What are the five best things to see and do in Louisville?

Larry Olmsted

Small in scale but big on charm, Louisville has a rich history—thanks to its location on the Ohio River—as a gateway to the nation’s western expansion. Here is Forbes Travel Guide’s editors’ list of the best things to do in Louisville.
 
1. Churchill Downs. Home to the Kentucky Derby and the fabled haunt of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Man o’ War and so many others, this is simply the most famous horse race track on earth. The annual racing meet spans nearly three months, and if you visit Louisville in the spring it is imperative you attend a day of racing. Otherwise you come and tour the facility and its wonderful museum.
 
2. The Muhammad Ali Center. Secretariat is only the second most famous athlete to make a name for himself in Louisville. Number one is Muhammad Ali, one of the most recognizable men in history. The repeat World Heavyweight Champion grew up here, and the Muhammad Ali Center, on the riverfront in the heart of downtown, is a wonderful museum. If you did not grow up watching the fleet and nimble Ali box, you can watch every one of his fights here.
 
3. The Bourbon Trail. Bourbon is to Kentucky what watches are to Switzerland, and all the great American bourbon whiskies, big and small, from Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam to Woodford Reserve and Pappy Van Winkle are made within easy driving distance of Louisville. Many distilleries offer in-depth tours, and better yet; several companies offer full-day escorted tours of bourbon country – leave the driving to them.
 
4. The Louisville Slugger Factory. The vast majority of bats used in Major League history, past and present, are made right on Main Street in the heart of downtown Louisville. Among towering modern office buildings stands the Louisville Slugger Factory & Museum, where wooden bats are painstakingly custom made for most Major Leaguers. You can see the process, view historic bats, take a few swings of your own in batting cages, and even get a personalized bat branded with your own name.
 
5. Grab a drumstick. Colonel Harlan Sanders was a real person, and like his image on the KFC buckets, he always wore a double-breasted white suit. First you can take your picture with a lifelike replica of the man who spread fried chicken to the world in the downtown Louisville Visitors Center, then make the macabre pilgrimage, chicken in hand, to his grave in the city’s Cave Hill Cemetery, where it is traditional to eat a drumstick at his headstone. Really.

  • On September 19, 2012
    Larry Olmsted answered the question: Larry Olmsted

    What is the Kentucky Derby like in Louisville?

    The Kentucky Derby is more than just a horse race – it is a two-week festival that kicks off with the world’s largest fireworks display, Thunder over Louisville, then features a marathon and half-marathon, parades, social galas and  charity auctions. Things really heat up on Kentucky Oaks Day, the day before the Derby itself, which is always held the first Saturday in May. Oaks Day is the more feminine version of the Derby, with just as elaborate hats and dresses, all with the goal of raising money to fight cancer. Locals love Oaks Day and it is nearly as crowded as the Derby, especially since all the official ticket and travel packages sold by Churchill Downs include both days. There are galas the night before the Oaks (Taste of the Derby), the night of the Oaks (the Julep) and the next day is the Derby. Racing starts at 10:30 a.m., the Derby is the 11th race of the day, around 6 p.m., and is always preceded by a celebrity singing of the national anthem (Mary J. Blige in 2012), and the University of Louisville marching band playing the state anthem, My Old Kentucky Home. The entire affair is filled with pomp and circumstance and tradition, and then comes “The most exciting two minutes in sports,” the Winner’s Party and more mint juleps. It is like the Super Bowl merged with Mardi Gras.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Larry Olmsted answered the question: Larry Olmsted

    What is the best thing to bring home from Louisville?

    The most popular Louisville souvenirs you can take home fit neatly into three categories — and fairly neatly into your suitcase.  Horse racing related gifts from Churchill Downs, especially dirt encrusted horseshoes that have been run on the track; all manner of Kentucky bourbons and accessories like silver-plated mint julep glasses; and personalized bats from Louisville Slugger. Before you leave, be sure to stop by the Louisville Slugger Factory & Museum, where wooden bats are painstakingly custom made for most Major Leaguers. You can see the process, view historic bats, take a few swings of your own in batting cages, and even get a personalized bat branded with your own name (or the name of someone who’d appreciate the gift).
  • On September 19, 2012
    Larry Olmsted answered the question: Larry Olmsted

    What are the five best Louisville food experiences?

    Louisville combines the flavors and traditions of Southern cooking with the meat-centric Midwestern diet, and throws in some unique celebratory twists of its own. Forbes Travel Guide’s editors’ suggest these five dining experiences to try when in Louisville.
     
    1. The Hot Brown. Invented at the Brown Hotel, which still serves the best, this is an open face sandwich of toast points covered with turkey, smothered in Mornay sauce (a cheesy béchamel), then garnished with grated cheese, bacon and tomatoes, all cooked until sizzling in an oven safe pan and served as a one pot dish. It is Louisville’s signature meal, created in the roaring 20s to feed a late night dance crowd, and found today at many restaurants.
     
    2. Mutton and Burgoo. Western Kentucky, especially Owensboro, has developed a highly regionalized style of barbecue based not on pork or beef, but rather mutton.  This is served chopped, sliced or in burgoo, a gumbo-like, mutton stew. These dishes are uniquely Kentuckian and can be found throughout Louisville as well, especially at BBQ places like Mark’s Feed Store.
     
    3. Derby Pie or Kentucky Pie. No Derby party is considered complete without this signature dessert, a sort of walnut version of chocolate pecan pie. A local bakery, Kern’s, holds the trademark on Derby Pie, so you can get it from them or at a handful of authorized restaurant resellers. Otherwise, everyone has the dish, but calls it Kentucky Pie.
     
    4. Urban Bourbon Trail. Louisville is the heart and soul of bourbon country, and has created an Urban Bourbon Trail, passport and all, featuring nine bars with among the country’s finest selections of domestic whiskies. You can get the passport at the Visitors Center, but highlights are Proof on Main, the Brown Hotel Bar, Jockey Silks and the Maker’s Mark Bourbon House & Lounge.
     
    5. Breakfast bonanza. Locals are crazy for breakfast – there is no other way to describe it. From an Elvis tribute of peanut butter and banana stuffed French toast at Toast on Market to the BLT home fries and cinnamon granola pancakes at Lynn’s Paradise Café, wacky, creative – and huge – breakfasts abound.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Larry Olmsted answered the question: Larry Olmsted

    Where is the best nightlife in Louisville?

    The biggest concentration of nightlife options in Louisville is Fourth Street Live, a pedestrianized zone in downtown that includes a comedy club, bowling alley, and plenty of bars, restaurants and clubs. It is important to note that this area is a bit touristy and you are not likely to encounter any actual locals here. For a more authentic taste of Louisville, the pubs of Bardstown Road in the hip Highlands neighborhood tend to feature live music and lively atmosphere.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Larry Olmsted answered the question: Larry Olmsted

    What is the best way to see Louisville in one day?

    To see the best of Louisville in one day requires a car or cab, but parking and getting around is easy and the distances between the three key areas are short. Park anywhere in downtown near Main Street, and you can easily explore “Museum Mile” on foot, including the Muhammad Ali Center, Louisville Slugger Museum, 21c Museum Hotel, Frazier International History Museum and Louisville Science Center. If you are staying in a downtown hotel, you can do this part entirely on foot. From here it is a short hop over to mile-long Bardstown Road, known for its boutique shops and bookstores. Park anyplace and explore Louisville’s hippest neighborhood, the Highlands, on foot, stopping for lunch anywhere that suits your fancy. Next, head over to Churchill Downs to see the famous race track and its Kentucky Derby Museum.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Larry Olmsted answered the question: Larry Olmsted

    Where is the best shopping in Louisville?

    Largely unspoiled by chains except in suburban malls, shopping in Louisville is very much boutique and one-of-a-kind driven. The two big shopping areas include mile-long Bardstown Road, with a Bohemian aesthetic and plenty of vintage clothing, used record and bookstores, galleries stocked with handmade goods and jewelry boutiques. The alternative, Market Street, is more gallery and designer driven, and both offer nice walks with plenty of dining along the way (and even a wine shop, or two). If you like antiquing, Louisville is home to some of the country’s largest and most unique antique stores. Two must-see antique shops include Joe Ley Antiques, this in an 1890 schoolhouse, with two acres filled with treasures from carousel animals, to rare toys to interesting advertising. We also like the newer Derby City Antique Mall with over 100 vendors.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Larry Olmsted answered the question: Larry Olmsted

    What are the five best things to do with kids in Louisville?

    Louisville is not a city where parents traveling with their children have to work hard to keep the family entertained, as most of the major attractions that adults would visit anyway cater to kids. Much of the city’s dining scene also slants in favor of the little ones. Here is Forbes Travel Guide’s editors’ list of the five best things to do with kids in Louisville
     
    1.Hands-on discovery. The Louisville Science Center is a modern interactive museum aimed at kids of all ages, with over 150 learning stations, and a dedicated KidZone for the youngest visitors. All of these exhibits are slanted toward hands-on activity.
     
    2. Play ball. The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory is the best facility devoted to our national pastime this side of Cooperstown, and kids love seeing the bats made, and especially the 120-foot high replica of Babe Ruth’s bat outside the front door (which makes for the perfect photo op).
     
    3. Derby days. While adults will thoroughly enjoy the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs, the exhibits are carefully planned to be suitable for and enjoyable to the younger crowd. It’s not just artifacts, but rather a learning experience in what it takes to make a champion thoroughbred, from breeding to the big race.
     
    4. Rolling on the river. A National Landmark, the Belle of Louisville is the oldest river-going steamboat in operation in this country, and daily plies the waters of the Ohio River on lunch and dinner cruises.
     
    5. The Olmsted Park System. While his Central Park in New York City and Emerald Necklace around Boston are more famous, many critics consider Louisville’s network of three major – and fifteen minor – tree-lined parks to be the crowning achievement of the Father of Landscape Architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Larry Olmsted answered the question: Larry Olmsted

    What are the five best things to see and do in Louisville?

    Small in scale but big on charm, Louisville has a rich history—thanks to its location on the Ohio River—as a gateway to the nation’s western expansion. Here is Forbes Travel Guide’s editors’ list of the best things to do in Louisville.
     
    1. Churchill Downs. Home to the Kentucky Derby and the fabled haunt of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Man o’ War and so many others, this is simply the most famous horse race track on earth. The annual racing meet spans nearly three months, and if you visit Louisville in the spring it is imperative you attend a day of racing. Otherwise you come and tour the facility and its wonderful museum.
     
    2. The Muhammad Ali Center. Secretariat is only the second most famous athlete to make a name for himself in Louisville. Number one is Muhammad Ali, one of the most recognizable men in history. The repeat World Heavyweight Champion grew up here, and the Muhammad Ali Center, on the riverfront in the heart of downtown, is a wonderful museum. If you did not grow up watching the fleet and nimble Ali box, you can watch every one of his fights here.
     
    3. The Bourbon Trail. Bourbon is to Kentucky what watches are to Switzerland, and all the great American bourbon whiskies, big and small, from Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam to Woodford Reserve and Pappy Van Winkle are made within easy driving distance of Louisville. Many distilleries offer in-depth tours, and better yet; several companies offer full-day escorted tours of bourbon country – leave the driving to them.
     
    4. The Louisville Slugger Factory. The vast majority of bats used in Major League history, past and present, are made right on Main Street in the heart of downtown Louisville. Among towering modern office buildings stands the Louisville Slugger Factory & Museum, where wooden bats are painstakingly custom made for most Major Leaguers. You can see the process, view historic bats, take a few swings of your own in batting cages, and even get a personalized bat branded with your own name.
     
    5. Grab a drumstick. Colonel Harlan Sanders was a real person, and like his image on the KFC buckets, he always wore a double-breasted white suit. First you can take your picture with a lifelike replica of the man who spread fried chicken to the world in the downtown Louisville Visitors Center, then make the macabre pilgrimage, chicken in hand, to his grave in the city’s Cave Hill Cemetery, where it is traditional to eat a drumstick at his headstone. Really.
  • On August 29, 2012
    Forbes Travel Guide Inspector answered the question: Forbes Travel Guide Inspector

    What are the five best places to eat in Louisville?

    The Midwest meets the South in Louisville, and they collide with some unexpected culinary results, including only-in-Louisville dishes worth seeking out. Forbes Travel Guide’s editors think these are the five best places to eat in Louisville:
     
    1. Jack Fry’s. In the hip Bardstown Road neighborhood, Jack Fry’s is the consensus must-eat Louisville restaurant, fine dining American cuisine with an emphasis on updated Southern traditions, such as a signature gourmet version of shrimp and grits.
     
    2. Jeff Ruby’s. A favorite of the Derby crowd, this is the place for steaks in Louisville, a New York-style old school steakhouse, the only one in the city that dry ages its own meats on the premises.
     
    3. Brown Hotel. It’s a tough choice where to eat here. J. Graham’s Café makes exceptional soups, salads and sandwiches and is one of the best lunch choices in the city. Upstairs, the English Grill is Louisville’s top choice for formal, European-style fine dining with all the opulence.
     
    4. Proof on Main. This upscale American restaurant in the design-conscious 21c Museum Hotel is the most scene-driven eatery in Louisville. You’ll pay a pretty penny for the urban atmosphere, but the creative fare is pretty reliable. The charred octopus appetizer, bison burger and a bison entrée are always on the menu, since the owners have a bison farm, but everything else changes almost daily.
     
    5. Doc Crow’s Southern Barbecue & Raw Bar. This Louisville staple is a barbecue joint, an oyster bar and a New Orleans style po’ boy shop all rolled into one. Doc Crow’s is set in a historic building on Louisville’s Whiskey Row and boasts local seafood and unique barbecue styles of the American South.
  • On August 29, 2012
    Forbes Travel Guide Inspector answered the question: Forbes Travel Guide Inspector

    What are the five best places to stay in Louisville?

    Louisville has a surprisingly vibrant hospitality scene, and the options here are quite distinct, with something for every taste and budget, though across the board – except during Kentucky Derby weekend – the city offers a very good value. These are Forbes Travel Guide’s editors’ five favorite places to stay in Louisville:
     
    1. Brown Hotel: This 1923 classic is the city’s grand dame, with large rooms, old world charm and impeccable service. On the edge of downtown, it is just slightly off the beaten path. Its café is perhaps Louisville’s best lunch spot and birthplace of its signature dish, the Hot Brown (an open-faced turkey and bacon sandwich covered in a Béchamel sauce baked on a crispy piece of bread). A stay here means a definite visit to its fine dining restaurant.
     
    2. 21c Museum Hotel. Radical when it opened a few years ago, this cutting edge design hotel on Main Street is easily the city’s trendiest, but is also home to a full-blown art museum, in addition to the ever-changing museum-quality artwork collection displayed throughout its common areas and restaurant, Proof on Main.
     
    3. Seelbach Hotel. The classic grandeur of the Brown Hotel with a slightly better location, this historic property was home to Capone and JFK and is said to have inspired the Buchanan’s grand wedding in The Great Gatsby. It is adjacent to the pedestrianized nightlife zone of Fourth Street Live, good if you like to party late night, not so good for noise.
     
    4. DuPont Mansion. A bit off the beaten path in historic Old Louisville, the appeal of this seven-room bed and breakfast is the mansion itself, built by its namesake industrialist. It is truly a mansion, filled with crystal chandeliers and rooms that match, including suites with fireplaces, four-poster beds and oversized whirlpool tubs.
     
    5. The Galt House. The only true riverfront hotel in Louisville, this huge classic spans two towers on either side of Fourth Street, linked by a sky bridge, and is the place to stay during the Derby. The hotel has a laundry list of shops, restaurants, amenities, a great location, and Jockey Silks, one of the world’s more famous whiskey bars, devoted to horse racing and Kentucky bourbon.