First things first: the guttural pronunciation of this destination is tough to master. But never fear; friendly locals will happily offer tutorials to help you sound (at least vaguely) like a native. Once you get "Loo-uh-vull" down pat, get ready for your preconceived notions to be expanded in all directions.
This city certainly loves its mint juleps, but beer lovers will find delicious options, too — Photo courtesy of Louisville CVB
Sure, Louisville is synonymous with bourbon (that warming giver of the "Kentucky hug"). And it's also associated with horse (of course, of course). But this hospitable, riverside city – one that prides itself on being creatively energetic and "an entirely different type of Southern" – also boasts an up-and-coming arts agenda and a bold culinary scene.
Unexpected twists await, including plenty of delicious seafood, thanks to the city’s status as a UPS hub that leads to frequent, fresh deliveries.
Whether you fancy taking in the scenery from historic steamboats or along the city’s 32 miles of trails, we’ve gathered some ideas for savoring the city's rich and vibrant culture, while sating your appetite along the way.
In this town, everything seems to be located within a 15-minute drive, including the compact, manageable airport that’s only a brief Uber or Lyft ride from downtown. As one local summarized, "Louisville’s not too small, not too big...not too quiet, not too busy."
Aloft Louisville Downtown makes for a comfortable hub with its simplistic decor, spacious workout room and colorful lounge, complete with a pool table and plenty of people-watching perches.
The Corner Restaurant & Bar serves tasty cocktails plus burgers, sandwiches, salads and other locally-inspired dishes — Photo courtesy of Louisville CVB
The hotel's Corner Restaurant and Bar won the Duluth Trading Company Crane on Main cocktail contest for "The Fall of Ichabod" – a dazzling mixture of Old Forester 100 proof bourbon, orgeat, bacon-infused falernum, lime juice, mole bitters and egg white, garnished with dark chocolate and anise star.
Louisville’s reputation as a food destination has gained far-flung attention, thanks to talented chefs who explore genres from around the globe as well as "New Appalachian" cooking, which translates to contemporary twists on staples like pimento cheese and burgoo – a Kentucky Derby favorite.
The true test of burgoo's authenticity, according to locals? A fork should be able to stand up vertically in the stew.
While in town, be sure to make at least one cookie-and-coffee pit stop at wildly popular Please & Thank You. Don't miss brunch at Lox – where bagels meet mimosa buckets – and Gralehaus, a funky cafe with an inviting courtyard and killer brunch menu. Think quirky items like charcoal coffee creations, honey bee pollen cortados, kombucha teas, yeast pancakes and banh mi sandwiches.
Harvest, known for fresh ingredients from local farmers, can be found in the vibrant Downtown NuLu arts district of East Market Street — Photo courtesy of Wendy Pramik
At dinnertime, cozy into Harvest, a bustling locals' eatery that has "lived and breathed farm-to-table from day one" and sources 80 percent of its food from within a 100-mile radius. Start with the Kentuckiana cheese board and continue with the buttermilk fried chicken. Finally, indulge with the "Southern at Heart," an after-dinner cocktail featuring pecan-infused bourbon.
Enjoy seafood at such spots as Seafood Lady (of Diners, Drive-ins & Dives fame), Jack Fry’s, where the signature shrimp and grits dish reigns supreme, and Italian restaurant Lupo, owned by a local folk band called Murder by Death.
Lupo's menu showcases items from pastas made in-house and Neapolitan pizzas to clams, lox, oysters and, most recently, octopus. At Proof on Main, a vibrant, art-filled oasis inside the 21c Museum Hotel, feast on striped bass and salmon from the Faroe Islands, not to mention chicken liver pate and sweet potato pop tarts.
Bourbon & horses
Angel's Envy prides itself on being "a total return to the art of craft-first, hand blended batches of 8 to 12 barrels at a time" — Photo courtesy of Louisville CVB
Kentucky has been making bourbon for 200-plus years; today the state's said to produce and age approximately 95 percent of the world’s supply. The magic combo for this distinctive corn-based, barrel-aged whiskey? Limestone aquifers that mean some of the best water around and weather that's ideal for aging.
Either explore the Urban Bourbon Trail or head beyond city limits with Mint Julep tours, a company that boasts kind drivers and a policy that allows coolers full of beverages to continue the party onboard. Take a tour of Angel's Envy's distillery on Main Street, or head to the the Stitzel-Weller Distillery, "one of the true cathedrals of the American whiskey industry."
Situated only five miles from downtown Louisville, the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience is one of the most convenient along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a circuit that includes nine historic distilleries and takes about three days to complete.
The Kentucky Derby is run annually on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs — Photo courtesy of Louisville CVB
No visit to Louisville feels complete without a jaunt to Churchill Downs, known as the home of the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks. The racetrack conducts thoroughbred horse racing during three race meets in the spring, September and fall, and people-watching among the sea of hats and mint juleps is worth a visit in itself. The much-anticipated Derby always take place on the first Saturday in May.
Still looking for things to do? Discover the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory or the Muhammad Ali Center, all before tucking into a sweet box of Hi-Five Doughnuts – the perfect finale to a lovely Louisville stay.