Louisville is perhaps best known for hosting the Kentucky Derby and making baseball bats, but there’s plenty to explore beyond that.
As someone who was born and raised in the city, I’ve spent my life popping in and out of museums and dining at some of the best restaurants.
Here’s a list of must-visit hotels, sites, and restaurants from across Louisville.
Things to know before you go
- COVID-19 PROTOCOL: There are no formal travel restrictions in Louisville or in Kentucky. But with the Delta variant surging, the city is experiencing high community transmission, reporting about 66 cases per 100,000 people as of September 7. The state government is discouraging unvaccinated people from unessential travel.
- WEATHER: Louisville is a four-season destination. Leaves will typically start changing colors in mid-to-late October, and summers can be pretty humid. People sensitive to pollen should also be aware that Louisville is said to be one of the worst cities for those with seasonal allergies.
- CURRENCY: The area uses US dollars, and many businesses accept credit cards.
- WALKABILITY: Though certain neighborhoods near downtown are fun to explore on foot, you’ll likely require a car for anything beyond the city center. The bus service, the Transit Authority of River City, isn’t the most efficient, but a free service called the LouLift can take riders from downtown to Churchill Downs.
Where to stay
Central Park Bed and Breakfast has Victorian charm
It may surprise visitors that Louisville is home to one of the largest contiguous collections of Victorian mansions in the US. The homes are stunning to see from sidewalks, but staying in one is even more immersive.
Central Park Bed and Breakfast is a gorgeous converted Victorian that’s easily accessible from downtown via public transit. Rates range from $140 to $220 a night.
21c Museum Hotel is modern and memorable
Nestled between popular museums on Main Street, 21c Museum Hotel is hard to miss, with a bedazzled limo parked in the front and bright-red penguins perched on its roof.
Its main floor features an art gallery, and guests can choose between traditional and artsier rooms ranging from about $200 to nearly $600 a night.
Tip: Whether or not you’re staying at 21c, its rotating galleries and interactive exhibitions are free to visit.
The Seelbach Hilton is steeped in history
The Seelbach is a baroque-inspired hotel that’s served many notable guests including John F. Kennedy and Al Capone.
Located downtown, it’s close to the action on museum row and the riverfront. Rates start at $160 a night for a double.
Tip: The Seelbach is the birthplace and namesake of a bubbly bourbon cocktail.
Airbnbs can help you get to know quirky neighborhoods
Though Louisville’s core tourist attractions are downtown, some of the best restaurants and stores are beyond the city center.
Germantown, Crescent Hill, the Highlands, and even southern Indiana are just a few places you can hunt for Airbnbs and explore local businesses.
Tip: Be prepared to rely on a car, or at least a bike, if you’re not staying directly downtown.
Things to do and see
The Speed Art Museum has an extensive collection of global and local art
The Speed’s rotating exhibits have featured work from Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Isabelle de Borchgrave.
Its existing collections feature old masters like Rembrandt and contemporary artists like Ebony G. Patterson.
It’s open only on Fridays and weekends.
Tip: The museum’s core collection and some special programming are free every Sunday.
Historic Cave Hill Cemetery is one of the best places to see wildlife
Cave Hill Cemetery is the final resting place for some Louisville legends including Muhammad Ali and Colonel Harland Sanders, KFC’s founder.
Beyond the must-see celebrity graves, the cemetery’s sprawling lakes and grounds are visited by a variety of duck species, foxes, owls, and river otters.
Tip: Make sure to grab a map, as navigating the plots can be confusing.
Bardstown Road is great for shopping
Whether your vibe is vintage fashion or artsy boutiques, Bardstown Road is the perfect place to window-shop.
Tip: If you’re in town on a Sunday, check out farmers’ markets on the 1700 block of Bardstown Road or in the Douglass Loop.
Actors Theatre of Louisville highlights performing arts in the city
A performance nonprofit, Actors Theatre has for decades served the Louisville community with both original plays and theatrical favorites.
Its fan-favorite seasonal shows include “Dracula” in the fall and “A Christmas Carol” in the winter.
Tip: Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Actors Theatre is releasing its schedule on a rolling basis, featuring outdoor performances and an on-demand repository of digital performances.
The Muhammad Ali Center is home to an interactive museum about the Louisville legend
With exhibits that highlight the famous boxer’s childhood, career, and activism, the Muhammad Ali Center celebrates the six principles that guided Ali’s life: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect, and spirituality.
Admission costs $14 for adults. Discounts for children, seniors, and students are available.
Tip: The tiles on the side of the building may not look like much up close, but from a distance you can decipher an image.
The Kentucky Derby Museum is fun for all ages
If you’re not prepared to shell out for exorbitant hotels and flights to visit Louisville during Derby weekend, there are other ways to appreciate Kentucky’s horse-racing culture.
The Churchill Downs horse-racing complex is open to the public on select weeks throughout the year, and the Derby Museum is a year-round attraction.
It costs $16 for adults and $10 for kids.
Tip: General admission includes a tour of Churchill Downs that leaves every half hour.
You literally can’t miss the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory with its 120-foot-tall bat outside
It may seem ironic that Louisville makes famous baseball bats when the city doesn’t even have a major-league team. But the Louisville Slugger Factory says it produces 1.8 million baseball bats a year and is the official bat of Major League Baseball.
Admission is $16 for adults and $9 for kids, and it requires advance tickets. Admission includes a factory tour, entry to a museum of baseball history, and a mini souvenir bat.
Tip: For years, the Transportation Security Administration at Louisville’s airport had a glass box full of confiscated bats. The airport now allows passengers to stow the museum’s small bats in carry-ons, though they still need to pack full-sized bats in checked luggage.
Bernheim Forest is a scenic retreat
One of the best places to enjoy hiking and biking near Louisville is Bernheim Forest, about a 30-minute drive from the city.
There’s a recommended donation of $10 a car for entry, and its trails are open from dawn to dusk.
The arboretum hosts rotating installations. Currently, massive wooden forest giants by the Danish artist Thomas Dambo are perched at different points on a marked trail.
Tip: Bernheim Forest isn’t far from some of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail’s most popular destinations if you’re looking to visit a distillery.
Where to eat and drink
Heart and Soy is vegetarian, Pan-Asian comfort food
On a bustling section of Bardstown Road, Heart and Soy has the perfect menu for easy vegetarian carryout or quick dine-in service.
The restaurant also supplies its own tofu — you can see the tofu press in action as you wait for your food.
Tip: If you’re looking for a full-service sit-down restaurant, visit Heart and Soy’s sister restaurant, Roots.
The Silver Dollar is a bourbon lover’s dream
With a honky-tonk atmosphere, The Silver Dollar serves plenty of Southern comfort food and local bourbon.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the bar converted its parking lot into an outdoor patio, so there’s plenty of room to enjoy the libations and music.
Tip: The restaurant’s bourbon list goes on for pages, so don’t be afraid to ask for a recommendation.
If you can’t decide between sushi and Tex-Mex, try Dragon King’s Daughter
The menu at Dragon King’s Daughter highlights creative sushi rolls and Asian-fusion tacos and quesadillas.
Its drink menu offers plenty of local brews for craft-beer lovers.
Tip: Make sure to visit the restrooms. The toilets have elaborate features like bidets and heated seats.
Full Stop is not your typical neighborhood convenience store
What was once an auto-body shop is now a minimalist restaurant/convenience store.
Full Stop’s menu features local foods and sweet pastries. You can dine inside or at a colorful umbrella-covered picnic table.
Tip: Driving an electric vehicle? You can use the restaurant’s free charging station.
Ramsi’s Cafe on the World features a globally inspired menu with a whimsical garden patio
Ramsi’s on Bardstown Road opened in 1994 and has become a Louisville destination.
The menu can meet nearly every dietary preference. And whether you choose to dine outdoors or indoors, the atmosphere is eclectic.
Tip: Get there early if you want a spot on the patio — it can fill up fast on summer and fall weekends.
Toast on Market serves up an indulgent brunch
Toast has served Louisvillians decadent breakfast fare for years.
It’s in the trendy NuLu (New Louisville) district, close to local artsy stores.
Tip: Ask about the specials. They sometimes include bread-pudding pancakes or piña-colada French toast.
Queen of Sheba is a local destination for Ethiopian food
Opened in 2004, Queen of Sheba was Louisville’s first Ethiopian restaurant.
It has since become a staple known for its soft injera (Ethiopian flatbread) and hearty entrées.
Tip: Ethiopian food is traditionally served on one large platter, so be prepared to share or ask for separate plates.
North Lime is a must-try doughnut shop
North Lime offers plenty of traditional round doughnuts with a hole in the middle, but its classic flavors are square-shaped.
The shop is a popular destination for a quick, sweet breakfast.
Tip: North Lime always features at least one option for gluten-free and vegan patrons.
Spinelli’s Pizzeria is a late-night classic
Louisville may not be able to compete with big names like New York and Chicago when it comes to pizza, but Spinelli’s brought Philadelphia-style pies to Louisville.
Its three locations across the city, open from 11 a.m. to 5 a.m., are great spots to visit any time of night.
Tip: Delivery is also available.
Final tips before your trip
- Check out the city’s event calendar. Louisville’s main tourist attractions are open year-round, but the city also hosts pop-up events like riverfront flea markets and an annual zombie walk.
- Enjoy the city’s parks. Frederick Law Olmsted may be best known for designing New York City’s Central Park, but he also designed Louisville’s Cherokee, Iroquois, and Shawnee parks.
- If you want to visit during the Derby, plan ahead. The Kentucky Derby is on many people’s bucket lists, so hotels can fill up quickly.
- Don’t be afraid to explore beyond Louisville. Kentucky is perhaps best known for its bourbon, and though Louisville features a growing number of urban distilleries, the Bourbon Trail will take you through the more rural ones.