants and businesses in an area that has a young, hip vibe. A lot of the business owners in both Jeffersonville and New Albany are long-time residents of their communities so they’re very invested and involved in the community.”