Things to Do in Louisville

The Kentucky Derby. The best bourbon. Festivals. Historic hotels. A world-class zoo. Like its famous Slugger bats, few American destinations offer an equivalent to Louisville’s “sweet spot” for visitors.

Louisville is a cultural crossroads. It's where Southern hospitality meets big-city amenities. Where the farms of rolling bluegrass hills meet a revitalized downtown on the rolling Ohio River. Where real Civil War stories are told at the site of a Great American Novel. And where horseracing and a heavyweight champion have made Louisville a world-famous sports destination for kings and commoners alike.

Here are our top picks for things to do in Louisville:

1. Bet on Fun

Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau
The Kentucky Derby is the oldest continuous American sporting event—but it only happens 1 day of the year. Visit Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum any time for photo and film exhibits, trophies and a chance to mount a saddle at a real starting gate. Various van and walking tours include Millionaire’s Row, Derby winner burial sites, and the Barn and Backside—where you might catch a future champion getting a bath. Tours depend on live racing events (late April-July and late October-November) when you can win, place and show your group a good time.

2. A Home Run for Everyone

James Moses / Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau
Ever since superstar shortstop Honus Wagner first endorsed one in 1905, professional players have ordered custom bats from Hillerich & Bradsby Co., better known as the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. Just look downtown for the world’s tallest bat (rising 120 feet) leaning outside. Inside, see bats of Babe Ruth and Cal Ripken, take a swing at a fastball and tour the factory—with a free miniature bat as a souvenir!

3. “The Greatest” Inspires Others

Photolibrary / Getty Images
The Muhammad Ali Center is more than a museum honoring the controversial fighter known as Cassius Clay, traitor, leader, champion. This multicultural center is the Louisville native’s own initiative devoted to conflict resolution using his “6 core principles,” including character and inner strength, to “promote respect, hope and understanding.” (Photo Essay: Journey of “The Greatest”)

4. A Miniature March Through History

The Frazier History Museum
History buffs and children will love seeing the Frazier History Museum’s knights’ armor and Civil War artifacts, as well as Daniel Boone’s Bible, Teddy Roosevelt’s “Big Stick,” and some 10,000 toy soldiers. Previously called the Frazier Historical Arms Museum, this Smithsonian affiliate now displays a broader, 1,000-year spectrum of world history through performances, costumed interpreters and collections exchanged with partners like the British Royal Armouries.

(Along with the Ali Center and the Slugger Museum, the Frazier Museum is part of “Museum Row,” 9 cultural attractions along West Main Street—the “Main Ticket” offers discounted prices.)

5. Steam Dreams

Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau
Moored at the Fourth Street Wharf, the Belle of Louisville is the world’s oldest operating steamboat. The 1914 stern-wheeler is a National Historic Landmark and will celebrate her 100th birthday in October 2014. Take a sightseeing cruise while being serenaded by a real calliope, or watch her compete in the Great American Steamboat Race, part of spring’s Kentucky Derby Festival, which also features Thunder Over Louisville--the nation’s largest fireworks display--the hot-air Balloon Fest and the Pegasus Parade.

6. Go Wild

Louisville Zoo
The award-winning Louisville Zoo hosts some rare gems: snow leopards, polar bears, and black-footed ferrets, North America’s most endangered mammal. The “Islands” exhibit rotates its animals through different environments to keep them stimulated. Follow the trails of “Gorilla Forest” which brings you just inches from apes and hippos. Snap a photo of King Louie the white alligator, then on hot days, cool off at Papa John’s Splash Park.

7. Lodging: Literary and Luxe

Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau
In 1905, Bavaria’s Seelbach brothers opened a lavish, Beaux-Arts Baroque hotel downtown, and the Seelbach quickly gained a famous following. Al Capone was a frequent visitor to the Oakroom, still a fine-dining favorite, and F. Scott Fitzgerald sampled bourbon and jazz at The Old Seelbach Bar while on Army leave. The Seelbach and the people he met there became key elements in The Great Gatsby.

Nearby, the more intimate Brown Hotel was built in 1923. With its hand-painted relief ceilings and a gilded marble second floor lobby, you can just picture Al Jolson, Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Carter and other celebrity guests socializing here in days past. The English Grill trades “best restaurant” accolades with the Seelbach’s Oakroom, and features the original Louisville sandwich, The Hot Brown.

Check into the 21c Museum Hotel, and then check out its renowned contemporary art (thus the “21st Century” reference). You don’t even need to be a hotel guest to see the collection. The hotel’s award-winning restaurant, Proof on Main works with regional farmers, showcasing Ohio River Valley culinary artistry alongside the art itself.

Wherever you stay, all 3 of these hotels are stops on…

8. The Urban Bourbon Trail

Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau
One-third of the world’s bourbon comes from Louisville—the Urban Bourbon Trail includes 19 area bars and restaurants, all offering at least 50 labels of America’s only native spirit. Pick up your “passport” from the Louisville Visitors Center, or download the iPhone or Android app. Then get stamps at any 6 locales—you don’t have to drink, just make a purchase—and you’ll earn an official “Urban Bourbon Trailblazer” t-shirt and “citizenship certificate.”
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Louisville City Guide

Before you visit the Derby City, get Travel Channel's suggestions on where to stay, where to eat and what to do in Louisville, KY.

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