If You Only Do Three Things
1. Off to the races
The famed twin spires of Churchill Downs have loomed over the Derby since Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark founded the track back in 1875. While races are still held here, including the eponymous, annual Kentucky Derby, you don't need to place a bet to feel flush. Adjacent to the Downs, the Kentucky Derby Museum is as close as guests get to Derby Day without a ticket. The Museum celebrates the pomp of the historic, 120-second horse race with interactive exhibits and documentaries. Tickets include a 30 minute walking tour of Churchill Downs that visits the paddock area and exclusive areas of the track. Across the street, barely changed since 1922, Wagner’s Pharmacy is the fabled brunch hangout for jockeys, grooms and sportswriters.
2. Learn about Muhammad Ali
Louisville’s greatest luminary happens to be The Greatest: Muhammad Ali. Birthplace of venerated boxer, the city plays homage to Ali's legendary status at the modern, six-storey Muhammad Ali Center, a place to learn about Ali's life and his civil rights struggles, as well as a non-profit humanitarian centre that gives back through educational and personal development programs. The self-guided Footsteps of Greatness tour immerses you in the world that helped shape the young boxer and activist, including Ali’s start-out gym and a peek at his humble childhood home, the Muhammad Ali Childhood Home Museum. Pay your respects at Cave Hill Cemetery, The Champ’s final resting place.
3. Drink the bourbon
At the epicentre of bourbon whiskey production since the 1800s, experience an old-school VIP bourbon tasting at Hermitage Farm’s Barn 6 on a working horse barn alongside resident Thoroughbreds. With its urban bourbon boom holding strong, robust new brands are burgeoning in the former factories of Louisville. Within the almost three kilometre stretch of “Whiskey Row”, discover the likes of distiller Angel’s Envy, whose production hub is beautifully intact and industrial-chic. There's also Peerless, an artisan distillery in an authentic 1912 tobacco warehouse. At a restored 1880s-era distillery, Doc Crow’s stocks a staggering amount of bourbon teamed with Southern comfort smoked meats. The Urban Bourbon Trail will help guide you through Louisville's boozy bourbon heritage. The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience has guided tours highlighting the brand’s 18th-century namesake, Evan Williams, whiskey maker and wharf master, with a presentation on the distilling process.
3 must-dos for culture lovers
1. Architectural Old Louisville
Louisville once thrived on tobacco and bourbon trade, and its wealthiest families built swanky Victorian mansions in central Old Louisville resplendent with whimsical turrets and towers, gargoyles and serpents, floral swags and stained-glass windows. As 60’s urban renewal swept through the States, many cities demolished their Gilded Age mansions. Today Louisville’s registered historic district boasts USA’s largest restored Victorian neighbourhood. Spread over 48 blocks, a heady mix of over-the-top Romanesque, Gothic, Queen Anne and Beaux-Arts homes sit shoulder to shoulder on majestic boulevards and pedestrian courtyards. For highlights, set off on a 90-minute guided walking tour with Louisville Historic Tours and visit grande dame stately home, the Conrad-Caldwell House Museum.
2. Listen to live music
As Louisville’s eclectic music scene pulses throughout the world its intimate downtown and neighbourhood clubs host live music almost every night. On the banks of the Ohio River the free seasonal Waterfront Wednesday concert series is held the last Wednesday of each month (April-September). Leading off the summer lineup is the annual Memorial Day Weekend three-day Forecastle Festival as well as the Kentucky Reggae Festival. The Louisville Jazz Fest fills the Iroquois Amphitheater each August, while, Sundays in September, is a free jazz festival in Tyler Park. Other annual outdoor summer festivals worth noting in the diary include Beatles tribute event, Abbey Road on the River, the Louisville Funk Fest, the Kentuckiana and the Louisville Pride Festivals, and the Kentucky State Fair.
Each September sees the return of the four-day Bourbon & Beyond rock n’ roll, bourbon n’ food festival. The nation’s largest annual rock and heavy metal festival, Louder Than Life, kicks off the following weekend.
3. Black heritage experiences
We all benefit from exploring a place’s complete history. The Unfiltered Truth Collection boasts exhibits and immersive tours that showcase the lasting impact Black Louisvillians made on the city’s history and culture, from the accomplishments of Black jockeys who once dominated horse racing to the activists who fought for political and social reform. At 19th century farmstead, Locust Grove, you can learn what life was like during slavery. Over at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, guests will meet an actor portraying Louisville native, Tom Bullock, first Black American to pen and publish a cocktail book. Roots101, meanwhile is a museum dedicated to telling the African American Journey from Africa and all ports between, while the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage is a collaboration of educators, artists and historians paying homage to the rich cultural heritage of African Americans in Kentucky.
3 experiences for nature lovers
1. Hike in Jefferson Memorial Forest
Created by the city in 1945 to honour military veterans, this woodland tribute is a treasure to all who visit. Boasting some 6,600 acres of slopes covered with mature, second growth hardwood trees, this is the USA's largest municipal urban forest spanning some 16 kilometres tip to tip. Ribboned with scenic trails and streams, this is critical habitat for migratory birds and 275 species of trees, shrubs, and ferns. There is also a fishing lake, outdoor recreational facilities, and a welcome centre with trail maps, hiking supplies and books.
2. Park life
Louisville is dubbed the City of Parks for good reason. First designed by visionary Frederick Law Olmsted in 1891, the Olmsted park system forms a unique component to the fabric of the city. Since 2005 a multi-million dollar initiative to add thousands more acres of protected park land has been forging ahead. Just west of downtown, 85-acre staple Waterfront Park offers stunning views, free concerts and the Big Four Bridge where a spiralling access ramp winds its way up to connect with a decommissioned train bridge, now repurposed as a mile-long stretch for pedestrians and cyclists.
A literal breath of fresh air, the 23-acre water feature and wildflower strewn Waterfront Botanical Gardens is proof that out of ruin can come great beauty. Set atop the former Ohio Street Dump, $65 million of upcoming features include a Japanese garden, conservatory and visitor centre. Origin Park, meanwhile, is a $1 billion planned 600-acre oasis which will sit on the north shore of the Ohio River, directly across from downtown.
3. Paddle Floyds Fork
Winding through almost 100 kilometres of scenic upland meadows, farmland and bottomland forests, Floyds Fork empties into the Salt River, free-flowing further still until it drains into the Ohio River. Located a 20-minute drive from downtown Louisville, the 4,000-acre Parklands offers some of the best hiking, paddling, kayaking and canoeing in the area. Deemed a Class I waterway, Floyds Fork is moderately challenging. Blue Moon Canoe & Kayak of Kentucky rentals will help get you out on the water.
What to eat in Louisville