Travel Guide to Louisville Kentucky
Getting to Louisville, KY
Louisville is the largest city in Kentucky, most famous for bourbon and horse racing. Most would consider it to be in the southern portion of the US but with a whole lot of midwest mixed in. If you are coming by plane the Louisville Airport is conveniently located within 15-20 mins of downtown. It is also under a 2-hour drive from Indianapolis, Cincinnati and their favorite in-state rival, Lexington. While we were there we used Uber to get around with no problems at all. We tend to prefer to walk when we are someplace new and were happy to find it’s a very walker friendly city.
Best Budget Accommodations
Galt House Hotel Louisville
The Galt House Hotel Louisville is just a short walk from Fourth Street Live! and has views of the Ohio River that are to die for. This hotel has luxury amenities at a lower price point. They offer a variety of guestrooms that will accommodate couples and family travel. With seven, yes seven – dining options you will certainly be able to find something for everyone. Al J’s at the Conservatory even has a 30-foot aquarium bar filled with tropical fish that they encourage you to use for the perfect Instagram shot.
Best Mid Range Hotels
This fun and funky hotel had us running all around snapping pictures. The minute you pull up to the bright pink and orange painted LGBT owned Vu Guesthouse you can’t help but smile. This campy delight is fit for Priscilla. They did not miss an inch when decorating this old tobacco warehouse turned boutique hotel. The warm and inviting rooms come with large TVs, rainfall showers, and large comfortable beds. In the upgraded rooms you’ll also find awesome sitting areas. The blackout curtains were also a nice touch for the morning after a night at Play. Located on a quiet street within walking distance to downtown we found it to be the perfect location to rest up for our Pride celebrations. The staff is was incredibly helpful and welcoming. We enjoyed our late night chatter with Dennie at the bar relaxing on the back patio.
Best Luxury Hotels
21c Museum Hotel
The 21c Museum Hotel literally checks all the Dopes on the Road perfect hotel boxes. Walkable distance from almost everything we did during our stay, great restaurant with Proof on Main, and the perfect set of robes. 21c is a contemporary art museum combined with a hotel. The art museum aspect is not only found in the lobby and downstairs gallery, it’s carried throughout the entire hotel including guestrooms. A site-specific sculpture installation Asleep in a Cyclone also doubles as one of the coolest guest rooms I’ve ever looked at. They also have plastic penguins everywhere. Yes – bright red plastic almost 4-foot tall penguins. We loved ours. We named him Phillip and took turns moving him around the room and trying to scare each other with by putting him in increasingly more creepy places. According to 21c they’re part of the Red Penguins Exhibition and located all over the hotel, but for us, our Phillip has a special place in our heart. The hotel staff was also great, keeping our bags at the desk after checkout and making shopping recommendations when we realized we’d forgotten some items.
The Brown Hotel
If you are looking for something that gives you all the most authentic Louisville feels, look no further than The Brown Hotel. This hotel is truly a part of the fabric of Louisville. Think lots of old world southern charm with all the comfort touches of a modern hotel. You’ll find all kinds of southern sophistication including marble floors, mahogany beds, and classic artwork. We’ve also heard about some incredible bathrobes (if you follow us on Instagram you’ll know that’s really what we rate hotels on). You’ll find two restaurants and a bar on site. I’d be missing something big if I forget to tell you that the Brown Hotel is where the “Hot Brown” originated. The first trip to Louisville is not complete without one – so why not get the original?
Airbnb is a great option for a longer stays. Louisville has some great options including this NuLu Bourbon Loft. We loved the food, street art, and boutique shops in the Nulu area and this loft is as stylish as they come. A couple repurposed bourbon barrels, exposed brick, and a king size bed are all you need to get your stay started. If you’re using Airbnb for the first time use this link for $40 off your first stay.
Louisville KY Attractions
Get an Adrenaline Rush at Mega Caverns
The Mega Caverns was a seriously unique experience. We opted to take the zip line tour (something we’ve both done before) but what made this different was that everything is inside a giant cave. The cave was created by a massive limestone quarry that was a mine for over 42 years. The cave is a gigantic 100 acres and is classified as the largest building in Louisville. During our two and half hour tour including 6 zip-lines, we only saw a very small portion of it. The zip-lines were various lengths and speeds to match the needs of every thrill seeker in your party. Meg particularly enjoyed the fact that it’s dark, taking the fear of heights out of the equation. Our guides were great and made us feel safe every step of the way.
Learn about Bourbon at Angels of Envy
This was unexpectedly one of my favorite parts of the trip. I don’t really drink. I’ll have about 5-7 drinks a year, almost exclusively mimosas because brunch. I imagined a bourbon tour to be like a wine tour, sipping one after another until I had a major headache. I could not have been more wrong. When we arrived at Angel’s of Envy we were greeted by an awesome tour guide, Brent. He walked us through the entire process of making bourbon. Coming in, we knew nothing and we certainly left with enough information to hold an intelligent conversation on the topic. The building was absolutely beautiful and Meg can’t stop talking about how good it smelled. I would recommend the experience to anyone visiting, bourbon drinker or not.
Check out the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory
You can’t miss the Louisville Slugger Museum when you’re walking around the city, there’s a 120-foot giant bat out front letting you know you’re in the right spot. You can take a tour of the factory and see how the bats are made. There’s also a signature wall where you’ll find all the players that signed contracts with Louisville Slugger, showing the same signatures that was stamped into the bats. With admission, you also walk away with a small bat as a souvenir.
Experience Churchill Downs
If you’re a sports fan of any kind, you’ve heard of the Kentucky Derby. “The Most Exciting 2 Minutes in Sports” is held the 1st Saturday of May at Churchill Downs. While you might not be able to make it for Derby Day, they host a lot of other live racing. The Kentucky Derby Museum is a must-see while you’re there, the building is small but packed with information. Through the museum we took the Barn and Backside Tour, if I was to recommend one thing in Louisville – this would be it. We toured the areas where the stables and the people who take care of the horses live. We learned about the community that powers Churchill Downs in between race days. Caring for these animals is a culture as much as it is a job. The guide of our small group tour was knowledgeable and personable, telling us many stories about individual horses and jockeys. We took the 8:30 tour and were able to catch the horse and riders still out on the track for practice. It was a rush to stand at the rail and watch these athletes work up close and personal.
Step Back in Time on the Belle of Louisville
The Belle of Louisville is a great way to see Louisville and the Ohio River. This steamboat was built in 1914, so stepping on board is like stepping back in history. They offer lunch and dinner cruise options, you’ll spend two hours aboard the boat with a buffet meal included. They have two boat options The Belle of Louisville and the Mary M. Miller (built in 1985) and a variety of times available.
Perfect the Street Art Selfie
If you’ve been following me -if aren’t you should be, @LindsCale – on Instagram you’ll know I’m constantly trying to get the perfect street art shot. You know you’ve done it, the casually not casual look away, how about the pretend you don’t know someone is taking a picture from behind you, or my personal go to the one foot on the wall thing. It’s always fun and you always get one good shot and 20 weird ones. Louisville gave us plenty of gorgeous places to practice.
Visit the Muhammad Ali Center
The Muhammad Ali Center is a multicultural center and museum dedicated to the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali. The center is two floors filled with great information and incredible views. Muhammad Ali is often considered one of the most significant sports figures of the 20th Century. Here you will be able to learn about both the boxing career and activism that made him an icon.
Catch a Cards Game at the KFC Yum! Center
I am a huge lifelong basketball fun, giving up ties to the game was actually on the cons side of our moving to Mexico discussion. It’s not basketball season but I am already looking for ways to fit some games into our upcoming travel schedule. There aren’t many teams that have been as consistently good as Louisville. If they would have had a home game we would have been in the stands watching or rather – I would have been in the stands watching and Meg would have been reading a book.
Take a Self-Guided Civil Rights Tour
For those who are history buffs or social justice-minded, there is a great Self Guided Walking Tour provided by the smart folks at the University of Louisville. Meg’s background in activism has her geeking out about this type of stuff. There are 22 stops around the city and you can pick up a hard copy of the brochure at the Muhammad Ali Center, Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau and The Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice.
Browse the shops in NuLu
We felt so at home in the NuLu neighborhood. We spent a whole afternoon wandering from shop to shop, lusting after all the gorgeous things we’d fill our home with if we weren’t always moving around. My top pick was our stop at BLoFish Clothing, I’ve had an Instagram crush on them for quite a while and was pumped to check out their products in person. They are a gender-neutral clothing company, with all types of shirts and hats. The tees are SUPER soft and the bonus is that 10% of sales go to a different charity each month. Meg’s favorite was Six Sisters Boutique, filled with all the frilly dresses and necklaces to set her femme heart on fire.
Purrswaytion is one of the few remaining lesbian majority bars in the United States. It’s a classic mid-sized city drag bar complete with multiple rooms and an outdoor patio. Check out the King’s show or belt your heart out on karaoke night.
Play Dance Club
On the Friday night before the Pride Festival, we went to Play Dance Club to see Todrick Hall perform with some of RuPaul’s girls. The club was packed with a super mixed crowd and the show definitely being the center point of everyone’s attention. Check it out for a high-quality performance, classic drag camp, and well-priced drink specials.
The Nowhere Bar
Y’all Nowhere has $15 pitchers of Mimosas that are easily big enough for three people. Need I say anymore? But seriously Nowhere is a gay dance club with a mixed audience. It’s a bit hipster with street art murals and kinda – urban industrial vibes. Plus the location on Bardstown Road is great exploring.
SHOP MEG’S PACKING LIST
Toast on Market
Breakfast! Breakfast! Breakfast! Meg’s favorite meal and something that we miss on occasion while in Mexico. Toast on Market has all the classic morning favorites. I happen to believe the hashbrown is the highest form of potato so I’m all about the Hashbrown Casserole ($2.50) alongside my Lemon Souffle Pancakes ($8.75). Add a good cup of coffee in the mix and you have everything to get your day rolling.
Royals Hot Chicken
Royals Hot Chicken is so good we ate there twice. We planned to have it for dinner one night and kinda fell in love. So we snuck back in another night right before they closed and we caught our flight back to Merida. The restaurant has a vintage vibe complete with neon signs and bottled soda (heart eyes). You have indoor and outdoor seating options. The outdoor space has a large mural and some cornhole boards. Meg had a Classic Fried Chicken Sandwich with Shells & Beer Cheese ($8) and I had Jumbo Chicken Tenders, Potato Wedges and Cucumber Salad ($9.50). The portions are huge, we ordered the same meal both times and neither of us could finish it all.
We celebrated our one year wedding anniversary in Louisville. While we didn’t plan much or exchange gifts we knew we wanted to have a great meal together. The LGBT owned Jack Frys was the perfect fit. The ambiance and the service were incredible, we could easily see why it is consistently considered one of Louisville’s best. Meg had the Salmon ($31) and I had the Pork Chop ($30). It was everything we could have hoped for when celebrating our first year together.
My favorite food has been a constant toss up between pizza and tacos for about 20 years now. So I was pleasantly surprised to find Wild Rita’s just across the street from Angels of Envy. We stopped in for lunch and it was a perfect stop to help us avoid sipping bourbon on an empty stomach. They had good Queso Dip ($6) big Burritos ($10) and fresh Fish Tacos ($10).
Millionaires Row & Skye Terrace at Churchill Downs
On the days that there is live racing at Churchill Downs you can also grab a bite to eat. This is obviously as much of an experience as it is a meal. We really enjoyed the total package so wanted to add it to this list so you can consider it as an option. Experience some racing in the same space you may see your favorite celebrity on Derby Day. For $38 you get an admission ticket, race day program, Chef’s Table buffet and soft drinks for 2 hours. We had an awesome waitress who also gave us pointers on how to place bets. We enjoyed some wonderful salads, pasta, and an amazing apple crisp while watching the horses run. It is also an ideal place to try a Mint Julep or the slightly more mild Oaks Lily.
The tell-tale sign of a good restaurant is a long line and full tables. We even jokingly raced a family of five across the busy street to claim position in that line. Feast BBQ is exactly what you’d expect from a good BBQ joint. Perfectly cooked meat options and the always important sides. You can buy the meat in a variety of styles, ranging from a sandwich to a full pound of meat. We opted for the Pulled Pork ½ pound plate with two sides for $12. We were excited to see they also had some dessert options including a Salted Caramel Banana Pudding ($4).
Proof on Main
Proof on Main is the located in the 21c Hotel. The restaurant has a forward thinking and artsy vibe without having intimidating food. We really enjoyed being able to wander the 21c Gallery after our meal. It was our first meal in Louisville and we were not disappointed. To get started we opted for the 5 Cheese Platter ($21) it was served with three types of mustard, crackers, and bread. We enjoyed all the cheeses especially the Fair Oaks 5yr Yellow Cheddar. For Meg’s entree, she had Faroe Island Salmon ($36) and I opted for the Arugula Cavatelli. Both meals had rich flavors that we enjoyed. Starting our anniversary celebration a little early we decided on a gelato flight and lattes for dessert. As a fun way to end, they meal they also bring cotton candy to the table when delivering your check.
The Garage Bar on Market Street is the kind of place where you want to hang out. Ping pong tables, outdoor seating areas, and an indoor/outdoor bar are all inviting you to stick around for a few drinks. We stopped in for a late brunch and the place was already warming up with fans from both sides of the Clemson/University of Louisville Football game. Meg had French Toast and I have a baguette with cheese, fresh grapefruit, and orange slices. We walked by later that night and got a glimpse of their brick oven pizzas that smelled incredible. I was really hoping to get back for the Sweet Corn Pizza with garlic and bacon ($16).
Steel City Pops
If you’re looking for something cold and tasty on a hot day Steel City Pops is your spot. They have so many tasty flavors it will be hard to just pick one. They offer both creamy and fruity options for $3.49 each. We opted for a classic fruity Peach as we continued wandering through nearby shops on Bardstown Road.
They are serving up the Best Banana Split I ever had at Louisville Cream. Located in the NuLu neighborhood, they are scooping premium small-batch ice cream in cones, sundaes, and milkshakes. This is the kind of ice cream shop of your social media dreams. Think exposed brick, Giant Animal Crackers ($3) with brightly colored sprinkles and freshly torched bananas. We decided to share the Caramelized Banana Split ($10) it was serious to die for. If you are trying to be a little better on your diet than we did, opt for a scoop of the Salted Butter Caramel.
Festivals and Events
Kentuckiana Pride festival is hosted in June featuring a parade and festival with over 100 vendors. They also have a concert with two stages and music playing along the Waterfront Park until about 11 pm PLUS all the amazing LGBT bars are open with nightlife specials.
It’s pretty cool that Louisville doesn’t just celebrate Pride once, they do it twice. The Louisville Pride Festival is in September. We were lucky enough to be in town to experience the 3rd annual celebration. It was cool to see bars and restaurants along Bardstown Road in the Highlands Neighborhood bring tables outside and decorated with Pride Flags. There were also booths to checkout from local business supporting the LGBTQ community.
Kentucky Derby Festival
The Kentucky Derby Festival is held during the two weeks before the 1st Saturday in May. The festival kicks off with the Thunder Over Louisville, one of the biggest firework displays in the US. During the two weeks following, you will be able to find almost any kind of celebration you can imagine. Some of this highlights are a full and half marathon, hot air balloons, The Great Steamboat Race and the Pegasus Parade. We even had an Uber driver tell us “you haven’t experienced Louisville until you’ve been here for the Derby Festival.”
Louisville is home to a gay theater company, LGBT Magazine, rich LGBT history, and lots of options for gay bars. If we’re being honest, Louisville is a bit like a southern oasis for LGBT folks. While Kentucky has had issues with their questionable political record, Louisville has earned a perfect 100% rating on HRC’s Municipal Equality Index.