The largest city in Kentucky, Louisville is a Southern town that blends its history of horse-racing, bourbon distilling and its love for basketball all in one cosmopolitan center. Winter, summer, spring or fall, there are so many things to do in Louisville, KY that appeal to all ages, including museums, a zoo and amusement parks that appeal to kids, as well as whiskey tastings, horse racing and art museums for adults.
You’ll also find a few quirky surprises along the way like an old haunted hospital, beautifully-maintained Victorian architecture and even the grave of Colonel Sanders.
Go to a Horse Race
When in Kentucky, you must attend a horse race, the sport for which the Bluegrass state is best known (aside from basketball!). Horse races are held twice a year — in spring and fall — at Louisville’s Churchill Downs with the Kentucky Derby held on site every April.
But even if the horses are not racing during your visit, don a giant hat in classic Derby style and tour the historic grounds. Visit the Kentucky Derby Museum to get a lesson in the history of the Derby, the life of a thoroughbred and famous racehorses like Man o’ War, Secretariat and American Pharoah. You can also visit the grave of Barbaro, another champion thoroughbred.
Sports lovers will not want to miss a stop at the Louisville Slugger Museum, where you can learn all about one of the world’s most famous baseball bats. The museum is easy to spot in Louisville’s downtown with a giant baseball bat — an exact replica of Babe Ruth’s bat — leaning on the front of the building.
A great outing for a toddler or older kids, you’ll see how bats are made, take a look around at models of bats used by famous players and even get your own mini Louisville Slugger to take home as a souvenir.
Louisville has its very own amusement and waterpark called Kentucky Kingdom. The park is open each summer and offers roller coasters, thrill rides, a children’s area with smaller rides, a large ferris wheel, wave pool and lazy river.
The Lightning Run coaster is considered a top 40 coaster in the world, and the Storm Chaser coaster was voted the second best new attraction in the world when it opened. There’s also a sea lion show featuring rescued animals and plenty of dining options to keep you fueled throughout the day.
At Louisville’s Zoo, your family can wander among more than 1,500 animals across 130 acres in habitats that include Glacier Run, Africa, the Australian Outback, North, Central and South America and more. You’ll see animals like gorillas, orangutans, Sumatran tigers and the Cuban crocodile.
They also have a captive breeding program for North America’s most endangered mammal, the black-footed ferret. When you’re ready to take a break from the animals, burn off some energy at a couple of playgrounds, ride the carousel or train, try the adventure ropes course or even go on a camel ride!
Give your family a hands-on science lesson at the Kentucky Science Center downtown, which has three floors of exhibits and a four-story theater. Inside, kids can learn how to be healthy, see a mummy, build their own roller coaster, test flying machines, learn how bridges are built and get in the know on all things science. You’ll leave a smarter person!
The KFC Yum! Center is Louisville’s indoor arena, hosting concerts, sporting events and shows, seating more than 20,000 people, and is the home of the University of Louisville’s men’s and women’s basketball programs. The arena features a variety of dining options from Papa John’s pizza and Pizza Hut to delis, ice cream and German roasted nuts.
Just more than an hour east of Louisville is my hometown of Lexington, KY. Lexington is a beautiful mid-size town filled with rolling green hills dotted with horse farms and their classic white picket fences. Thoroughbreds and basketball (Lexington is the home of the University of Kentucky) definitely dominate this city, but there it also has an revitalized downtown with its own 21c Museum Hotel (Louisville has the first), outdoor summer concerts, farmer’s markets and more.
You’ll want to make time to visit the Kentucky Horse Park and also step inside the famed Rupp Arena, named for the well-known Kentucky basketball coach, Adolph Rupp, where the Kentucky Wildcats shoot for the NCAA championships every single year.
Take a ride on the world’s only fully underground ropes course at TripAdvisor’s No. 1 attraction for Louisville, the Louisville Mega Cavern, which also offers lots of thrilling underground fun. On the Mega Zips ride, you’ll get a two-hour zipline tour of the man-made cavern, which was once mined for limestone.
You can also choose to take the tram tour of the cave or get adventurous at the underground bike park with more than 45 trails. At Mega Quest, see if you can make it through the challenging underground ropes course. Who knew you could have so much fun underground?!
Take a Walk Along the Ohio River
A wonderful free and cheap outdoor activity for families is to take a stroll down Louisville’s lovely waterfront park along the Ohio River, which divides Indiana and Kentucky. In addition to a heart-pumping walk, there’s plenty to do at Waterfront Park like visiting the Lincoln Memorial Statue, which commemorates Kentucky as this president’s birthplace.
Be sure to get a photo of yourself sitting in his lap! You can also rent a bike to ride down the waterfront or take a walk over the Big Four Bridge, a former railroad bridge that is now a pedestrian walkway covered in brightly-colored LED lights.
Ride a Riverboat
Louisville sits right on the Ohio River and seeing a city from the water is always one of my favorite things to do, because it offers a very different perspective. See the city from aboard the Belle of Louisville, a grand riverboat built in 1914 that can hold up to 650 people.
Choose from brunch, lunch or dinner cruises or get a history lesson on the Saturday Harbor History cruise. All cruises last about two hours.
Cultural & History
If you are a supporter of the arts, don’t miss a visit to downtown’s Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, which is home to many of Louisville’s arts organizations, including the Kentucky Opera, Louisville Ballet and Louisville Orchestra. In addition to a theater, which hosts performances year-round, there is a permanent art collection featuring 20th century works, including a 13-ton steel sculpture outdoors at Waterfront Park.
This center was a key focus of my high school attendance at Kentucky’s fantastic Governor’s School for the Arts summer program, which encourages a love of the arts among Kentucky high school students.
Boxing great Muhammad Ali was born and raised in Louisville, and the Muhammad Ali Center is a museum that chronicles his life. The museum illustrates how Ali achieved success and used that as a way to “inspire others to do the same” and is grouped by six core principles of his life: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality.
You’ll discover his love of art and poetry, get hands-on training like Ali and learn about the annual humanitarian awards held in his honor, as well as see many artifacts and items from his life.
You’ll find Louisville’s best collection of the visual arts at the Speed Art Museum near the University of Louisville. The museum, which is housed within modern architecture and offers interesting outdoor venues, has collections ranging from items created by ancient civilizations to Native American art to contemporary creations.
You’ll find pieces from Cassatt, Degas, Monet, Chagall, Picasso and more.
Home to America’s largest Victorian neighborhood, Old Louisville, located immediately south of downtown, is a National Historic Preservation District filled with 45 blocks of restored homes built between 1880 and 1910. You’ll find a variety of architectural styles, including Beaux Arts, Italianate, Neoclassical, Queen Anne, Second Empire, Tudor Revival and Venetian Gothic.
Begin your visit at the Visitors Center in Central Park — located in a building designed by Frederick Law Olmsted — for a guided architectural walking tour and to find out about upcoming events.
See a Louisville Basketball Game
Kentucky is known for its love of basketball with both the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville vying for top honors nearly every year. While the University of Kentucky is in Lexington, you can catch a University of Louisville Cardinals basketball game if you happen to visit the city during the winter months. Both the men’s and women’s teams play at the Yum! Center. Be sure to wear some red!!
Situated right on Main Street in a 100,000-square-foot building, the Frazier History Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, presents a history of Kentucky through artifacts and live performances. Some interesting items in the collection include President Theodore Roosevelt’s “big stick” and Geronimo’s bow.
It also has an expansive bourbon museum and is the official start of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Kentucky Fried Chicken has “Kentucky” in the name for a reason! The state is the home of Colonel Sanders. You can visit the grave of the famous Colonel Harlan Sanders at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, which is also the final resting place of George Rogers Clark.
The cemetery features several lakes and even a large cave, though the cave is not open to the public. At Sanders’ grave, you will find a bust of the iconic figure complete with his famous goatee. According to Atlas Obscura, Colonel Sanders created the concept of franchise restaurants at the age of 62, which led to the brand’s success. He died at the age of 90.
At St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church in Louisville, you can visit the remains of two Catholic saints, St. Magnus and St. Bonosa, who died in 207 A.D. during the Roman persecution of Christians. Originally interred in the catacombs of Pontiani, Italy, their remains were moved to a monastery in 1700 and remained there until it was closed.
The Louisville church petitioned Pope Leo XIII for relics, and he sent them those of St. Magnus and St. Bonosa in 1901. You can see their bones in glass display cases beneath the church’s side altars.
If you love a good spook, head to the Waverly Hills Sanatorium, which opened in 1910 to treat patients with tuberculosis. Because the disease was thought to be highly contagious, patients lived within this self-contained community, which even had its own zip code. When an antibiotic was found that cured the disease, the sanatorium was eventually emptied and it was left to deteriorate.
In 2001, a couple, who are historical and paranormal enthusiasts, purchased the building and have worked to restore it. It is known today to be one of the most haunted places in America, and March through August, it is open to the public for “paranormal” tours at night or historic tours in the daytime. They also run a haunted house through the Halloween season.
Louisville offers a nice mix of grand old turn-of-the century hotels and hip contemporary establishments like the 21c Museum & Hotel, as well as the VU Guesthouse and Marriott’s new Moxy brand.
The 21c Museum Hotel Louisville is the home base for this unique chain of hotels that literally combine an art museum (open free 24/7) with a hotel. You’ll find modern works from living artists in galleries throughout as well as in rooms. The chain, which also has properties in Cincinnati, Lexington, Oklahoma City and more, is also known for its colorful penguins (a different color at each property; Louisville’s are red) in rooms and adorning the exterior and its fantastic on-site restaurants.
The 21c Louisville was formerly a series of 19th century warehouses and features a double-size replica of the Statue of David outdoors. Take advantage of their Kid’s Exploration Package for a weekend getaway, which includes a guided tour of the hotel’s museum spaces, two tickets to the Kentucky Science Center across the street and an in-room camping experience with tent and milk and cookies.
The stunning Georgian-Revival-style Brown Hotel in Louisville is a true gem and historic classic. On the National Register of Historic Places, the AAA Four Diamond property, which opened in 1923, has played host to many famous folks like Elizabeth Taylor, Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter and Muhammad Ali.
Rooms boast utmost elegance with hand-polished marble floors in the bathroom, mahogany beds and hand-woven throws at the foot of the bed. For a special treat, choose the Muhammad Ali, which he personally dedicated and which features signed memorabilia.
Be sure to sample a bourbon flight in the Lobby Bar and the classic hot brown in the English Grill.
For a lovely stay along Louisville’s Ohio River, consider the beautiful Galt House Hotel. The hotel was originally built in 1835 but burned down with a second property opened in 1869, though closed in 1919. Today’s hotel opened in 1972 and is Louisville’s only waterfront hotel, as well as the largest hotel in Kentucky.
In an effort to be more “green,” the property has one of the largest geothermal heating and air conditioning systems in the world. It is also pet friendly and is a participant in the Urban Bourbon Trail. For a full Louisville experience, book the Urban Bourbon package, which includes two tickets to the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, a box of bourbon balls and a $25 gift certificate to the Down One Bourbon Bar.
The Seelbach Hilton is another grand Louisville hotel that will let you lie in luxury. This Beaux Arts Baroque hotel built in 1903 features imported marble, hardwoods from the West Indies and Europe, Turkish and Persian rugs. Many famous — and infamous — folks have graced its halls from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Billy Joel who played the piano impromptu for guests to Prohibition-era gangsters, including Al Capone whose favorite room had hidden doors that led to secret passageways.
It’s even served as the backdrop for several movies including “The Hustler” starring Paul Newman and 2013’s “The Great Gatsby.” Be sure to make time for a Seelbach Cocktail in the Old Seelbach bar and dinner in Kentucky’s only AAA Five Diamond restaurant, The Oakroom.
If you love boutique hotels, this former tobacco warehouse is a great choice for a hip and trendy spot to lay your head. With funky, yet plush and over-the-top decor featuring bright colors, the VU Guesthouse, located in historic Smoketown close to downtown Louisville, is one of a kind.
The hotel has a Lobby Bar with daily happy hour and the Guesthouse Lounge where you can grab a morning Joe.
A joint project of Westin hotels and Marriott’s boutique Moxy brand that targets millennials, the Westin-Moxy hotel is scheduled to open in Louisville on Main Street in 2019 in the area known as Whiskey Row. It will be two hotels sharing a single space across 14 floors with a total of 315 rooms.
The design of the hotel will feature copper prominently as a nod to the copper stills used to distill whiskey and to reflect the buildings that surround it.
Drinking and Dining
With 95% of the country’s bourbon made in this region of Kentucky, it’s no wonder Louisville wants to showcase the state’s claim to fame, aside from horse-racing, of course.
While the Bourbon Trail takes you to the distilleries themselves mostly in the country, the Urban Bourbon Trail takes visitors through tastings at bourbon bars in downtown Louisville. At every stop, you can sample their unique take on Louisville’s famous drinks: the Old Fashioned and the Mint Julep, sipped at every running of the Kentucky Derby.
You can get a free Urban Bourbon Trail passport at the Louisville Visitors Center at 4th and Jefferson Streets or at any of the stops along the trail. Get six stamps on your passport to be declared to be an official Bourbon Country Citizen. Here is the full list of participating locations.
Eat a Hot Brown
You can’t come to Louisville without eating a hot brown! As a native Kentuckian, I grew up eating this delectable meal, which originated at the Brown Hotel in Louisville.
It’s essentially turkey, bacon and cheese on toast smothered in the most delicious butter cheese sauce you can imagine and topped with tomatoes. While it’s not easy on the calories, it’s definitely worth a try! Here is the official recipe.
Restaurant at 21c Museum Hotel
At Louisville’s 21c Museum Hotel, enjoy more than 120 of Kentucky’s best bourbons at Proof on Main, a stop along the Urban Bourbon Trail. Several of the bourbons are bottled exclusively for the restaurant with barrels of Van Winkle and Woodford Reserve on site.
Like the hotel, it features art and a colorful site-specific commission. The dinner menu features specialties like the Woodland Farm Pork Chop, Black Hawk Farm Beef, Proof Bison Burger and Local Grilled Bok Choy as a side. Proof on Main is also open for breakfast, brunch (Saturday and Sunday) and lunch.
A trip to downtown Louisville isn’t complete without a stop at Fourth Street Live!, a large entertainment district with shopping, dining and nightlife. Situated in the midst of many hotels and near the Yum! Center and Convention Center, it’s a happening spot that makes for a fun family afternoon or night on the town.
You’ll no doubt catch plenty of sports fans cheering on the Louisville Cardinals during both football and basketball season. There are also plenty of places to grab a good bourbon, including the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse where you can “build your own bottle.”
If you want a sample of the Bourbon Trail without heading too far out of Louisville, consider a visit to the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience at Stitzel-Weller just five miles from downtown. Take a tour of the distillery and enjoy a whiskey tasting for 10 dollars per person age 21 and older. Those younger than 21 are welcome to join the tour — but not the tasting — for free.
The distillery was first opened on Derby Day in 1935 and re-opened to the public in 2014.
Kentucky also boasts a growing wine-making industry with 65 wineries in the state. In the late 1800s until Prohibition, it was actually the third biggest producer of grapes and wine in the nation.
In Louisville, you’ll find two wineries:
- The Old 502 Winery is located in a 19th warehouse in downtown and produces nine unusual wines, including Bourbon Barrel Red.
- There is also Broad Run Vineyards located outside town and producing 30 wines.
You can alternately drive along the Bullitt County Wine and Bourbon tour, which begins just 15 minutes from downtown Louisville, to explore four additional wineries.
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After 18 years in software development, Lesli bailed on the corporate scene. When she’s not traveling, she’s hiking in the mountains or checking out Atlanta’s culinary scene, whiskey in hand.
Lesli has two kiddos -Cooper and Elliot- plus two bonus kids currently at UGA, and she’s happily married to her soul mate.