18 Actually Cool Things to Do in Louisville Right Now
From tours of bourbon distilleries to the Kentucky Derby, these are the activities you can’t miss this summer and beyond in Louisville.
Every first Saturday in May, the world turns its gaze upon the great city of Louisville, Kentucky for all of two, action-packed minutes. That’s right—we’re talking about the Kentucky Derby. And while peacock-esque headwear, animals that cost more than your house, and syrupy-sweet crushed-ice cocktails certainly have their merits, there is, in fact, much more to Louisville than playing the ponies inside Churchill Downs’ stately confines. Branch out from your usual Derby Day itinerary and hit the streets of River City in search of great food, better whiskey, and even better cultural attractions. Here are 18 actually fun things to do in Louisville right now.
After the last few tumultuous years, restoring the Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports back to its usual festive format—not to mention its attendance capacity—is a much-needed adrenaline shot for the city. The longest continuously held sporting endeavor on the continent, the 148th iteration of the Churchill Downs original is kicking off on May 7, welcoming 20 gorgeous thoroughbreds to the track alongside thousands of in-person spectators and even more racing fans watching from around the world. If you’ve been lucky enough to cop tickets to the big show, throw on your best searsucker suit or most off-the-wall bonkers hat and gear up to make some Mint Julep-fueled memories. And if you find yourself celebrating from the (far, far) sidelines at a local sports bar, hell, you might as well dress up just the same.
In addition to the hoof-fest itself, greater Louisville is pulling out all the stops by way of the Kentucky Derby Festival, held every year during the two weeks leading up to Derby Day. Official events run the gamut from the $1 Million DollarHole-in-One Golf Contest and Tour de Lou bike race to the Great Balloon Fest, Kentucky Proud WineFest, the eight-day-long Fest-a-Ville on the Waterfront, and Thunder Over Louisville, a fireworks show to end all fireworks show. Gentlemen, start your engines—er, horses.
Prefer jesters to jockeys? Then saddle up for this Old Louisville favorite, poised to take over Central Park from May 25 through August 7. A tour of the ol’ Bard’s greatest hits awaits, attracting audiences of all ages with free nightly productions of Twelfth Night, Richard III, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. BYO blanket or lawn chair and don’t forget to come hungry, as a line of food trucks will be on hand to keep you fueled up clear through the final act.
Perched directly between live music hubs Chicago and Nashville, Louisville’s a no-brainer when it comes to epic summertime shows. Pick up passes to Forecastle Festival and spend your Memorial Day Weekend (May 27 to 29) wiling out at Waterfront Park with the likes of Tyler, The Creator, Tame Impala, and hometown hero Jack Harlow, among many other heavy-hitters. Fast forward to September 15, and you’re looking at 2022 Bourbon & Beyond, a three-day Highland Festival Grounds takeover featuring Pearl Jam, Chris Stapleton, Kings of Leon, Jack White, Brandi Carlile, Alanis Morissette, and The Doobie Brothers alongside Kentucky’s finest whiskey and celebrity chef showdowns. And later that month, Louder Than Life—dubbed the “World’s Largest Rock ‘n Roll Whiskey Festival”—hits the stage from September 22 to 25, armed with a hard-rocking, 50+ strong roster of metal, punk, and alternative acts including Nine Inch Nails, Slipknot, Lamb of God, Rob Zombie, KISS, Alice Cooper, Alice in Chains, Incubus, and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
If you thought wandering slack-jawed through zillions of technicolor string light displays was strictly a Yuletide activity, think again. Wild Lights figuratively brings Christmas to July (well, March through June) when the Louisville Zoo transforms into a dazzling illuminated wonderland each evening thanks to more than 50,000 LED bulbs adorning larger-than-life sculptures throughout the park. Make your way under sweeping archways to catch glimpses of giant birds, sparkling snakes, glittering butterflies, and hulking giraffes. Between posing for low-light selfies, go for a spin on the twinkling moonlight swings or the massive whirling kaleidoscope (just go easy on the snacks beforehand).
Bourbon might get all the hype, but Louisville’s less potent boozy export certainly holds its own. See for yourself along a self-guided pub crawl through the city’s top suds purveyors, stopping off for cold ones at renowned operations like Chimera Brewing Company, Gravely Brewing Co., the local offshoot of North Carolina’s famed Hi-Wire Brewing, Apocalypse Brew Works, Against the Grain Brewery and Smokehouse, Akasha Brewing Company, Atrium Brewing, Noble Funk, 3rd Turn Brewing, Gallant Fox Brewing—honestly, we could go on. And don’t sleep on Falls City Beer, a freshly revived turn-of-the-century staple that’s as easy on the palate as their old-school red and gold cans are on the eyes.
Not much of a planner? Leave the plotting up to the pros and get the most bang for your sudsy buck at the Kentucky Guild of Brewers’ Kentucky Craft Bash. This fourth-annual beer bash is going down on Saturday, June 11 at scenic Waterfront Park, accompanied by over 70 local breweries pouring more than 200 types of beer. All that’s missing is you, your liver, and your signature pretzel necklace.
There’s nothing quite like spending a sunny summer afternoon at the ballpark—especially when said ballpark is not only extremely wallet-friendly and walkable from downtown, but also shares a property with Against the Grain’s world-class brewpub and barbecue joint. Enter Louisville Slugger Field, home to the Cincinnati Reds’ Triple-A affiliate Louisville Bats (get it?). Built in 2000, the modern stadium is outfitted with plenty of lawn and bleacher space for kicking back with some peanuts and Cracker Jack plus interactive features for the kiddos, photo-ops, and more (did we mention the full-service brewpub?). Keep your eye peeled for special promotions throughout the season, including designated Dog Days that encourage baseball fans to bring their four-legged buddies along for the ride, with proceeds benefiting the Kentucky Humane Society.
Any culinary enthusiast worth their flaky sea salt knows that crossing over the Ohio River means one thing: good old-fashioned Southern cooking. There are more places to load up on buttery biscuits, slow-smoked meats, battered catfish, fried chicken livers, crispy-skinned chicken fried steak, and fall-off-the-bone ham hock around Louisville than might fit on a map, but here’s a few standouts to get you started.
First and foremost, make a beeline to Shirley Mae’s Café in Smoketown, an old-school juke joint where the line is crowded with steaming pans of Southern Fried Chicken Wings, Chitterlings, Pork Chops, velvety Banana Pudding, and an unbeatable Sunday-only Baked Chick’n & Country Cornbread Dress’n. If the dining room’s open, definitely plan to stick around awhile, chatting with the regulars and scanning the memorabilia paying tribute to Salute to Black Jockeys, Inc., a historic organization founded by the late Ms. Shirley Mae herself. Elsewhere, Cask Southern Kitchen and Bar puts a contemporary twist on family-style fixtures; Biscuit Belly: Louisville-NuLu has your brunch needs covered; Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar pairs top-notch barbecue with fresh seafood; the Fish House is your new fish fry HQ; award-winning chef and restaurateur John Varanes’ River House Restaurant and Bar plays the classics with finesse; The Silver Dollar is killing the game with downhome dishes and some of the best cocktails in town; and newcomer Everyday Kitchen makes good use of the area’s natural splendor with seasonally informed creations rooted in the Ohio River Valley (go for the Bourbon & Bone Marrow and thank us later).
You’re here for the whiskey, as well you should be. But every now and again it’s good to change up your liquor routine, and that’s where Butchertown destination distillery Copper & Kings comes in. This innovative concept is committed to preaching the brandy gospel to anyone who cares to listen, cranking out a fine line of non-chill filtered, no added sugar, synthetic flavoring-free fruit-based distillates and regularly collaborating with fellow area producers on barrel-aging projects, ingredient swaps, and similar creative ventures. They also make a quality gin and superlative Absinthe, so you can rightly expect to find the team shaking up mixology-driven tipples using housemade expressions in the swanky rooftop bar and restaurant upstairs. Stop in after a tour for tasty farm-to-table bites and all the ingenious cocktails you can manage after crushing a few different brandy flights—you know, for educational purposes.
Between the onslaught of ambitious young microdistilleries rolling onto the scene and the growing number of rural powerhouses debuting fancy new downtown tasting rooms, Louisville’s urban core has never been boozier. Now you can spend a day (or five) strolling from outpost to outpost and sampling all the whiskey you can handle, no designated driver needed. Start at Peerless, a gorgeous family-run operation peddling some of the tastiest rye in town from their riverfront perch, before dropping by Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery, just a stone’s throw away on Main Street. Other walkable itinerary hits include Angel’s Envy, with their port wine barrel-finished delights, Rabbit Hole’s strikingly modern NuLu headquarters, the iconic Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, and Old Forester’s rustic storefront, among others.
Snazzy downtown setups are nice and all, but to truly experience Bourbon Country, you’re going to have to trek out to those bluegrass-covered fields and green rolling hills. And even if you’re born-and-bred Kentuckian, a sunny day spent traversing the massive and historic distillery grounds dotting the pastoral exurbs of Louisville is never a bad idea. Hitch a full service ride with Mint Julep Tours or grab a GPS and a DD and chart your own course—either way, must-stops include Maker’s Mark with their majestic Dale Chihuly glass sculptures and legendary wax-dipping demos, Heaven Hill and Bardstown Bourbon Company in idyllic Bardstown, Clermont’s pioneering Jim Beam American Stillhouse, plus Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Castle & Key, and Woodford Reserve farther east. Just make sure to call ahead before setting, as many distilleries go dark in the late summer months to give the staff—and the juice—some much needed rest.
Lynn Family Stadium, home of your own Racing Louisville NWSL team as well as Louisville City FC of USL Championship fame, is open and play is under way, now through the fall. The 15,000-capacity facility is one of American soccer’s top venues—and its newest—so come out sporting your best lavender mask, fill up on signature drinks and eats from multiple local vendors, and cheer on international superstars alongside thousands of fellow fans.
To make things even more exciting, the Women’s Cup is once again descending upon the city this summer, starting things off with quarterfinals on Sunday, August 14 and commencing with final matches on Sunday, August 20. This year’s roster brings even more famous faces to the pitch, with Racing frontrunners Jess McDonald, Ebody Salmon, and newly minted Dr. Nadia Nadim playing host to OL Reign’sWorld Cup champ Megan Rapinoe and Olympic Gold Medalist Quinn plus Mexico’s Club América Femenil, Tokyo Verdy Beleza, and two yet-to-be-announced sides from across the pond in Europe (hint, hint—it’ll be big).
Hop on the summer school train and learn yourself something new at one of Louisville’s premiere cultural institutions. History buffs make a beeline to the Frazier History Museum on Museum Row (aka Main Street) and the genre-defying Roots 101 African American Museum, while architecture enthusiasts gravitate toward magnificent estates like the Conrad-Caldwell House Museum in Old Louisville. The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory and the Muhammad Ali Center knock it out of the park for sports fans, and science geeks need look no further than the colossal Kentucky Science Center downtown. As for aesthetic curiosities, the innovative 21c Louisville Museum always has something to say, the world-class Speed Art Museum is bound to spur thoughtful conversation, the Carnegie Center for Art and History provides ample context, and the National Corvette Museum in nearby Bowling Green will get your engines going (because cars this pretty definitely qualify as art).
Escape the muggy summer heat with a luxe, 100% air-conditioned vacation in your very own hometown. Standout accommodations come in all shapes and sizes here, from the 21c Museum Hotel Louisville’s unbeatable triple threat (award-winning bar and restaurant, incredible onsite gallery, and contemporary guest rooms) to stately classics like the Brown Hotel and the Seelbach Hilton. Elsewhere, boutique newcomers like the Moxy, Hotel Distil, and the Grady offer a handsome respite from the buzzy scene below. And if you don’t feel like spending the night, you can always snag a guest pass to the sleek Omni Louisville Hotel’s sky-high pool and splash the afternoon away in elevated bliss.
Just across the Ohio River lies the Falls of the Ohio State Park, spread across the site of a 386-million-year-old Devonian fossil bed. Explore an interactive museum detailing the area’s history, the aquatic life that called it home eons ago, the importance of the Falls in the settlement of Louisville, and much more. When you’re finished, head directly to the beds (assuming the river isn’t up) to study them for yourself.
Old Louisville is home to one of America’s largest collections of Victorian homes. The neighborhood, established in the late 1800s, remains a vibrant residential setting, and it’s worth a couple of hours to simply walk around and admire the architecture, saying things like "Are you sure this isn't Gothic Revivalist?" Stroll down the pedestrian-only side streets and stop by the Old Louisville Information Center to secure a guided walking tour, if you're into that. When you’re done, stroll a few blocks away to Old Louisville Brewery for a well-deserved beer.
Louisville teems with public park facilities that could rival most cities, and the Parklands of Floyds Fork might be the cream of the crop. Composed of five different parks with varying amenities, you and your pals can paddle, hike, fish, enjoy playgrounds and spray parks (especially if kids are involved), bike, garden, play sports, and even bring your dogs along for the ride.
Thank goodness we still have the Big Four Bridge, a breathtaking attraction we can enjoy any damn time we please. The former eyesore is now one of the coolest places in town, where you can make your way across the roughly one-mile span to Indiana to enjoy the quaint downtown vibe of Jeffersonville, rife with places to dine, shop, and drink. Parlour Pizza is a preferred stop at the foot of the bridge, while Pearl Street Taphouse, just a block or so away, is a fine outpost for craft beer and superlative burgers.
Frankfort Avenue corridor is a two-lane road through the Clifton and Crescent Hill neighborhoods where one can stumble upon any number of historic homes, restaurants, bars, shops, and other enticements leading right into the buzzy St. Matthews district. But it’s in the areas between Mellwood and Stilz Avenues where you'll find a bounty of upscale bars, regular-scale bookstores, and solid restaurants like the Irish Rover, El Mundo, Con Huevos, Volare, the Hub, the Silver dollar, and Blue Dog Bakery. The best part? It’s all pristinely walkable.