With just shy of 1.3 million residents, Louisville may not be a big city like neighbors Chicago or Nashville, but it is larger than life in spirit and old fashioned hospitality. Perhaps, it is the ratio of aging bourbon barrels to people, roughly 5 to 1, that keeps everyone so happy.  I was excited to find out.

My Weekend Mission: Spend three fun-filled and jam-packed days exploring Louisville – “Bourbon and Beyond”

Louisville is ranked a top world-class tourism destination. History buffs, art aficionados, foodies and outdoor enthusiasts will not be disappointed. Louisville is preparing for another tidal wave of visitors with the re-opening of its Convention Center scheduled for August 2018. The expanded renovated space is rocking the city. New hotels, restaurants and bars are popping up on every corner.

Louisville is an inviting city, but one with a bit of an identity crisis. The debate continues over the river city’s roots and attitude. Both the South and Midwest hold claim to the Derby City. Geography appears to support the prevailing shared belief. The metropolitan area, fondly called “Kentuckiana” includes 12 counties – seven in Kentucky and five in Southern Indiana. In fact, the states are so close that you can easily walk or bike to the border and experience the best of both. It is a one mile scenic adventure over the Ohio River from Louisville to Jeffersonville, Indiana via the Big Four Bridge. The Big Four, a former railroad truss bridge dating back to 1895, offers free access and amazing river and city views.

The Belle of Louisville, the oldest operating steamboat in the United States, is an entertaining alternative to the bridge walk. Visitors will delight in a scenic dinner cruise navigating the Ohio against the sparkle of city lights.

Louisville reaches beyond the main downtown area with many unique attractions that should not be missed. The city is a beautiful blend of old and new.

Every street seems to tell a story. And, the architecture gives one insight into Louisville’s illustrious past.

A walking tour is a must.

Louisville Historic Tours by David Domine was my kind host. Since 2004, Louisville Historic Tours has been offering tours of Louisville’s grand historic district. The 90 minute tour covers an expansive 40 block area. Informative, engaging and exceptional on every level.

With over 1000 stunning structures to view and a select few for sale at stellar prices, you will be awestruck and easily tempted to snag a stately home of your very own.

Old Louisville is one of the city’s most beloved neighborhoods, bordering the University of Kentucky. Here you fill find wide tree-lined streets, historic Victorian mansions and an Olmsted signature park. Allow at least a half day to explore. You will be transported back to a glorious era and learn of Louisville’s famous 100 day World’s Fair, The Southern Exposition, which spurred explosive economic growth and expansion.

Quirky fun facts were among the many highlights of the historic walking tour. I can’t resist sharing a few:

  • Architectural accents were generally created with a purpose in mind. A bay window helped air circulation for a much needed breeze. The Victorian double door was created to allow for a casket viewing.
  • Early Victorian homeowners were taxed on the width of their home and number of rooms. So, you rarely will find a closet, considered a room and an unnecessary expense.
  • Old Louisville is the site of the nation’s largest collection of Victorian mansions. Of the 1400 original structures, no two are alike.
  • Downtown Louisville West Main District boasts the largest collection of cast iron facades of anywhere outside of New York’s SoHo district.

After an immersive morning trip back in time to Louisville’s gilded age, honor a hallowed Kentucky art and tradition with an afternoon journey along the Urban Bourbon Trail. A collection of 30 local Louisville establishments, each with a Fort Knox of Bourbon varietals, welcome you with tastings, classic cocktails and bourbon-inspired cuisine. Those that visit at least six stops and secure stamps on an official bourbon trail passport receive a special gift. Turn in your passport at the Visitors’ Center on 4th and Jefferson for a free collective Bourbon Trail t-shirt. Smartphone users can also opt to download the Urban Bourbon Trail App.

For an authentic distillery adventure without venturing outside Louisville’s city limits, I recommend a visit to two of my favorites. Each will provide a unique perspective on how distilleries differ by size, production process and capacity.

Angel’s Envy: This premium brand distillery produces 72 barrels per day. Angel’s Envy is housed in a 90,000 square foot historic downtown building located on the stretch of Main Street that was part of Louisville’s original Whiskey Row. The award-winning bourbons and whiskeys are the result of the collaboration of generations of master distillers. The Henderson family secret: finishing in port wine and rum barrels. Even if you don’t like Bourbon, a tour of the distillery’s interiors will wow you! Reservations required. Note: Closed on Tuesday.

Kentucky Peerless Distillery: Small but Proud. By far, Peerless offers one of the best and less commercialized tours in Louisville. You will feel part of the family. Loved the personalized touch! The distillery roots run deep; born in the heart of Henderson, Kentucky. Since the 1880’s, Peerless was steadfast in its production – a revered regional powerhouse until it shut down during prohibition.

Bourbon Fast Facts:

  • A Kentucky Straight Bourbon must be made with a grain mixture of at least 51% corn and aged a minimum of 2 years in Kentucky. A standard Kentucky Bourbon has no aging aging requirements. Many out of state distillers used to ship barrels to Kentucky to finish the aging process to attain the recognition, but that practice has been outlawed.
  • Bourbon must be aged in brand new oak barrels that are charred on the inside to enhance flavor and add color. After use, barrels are generally sold to whiskey and wine makers overseas.
  • Bourbons aged for less than 4 years must have age statement stamped on the bottle.
  • Nothing can be added at bottling except water. And, Kentucky’s water, filtered by the area’s natural limestone deposits, is considered the very best.
  • Bourbon is bottled at between 80 and 125 proof. Only water may be used to lower the proof.

Dinner options are limitless. The Louisville scene centers around food and libations. Check out Louisville’s Fourth Street LIVE, downtown’s pedestrian friendly 350,000 square foot entertainment epicenter featuring bars, restaurants and music venues.

The Mussel & Burger Bar on 7th Street is a popular local watering hole. Seafood, Burgers and Beer. Hearty portions and a fun relaxed atmosphere.

Or, take it up a notch with a craft cocktail creation and a devilishly divine dinner at PROOF on Main, part of Louisville’s chic 21c Museum Hotel. The boutique property also houses an extensive eclectic art gallery that is open to the public 24/7.

I kicked off my second day with a yummy southern style egg biscuit at Atlantic No. 5 Cafe on Main followed by a tour of Louisville’s Museum Row. The Louisville Slugger Museum and the Frazier History Museum were standouts. The Louisville Slugger Museum tour includes access to the production facility and the museum’s many interactive exhibits. Pose with one of baseball’s iconic players or try your skill in the batting cage.

The Frazier History Museum has permanent and rotating collections. During my visit, I was treated to a special collection of Kentucky photographs by Linda Bruckheimer entitled “Family Gathering”. The photo exhibition is a spirited tribute to the region. Each photo reveals a lighthearted or thought provoking message, creatively captured and captioned.

Before leaving Museum Row, pop into the Art Eatables shop, for a tasting of their decadent assortment of bourbon chocolates, truffles and candies.

A visit to Louisville is not complete without stop at the Muhammad Ali Center. Learn more about the legendary athlete, leader and philosopher who helped pave the way for positive world change. His mission lives on via his foundation and center’s educational outreach. The tour includes a phenomenal and emotionally-charged documentary outlining Ali’s many life achievements.

Special Savings: Get a $1 off admission at any Museum Row attraction when you show your ticket from another partner.

Next up was lunch and shopping. Destination: Louisville’s hip gentrified neighborhood, the East Market District aka Nulu. Located just a short walk from Slugger Field, Nulu (New Louisville) was once desolate and deteriorated, a Louisville eyesore. It is now thriving with an insurgence of trendy restaurants, bars, galleries and boutiques.

Tantalized by reviews, I was left torn between two locally owned Nulu favorites for nourishment- Royal’s Hot Chicken and Feast BBQ.  I opted to indulge in a sampling of each. Menu highlights: Feast BBQ’s Loaded Tots, Royal’s Spicy Chicken Tenders complemented by Royal’s “oh so refreshing” Bourbon Cheerwine Slushy.

I worked off the calories and a slight bourbon buzz window shopping. Mahonia, a Garden of Eden, was a welcomed distraction. Drawn in by the colors and fragrance, I was welcomed by a table overflowing with beautiful fresh cut flowers. So stunning, I was tempted to purchase all and transform my hotel room into a boudoir of blossoms.

Scout on Market is Nulu’s treasure chest of home design and decor. The store is a sleek and upscale space showcasing unique furniture and gifts ideas for every occasion.

For antiques and collectibles,the Joe Ley Antique Company is a goldmine. The historic building, once a schoolhouse, has nearly 2 acres of merchandise for sale and is forever adding more. Joe Ley Antiques, a Louisville landmark for over 50 years, is the second largest single owned antique store in the country.

Louisville Cream is the perfect place for an afternoon pick-me-up. Beloved by locals, this gourmet ice cream parlor is said to serve up the best homemade ice cream in Kentucky. Small batch custom flavors like Bourbon Smoked Pecan, Maple Bourbon Streusel and Salted Chocolate Brie make it well worth any wait.

Don’t leave Nulu without trying some of Kentucky’s finest rustic regional cuisine at Harvest Restaurant.
Harvest is Louisville’s celebrated “farm-to-table” home grown dining destination with 80% of ingredients locally sourced. The menu features fresh traditional regional dishes with a modern twist.  And, Harvest’s many food items are baked, cured, smoked and preserved in-house.

My mouthwatering menu selection: the Harvest Burger. Unbelievably delicious! Killer toppings and farm fresh makings create the magic of the meal: Capriole Chevre goat cheese, Groganica greens, Broadbent country ham jam, pickled veggies, and house-made condiments. Add in a side of creamy grits and you will be dreaming of seconds.

For a lighter starter plate, Ivor’s Black Eyed Pea Hummus is a tasty crowd-pleaser.

Other Nulu “After 5” Hotspots include: Galaxie, Garage Bar and Nouvelle Wine Bistro.

Before you turn in, take a walk on the wild side with Louisville’s new sporting craze – Axe Throwing. Jennifer Lawrence, Louisville’s celebrity daughter, put Flying Axes on the map when she demonstrated her prowess during an axe throwing contest on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

The Flying Axes, Louisville’s most extraordinary and exhilarating experience, is open Tuesday through Sunday for your axe-defying pleasure. Be sure to call ahead to reserve a time slot. If you need a little liquid courage, not to worry. Flying Axes serves a full selection of beers onsite.

Sadly, my final day in Louisville left little time to get in everything on my bucket list. I did manage to journey out to Cave Hill, a 296 acre Victorian cemetery and arboretum. It is best known as the resting place for many of Louisville’s famous citizens – Louisville’s Founding Father, George Rogers Clark, Colonel Sanders, Muhammad Ali and many more. The cemetery grounds are so expansive that it is very easy to lose your way.

Best to book a guided tour with the Cave Hill Heritage Foundation.

Churchill Downs was my very last stop before my plane departure. I joined a formal tour of the facility and spent nearly two hours exploring the museum.  I could have easily spent an full afternoon viewing the two stories of exhibits and recounting racing history. A truly fascinating place. The museum’s interactive betting kiosk was great fun. I sized up each horse’s odds, bet my virtual play money and hoped for a big win. The thrill of the race gave me an adrenaline rush. Over and over I played. Win or lose, the excitement never waned. I can only imagine the live action of Derby Day and the cheers of over 150,000 fans.

Louisville lives up to its reputation like a good Kentucky Bourbon.

Every moment memorable like every drop so divine … leaving you begging for more.

Where to Stay:

Omni Hotel-Louisville

21c Museum Hotel

For more vacation planning information and tips, visit the official Go To Louisville Tourism website.