Louisville, a modern city with oodles of things to do, sits on the Ohio River along the Kentucky and Indiana state line. From museums to great restaurants and unique family-friendly attractions to world-class horse racing, I’ll help you select fantastic things to do on your visit to beautiful Louisville, Kentucky.
Louisville is home to the creation of the Kentucky Hot Brown (more on that later) and the 21C Museum Hotels, one of my favorite brands. The city is best done by car to get around easier, though you could fly into the Louisville Standiford Field Airport (SDF) airport.
Note: I was hosted by the 21C Museum Hotel and offered tickets to the Mega Cavern and boat cruise in exchange for social coverage years ago. All opinions are my own.
1. Explore Churchill Downs
Chances are you’ve heard Churchill Downs mentioned on TV or in the news since it is host to the annual early May Kentucky Derby horse race. The complex is much more than one single race; in fact, a whole day of 17 races takes place on Derby day, which is one of the trivia facts I learned on my visit. And speaking of visits, you can tour the famed horse track with a guided tour of the property and museum.
While scoring a ticket to Derby week races and the “Downs After Dark” event is a little more pricey, you can obtain an adult general admission ticket to Churchill Downs for $5, though no seat assignment is included.
Fun Fact: The Kentucky Derby, “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” is the longest continuously-running sporting event in the country, dating to 1875.
2. Visit The Kentucky Derby Museum
While you are at Churchill Downs, whether you are an equine fan or not, visit and tour the iconic Kentucky Derby Museum. Parking is free, the museum is only 10 minutes from downtown Louisville, and you are in for a real treat with the exceptional and educational exhibits.
A few of my favorite highlights and exhibits were the jockey fashions and silks through time, an 18-minute film showing race history, watching the horses roam around the property, and a tour of the famous track. Check out the museum store for great souvenirs and the Derby Café for Southern classics, gourmet desserts, and even a bourbon tasting flight.
3. Learn At The Frazier History Museum
In the heart of downtown Louisville is the Frazier History Museum, with temporary and permanent exhibitions, performances, and even bourbon experiences. It is Louisville, and bourbon is an integral part of the culture.
I was lucky to catch the touring Hunger Games exhibits on my first visit to the Frazier History Museum. It was extra special because Jennifer Lawrence, the movie star who played Katniss Everdeen, is a Louisville native.
A unique offering at the museum is the Stewart Historic Miniatures Collection, one of the biggest collections of historic miniatures on display in the world.
4. See Animals At The Louisville Zoo
Prepare yourself for a lovely array of animals to melt your heart and a huge 134-acre complex to mill around exploring them. The Louisville Zoo is home to nearly 2,000 animals, including meerkats, giraffes, Asian and African elephants, and gorillas.
The conservation-forward Louisville Zoo also has a HerpAquarium, the first time I’d ever seen that name, which means a place that houses snakes, chameleons, Gila monsters, and other “creepy crawlies.” My favorite part of the zoo is Glacier’s Run Bear Habitat, probably the best bear zoo exhibit I’ve seen anywhere. It is inhabited by polar bears, seals, grizzlies, sea lions, and snow leopards.
Another cute part of the property to pencil in is Lorikeet Landing. For only a few bucks, you can feed these colorful, happy birds a small cup of nectar. It makes for awesome photo-ops!
Pro Tip: The prices at the Louisville Zoo change based on weekdays, weekends, demand, weather, and a few other factors. I recommend buying your tickets online.
5. Eat At Royal’s Hot Chicken
Royals Hot Chicken is a fun counter-service restaurant in the heart of the ever-popular NuLu district of Louisville. Royals Hot Chicken has excellent jumbo fried chicken tenders, and the broccoli & bacon salad or mac and cheese are great side choices. Pair your meal with an adult bourbon milkshake. The outside mural on the restaurant is enough to draw you in, but the yummy food will keep you coming back.
Pro Tip: Try the homemade Alabama white barbecue sauce and consider ordering your tenders “Nashville hot.”
6. Tour The Louisville Slugger Museum
Another downtown “Museum Row” attraction in the West Main District is one of Louisville’s most popular — the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory. You’ll see the 120-foot bat propped up against the museum’s building, making it easy to identify. Inside is the biggest and best collection of baseball memorabilia and artifacts worldwide. From the smell of the bat’s wood to the history of America’s favorite pastime, there is much fun to be had here.
Allow about 90 minutes to explore the museum, with 30 minutes being part of a group-led factory tour. Adult tickets are $18 each and advanced ticket purchase is strongly suggested.
Pro Tip: For a much larger price tag, two or more of your group can have an “All-Star Experience,” including a visit to the bat vault, access to the archives room, and a personalized, full-sized Louisville Slugger bat, to name a few.
7. Take Pictures At The Big Four Bridge
The Big Four Bridge spans the Ohio River — connecting Louisville to Jeffersonville, Indiana. It has been a bicycle and pedestrian old railroad bridge since 1984 and has an LED lighting system that truly makes this a nighttime beauty. The lights start at twilight and stay on until 1 a.m. They can even be programmed to have a rainbow effect.
I find that there is no better way to see the Big Four than from a front-row seat on the gorgeous Belle of Louisville or Mary M. Miller riverboats. Cruise choices include sightseeing, sunset, moonlight, or dining. The dining cruise options include Picnic Lunch, Steamboat Supper, Kentucky Bluegrass & Bourbon, Captain’s Dinner, and Bougie Brunch. I prefer a brunch or lunch cruise, and the food is pretty good on these beautiful steamship vessels.
My lunch buffet included fried chicken, brisket, green beans, mashed potatoes, cookies, and sliced pound cake for dessert (if memory serves me right).
8. Sample Spirits At The Evan Williams Experience
When in Kentucky, experiencing a proper bourbon tasting should almost be mandatory. Stop by the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience on Louisville’s Whiskey Row to learn how bourbon is made and sample the beloved Kentucky treasure. Once your head is filled with how bourbon is made and what role it plays in the state of Kentucky, you will be sampling the quality spirits in a tasting room. Tastings are $18, run one hour, and include four bourbons.
9. Explore The Mega Cavern
The Louisville Mega Cavern is an enormous man-made cavern that guests explore via a mega tram that goes deep into the earth. The cavern is a whopping 17-miles of geology, history, and green building technology that includes storage, mining, recycling, and a fun time for those visiting. This is the only ride-through cavern I’ve ever seen (there is only one other in the country). Cavern tours last between 60 and 70 minutes. One of the most extraordinary things about Louisville Mega Cavern is that you can also zip line inside of it.
A wheelchair tram is available for those needing assistance.
Pro Tip: Bring a lightweight jacket. The cavern is always between 58 and 60 degrees.
10. Stay At The 21C Museum Hotel
Louisville, Kentucky, is home to the first-ever 21C Museum Hotel brand. This award-winning boutique hotel property is a modern hotel with excellent rooms and amenities and a free-of-charge contemporary art museum. Guests of the 21C Museum Hotel Louisville will appreciate the 91 well-appointed, spacious rooms in a 19th-century warehouse and the special touches that have quickly made this hotel brand one of my top choices.
There is a 24-hour gym, a must-visit onsite restaurant (Proof on Main), and life-size colorful plastic penguins around the hotel property. You may find the signature penguins in the hallways, lobby, elevator, etc.
The 21C Museum Hotel Louisville is part of Historic Hotels of America, a program founded in 1989 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation with more than 300 designated hotels within the U.S., USVI, and Puerto Rico.
Pro Tip: For a splurge, check out the unique Cyclone Room.
11. Eat A Legendary Hot Brown
Kentucky’s most famous food should be eaten where it was created in 1926, the iconic Brown Hotel, a Louisville landmark. You can have the sandwich at the hotel restaurants or in the casual lobby bar, which also has a late-night menu. The Hot Brown is an open-faced roasted turkey sandwich over toast points, baked with mornay sauce and Pecorino Romano cheese, then topped with tomatoes and crispy bacon. It is heaven on a plate.