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.