A trip to Louisville, Kentucky, probably brings to mind big Southern mansions, sipping on glasses of golden bourbon, and dressing up in your Sunday best for the races at the Kentucky Derby. And while you wouldn't be wrong, there's also a vibrant arts scene, rich history, lively nightlife, and even an underground cave to explore in Kentucky's largest city. Get some inspiration for your trip to Louisville with this list of the 16 top things to do in Derby City.
Ask someone for a recommendation of what to do in Kentucky, and more likely than not the first thing they'll tell you is bourbon. Kentucky is the proud home of bourbon whiskey, and there's no better way to experience the best of the best than following the famous Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Even though bourbon production is most associated with Central Kentucky, seven of the distilleries on the official trail are right in downtown Louisville—most of them thankfully within walking distance from one another on Whiskey Row. Try Rabbit Hole, Angel's Envy, or any of the other local distilleries.
Step Back in Time
Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the Frazier History Museum began as a quaint display about guns and weapons in 2004 and has evolved into an expansive and remarkable museum covering Kentucky, U.S., and world history. You can still see historical arms, including the rifle of Theodore Roosevelt or the bow and arrows of Geronimo, but other permanent exhibitions include The Lewis and Clark Experience about the famous cross-country trek and the Kentucky Spirit dedicated to all things bourbon.
Get Crafty With Top Artists
A museum dedicated to arts and crafts might sound off-putting to a lot of visitors, but those who have been to KMAC, previously called the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, consider it one of Louisville's most endearing surprises. Founded in 1981, KMAC showcases artistic and design excellence with a purpose to "connect people to art and creative practice." Revolving exhibitions have included local artists such as Julie Baldyga and international superstars like Pablo Picasso. The museum is always free for youth and students, so it's a great option for families traveling with kids.
If you'd like to take a nice walk, head to The Big Four Bridge, a former railroad truss bridge that is 2,525 feet (770 meters) long. The six-span bridge—finished in 1895 and then updated in 1929—crosses the Ohio River, connecting Louisville and Jeffersonville, Indiana. In 1969, the Big Four Bridge was removed from rail service and then in 2014 it was converted to bicycle and pedestrian use only. Another highlight worth checking out is the LED lighting, which creates a colorful sight daily from dusk until 1 a.m.
Marvel at The Louisville Palace
The Louisville Palace opened in 1928 as a movie theater and was restored in the early '90s. Designed by architect John Eberson, the vibrant theater featuring Spanish Baroque décor was a successful movie venue until the early 1970s before transforming into a locale hosting a diversity of live entertainment, including Broadway shows, international acts, stand-up comedians, concerts, and more. The 2,800-seat auditorium is a great place for tourists and locals to spend some time.
Cruise on the Belle of Louisville
A top local attraction is the Belle of Louisville, the oldest river steamboat in continuous use in the U.S., running since 1914. This National Historic Landmark boat takes passengers on cruises up and down the Ohio River, including Sunday brunch journeys, picnic lunch and sunset rides, special events, and more. The vessel also races in the Great Steamboat Race every year on the Wednesday before the Kentucky Derby.
There are over 120 public parks in the metro area, many brought to life by Frederick Law Olmsted, a nationally recognized landscape architect who created Central Park in New York.
He also designed two of Louisville's most beloved parks, Cherokee Park and Iroquois Park. With amenities like a 2.4-mile scenic walking loop, a fenced dog park, and a bird sanctuary, Cherokee Park is one of the most visited parks in the U.S. And Iroquois Park is most known for its panoramic views, its large open-air amphitheater, and the golf course.
Waterfront Park is now a favorite recreation area among Louisville residents of all ages. It is the top destination for major local events like Thunder Over Louisville, as well as smaller events and concerts in the warmer months.
Visit the Muhammad Ali Center
Muhammad Ali's fame began after winning a gold medal in boxing at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, but he is more than just a sports hero. Born and raised in Louisville, he devoted much of his life to helping the less fortunate across the world, and the Muhammad Ali Center was built to celebrate his admirable life and strength of character. The center is focused on presenting his life and values and how people can use them to develop a love for others, sense of community, and compassion. Whether you're a lifelong fan or just want to know more about this American legend, the Muhammad Ali Center is a must-see spot.
Tour Historic Louisville Homes
Louisville's long history can be found in its preserved historic homes that are located in some of the oldest city districts. Some of the city's most notable historic homes include the Thomas Edison House, the Farmington Carriage House, and Whitehall.
Thomas Edison is most well-known for inventing the light bulb, but the majority of his inventions over the course of his life were patented for the telegraph machine. His home is preserved as a museum with a collection of artifacts and inventions that represent his innovative life.
The Farmington Carriage House and its surrounding buildings have undergone many renovations in the last 200 years, but today it is fully restored to reflect every detail of its days as a hemp plantation home.
Whitehall was transformed from a two-story brick house into the southern-style, Greek mansion in 1909. This historic home is open for tours and is a popular place for weddings and other large events.
Explore Old Louisville
Home to the largest collection of grand Victorian homes and the third largest National Preservation District in the United States, the Old Louisville neighborhood is well worth a visit for anyone with an interest in history, architecture, and preservation. Within this 48-block area, in addition to the many Victorian mansions, there are interesting examples of other architectural styles as well, including Romanesque Revival, Beaux Arts, Queen Anne, Italianate and Chateauesque.
While exploring Old Louisville, plan to tour the Conrad-Caldwell Museum, a historic house museum located on picturesque St. James Court that features opulent decorative details and houses a substantial collection of original period pieces.
Popular Old Louisville annual events include the St. James Court Art Show (an open-air art show and sale held the first weekend of October that features more than 700 artists) and the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival in July.
Delve Into Kentucky Derby History
Louisville's Churchill Downs is best known as the home of the Kentucky Derby, the city's biggest annual event. The Kentucky Derby draws an average of 160,000 visitors each year, including residents, visitors, celebrities, presidents, and even members of royal families.
The Kentucky Derby Museum is open year-round (except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks Days). The Kentucky Derby Museum features two floors of exhibits and displays which explore the history and traditions of the Kentucky Derby, as well as the history of thoroughbred racing. Visitors to the museum can watch a documentary about the Kentucky Derby called The Greatest Race in its 360-degree theater. Walking and van guided tours are available.
Get Spooked at the Sanatorium
The Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Louisville was built as a two-story hospital for people with tuberculosis. Because this disease required quarantine, many people who were diagnosed with TB in the early to mid-1900s were sent to live at the Waverly Hills Hospital. It's now believed that more than 60,000 people died in the Waverly Hills Sanatorium. Additionally, the patients at Waverly Hills were often mistreated or were subjects of unethical research experiments.
By the 1960s, tuberculosis was cured, and Waverly Hills was no longer needed. It was quarantined for a year and then converted into a nursing home. The nursing home was closed by the state because of allegations of patient abuse in the 1980s. For two decades, Waverly Hills was just an abandoned building. Today, Waverly Hills Sanatorium is known as one of the most haunted places in the world and has been featured on many local and national TV and radio programs.
Shop on Bardstown Road
Bardstown Road is a stretch of road in Louisville that is home to the largest number of original restaurants, oddity shops, and hole-in-the-wall bars in the city. While Fourth Street Live! is the typical nightlife destination for out-of-towners, Bardstown Road is a popular nightlife spot for locals. The two-story club houses five different bars, each offering a different type of music or entertainment.
Spend Time With the Animals
One of the top local destinations for people of all ages is the Louisville Zoo. The Louisville Zoo is home to more than 1,300 animals from a diverse range of geographical areas. Visitors can engage in a variety of interactive activities, such as feeding the giraffes and lorikeets and watching the elephants do aerobics. In addition, the Louisville Zoo is home to a 4-D ride, a climbing adventure course, a water park, several playgrounds, and a carousel.
Go to the Louisville Slugger Museum
The Louisville Slugger Museum is a must-see for baseball fans. Interactive exhibits, baseball memorabilia and bat factory tours explore the history and production of the legendary Louisville Slugger. Approximately 1 million bats are produced here each year. Factory tours, held seven days a week, last approximately 25 minutes. At the end of the tour, each visitor receives a miniature souvenir bat. On days and hours when the factory is not operating, bat-making demonstrations may be offered.
Explore the Louisville Mega Cavern
Encompassing about 100 acres with more than four million square feet of underground space, the Louisville Mega Cavern is part of 17 miles of corridors and passageways beneath the city of Louisville. Because of natural insulation, the average temperature in the cavern stays at a constant 58 degrees Fahrenheit year round, making this a perfect place to visit to escape the summer heat or the winter chill. Many types of tours are offered, including historic tram tours to explore the cavern's history and geology, zip-line tours, and more.