Derby Day merely scratches the surface of all that Louisville has to offer—including fantastic bourbon, authentic bluegrass, progressive art, and a farm-to-table food renaissance.
It’s been deemed the most exciting two minutes in sports. On May 2, 20 three-year-old thoroughbreds will streak their way around the Churchill Downs racetrack in the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby, in a bid to capture the first leg of the elusive Triple Crown.
Louisville, the host of the race since its first iteration in 1875, shuts down for a two-week-long festival leading up to the event now famous for outrageous hats, endless mint juleps (an estimated 120,000 will be sold over the May weekend), and the televised crooning of “My Old Kentucky Home.”
The Derby may have put Louisville on the traveler’s map, but there’s so much more to Kentucky’s largest city than the Run for the Roses—small-town charm, Southern hospitality, and claims to some of the best bourbon, bluegrass, and barbecue in the country. Here’s where to discover Louisville beyond the horserace.
Related: Seven Secrets of Churchill Downs
Check out the food scene.
Louisville may be home to the fast-food powerhouse KFC, but today’s buzz is all about the city’s restaurant scene, which is experiencing a renaissance as progressive local chefs marry Southern culinary traditions with new farm-to-table influences.
MilkWood, downtown, has earned itself a place on the city’s culinary map for its home-style small-plates infused with an Asian kick (think Vietnamese lamb sausage, collards and kimchi, and butternut mapo tofu). Harvest, in the up-and-coming neighborhood of NuLu, sources every one of its seasonal ingredients within a 100-mile radius of the restaurant. Meat-lovers head to Feast BBQ to dig in to platters of slow-cooked brisket, pork cakes, and baby back ribs. For a taste of Old Louisville, the landmark Brown Hotel, open since 1923, is a must for its iconic Hot Brown, an open-face turkey and bacon sandwich blanketed in Mornay sauce.
Catch a music performance.
This is the Bluegrass State, after all—no trip is complete without a rollicking night spent at one of the city’s famed music institutions. Backseat Sandbar is the place to catch up-and-coming local acts before they make the big time. On the national level, Headliners Music Hall hosts big-name stars of all genres—rock, hip-hop, alternative—like Kings of Leon, Girl Talk, Lindsay Buckingham, and OK Go. Or, for a more intimate affair, Stevie Ray’s Blues Bar is renowned for hosting some of the best jazz and blues acts in the business, five nights a week. If bluegrass is your true jam, stop by Monkey Wrench on Wednesday nights or Bluegrass Brunch on Sundays from 11 a.m.–1 p.m., where you’ll be serenaded by banjos and fiddles while taking your pick of the more than 60 different bourbons on the shelf.
Taste some bourbon.
The state of Kentucky is responsible for producing 95% of all the bourbon in the world. Things are stirring along the city’s historic “Whiskey Row,” as new developments are beginning to take shape including a new Old Forester Distillery (due to open in fall 2016).
In the meantime, enthusiasts can visit the artisanal Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, which celebrates Kentucky’s first distiller with tours, demos, and tastings. You can’t go wrong with any of the 130+ brands in stock at Bourbon’s Bistro, in Clifton, which also holds monthly dinners hosted by master distillers. For fantastic cocktails and great views of downtown, head to 8UP Elevated Drinkery & Kitchen, Louisville’s only rooftop bar, and order the signature Downtown Derby 8 (featuring Old Forester bourbon and fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, garnished with a popcorn shoot). Unsure how to narrow it down? Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail organizes it all for you, mapping out 34 restaurants and bars that offer at least 50 brands of bourbon apiece.
Look at some art.
The 21c Museum Hotel downtown, the first in a now vibrant series of museum hotels conceived by Kentucky-based art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, has made its mark as one of the city’s most unique stays. Equal parts modern boutique hotel and contemporary gallery, the Louisville property draws artsy travelers with its rotating exhibits of paintings, photography, and sculpture, including the now-famous Red Penguin—all free and open to the public. The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft (KMAC), a nonprofit organization on Louisville’s “Museum Row” that celebrates the artistic heritage of Kentucky, houses interesting exhibits on ceramics, textiles, even jewelry, as well as an even better gift shop. The biggest hype of the summer season might be Shakespeare in the Park, a festival of free full-length performances inside Louisville’s own Central Park, which kicks off this June with a presentation of The Tempest.
Take in the Ohio River.
Waterfront Park, on the banks of the Ohio River, is a great place to escape the urban sprawl. Once an industrial pit of sand and scrap metal, its 72 revitalized acres are now a natural playground, filled with shady trees, walking paths, picnic sites, and great lawns where locals come to play Frisbee, soccer, or simply sunbathe. The Belle of Louisville is moored here—the oldest still-operating steamboat in existence. Festivals are held by the waterfront throughout the year, including Thunder Over Louisville, when a crowd of some 350,000 people gather for the largest annual fireworks display in North America that kicks off the Derby season.