Louisville's major districts are best described as a series of spokes emanating from a central hub. Downtown sits on the southern bank of the Ohio river, and a number of happening thoroughfares jut more or less southward from there.
Louisville was one of the original frontier cities. Downtown, that personality remains in many respects. Firstly, a gaggle of frontier-era buildings give the area a distinctive visual feel. Second, and more important, a no-holds-barred approach to urban revitalization keeps Downtown Louisville on the cutting edges of fun and culture. Still-vital relics like the Seelbach Hotel (inspiration for beloved sections of The Great Gatsby) anchor certain corners, while hotspots like Proof on Main (purveyor of specialty cocktails and modernized American cuisine) anchor others.
During the day, attractions like the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory and Louisville Science Center brim with activity, catering to tourists and locals alike. After sunset, the party starts. Follow the flashing lights and bumpin' beats to Fourth Street Live, a centrally located and densely packed complex of fine dining and raucous nightlife.
Despite Downtown being home to the Muhammad Ali Center, Bardstown Road is the undisputed heavyweight champion of happeningness in Louisville, and the foremost of the aforementioned spokes. Dozens of the best bars, restaurants and retail are located along Bardstown or its companion boulevard, Baxter. This strip is perhaps most notable for its defining physical characteristic, which affects visitors in a somewhat jarring manner. Bardstown is a serious four-lane transportation corridor, but the catch is that each of the four lanes is subject to change. During certain hours, multiple lanes may be devoted to inbound or outbound traffic. During others, center lanes may be reserved for left turns only. On weekends, the curbside lanes are likely set aside for parking. Beware if you're behind the wheel on Bardstown. Nonetheless, businesses here thrive. For miles and miles, there's nothing but bustling storefronts and happy citizens striding up and down the walk.
The surrounding area is lovely as well. To the east is Cherokee Park, an expansive municipal park with rolling hills, wildflowers, a creek, a lookout, a golf course, and miles of trails. It is very easy to venture into Cherokee Park with the intention of taking a quick stroll, and then find yourself two hours later parched and beat. Luckily, cute neighborhood streets wind in and around the park, and they all feed back to the Bardstown corridor at one point or another, where electrolyte replenishment is a snap.
Due south of Downtown, along the vertical spoke that is 3rd and 4th Streets, Old Louisville is a grand old district. Breathtaking southern mansions line street after street, with majestic fountains and grassy medians adding class throughout. Central Park is the neighborhood's focal point, with tennis courts, a modest amphitheater, and a visitors center keeping things lively. Branch out from the park, and you'll find homey coffee shops like Old Louisville Coffeehouse, and charmingly grungy neighborhood taverns like the Magnolia Bar & Grill (known affectionately around here simply as "Mag Bar").
Not nearly as energetic as Bardstown Road, Frankfort does show some major signs of life. It is Bardstown's sister spoke to the north, in the grand scheme of things, so a certain amount of trickle-up action is to be expected. Galleries, shops, bars and eateries line the way, and way out at the end, Frankfort turns into Shelbyville Road, the main drag leading into the cute little community of St. Matthews.
Germantown is easy to write off as something of a post-industrial wasteland one passes en route from Downtown to the Bardstown Road strip. This is a grand mistake. Choose your route carefully, and you'll find some treasures tucked away into the hidden recesses of this sleepy district.
Falling for Louisville
Before Louisville was Louisville, it was a spot on the Ohio river adjacent to some waterfalls. Travelers navigating down the Ohio would have to unpack their vessels, land them, and relaunch them on the other side of the falls. Accordingly, this spot by the falls became a great place for expeditions and traders to stop and take a break. A city grew out of this habit, and it was called Louisville.
Slave Trade and the Civil War
Breaking traders may have been good for economic growth, but what exactly were they trading? Slaves, in fact. It was the slave trade that led to Louisville's first boom. On the other hand, its proximity to the Northern states of Indiana and Ohio meant Louisville was one of the last stops on many a successful journey along the Underground Railroad. And when it came time for the Civil War, Louisville was solidly Union, and a key jumping-off point for Confederacy-thumping excursions.
Dawn of the Derby
With civility reinstated, 1875 saw the premier running of the Kentucky Derby, one of the most revered sporting events in the world. The history of the race itself reads like a monument to tradition. The thing has been run every May more than 100 years in a row, the majority of the horses in competition are locally bred, and the event is always celebrated in style. These are all values that sum up the spirit of Louisville, Kentucky.
Like every great river city, Louisville had to battle a great flood. Louisville's struck in 1937, leaving 175,000 citizens homeless, almost three quarters of the city underwater, and power outages across the board. Lessons were learned, and though flood walls went up, people moved up too -- up to the highlands east of the city center.
In the 1960s, with the advent of the Interstate Highway system, the suburbs gained attractiveness. As factories closed, Louisvillians left the city for greener pastures, leaving blight in their wake.
Just as revitalization efforts gained popularity throughout blighted inner cities across America, they gained popularity here too. By the end of the 1990s, Louisville was looking a little prettier. Bardstown Road became a center of culture and activity. Old Louisville and other surrounding neighborhoods, long seen as areas of affordable housing for students, became hip. Downtown has seen its share of legs up, in the form of 4th Street Live, an improved waterfront and more.
"World-class" doesn't even begin to describe the lodging available in Downtown Louisville. The 21c has the style and flair of the best boutique hotels, but on a scale much larger than any boutique. Its lower levels are a 24-hour contemporary art museum open to the public, and its collection is impressive. Upstairs are several floors more of spacious guest rooms with views of Main Street and the surrounding neighborhood. The decor is in keeping with the modern mood of the museum below, each room furnished with desks, chairs and bedding all seemingly ripped from the pages of the latest Norwegian furniture catalog. Back on the ground level, you'll also find Proof on Main, the hotel's restaurant and bar, both notable solely on their own merits. Inventive are the chefs in the kitchen as well as the mixologists behind the bar.
Less contemporary but no less inviting is the Seelbach Hilton. Known as one of the inspirations behind The Great Gatsby, the Seelbach is pure throwback. The grand lobby is like a small-scale cathedral with its ornate accoutrements, and stately architectural touches continue throughout the hotel. Four-post beds are the centerpiece of the guest rooms. Adding to the grandness, the staff are nothing but magnanimous, from the bell persons and bartenders on the ground floor to the indoor waterfall wrangler up on five. Note that the Old Seelbach Bar is one of the most famous in the world, serving up perfect Perfect Manhattans in a setting worthy of a whole library of classic novels.
Other legendary Louisville Hotels include The Brown, with its extra-large guest rooms and classic architecture, and the Galt House Hotel & Suites, one of the most recognizable elements of downtown's skyline.
Though a thriving commercial center, Bardstown Road is still a very residential area. For accomodations nearby, you'll have to truck out past all the good stuff to stay at Quality Inn & Suites or Travelodge Airport Louisville.
Aleksander House Bed and Breakfast and Austin's Inn Place are smack in the middle of historic Old Louisville, as is 1888 Historic Rocking Horse Manor. As its name states plainly, accomodations here in town don't get much more historic. Central Park Bed & Breakfast and Inn at the Park Bed & Breakfast have the advantage of overlooking Old Louisville's Central Park. Near the corner of Broadway and South Third, the 504 Bed & Breakfast is on the outskirts of downtown, halfway to Old Louisville. It's got charm and personality, and you're just a short walk away from either the museums and nightlife of downtown or the tranquility of neighborhoods to the south.
Louisville's got it all. Long a center of culture and commerce, the city's grown up with no shortage of things to do, whether you want big-time excitement or laid-back relaxation.
For a sleepy southern city, Louisville'll keep the sports enthusiast busy for days and days. Start with a trip out to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby and a bona fide sports mecca if ever there was one. Located on the premises in the Kentucky Derby Museum, from which different tours depart daily. Basic admission buys you a walking tour out to the track -- and just being out there on that hallowed ground is worth the entry fee alone. But if that's not enough, longer, more expensive tours of the various nether regions of the expansive location are available for a bit more scratch. And, obviously, during racing season, you can see a race in the flesh.
As if one bona fide sports mecca wasn't enough, Louisville had to go ahead and be the home of The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory too. This is as exuberant a celebration of the Great American Pastime as the world has ever seen. It's got history, art, a film screening, batting practice and a number of other interactive activities, as well as the ultimate thrill: a walk on the factory floor! And, of course, the gift shop offers personalized souvenir bats.
One of Louisville's favorite sons is a sports hero without peer -- and a man with close ties to the real Mecca -- one Muhammad Ali. Just down the street from the Slugger Museum is the Muhammad Ali Center, a colossal event venue with a museum of its own. Again, a film screening is a centerpiece, but there's plenty of interactivity here as well. Visitors can get into the ring with a real boxing coach, or scroll through a bank of videos of all the Champ's fights.
If an actual real-life sporting event is what you crave, catch nine innings with the minor league Louisville Bats down at Louisville Slugger Field. And if extreme sports are more up your alley, round the corner to Louisville Extreme Park, a world-class skateboarding, biking and inline skating spot maintained lovingly by the city.
The art scene in Louisville is held aloft by two twin pillars of excellence, one old and wise, and one a bit of a cut-up. The Speed Art Museum is a grand classical structure, and it houses a well-rounded collection dating back half a dozen centuries. Back Downtown, there's the 21c Museum Hotel. The hotel part is pretty great, but it's the museum part that really shines. A carefully curated collection of contemporary art fills the first two floors of the facility -- as well as the on-site restaurant and bar, Proof. The first piece you see is a video installation by international cinema superstar Abbas Kiarostami, projected from the ceiling onto the lobby floor, greeting visitors like a curious avant garde welcome mat. Inside they've got works by other masters, local Louisville artists, and the occasional traveling exhibition. Look for paintings, prints, sketches, found art, multimedia and an entrancing interactive video piece by the elevators.
The most vital part of Louisville's live music scene might not be palatable to all ears, but its story is certainly worth telling. Skull Alley is a small club on a bleak stretch of boulevard, but its attitude is inclusive and welcoming. Devoted to punk music, it's a dry venue open to all ages, and the local kids congregate here happily, watching great bands and slam dancing the night away.
Bigger, more mainstream venues like the Louisville Palace host the likes of David Byrne and Old Crow Medicine Show, in more traditional surroundings (meaning $45 tickets and $8 beers).
Without a doubt, the Louisville Zoo is a zoo on par with the greatest zoos in the world. One short visit might afford visitors an encounter with a camel, a baby elephant shoveling dirt into his mouth like it was going out of style, and a shocking but informative tutorial on the horrors of the bush meat trade. The tiger enclosure is a must-see stop for sure, but be sure to time your visit to coincide with daily feedings in which keepers lure the beast to within mere feet of an audience (protected by a chain-link fence). Also of note is the Maned Wolf exhibit. The Maned Wolf is something of an unsung oddity of the animal kingdom -- body of a wolf, mane of a lion and legs like an antelope. Gnarly! Even gnarlier are the Louisville Zoo's orangutans. They put on quite a show for visitors, donning goofy t-shirts as if they were some kind of beach-going humans and performing acrobatic feats unseen outside of your most recent drug-fueled fever dream.
Louisville also boasts a series of lush city parks, all named for area Indian tribes. Cherokee is the belle of the ball, with its miles of trails, varied geography, and proximity to the excitement on Bardstown Road. Iroquois is a formidable locale as well. It's got miles of trails as well, and some are pretty rugged. In fact, Iroquois Park is home to as close to a proper mountain as you're gonna find in the Louisville metro area. At its peak is a lookout from which, on a clear day, you can see the skyscrapers of Downtown and even the smokestacks of industrial Southern Indiana.