You don't have to love horse racing, Bourbon or boxing to adore Louisville (but it helps). This fun-loving, freewheeling city in Kentucky is one of the friendliest around. Although it really comes into its own during Derby Week (in early May), Louisville entices and entertains visitors almost all year-round.
Few experiences can compare with the Kentucky Derby. Aside from the race itself and the festival crowds, it sees the streets of Louisville erupt into a carnival of color and sporting contests, from a marathon to steamboat races and balloon competitions.
If the festival isn't underway, don't worry. You can have just as much fun touring Louisville's distilleries, dining on Hot Brown sandwiches at the Bellevue Brewing Company or visiting great museums like the Muhammad Ali Center. In fact, you'll never be bored in Louisville, one of America's finest destinations for an urban getaway.
Louisville's Churchill Downs has been the venue for America's number one horse race since 1875, and it just keeps getting bigger. Every May, the city becomes a riot of parades, sporting contests and shows. Just book ahead to be sure of finding the right accommodation.
Probably the greatest boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali was born in Louisville in 1942 and learned his trade there. Find out all about his exploits at the Muhammad Ali Center or visit his childhood home to pay your respects to a sporting legend.
Louisville is one of the centers of American Bourbon production and whiskey fans can join the Urban Bourbon Trail to local bars like the Seelbach or the Galt House. Alternatively, head to the source by touring local distilleries like Evan Williams.
Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Louisville's park system is a wonder. Head to Cherokee Park to see sculptures like Hogan's Fountain or to play some ultimate frisbee, or climb to the peak of Iroquois Park for the best vista across Louisville in the surrounding area.
Louisville is one of Kentucky's cultural capitals as well as a good old fun-loving city. Major rock acts are always appearing at Headliners, while the St James Court Art Show in October attracts over 700 American artists and offers a great chance to purchase bargain artworks.
Even if you can't make it to the Derby itself, you can still enjoy the Churchill Downs experience at this superb horse racing museum. Located on Central Avenue near the racecourse's main entrance, the museum opened for business in 1985. Its two floors of exhibits tell the story of how a Thoroughbred race horse is turned into a champion and features a special homage to Man O'War, one of the Derby's greatest winners. But the real highlight is a 30-minute tour of Churchill Downs itself, which brings the world's greatest race to life.
Louisville's greatest son is commemorated in style at this fine museum on the south shore of the Ohio River. The Ali Center is more than just a tribute to "The Greatest of All Time". It's also a center for uplift and inspiration for Louisville's youngsters, in the true Cassius Clay tradition. Find out about Ali's poems and drawings, about his conviction for refusing to be drafted or how he trained for his fights, and see footage of 15 of his seminal bouts. If you love boxing, it's an essential attraction, but Ali has relevance well beyond the ring.
The Slugger is possibly baseball's greatest bat, having been wielded by Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, among many other ballpark legends. This fascinating museum is located in the Hillerich and Bradsby Factory on West Main Street, and as far as museums go, it's a home-run. See the 120-foot tall "big bat", have a go in the batting cage yourself, pitch like Roger Clemens, and see Babe Ruth's notched bat, used to strike 21 of his historic 60 homers in 1927. Plus, take a factory tour to see how the bats of today are being crafted.
One of Louisville's finest attractions is actually a 370,000 square meter cavern on Taylor Avenue in the southeastern part of town. Once a limestone mine, this underground cave has been converted into an adventure park, complete with ziplines, obstacle courses, tram rides, and mountain bike courses. In fact, there are over 12 miles of trails for cyclists to contend with, making it the world's largest indoor cycling park.
Perhaps most famous for being the final resting place of Muhammad Ali,the beautiful Cave Hill Cemetery attracts huge numbers of pilgrims paying their respects to the "GOAT". But Ali isn't alone. You'll also find the grave of Colonel Sanders of KFC fame, the sculptor Enid Yandell, and Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark, dubbed the "Conqueror of the Northwest" for his exploits against the British. Along with the graves, Cave Hill features stunning lakes and gardens, making it a tranquil place to spend an afternoon.
If you intend to watch the Derby or the many festival attractions, Festival Week in early May is the time to go. For everyone else, it's a nightmare, with very little accommodation. If you just want to enjoy everything Louisville has to offer, travel in April or September and October. High summer can be a little oppressive, with high heat and humidity, but the shoulder seasons are a lovely time to visit.
Louisville International Airport is the major point of entry for visitors to Louisville. From there, the simplest way to reach the city center is by cab, which takes 15 minutes and costs around $30. Transit Authority of River City (TARC) buses also run from the east side of the terminal into the Downtown area and costs $1.75 for adults.
Louisville is easily accessible by road. I-65 connects the city to Chicago and Indianapolis, I-70 and I-65 link Louisville to California and other western states, while I-70 also runs to New York and Philadelphia. I-65 also connects the city with southern locations like Birmingham and Florida.
Bus travelers to Louisville have two major options. You can either catch a Greyhound bus (with connections all over the south, northeast, and midwest) or take a budget Megabus service. Both stop at 720 W. Muhammad Ali Blvd. very close to the city center.
Generally, Louisville is an easy city in which to book high-class accommodation, and the rates are low. But if you aim to stay while the Kentucky Derby is in full swing, book months in advance to be sure of a room. Some of the best high-end hotels in town include the Hyatt Regency, the Brown Hotel and the spacious Seelbach Hotel. The Ramada Downtown provides comfortable rooms at the mid-range level, while suburban motels like the Motel 6 and Microtel Inn are a good budget choice.
Downtown Louisville – The city's Central Business District offers more than commerce. For one thing, Downtown is home to Louisville's Museum Row, featuring attractions like the Frazier History Museum (home to items like Teddy Roosevelt's hunting rifle) and the popular Muhammad Ali Center. It's also home to Louisville Slugger Field and several bourbon distilleries, so there's plenty to do Downtown.
Old Louisville – Almost completely made up of Victorian buildings, Old Louisville is a historical treat. It's the city's artistic hub (hosting the St. James Court Art Show every October) and is easily walkable, thanks to the high number of pedestrian-only streets and pathways. Theater lovers won't want to miss the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival held in the neighborhood every summer.
The Highlands – Louisville's entertainment center, Highlands is crammed full of nightclubs, whiskey bars and restaurants. You'll find it along three miles of Bardstown Road, and it's worth a visit. You can catch a movie at the Baxter Avenue Filmworks or dine on delicious stone baked pizza at Mellow Mushroom before enjoying a beer or bourbon at the Highlands Tap Room, which has a large beer garden.
TARC buses are a handy way to get around some parts of Louisville and the basic fare is just $1.50 ($0.75 for under 18s). However, it's best not rely on buses in the outskirts of Louisville as services can be very infrequent. Still, for hopping around the Downtown neighborhood, TARC buses are extremely useful.
If you don't have a car or want to drink a few beers in the Highlands, taxis are a good way to get around. The basic fare will be around $4.70, then $2 per mile. UberX cars are much cheaper, charging a $1 meter drop, then $0.95 per mile, with a minimum fare of $5.10.
Having a car in Louisville is really handy, and you'll find plenty of outlets including Enterprise, Alamo, Dollar and Budget in both the center of town and at the airport. Be aware that the traffic on I-265 can become heavy at rush hour, and try to go easy on your car horn, as Louisville drivers tend to do the same. There are 4,800 metered spots to park, and meters run until 6:00 p.m. every day, so be aware that you may need to pay.
Several areas of Louisville are full of independent stores, including NuLu, Highlands and Clifton. NuLu is the place to head for boutiques, with popular outlets like the jewelry maker Gifthorse, the beauty products store Bays and the home design studio Mahonia. If you are looking for vinyl records, head to Underground Sounds in Highlands, while All Booked Up in Bardstown is the best bookstore in town. The Oxmoor Center is the largest conventional mall in the area, featuring big names like Apple, Macy's and Dick's Sporting Goods.
If you are self-catering and want to save money, the best place to head is probably your local Kroger's branch (there are 35 or so in Louisville so there should be one nearby). However, you might want to check out Bardstown Road Farmers Market as well, which is open all year-round, every Saturday. Grocery prices are reasonable by US standards. A gallon of milk will cost about $2.70, while a bottle of wine costs $10 or so.
If you want to try an authentic Louisville speciality, go for a Hot Brown sandwich (open-faced with turkey, bacon and mornay sauce). The best in town are probably served by the Bellevue Brewing Company. Other than that, diners have plenty of choice in Louisville. Gourmet European dishes are served at Volare and Artemisia, Shalimar is an excellent Indian restaurant, while you can't go wrong with the price or quality of the simple meals at Juanita's Burger Boy Diner. Expect to pay $10 or less for a sandwich, $15 for a mid-range meal and more than $35 at high-end restaurants.