11 Best Things to Do for the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Kentucky

The Kentucky Derby

Eclipse Sportswire / Getty Images

Held each year on the first Saturday of May, the Kentucky Derby brings hundreds of thousands of spectators to Louisville, Kentucky, for the big race. Kentucky Derby festivities aren't limited to the race itself, as many of the related celebrations happen around town before and after the main event; the Kentucky Derby Festival, for instance, takes place over the course of two weeks. If you're trying to decide which Kentucky Derby festivities to attend, you'll want to stick to the best and biggest, like the annual fireworks show, marathon, balloon festival, and parade, in addition to the actual race, of course.

01 of 11

The Barnstable Brown Gala

The Backstreet Boys perform at the Barnstable Brown Gala before the Kentucky Derby

Michael Hickey / Contributor / Getty Images

700 Central Ave, Louisville, KY 40208, USA
Phone +1 502-636-4400

For an unforgettable way to kick off the festivities, head to the Barnstable Brown Kentucky Derby Eve Gala, which typically takes place the night before the main races kick off. Party alongside celebrities—past attendees include 'NSYNC and Backstreet Boys band members (pictured here), Boys II Men, Miranda Lambert, Gene Simmons, and Tom Brady, among others—while helping to raise money for Kentucky University's Barnstable Brown Diabetes and Obesity Research Center at this event hailed by Conde Nast as one of the "10 best parties in the world."

02 of 11

Taste of Derby

Bobby Flay attends the Taste of Derby

Stephen Cohen / Stringer / Getty Images

1 Arena Plaza, Louisville, KY 40202-1363, USA
Phone +1 502-690-9000

Celebrate the start of the Kentucky Derby alongside celebrities and famous chefs (some of whom have been featured on "Top Chef") at Taste of Derby, an event that traditionally takes place the Thursday night before the main races. Book tickets early as this popular night tends to sell out quickly. Admission includes access to gourmet food and wine tastings and pairings, premium open bar service, red carpet and valet service, and live entertainment. A portion of the proceeds from ticket sales goes toward the Dare to Care Food Bank and other organizations helping to raise funds and awareness for hunger relief.

03 of 11

Opening Night and the Kentucky Derby

Sculpture of Kentucky Derby Winner Barbaro in front of Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs, Louisville, KY
 Barry Winiker / Getty Images
700 Central Ave, Louisville, KY 40208, USA
Phone +1 502-636-4400

Although the Kentucky Derby takes place on the first Saturday of May, the official kick-off for Derby Week takes place the Saturday before the big race. Each year, Opening Night features a variety of artists, live performances, and art installations as well as 10 special thoroughbred races. Presented by Budweiser as a partnership between Churchill Downs and the Fund for the Arts, this dress-to-impress 18-and-over party requires tickets to attend and provides the perfect way to kick off Kentucky Derby Week in style.

Known as the "most exciting two minutes in sports," the Kentucky Derby is the main attraction of Derby Week festivities and always takes place on the first Saturday in May. During the day, you'll have a chance to witness 14 separate races (officially, the actual Derby is the 12th) in preparation for the crowning of the Kentucky Derby champion.

Upon arrival, guests are welcome to grab their first mint julep of the day. At 30 minutes before the first race of the day (typically slated for 10 a.m.), the betting windows open to allow ample time for folks to place their bets on the races. Watch the Garland of Roses arrive at Clubhouse Gate at approximately 9:45 a.m., then swing by the Red Carpet at VIP Gate to catch a glimpse of celebrity attendees between noon and 2:30 p.m. All guests (even non-celebrities) are required to wear their finest attire; as such, fashion has become an important staple of the Kentucky Derby.

Tickets are available for seats in the Grandstand and Clubhouse boxes, as well as the First and Second-floor hospitality areas, while non-seated access is also available in Clubhouse Walk and in General Admission areas for the duration of the event.

04 of 11

Dawn at the Downs

Horse and rider at Dawn of Downs Event

Churchill Downs 

700 Central Ave, Louisville, KY 40208, USA
Phone +1 502-636-4400

During Dawn at the Downs, you can enjoy a delicious buffet breakfast while watching Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks racers conduct their morning workouts. A popular tradition for Louisvillians and visitors alike, the event also includes expert commentary as each horse is introduced on the track and evaluated for their workouts and past performances.

Guests are encouraged to buy tickets well in advance, as the best tables and dining areas tend to fill up quickly. Tickets include a reserved unassigned seat at a table in one of 20 dining areas surrounding the track as well as access to the Paddock area, Paddock Plaza, and Food Court. Be aware that some select dining rooms do not offer a direct view of the track.

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05 of 11

Champions Day

Sharp Azteca with Edgard Zayas

Horsephotos / Getty Images

700 Central Ave, Louisville, KY 40208, USA
Phone +1 502-636-4400

Although suspended from the lineup of Derby Week events for several years until its return in 2018, Champions Day has once again become a popular pastime for both locals and visitors. Champions Day highlights the history and sport of the Kentucky Derby and allows guests to meet famous jockeys and trainers, learn about Derby Week betting from industry experts, and support thoroughbred aftercare once the races have all concluded.

Tickets must be purchased in advance to avoid disappointment. Admission to a dining experience includes a full meal and assigned seating reservations at a table in one of the Churchhill Downs' dining areas, while the Champions Day Package, which can be purchased separately, includes Stakes Room seating for Dawn at the Downs, Starting Gate Suites seating for Day at the Races (including lunch), and a tour of the Kentucky Derby Museum.

06 of 11

The Longline Kentucky Oaks and Thurby

Serengeti Empress, ridden by jockey Jose Ortiz

Justin Casterline / Getty Images

700 Central Ave, Louisville, KY 40208, USA
Phone +1 502-636-4400

Held each year on the Friday before the Kentucky Derby, the Longline Kentucky Oaks is one of the longest-running horse races in the United States. Originally established on May 19, 1875, it's one of the few horse races in the country that is still being held at the site of its inception. During this one-million-dollar Grade 1 stakes race, three-year-old fillies (female horses) compete to take home the grand prize and a garland of lilies known as the "lilies for the fillies."

Tickets are available for Infield and Paddock general admission, while you can also book assigned seating and dining hospitality packages that come with breakfast and lunch service. Along with the thrill of the main race, fans during the event also celebrate fashion and focus on fundraising for critical women's health issues. Portions of the proceeds from the Oaks event go to support breast and ovarian cancer research, and guests are encouraged to incorporate pink into their race-day attire to match the pink garlands adorning the Churchill Downs track. After the race, stick around for the Survivors Parade, which honors the survivors of breast and ovarian cancer.

Providing a more relaxed and casual vibe than the Kentucky Oaks or Kentucky Derby events, Thurby is a great place to mingle with local and international race fans while enjoying Kentucky bourbon and taking in a full day of racing at Churchill Downs. Tickets for general admission, which are significantly cheaper than tickets to the Oaks or Derby events, grant visitors access to the Paddock area, the Plaza, and the First Floor Grandstand.

07 of 11

Thunder Over Louisville

Thunder Over Louisville Fireworks

Stephen J. Cohen / Getty Images

Each year, close to half a million people gather around Louisville's riverfront to watch Thunder Over Louisville, the largest fireworks show in the world and the opening event for the Kentucky Derby Festival. The 28-minute long fireworks show is also preceded by the Thunder Air Show, one of the top five air shows in the country, featuring more than 100 planes performing hours of diving and acrobatic stunts. Both events are free to attend and can be seen from rooftop bars and restaurants across the city as well as the riverfront itself.

08 of 11

Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon and miniMarathon

Marathon runners at the Derby Festival Marathon

Derby Festival Marathon

Louisville, KY, USA

The 26.2-mile Derby Marathon and the 12-mile Derby miniMarathon are two of the top annual Kentucky Derby Festival events. The miniMarathon is the most popular of the two and has been named among the nation's top 50 races by USA Track and Field magazine.

Each year, more than 12,000 people from all over the world gather together on the last Saturday in April to run one of the two scenic races through Louisville's parks and neighborhoods and past some of the city's biggest attractions. Advanced registration is required to participate, but you can watch from anywhere along the route.

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09 of 11

The Great Balloon Festival

U.S. Bank Derby Festival Great Balloon Glow

Stephen J. Cohen / Getty Images

937 Phillips Ln, Louisville, KY 40209-1398, USA
Phone +1 502-367-5000

The Great Balloon Festival is a series of four Kentucky Derby festivities that lead up to the main event, the Great Balloon Race. The first Great Balloon Race was held at Iroquois Park in 1973 and featured only seven balloons; however, it quickly became one of the most popular Kentucky Derby Festival events, and what was once just the Great Balloon Race has since become an entire weekend festival of hot air ballooning celebrations.

Events take place at the Kentucky Exposition Center and include the Great Balloon Glow, a race between hot air balloons lit up with twinkling lights, and the Great Balloon Glimmer, a smaller version of the Glow event. Each of these is free with a Pegasus Pin, though you may be required to pay a small fee for parking.

10 of 11

Great Steamboat Race

Kentucky Derby Festival's Great Steamboat Race

LuAnn Snawder Photography / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Louisville, KY, USA

The Great Steamboat Race is an annual event—a competition between the Belle of Louisville and the Belle of Cincinnati on the Ohio River—that takes place the Wednesday before the Kentucky Derby. During the event, guests can purchase tickets aboard the Belle of Louisville or the Belle of Cincinnati (the latter is cheaper but includes fewer amenities).

A bit of trivia: Prior to 2009, the Belle of Louisville raced the Delta Queen in the Great Steamboat Race, but federal regulations forced the Delta Queen to dock permanently at the end of 2008. It is now kept as a hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

11 of 11

Pegasus Parade

Stars Lead Kentucky Derby Pegasus Parade

Stephen Cohen / Getty Images

Louisville, KY, USA

The Pegasus Parade was the first-ever event of the Kentucky Derby Festival; although the festival has grown since the days where it consisted of just the parade races, today the Pegasus Parade remains one of the biggest and best events. Come to see parade participants march, walk, and roll down Downtown Louisville's Broadway, while impressive floats, inflatable characters, marching bands, celebrities, and horses do their thing for the crowds.

Starting at Campbell Street, the parade runs west for 17 blocks on Broadway before concluding at 9th Street. Advanced registration is required to participate, but spectators are free to watch from anywhere along the route free of charge.

Purchase Tickets Well in Advance

To attend any of these official events, you'll need to purchase a ticket well in advance of the Kentucky Derby Festival; prices can be quite expensive to start, but the occasions and memories you'll gain from them are certainly worth the cost. If you're planning on attending the festivities for the Kentucky Derby, it is recommended that you purchase tickets no later than the first of February of the same year, though the earlier you book, the more likely you'll find cheaper and better seats.

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11 Best Things to Do for the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Kentucky