One City, Three Ways: Louisville, Kentucky

What to do in Louisville if you’re into sports, spirits, history, or all of the above
Bardstown Road, Louisville, Kentucky

Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism

While Louisville may shine especially bright on the first Saturday of May, there’s much more to Louisville than big hats and fast horses. Spend a day paying homage to boxing great Muhammad Ali and see how the city’s namesake baseball bats are made. Explore top-caliber restaurants in the NuLu neighborhood before launching into that bucket-list tour of Kentucky’s finest bourbon distilleries. Enjoy live music at Stevie Ray’s Blues Bar, or dress up for a night at the ballet. No matter how you shake it, Louisville is a city to be savored. Just don’t leave before you snag a Hot Brown, the city’s signature comfort dish.

Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory

Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism

Sports Fan

CHEER | Churchill Downs
The Twin Spires at this storied 1875 horseracing track are symbolic of the city itself, thanks to their heavy media coverage come May. Not able to score Derby Day tickets? Don’t worry: You can watch thoroughbreds in action here almost every weekend during May and June, and from September through November.

Churchill Downs

Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism

HORSE AROUND | Kentucky Derby Museum
Even when the horses aren’t running, it’s worth a visit to Churchill Downs to explore this interactive on-site museum, open daily year round. Peruse trophies and memorabilia showcasing the history of American horseracing since the 1840s, as well as exhibits on racing’s biggest celebrities and, yes, its biggest hats.

SWING | Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory
You don’t have to be a baseball fan to know of the city’s namesake bat. (Thanks, Carrie Underwood.) But for fans of America’s pastime, this stop is a must. Get an up-close look at how these icons of the game—synonymous with baseball since 1884—are made, tour the fun-for-all-ages museum, and return home with your own souvenir mini bat.

MEET | Muhammad Ali Center
Louisville’s famous native son called himself The Greatest, and the exhibits at this museum dedicated to the boxing legend’s storied career drive home his point. Two and a half floors of memorabilia and interactive exhibits—try shadowboxing with Ali—explore his dominance in the ring, as well as his legacy as a humanitarian and activist.

Louisville Bats

Photo courtesy of Louisville Bats

ROOT | Louisville Bats
Catch Louisville’s Minor League Baseball team, a Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, in action April through September at the newly renovated Louisville Slugger Field. In addition to strikes and steals, you’ll snag great views of the downtown city skyline and nearby Ohio River waterfront.

Hell or High Water’s signature Calling Card cocktail

Photo by Andrew Hyslop

Spirits Enthusiast

SAVOR | Kentucky Bourbon Trail 
Ready for bourbon bliss? Grab a trail passport, featuring 18 sites, at Louisville’s Frazier History Museum, then begin your immersion at the nearby Evan Williams Bourbon Experience or Angel’s Envy Distillery Tour. You’ll learn about the making of bourbon—and how to properly sip it. Tackle the other four Louisville trail sites at your leisure, and rest easy knowing other bourbon hot spots are a short drive away.

Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism

IMBIBE | Speakeasies
Channel your inner Gatsby at one of the city’s popular Prohibition-themed speakeasies, heavy on nostalgic charm and staffed by bartenders who know their way around killer cocktails. Best bets include Pin + Proof, whose entrance is “hidden” behind a painting in the lobby of the Omni Hotel, and Hell or High Water, where the signature Calling Card, featuring Old Forester 1920, is recommended and reservations are required.

COMPARE | Urban Bourbon Trail
Louisville is the birthplace of the Old Fashioned, so naturally bars here try to one-up each other interpreting the classic cocktail. Each of the 40-plus sites on this list of the city’s best bourbon bars and restaurants has its own signature version on the menu. At Proof on Main, enjoy your drink with a side of bison burger.

Copper & Kings

Photo courtesy of Copper & Kings

SIP | Copper & Kings
Find your new favorite spirit at this craft brandy distillery known for its low-and-slow distillation process employing traditional copper pots. After a tour, snag a table at the rooftop bar and restaurant, and enjoy grape and apple brandies with a locally inspired dinner (fried pork sandwich, anyone?).

QUAFF | Louisville Ale Trail
There’s beer, too. Don’t-miss stops on this tour of the city’s craft brew scene include Against the Grain, featuring a Victorian-styled, three-story brewhouse, and Falls City Beer, serving the lager synonymous with Louisville since 1905. In all, you’ll have more than 20 breweries to explore, pacing yourself of course.

Roots 101 African American Museum

Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism

History Buff

DISCOVER | Frazier History Museum
Wind your way through treasure troves of historic weapons (the museum’s founder, Owsley Brown Frazier, gathered an extensive collection) plus artifacts with links to American history and culture, such as Teddy Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” and Geronimo’s bow and arrow. As the launching point of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, many exhibits also celebrate the state’s signature spirit.

EXPLORE | Roots 101 African American Museum
This new downtown museum, named a USA Today Readers’ Choice Top 10 Best New Attraction for 2021, explores the richness of Black history and culture through a blend of contemporary and historic art and artifacts, ranging from African royal sculpture to 400-year-old chains used to bind enslaved persons.

Belle of Louisville

Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism

CRUISE | Belle of Louisville
Score the best-possible views of Louisville’s skyline aboard this historic steamboat as it cruises the Ohio River. In operation since 1914, the paddlewheeler will also transport you back in time to the city’s bustling riverport days. Enjoy a brunch, dinner, or evening sightseeing cruise or a special-event voyage complete with drinks and live music.

ADMIRE | Conrad-Caldwell House Museum
Take a step back to Louisville’s Gilded Age on a tour of this Richardsonian Romanesque castle. Built in 1895 from Bedford limestone, the mansion is also known for its elaborate interior woodwork. After your visit, stroll St. James Court and other surrounding streets in Old Louisville, a 40-block area that boasts one of America’s largest concentrations of restored Victorian homes.

The Hot Brown from the Brown Hotel

Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism

NOSH | The Brown Hotel and The Seelbach Hilton
Primed for its centennial in 2023, the Brown Hotel in downtown is the birthplace of the Hot Brown, an open-faced, cheese-rich turkey and bacon sandwich. After polishing off the classic dish, stroll down the street to the Seelbach Hilton, which was frequented by a young F. Scott Fitzgerald and is said to have inspired his depictions of high society in The Great Gatsby.

This article appears in the Spring & Summer 2022 issue of Southbound.