You probably know about the free-flowing bourbon and posh horse races, and maybe about the baseball bats and a boxer named Ali. But what about the haunted sanatorium, underground zipline and nation’s largest, Victorian mansion-filled neighborhood? Louisville in Kentucky has a lot of distinct things going on. Here are the city's best activities and experiences.
Pedal over the Ohio River
The Ohio River churns at Louisville’s edge, chock full of barges and steamboats gliding by. The Big Four Bridge is the best place to see the action. The bridge, open to pedestrians and cyclists only, arches from Louisville to Jeffersonville, Indiana, and unfurls terrific views. Bike rentals are available at the foot of the bridge, prime for pedaling further along the water on the Louisville Loop trail.
Tour a bourbon distillery
Louisville is the center of the bourbon-making universe, with most of the world's supply coming from the city and around. Downtown the elixir bubbles forth from gleaming copper stills at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, known for its family-friendly exhibits and engaging production tours. A few blocks away stylish Angel's Envy offers tours and tastings of its slightly sweet, port-cask-finished whiskey. Kentucky Peerless and Old Forester also work their magic downtown, while big-name distilleries including Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark fire up burbling vats of mash in the surrounding countryside.
See baseball's most famous bats
Even if you’re not a diehard baseball fan, the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory impresses. First up is the plant tour where you see the venerable bats being made. Then comes the hall of baseball memorabilia that displays relics such as Hank Aaron's 700th home run bat, as well as bats from recent players like David Ortiz that you can hold and swing. Outside, the World’s Largest Baseball Bat, a 120ft-tall whopper, awaits your snapshot.
Bet on the horses at Churchill Downs
There’s nothing like seeing the world’s fastest horses thunder by on the racetrack at Churchill Downs, especially if you wagered on a winner. The Kentucky Derby grabs headlines here the first Saturday in May for its mint juleps, flamboyant hats and wild, two-minute race. Other thoroughbred events when you can enjoy the vibe take place from late April to late June and again in September and November. Or go on a guided tour of the grounds year-round via the onsite Kentucky Derby Museum.
Be inspired (and hone your left jab) at the Muhammad Ali Center
The Muhammad Ali Center tells the tale of the local boxer and civil rights activist who became The Greatest. Exhibits let you shadow box with the champ, watch videos of his prominent fights and listen to his street poetry (“I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; Handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail”). But it’s the way these are put in context with the social justice issues that Ali fought for all his life that gives the center its real punch.
Sip an Old Fashioned at a bourbon bar
Louisville takes its bourbon seriously. Walk into any downtown saloon, and at least 50 types of the local nectar glow in bottles behind the bar. Proof on Main is a fine place to swirl and sniff a flight. Or knock back an Old Fashioned, the city’s official cocktail that mixes bourbon, bitters and sugar and then drops in a cherry and orange wedge to sweeten the pot. The Urban Bourbon Trail lists watering holes with standout whiskey menus, many in a walkable stretch of historic buildings near Main Street.
Get spooked at Waverly Hills Sanatorium
Waverly Hills Sanatorium rises up over the landscape like something out of a horror movie, a building straight from central casting in all its derelict Tudor Gothic Revival creepiness. It’s said to be one of the most haunted places on earth and no wonder: thousands of people died here during an early-20th-century tuberculosis epidemic. Many of their ghosts still roam the halls. Meet them on guided tours or overnight stays, if you dare.
Bite into a hot brown or bourbon ball
Louisville cooks several famous foods, and chief among them is the hot brown, an open-faced turkey and bacon sandwich smothered with Mornay sauce. It was invented at downtown’s Brown Hotel, hence the name. Biscuit Belly makes a delicious one in the NuLu neighborhood, where buzzy restaurants inhabit old warehouses along Market Street. For dessert, wander over to Muth’s Candies for bourbon balls (bite-sized chocolates with a creamy, bourbon-infused filling). Beer cheese and sweet sorghum are other specialties to watch for on menus.
Admire the architecture of Old Louisville
To timewarp back to the Victorian era, take a stroll through Old Louisville, where enormous homes with turrets and gargoyles loom for blocks. The neighborhood holds the largest contiguous collection of Victorian mansions in the US. A walkabout reveals hidden courtyards, gas-lamp-lit streets, and renowned buildings like the Speed Art Museum.
Feel the beat at Zanzabar
This sociable, mid-sized concert hall brings a slew of indie rock, country, metal and bluegrass bands to its stage, and is a great spot to get acquainted with the rich local music scene. Abundant craft beers and a vintage arcade loaded with whirring, beeping pinball machines add to the fun.
Submerge into the Mega Cavern
Kids especially go gaga for the Mega Cavern, an old limestone mine that sprawls over 100 acres deep beneath the city. It’s now transformed into an underground playground where families zipline through the rock chambers and test their skills on the aerial ropes course. For those who prefer to stay closer to solid ground, tram rides and walking tours through the caves are also available.
Drink on a rooftop in Butchertown
Butchertown is Louisville’s old meatpacking district, now blossoming with cool restaurants, beer gardens, and an artsy market. Immerse yourself in the scene at Copper & King’s distillery, maker of brandy, gin and absinthe. The rooftop bar serves up alcohol fresh from the downstairs tanks and provides fab views of the Louisville skyline.
Reflect on African-American history at the Roots 101 Museum
A newbie that opened in 2021, the Roots 101 Museum displays art and artifacts related to the African American experience from the Atlantic slave trade era to modern times, often with a local slant. Exhibits cover everything from 16th-century Benin sculptures to Muhammad Ali’s achievements to the protests sparked by the killing of Breonna Taylor. The museum hosts loads of great events, too.
Feed ducks and find VIP graves at Cave Hill Cemetery
For a gorgeous walk, ramble along the paths at Cave Hill Cemetery, which doubles as an arboretum. Huge willow oaks, magnolias, and chestnut trees shade the grounds, while ducks flap across the ponds. A lot of well-known people are having their eternal rest here. Keep an eye out for the tombstones of fried chicken ace Colonel Sanders and Louisville’s favorite son Muhammad Ali.
Explore the Highlands
The Highlands is Louisville’s go-to neighborhood for indie eateries and offbeat shops. When you spot all of the “Keep Louisville Weird” stickers, you’ll know you’ve arrived. Bardstown Road is the main vein that rolls out a strip of coffee shops, vintage markets, funky bars, comic-laden bookstores, and skate shops. Gralehaus shows the spirit, with its eclectic takes on traditional Southern comfort foods, all served in a cozy house.
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