Louisville, Kentucky, the largest city in the state, is a Southern town that blends its history of horse-racing, bourbon distilling and its love for baseball 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 parks that appeal to kids, as well as whiskey tastings, horse racing and art museums for adults.
The bourbon will draw you in…but the art, museums, outdoor adventures and community spirit will have you returning again and again.
Best Louisville Attractions
Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum
Big hats, fast horses and mint juleps: everyone loves the famous Kentucky Derby – the most exciting two minutes in sports! The Derby Museum takes you on a walk through history (and the kids will love it.) Don’t skip the film! It’s shown on a 360-degree screen and it will make you feel as if you’re right in the middle of the excitement.
The kids can take a “ride” on a horse and race him on a computer screen. The family will love trying on a jockey outfit and weighing in, and the kids can even wear it as they climb aboard a (pretend) horse in the holding area. See a life-size version of last year’s winner, peek at the Triple Crown trophy, see artwork from students across the state, and pick your favorite hat from dozens of famous milliner’s selections.
There are a number of tours available, but your general ticket also comes with a 30-minute walking tour of the paddocks and grandstand.
Insider tip: The cafe is a great place to get your Urban Bourbon Trail passport stamped, grab a mint julep, and try a bite of Derby Pie.
Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory Tours
Baseball fans can’t miss a visit to the Louisville Slugger Museum. Start with a tour of the factory and see they make 1.8 million bats a year! You even get to bring a mini bat home with you.
In the museum you can see a bat being hand-carved, climb inside a large limestone-carved ball glove for a photo, see an original Babe Ruth bat (+3,000 other heirloom originals), and so much more. Forbes named this one of the best sports museums in the country…and my boys agree!
Insider tip: The bat outside of the museum is an exact replica of Babe Ruth’s bat. This one is made of steel, though. It soars 120-feet and weighs 68,000 lbs.
Muhammad Ali Center
Boxing-great Muhammad Ali was born and raised in Louisville, and the Muhammad Ali Center is a museum that chronicles his life. The museum – the newest on the Civil Rights Trail – illustrates how Ali achieved success and used that as a way to “inspire others to do the same.”
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. We also enjoyed the interactive exhibits: we shadow-boxed with Ali, took some lessons from his daughter, and created personalized Wheaties covers similar to his.
This was my favorite Louisville museum, and the kid’s enjoyed it just as much as I did. If you’re planning a visit, I highly recommend watching Ali on Netflix to help you enjoy this museum even more.
Insider tip: In addition to the museum, you can visit Ali’s grave (see below) and see his childhood home (3302 Grand Ave, Louisville.) We also love the colorful Ali mural just south of downtown in Smoketown.
Kentucky Science Center
Give your family a hands-on science lesson at the Kentucky Science Center, which has three floors of exhibits and a four-story theater. Both boys (even the “too cool for school” 11yo) asked to go back repeatedly! Inside, kids can learn how to be healthy, see a mummy, build their own roller coaster, test flying rockets, learn how bridges are built and get in the know on all things science. We spent over 2 hours here and didn’t see it all!
Insider tip: This museum is open until 9pm on Friday and Saturday; make use of that late-night adventure opportunity!
Louisville Mega Cavern
If the kids weigh at east 55lbs, you will not want to miss taking a ride on the world’s only fully underground ropes course at Louisville Mega Cavern. On the Mega Zips ride, you’ll get a two-hour zip line tour of the man-made cavern, which was once mined for limestone.
We hated to miss it (my kiddos weigh as much as a green pea) but we enjoyed a tram tour of the cave. 17 miles of corridors, created by 223 pillars, run under the Louisville Zoo. We learned about the science and the history of the cavern. It was awesome!
Insider tip: Even if you visit in summer, bring a jacket. The temps are always a cool 58-60 degrees year ’round.
Big Four Bridge
Previously a railroad bridge, it is now open to pedestrian traffic and offers great views of Louisville and Indianapolis. Yes, just on the other side of the Ohio River is Indiana!
The ramp on each side is a 1/4 mile each, and with the span of the bridge, a round-trip walk is just about 2 miles. There are kiosks along the bridge that share the rich and tragic history of the railroad line.
Insider tip: The parking lot for the bridge is right next to an incredible playground. it’s large and will keep the kids entertained for a while if you need a break. Picnic tables make this a good resting stop, and in the summer there is also a splashground.
Frazier History Museum
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.
I enjoyed seeing George Washington’s actual rifle from the 1730s, and the boys had a good time making a barrel, scratch drawing horses, and exploring the Lewis & Clark exhibit. And I died laughing when we had to explain 8-tracks to them in the Sounds of Kentucky exhibit.
It also has an expansive bourbon museum and is the official start of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. be sure to pick up your “passport” here and get it stamped as you explore Bourbon Country.
Insider tip: Art Eatables is right next door, so be sure to stop and get some chocolate!
Cave Hill Cemetery
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 Muhammad Ali and Patty Hill, who wrote the “Happy Birthday” song.
Home to America’s largest Victorian neighborhood, Old Louisville, is a National Historic Preservation District filled with 45 blocks of restored historic homes built between 1880 and 1910 and of varied architectural styles. 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.
Belle of Louisville
Louisville sits on the Ohio River, and you can 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.
Bernheim Forest Giants
In conjunction with the forest’s 90th anniversary, Bernheim welcomed Danish artist, Thomas Dambo, to construct three giant sculptures throughout the arboretum using recycled wood from the region. They should only last about three years, so be sure to go back and see them soon. Pro tip: Visiting before 11 am. or after 3 pm will give you better photo opportunities, as these guys are very popular right now.
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. 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!
Speed Art Museum
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. See pieces from Cassatt, Degas, Monet, Chagall, Picasso and more.
Obviously there was not enough time for us to visit and report back to you about every distillery (thought I’m up for the challenge, and hope to return soon to give you more insight.) The limestone arch and the hot summers/cold winters make for strong horses and the best bourbon on the planet. Here on the deets on the five distilleries we visited on our Kentucky trip.
Closer to Lexington
If you’re driving in from the Atlanta area like we did, you’ll pass through the Lexington area before reaching Louisville. This area’s most popular stops include Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace, Town Branch, Wild Turkey and Four Roses.
Woodford Reserve was one of my favorite stops. I’m a fan of the bourbon, and the tour was kid-friendly (they gave the boys lemonade and chocolate during the tasting.) The property is the only distillery where you can receive a tour and tasting among the horse farms; the property is just beautiful.
The tasting after the tour was the most educational of all we experienced, especially in regard to how water and food impact the taste, and how to identify flavor notes.
There is a bar here, available to those who do or do not take the tour. You can opt for a tasting without the tour, if you’d like. There is also a cafe here – a rare treat.
Pro Tip: Woodford is the only whiskey outside of Scotland or Ireland that enjoys a third distillation!
I added Buffalo Trace to our list because they are the distillery that makes the famous Pappy Van Winkle whiskey. The tour and/or the tasting here is free, and we appreciated how they gave the boys a small cup of root beer. Other than that, I’d skip this one.
Yes, it’s one of the older distilleries and has an interesting history, but it didn’t feel…homey, genuine, classic?? It just felt like a large industrial machine. And that makes sense – the Buffalo Trace brand is the supplier for a large cruise ship, an entire airline, and more. And…it tasted like it. I’m not a fan.
And Pappy? Not a hint of him anywhere.
Pro Tip: Want an amazing treat worth the calories? Take the Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream and mix it with root beer (1:1) Wow!
Before you get started tasting in Louisville, make your way to the Frazier History Museum (see above) which is also home to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center. You can pick up a map and a “passport” and get a little history.
I liked Angel’s Envy before we did the tour, and I like it even more now. Kiddo info: During the tasting, the boys watched their iPads on a sofa in the corner (they did not complaining about this privilege.) Afterward, we were offered the chance to get specialty-mixed cocktails in a “bar” only open to those on the tour. The kids were not allowed here, but it was simply a space on the other side of the tasting room with a glass separation. The boys stayed on the sofa and sipped on mock-tails the bartender whipped up for them.
Pro tip: That subtle sweetness you taste in Angel’s Envy comes from the extra 6 months of finishing in port barrels.
Stitzel-Weller is in Louisville, but about 5 miles outside the Downtown area and worth the trip. Bullet Rye is one of my favorite spirits so we had to make the trip. We didn’t have time for a tour, but we enjoyed a tasting while we were here. If you want to do the same, be sure to call before showing up. The bar will not always do tastings; when they don’t you’ll find that sometimes the front desk people will assist you. We got lucky – don’t risk it! Call ahead.
Kid friendly notes: there are bottled sodas (Birch Beer, Creme Soda, etc) and a few snacks for the kids you can let them enjoy on a large sofa while you muscle up to the bar or enjoy a tasting.
If you’re without the kids, opt for one of their specialty tours.
Pro tip: This facility was originally built by Julian ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle and opened on Derby Day in 1935. When Van Winkle dies, the ownership transferred to United Distillers (Buffalo Trace.)
They also store the product here longer than other distilleries (sometimes over 10 years.) Still trying to get my hands on the Bulleit Rye 12, which they were out of when we visited.
Blade & Bow is another brand made here which originated from a pre-prohibition distillate found in an old building on the property.
We headed to the Bardstown area as a detour on our way back home to Atlanta, but it is also a great day trip option from Louisville. It took us about an hour to get there. Popular distilleries here include Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Heaven Hill and Willett.
My appreciation for whiskey comes from my husband, who is the youngest in a long lineage of Maker’s Mark drinkers. Because this is the brand you will always find in our home, we had to stop here!
This property is the least kid-friendly of all the properties. That said, we were in Kentucky, in part, to enjoy the bourbon experience. I am not ashamed to say that during every tasting we gave the boys iPads and headphones, and enjoyed our adult time. We did the same here, and the staff was very kind to the boys. I just mean that there was no “tasting” option for the kids and no place to buy them a snack. (Caveat: there is a restaurant that opened the day after we left…more on that below.)
Maker’s Mark in dead center in the middle of nowhere; fuel up before heading out…but do make your way here. The property is gorgeous, and you are welcome to roam around (but cannot go into the buildings except via a tour.)
On this tour we were able to dip our hands into a mash vat and stir it up…then take a taste. I was so surprised! And how fun!
The tasting included the primary Maker’s Mark you find most places, the 46 blend (you’ve got to take the tour to hear about this!) and the cask strength. We also tried two blends you can only find at the distillery…and they were so good we left with a bottle of each.
If you don’t have the kids, opt for one of the cocktail classes, too. They looked so fun! In the gift shop, we picked up our bottles and….drum roll…we were able to hand dip the bottles ourselves! It was very cool!
Pro tip: Maker’s Mark includes no rye in their mix, and the staves of their barrels are soaked in the sun for about 9 months before the barrels are constructed.
Eats and Treats to Savor
Art Eatables is the world’s first and only certified bourbon chocolatier. You won’t find bourbon balls here…this is the home of the Small-batch Bourbon Truffle™ The shelves are lined with nearly 20 different Kentucky bourbon chocolate delights…all hand-made. Kids are welcome here; the chocolates in the middle of the store are all alcohol-free, and they are delicious, too
Muth’s Candy is a Louisville tradition that’s been around since the owner (Rudy Bennett) returned home from WWII. The store is still operated by third- and fourth-generation family members, using the traditions of old.
The Comfy Cow
The Comfy Cow is Louisville’s amazing local ice cream option. You’ll find a few shops dotted around the city, and we recommend stopping in every time you see one. Try one of the staple flavors…or one of their two award-winning flavors: Bourbon Ball or Brown Butter Peanut Brittle.
The Brown Hotel
As we mention below, you’ll want to make time for a stop into Brown Hotel for a Hot Brown, which was invented in the hotel in the 1920s. It’s a hot turkey sandwich, covered in cream and cheese, with a roasted tomato and bacon on top. It is heavenly!
Proof on Main
This is no ordinary hotel restaurant. First, be sure to make reservations (Open Table) so you can get a seat. Once here, start with a cocktail, preferably a High Ball or one of their whiskey flights. Whether you choose breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner…the options are created from local farmers in the Ohio River Valley. I recommend the bison burger.
Mussel & Burger Bar
Mussel & Burger is like a classy neighborhood bar and grill, with delicious food. Dan had the burger, which has received myriad accolades. It was tasty…but I preferred my huge bowl of mussels. Pick from six different flavor profiles; I selected shells with Chorizo, sitting in a rich lobster sofrito broth with piquillo peppers. Heaven. There is a great kid’s menu here, and a thoughtful cocktail menu.
Fourth Street Live!
We ran out of time to hit up Fourth Street Live!, a large entertainment district with shopping, dining and nightlife, but it was recommended to us. 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 bourbon, including the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse where you can “build your own bottle.”
Where to Call it a Night
Recommended: Homewood Suites by Hilton Louisville Downtown
Louisville offers a nice mix of grand old turn-of-the century hotels and hip contemporary establishments. We spent the first night at Brown Hotel (more below) but enjoyed the remaining nights at Homewood Suites Louisville Downtown. If I had it to do all over again, I would have spent all three evenings here.
I’m a hotel snob, so I hear you…with so many historic overnight options in there area, why am I recommending this hotel? First, it’s right in the heart of everything there is to do in Louisville. We walked to about 80% of the attractions in the area.
Second, it’s ideal for families. They offer genuine suites, so we were able to put the kids to bed in one room while we stayed up and watched TV and chatted in the main living space. There is a microwave for heating up your kids’ doggie bag 5 minutes after you get back to the hotel, and a large fridge for storing other necessities (like a bottle of prosecco.)
Finally, there is a free breakfast (waffles, eggs, etc), free wifi, an indoor pool, and a pool table and other games in the lobby. Another fun fact, it is the #1 rated hotel in Louisville on TripAdvisor and (as of this post) it has a 5-star rating with over 500 reviews!
Our first evening was at the stunning Georgian-Revival-style Brown Hotel – an historic classic. On the National Register of Historic Places, the AAA Four Diamond property, which opened in 1923, has hosted many famous folks like Elizabeth Taylor, Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter and Muhammad Ali. The lobby architecture is stunning and grand.
Our spacious room included hand-polished marble floors in the bathroom, two mahogany beds, and a full-sized sofa. For a special treat you can choose the Muhammad Ali room, which he personally dedicated and which features signed memorabilia. Cha-ching.
We ate at the Lobby Bar, being sure to try the Hot Brown, a Kentucky favorite which was invented at the hotel. You’ll also want to indulge in a slice of Derby Pie.
While we enjoyed our experience, we thought it was a little pretentious and that it was missing some Southern hospitality and love. My recommendation is to stay at Homewood Suites, but grab lunch here one afternoon so you can sample the Hot Brown and a slice of pie, see the architecture, and mark it off your to-do list!
21C Museum Hotel Louisville
This hotel made our short list but we opted out because of the kids. While they welcome families, it’s more of an adult space. If you’re traveling without kids then this is the hotel for you.
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 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.
Want to take it on with the kiddos? Leverage the 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.
Four Additional Options
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.
A joint project of Westin hotels and Marriott’s boutique Moxy brand that targets millennials, the Moxy Louisville Downtown hotel recently opened in the area known as Whiskey Row. The design features copper prominently as a nod to the copper stills used to distill whiskey and to reflect the buildings that surround it.
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.
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.
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Disclosure: Thank you to Louisville for hosting our family. As always, opinions here are all our own.