The Best Things to Do in Louisville, Kentucky
The city of Louisville, long known as the "Gateway to the South," has the humble steamboat to thank for its early livelihood. Founded in 1778, the city really began to take off when steamboat traffic stirred up development along the Ohio River. This strategic geography also spurred great commercial growth, including development of a railroad, and caught the eyes of Joseph E. Seagram and Sons, which went on to open the largest distillery in the world in the city after the repeal of prohibition.
Today, Louisville is the official head of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, with nine distillery experiences for visitors to enjoy. Equally as prolific as bourbon in Louisville is horse racing. Churchill Downs opened here in 1875 following Meriwether Lewis Clark's ambition to develop a horse racing event in America after attending a derby in England.
The legendary Kentucky Derby has been held almost every year since it opened, drawing more than 150,000 fans to the May event (pre-pandemic). Modern Louisville is a mix of old and new, staying true to its roots by offering travelers the opportunity to experience long-standing traditions more authentically than ever: Think up-close tours, tastings, and behind-the-scenes showings. Read on to plan your itinerary for a trip to Louisville this year.
What to Do
Most of the distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in Louisville—including Angel's Envy and Old Forester—are within walking distance from each other on Louisville's Main Street, meaning of-age adults can imbibe without needing a designated driver. Tour company Mint Julep offers pre-planned experiences that can include bourbon tastings, horse farms, restaurants, breweries and more, as well as customized tours with private transportation (including a tuk tuk option!) for small groups. Serious bourbon lovers should be sure to visit Justins' House of Bourbon, a bar and shop that's home to one of the largest collections of vintage and rare whiskies in the world.
Also downtown is the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, which added a Roberto Clemente statue last summer; the Muhammad Ali Center, with an interactive museum and educational programming; and the Frazier History Museum, home to a wide variety of historic artifacts and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center.
While the Kentucky Derby is the most coveted ticket in town, you can tour the racetrack any time. There's also the Kentucky Derby Museum, which houses a permanent collection of racing memorabilia dating back to the 1840s and a café serving staples like Derby Pie and Mint Juleps.
For something different that has nothing to do with horses or bourbon, head to Louisville Mega Cavern, one of the largest caverns in the country. Explore 17 miles of underground passageways via zip line, make your way through an underground ropes course, or take a tram tour for an unforgettable experience regardless of the weather above ground.
When to Go
Spring and fall are ideal times to visit Louisville. Catch live racing at Churchill Downs during the annual spring and fall meets. Bourbon Heritage Month is September, and autumn is abundant with festivals such as WorldFest (Labor Day weekend) and the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in nearby Bardstown (September).
Where to Eat
When it comes to cuisine, you'd expect to find Southern food and perfect renditions of iconic Kentucky dishes like Derby pie (made with chocolate and walnuts), burgoo (a soup-stew hybrid, often with a kick) and hot brown (an open-faced sandwich topped with a creamy cheese sauce). But Louisville's become a hub for international cuisine, too. Grab a seat at La Bodeguita de Mima downtown to be transported to 1950s Havana, feasting upon Arroz Imperial plated on colorful dinnerware. Get a taste of Asian-inspired comfort foods like ramen, Laotian-spiced fried chicken, and steam buns at Chik'n & Mi, which also has brunch. If you're in the mood for pub food, head to intimate Hammerheads in Germantown for can't-eat-just-one pork belly sliders, smoked cheddar grit tots, and a variety of crave-worthy ribs, sandwiches, and burgers. For a classic night out, Jack Fry's restaurant has been a Louisville staple since the 1930s, with a menu and dining room worth getting dressed up for.
Where to Stay
The opulent Brown Hotel, birthplace of the hot brown, is a grand Louisville tradition, with 293 updated guest rooms, two restaurants, a bar perfect for bourbon sipping, and a beautiful rooftop garden. History lovers will also enjoy The Seelbach Hilton, the city's oldest operating hotel where the famous signature Seelbach cocktail was developed. For something more modern, the tastefully bourbon-themed Hotel Distil opened on Whiskey Row in 2019 (of-age guests can enjoy a nightly toast to the Repeal of Prohibition). Grady Hotel, which opened in 2021, has the newest accommodations in town, with 51 stylish rooms housed in an 1883 building downtown. Have a larger group? Venture 20 miles northeast of the city for an equine-meets-bourbon experience at Hermitage Farm, a historic horse farm with a guest house that sleeps up to 10 and the acclaimed Barn8 restaurant and bar.