Most cities have the typical history museum, but Louisville has an array of truly original museums you won't find anywhere else in the world. From the world's largest baseball bat at the Louisville Slugger Museum to the icons at the Kentucky Derby Museum, to the tasting room at the Jim Beam American Distillery, there is a good time to be had when touring Louisville.
Much of the action can be found downtown at museums like the Kentucky Science Center, a great destination for families with little ones, or 21 C, a unique modern art museum in the lobby (and upper floors) of a boutique hotel. There's also the Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind, a one-of-a-kind (and free) attraction that should not be missed. Sports fans can check out the Muhammad Ali Center, a tribute to the greatest boxer of all time, and the Frazier History Museum, where the past comes alive with costumed reenactments.
Two historical houses to add to the itinerary are Locust Grove and the Conrad-Caldwell house, both beautifully-restored mansions that visitors can tour.
Our travel experts have narrowed down the choices in Louisville to these 10 museums. Each one offers something different for the type of cultural immersion you are seeking.
Kentucky Derby Museum
Climb onto a model horse and pretend to be a jockey in the starting gate where there are life-sized videos of what it's like to be in front of the riders. In 2010, the museum underwent a $5.5 million dollar renovation and now has even more exhibits for all ages. The Warner L. Jones, Jr. Time Machine shows footage from past Kentucky Derbies - going as far back as 1918 - as well as interviews with owners and jockeys. In the sound-proof room, visitors can experience what it's like to be an announcer, and on the second floor they can learn about the horse-naming process. (502-637-1111)
Jim Beam American Outpost and Distillery Museum
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this museum chronicles the history of the company's origins from the beginning to the present. The business began in 1795 and celebrated its 200th anniversary in 1995. A family history room displays rare family photos and heirloom memorabilia. Visitors can learn about the process, including mashing, distilling, barreling, and storing and the restored tasting parlor is included in the tour. There's also a VIP behind-the scenes tour for private experience with a master fistiller and a gift shop to sample their world-famous bourbon candy. The museum is located 30 minutes from Louisville (in Clermont). (502-543-9877)
Kentucky Science Center
The Kentucky Science Center strives to bring out the scientist in you via exhibits, programs and IMAX® films that are both educational and entertaining. This phenomenal hands-on facility has something for everyone! For adults, there's special events like the annual "ExBeeriment" with retro beer commercials in the theater, food trucks, and a free adult lecture series. Permanent exhibits include air, water, and sea environmental collections, educational information on human body, the hands-on, "Science in Play," and the "World we Create," that showcases manufacturing, transportation, chemistry, architecture, physics, engineering and communication. The Science center is right across from the Louisville Slugger Museum. Parking is an additional $5. (502-561-6100, 800-591-2203)
The Muhammad Ali Center
Muhammad Ali -- the Greatest -- was born in Louisville, so it's only fitting that the multicultural center and museum named after him is found in the same city. Located in downtown Louisville, the museum's three floors take you on a journey through Ali's life and values. Start things off with an inspirational 14-minute film before trying to shadow box with the champion during a train with Ali exhibit (taught by his daughter, Laila Ali). Children's artwork is displayed at the 55-foot-long, Hope and Dream Wall, and other art and photography can be found at the Howard L. Bingham Gallery. (502-584-9254)
Louisville Slugger Museum
This museum is a fascinating glimpse at an American classic. The company's 114-year history parallels the history of America's national pastime, and this museum provides an outstanding commentary on the development of the game of baseball. A behind-the-scenes tour takes you through the entire manufacturing process. Bats on display from famous sluggers whose careers show why Louisville Slugger is the "Official Bat of Major League Baseball." The signature bat wall showcase an impressive collection, while the batting cage lets visitors test their skills! Not to mention, the giant bat and baseball glove make perfect photo opportunities. Every tour comes with a free baseball bat. (502-588-7228)
Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind
This museum presents a rare collection of artifacts related to both the educational history of the blind and to the history of American Printing House. The inspirational facility offers many hands-on options for the sighted and for hearing, mobility, and visually-impaired visitors. In addition, certain exhibits simulate what it's like to be blind as a way to increase visitor understanding of how blind people achieve self-sufficiency. The museum provides an outstanding, wide-ranging collection of research materials too, and guided tours are available. Allow at least two hours to really experience everything. Be aware that they are closed Sunday, and have reduced hours on Saturday. (502-895-2405, 800-223-1839)
Louisville first gave birth to this contemporary and artistic hotel in 2006, and since then two more locations have opened in Cincinnati and Bentonville (Arkansas). What makes the 90-room, boutique hotel so unique is that it is also a contemporary art museum and award-winning restaurant. Many rooms feature exposed brick walls or private rooftop access while others incorporate art exhibitions into the design. There's also a spa and fitness area, as well as room service from Proof on Main, the sustainable on-site restaurant. One of the "signatures" of the museums is the falling letter piece, moving art that will have guests standing in front of a screen and "playing" with floating letters for longer than they meant to. ((502) 217-6300)
Built around 1790, this Georgian mansion and National Historic Landmark set on 55 acres was the former home of Revolutionary War hero General George Rogers Clark. Clark is also credited with the founding of Louisville. Portraits, swords, books, and silver are all that survive from the original Croghan family (Clark' relatives), but the furniture collection is considered to be one of the finest collections of Kentucky furniture anywhere. Museum tours begin with an introductory video followed by a 45-minute tour of the grounds and visit to the gallery. The history is fascinating and includes duels and visits from Presidents and even explorers Lewis and Clark. (502-897-9845)
This magnificent, carved-stone residence is considered one of the city's finest historic homes and is open to the public. Built in Richardsonian Romanesque style, it features elaborate, beautifully decorated Victorian interiors and furnishings. The three-story structure boasts wonderful architectural details, including a wealth of lovely trimwork crafted of cherry and birdseye maple (among others). It is a splendid tribute to a bygone era, and tours are held Wednesday through Sunday lasting 60 to 90 minutes. If you can time your visit, there are a number of exciting events like the Spirit Ball, 4th of July activities, art shows, and Victorian teas. A gift shop is available as well. (502-636-5023)
Frazier History Museum
With 1,000 years' worth of artifacts and a full cast of costumed historical interpreters, the Frazier International History Museum brings significant historical events and eras to life right before your eyes with medieval sword demonstrations. At the museum, guests will not only learn about weapons but how they were used and the stories behind them. The Royal Armouries USA galleries are a highlight, featuring artifacts from the Bronze age through the 20th century. Learn the story of Geronimo, or one of the exhibits on dragons, mythical creatures, and even Sherlock Holmes where visitors are challenged with solving a murder mystery. (502-753-5663)
About Amber Nolan
Originally from upstate New York, this restless traveler has a knack for befriending interesting characters. You can usually find her just about anywhere that has a hammock. Amber's favorite places are Iceland for its remoteness; Panama for its parties; and Peru for its history.
Her work can be found on MSNBC.com, Frommers, and Sherman’s Travel, where she served as the Cruise Editor and Senior Producer. She is currently working on a comic novel about her shoestring travels as she hitchhikes on airplanes across the country in an effort to visit all 50 states. See Jethiking.com.
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