The Best that Louisville Has to Offer

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    Top Louisville Attractions

    ••• Photo © Justin Cozart

    Louisville is best known as the home of the Kentucky Derby, but what most people don't realize is that there are plenty of Louisville attractions to keep visitors busy at any time of the year. A visit to Louisville is incomplete without making stops at the following top Louisville attractions.

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  • 02 of 15

    The Belle of Louisville

    ••• (c) 2008 Jessica Elliott

    The first top Louisville attraction is the Belle of Louisville, the oldest river steamboat in continuous use. Today she takes passengers on cruises up and down the Ohio River and races in the Great Steamboat Race every year on the Wednesday before the Kentucky Derby, but she has lived many lives and gone by many different names.

    The Belle of Louisville was originally called "the Idlewild" and used to transport passengers and cargo between Memphis, Tennessee, and West Memphis, Arkansas. Her first trip to Louisville was as the Idlewild in 1931 where she ferried passengers from an amusement park in Downtown Louisville to a resort on Rose Island for a season.

    In 1947, the Idlewild was sold and renamed "the Avalon." As the Avalon, she carried passengers and cargo up and down rivers all over the Midwest and South. By 1962, she had been run into the ground and was on her way to the scrap yard when a Kentucky official bid highest for her in an auction. She was brought home,...MORE repaired, and given her current name – "the Belle of Louisville."

    Since 1963, the Belle has been cruising up and down the Ohio River along the Louisville border and racing in the annual Kentucky Derby Festival Great Steamboat Race. Today, she is one of Louisville's biggest attractions.

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  • 03 of 15

    The Louisville Parks System

    ••• Photo © Peter Dedina

    One of the biggest local attractions is the Louisville parks system. There are more than 120 public parks in the metro area alone, many created by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead. Olmstead was a nationally-renown landscape architect responsible for creating Central Park in New York.

    Two of Louisville's most beloved parks, Cherokee Park and Iroquois Park, were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. With amenities like a 2.4-mile scenic loop, a fenced dog park, and a bird sanctuary, Cherokee Park entertains close to 500,000 visitors a year, making it one of the 50 most-visited parks in the United States. First planned as a "scenic reservation" by Frederick Law Olmstead, Iroquois Park is known for its panoramic views, its large open-air amphitheater, and its golf course.

    Louisville's Waterfront Park was not designed by Olmstead. In fact, Waterfront Park did not exist until 1986 when it was developed as a means of reclaiming a viable green space on the river. At...MORE that time, Downtown Louisville was one of the most rundown areas of the city, and Waterfront Park was one of the first initiatives to bring city life back there.

    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. The third and final phase of the development of Waterfront Park is the conversion of the Big Four railroad bridge to a walking bridge that will allow pedestrians to walk across the Ohio River from Kentucky to Indiana.

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  • 04 of 15

    Muhammad Ali Center

    ••• (c) 2008 Jessica Elliott

    Muhammad Ali is most-widely known as a boxer whose fame began after winning a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, but he is more than just a sports hero. Muhammad Ali was a prominent leader in the civil rights movement, a Nation of Islam convert that refused to retain his "slave name" Cassius Clay. He has devoted much of his life to helping the less-fortunate across the world, and the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky was built to celebrate his admirable life and strength of character.

    The Muhammad Ali Center is both a museum and a center for education and inspiration that was designed around the six values that have been most prominent in Ali's life: respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, and spirituality. The center is focused on presenting the life and values of Louisville-born Muhammad Ali, but, more fully, it is designed to show visitors how Muhammad Ali's life and values can be used to develop love for others, community, and compassion....MORE Overall, the Muhammad Ali Center is about making the most out of ourselves and our lives in every way.

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  • 05 of 15

    Historic Louisville Homes

    ••• Farmington Carriage House. (c) 2008 Michael Maupin

    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. At 19 years old, Edison moved to Louisville's Butchertown and found a job as a telegraph operator for Western Union. Today, Edison's Butchertown home is preserved as a museum with a collection of artifacts and inventions that represent his innovative life.

    In the early half of the 1800s, Farmington was a 500-acre hemp plantation. The Farmington Carriage House and it surrounding buildings have undergone many renovations in the last 200 years, but today it is fully restored to reflect every minute detail of its days as a plantation home.

    While Whitehall was first...MORE built around 1855, it was not transformed into the structure it is today until it was purchased in 1909 by John Middleton. Middleton transformed the original two-story brick house into the southern-style Greek-revival mansion that it is today. Whitehall was left to the Historic Homes Foundation in 1992. Today, this historic home is open for tours and is a popular place for weddings and other large events.

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  • 06 of 15

    Main Street Louisville

    ••• Photo Courtesy of Greater Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau

    Main Street in Louisville's downtown is one of the largest art districts in the city. It is one of the main stretches of the First Friday Trolley Hop, a free, monthly event where the city's historic trolleys take participants to more than two dozen art galleries in the area. Some of Main Street's biggest attractions include:

    • Louisville Slugger Field – The home of the Louisville Bats minor league baseball team.
    • Actors Theatre of Louisville – An art gallery and performing arts venue best known for hosting the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.
    • The Kentucky Center for the Arts – An art gallery and performing arts venue hosting performances by the Louisville Ballet, Louisville Orchestra, Kentucky Opera, The Broadway Series, Stage One, and many other national and international acts.
    • KentuckyShow! – A beautiful 32-minute long film about Kentucky shown in a 100-seat theater at the Kentucky Center.
    • Muhammad Ali Center – A museum and center for education focused on presenting...MORE the life and values of Louisville-born Muhammad Ali.
    • Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft – An art gallery that can host up to 200 artists at any one time created to support the arts and crafts community in Kentucky.
    • 21C Museum Hotel – An upscale hotel, 9000-square-foot art museum, and fine-dining restaurant all in one that is one of Louisville's most interesting establishments.
    • Louisville Science Center – An interactive science museum where kids can learn and experience science.
    • Louisville Slugger Museum – A museum and factory where Louisville Slugger baseball bats are created and baseball's history is preserved. Visitors can tour the museum and watch as baseball bats are made.
    • Frazier International History Museum – A 100,000-square-foot history museum dedicated to showcasing the history of the United States in its entirety.
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  • 07 of 15

    Fourth Street Live!

    ••• (c) 2008 Michael Maupin

    Fourth Street Live! is an entertainment complex located on the section of 4th Street between Muhammad Ali Boulevard and Liberty Street. It was opened back in 2004 in an attempt to bring some of the city's nightlife scene back to the Downtown Louisville area. Though originally met with some skepticism as to its ability to draw a crowd downtown, Fourth Street Live! is now one of the premier nightlife hotspots in the city among both locals and tourists alike.

    Businesses located inside of Fourth Street Live include Hard Rock Café, The Improv Comedy Club, TGIFriday's, Maker's Mark Bourbon House and Lounge, Borders Books and Music, Hotel Nightclub, and Saddle Ridge, among others. Fourth Street Live is also home to many local events and outdoor concerts, especially during the Kentucky Derby and the warmer months of the year.

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  • 08 of 15

    St. James Court

    ••• (c) 2008 Michael Maupin

    St. James Court is a courtyard in Old Louisville surrounded by old, stately Victorian homes. It is the location of the annual St. James Art Fair, an event that draws more people to Louisville than the Kentucky Derby. The St. James Art Fair is an open-air art show and sale featuring more than 700 artists selling art in every medium imaginable. Proceeds of the St. James Art Fair go to preserving and restoring this historic Louisville neighborhood.

    Also located within St. James Court is the Conrad-Caldwell House Museum. This historic Old Louisville home defines Richardsonian Romanesque architecture and has been preserved in its original splendor. It is now kept as a museum by the St. James Court Historic Foundation, and visitors to the area can tour the house for a small admission fee.

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  • 09 of 15

    Churchill Downs

    ••• © Jeff Gentner / Getty Images

    Louisville's Churchill Downs is best known as the home of the Kentucky Derby. The track was created in the late 1800s by Colonel M. Lewis Clark, though it was not officially incorporated as Churchill Downs until 1937. The first Kentucky Derby occurred at Churchill Downs in 1875. Close to 10,000 people watched as 15 thoroughbred horses ran what was then a 1.5-mile course. In 1876, the length of the race was changed to 1.25 miles.

    Today, the Kentucky Derby is Louisville’s biggest annual event. It is a 1.25-mile race for three-year-old thoroughbred horses that is held on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. The Kentucky Derby draws an average of 150,000 visitors each year, including residents, out-of-towners, celebrities, presidents, and even members of royal families. Churchill Downs has also held the Breeders' Cup more than a half-dozen times.

    Churchill Downs is open for a spring and fall meet each year. However, the Kentucky Derby Museum, adjacent to Churchill Downs, is...MORE open year-round. The Kentucky Derby Museum houses pieces that reflect the history 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.

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    Louisville Slugger Museum

    ••• (c) 2008 Michael Maupin

    The Louisville Slugger Museum is a museum and factory where Louisville Slugger baseball bats are created and baseball's history is preserved. Visitors can tour the museum and watch as Louisville Slugger baseball bats are made. The Louisville Slugger Museum is easy to locate – it is marked by the World's Largest Baseball Bat that leans against the side of the building.

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    Waverly Hills Sanatorium

    ••• Photo © ConspiracyofHappiness

    The Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Louisville was built as a two-story hospital for people with tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is a highly contagious disease, and those afflicted with it have to be quarantined from others in order to quell the spread of the disease. Because of this, many people who were diagnosed with TB in the early to mid-1900s were sent to live at the Waverly Hills TB Hospital.

    It is now believed that more than 60,000 people died in the Waverly Hills Sanatorium. Additionally, the patients at Waverly Hills were often mistreated or had unethical research experiments conducted on them. Because of the high number of deaths that were occurring in the hospital, hospital workers converted a supply tunnel into a death chute where bodies were sent down to the street for pickup so that patients would not recognize how many people were dying.

    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...MORE 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, visited only by kids looking for a good scare or something to vandalize. However, it was purchased by Charlie and Tina Mattingly in 2000, and they have been in the process of renovating it since. They hope to eventually convert Waverly Hills into a hotel.

    Today, Waverly Hills Sanatorium is known as one of the most haunted places in the world. It has been featured on many local and national TV and radio programs, including the Sci-Fi series Ghost Hunters. It is the home of a haunted house every Halloween and open for tours, half-night stays, and full-night stays year round.

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    Bardstown Road

    ••• (c) 2008 Michael Maupin

    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 as well as one of the best places in the city to get something to eat at any time of the day.

    What most people refer to as Bardstown Road actually starts on Baxter Avenue around Phoenix Hill Tavern. Phoenix Hill Tavern is the oldest nightclub in the city. The two-story club houses five different bars, each offering a different type of music or entertainment. Also on Baxter Avenue before the Bardstown Road/Baxter Avenue split, you'll find Wick's, one of the best pizza restaurants in the city and Outlook Inn, one of my personal favorite Highlands bars.

    After the split, you'll officially be on Bardstown Road where you'll find some of the most popular destinations for...MORE Louisvillians, such as Comedy Caravan and the Baxter Avenue Theater. Bardstown Road is also home to dozens of unique consignment shops and locally-owned oddity and specialty stores. Just make sure to check the store hours before you head out there for a day of shopping—many shops on Bardstown Road are only open for limited daytime hours.

    A trip to Bardstown Road wouldn't be complete without visiting Ear X-Tacy, Book and Music Exchange, Wild and Wooly Video, and Why Louisville. Ear X-Tacy is a two-story music store with new and used CDs from every musical genre. Book and Music Exchange buys and sells used books, CDs, video games, and DVDs for incredibly low prices. Wild and Wooly Video is a video store that specializes in hard to find and unique videos. And Why Louisville is a gift shop with clothes, jewelry, books, and other miscellaneous items, many created by Louisvillians.

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    The Louisville Zoo

    ••• © 2009 Jessica Elliott

    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.

    In addition to viewing the animals at the Louisville Zoo, 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 SpongeBob SquarePants ride, a climbing adventure course, a water park, several playgrounds, and a carousel.

    The Louisville Zoo is open year-round, though its hours of operation are shortened in the colder months. The Louisville Zoo is also home to The World's Largest Halloween Party, an annual, family-friendly Halloween attraction that allows children to trick-or-treat in a non-scary environment.

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    Louisville Free Public Library Main Branch

    ••• (c) 2008 Michael Maupin

    Though the Louisville Free Public Library has nearly two dozen locations around the Louisville area, the most popular is definitely the Main Branch in Downtown Louisville. The Main Branch is located at 3rd and York and is more than 100 years old. More than being one of the largest free resources for books, movies, and music in this area, the Main Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library is also a great place to engage in workshops and activities designed for children and adults alike.

    The Main Branch is very architecturally interesting. From the stone columns that support the front of the building to the high ceilings painted in murals just inside of the door, the Main Branch represents the beginning of the amazing architecture just beyond it in Old Louisville. Inside, you'll find art and photographs lining the walls and two floors of books, magazines, movies, music, and computers, all free to Louisville residents and individuals who work in Louisville.

    Visitors to the city will...MORE enjoy the architecture, sculpture, art, and history that a trip to the Louisville Free Public Library Main Branch provides, and locals will find it a valuable resource as well as a pleasurable place to spend a few hours.

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    Speed Art Museum

    ••• Photo Courtesy of Greater Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau

    The Speed Art Museum is Louisville's oldest art museum with more than 13,000 pieces in its collection. The Speed Art Museum has a permanent collection as well as a revolving collection that has been home to a number of major national exhibitions. It is located on the University of Louisville's Belknap Campus.

    One of the most popular attractions at the Speed Art Museum is Art Sparks, an interactive exhibit that allows children to create their own art pieces and engage with art in a hands-on environment. Additionally, throughout the year ​Brown Forman sponsors an event called AfterHours at the Speed that features art, live music, drinks, and appetizers.