Bourbon and Horses. Louisville, Kentucky has an abundance of both. It’s easy to have the Urban Bourbon experience in Louisville; both Evan Williams and Angel’s Envy are located on Main Street. And, of course, Louisville is home to the Kentucky Derby. But Louisville is also rich in history and filled with activities the entire family can enjoy. If you are planning a trip, our travel guide to Louisville, Kentucky can help you find the perfect activities for everyone.
Travel Guide to Louisville, Kentucky
Where to Go
1. Louisville Zoo– One place you can’t miss while you’re in Louisville is the Louisville Zoo. It can be hard to keep a kid’s attention, but the Louisville Zoo kept my toddler entertained from opening time to close. With a petting zoo, animal shows, exhibits with animals from around the world, and playgrounds, there’s something for the whole family.
During the summer, kids can play at the zoo splash pad. Although it was closed for the season when we went, Critter still had a great time on the drier and less messy playgrounds. Although we didn’t indulge, the zoo also offers pony and camel rides for a small fee! I remember riding a camel at a zoo as a kid and feeling like I was on top of the world. Your kids can also experience giraffe feeding and take a train ride around the zoo. These activities are also not included in the cost of admission, but if you’re wanting the full zoo experience, they’re a fun way to make some family memories. I liked that you could rent single or double strollers as well as a little red wagon in case you were like us and had forgotten yours. Of course, you’re welcome to bring your own as well.
Critter has food allergies, so we always bring our own food when we go places. We weren’t the only ones! There are some picnic areas throughout the zoo where you can eat the snacks you’ve bought, or you can check out some of the restaurants in the zoo. We are at the African Outpost, where I found a gluten-free rice crispy treat for myself and a fruit cup for Critter. We also grabbed a bottle of water, but souvenir cups are available and are the way to go if you’re going to be wanting refills of drinks that aren’t water! If your kid loves animals, the Louisville Zoo is the place for you. You can spend a few hours, or you can spend the whole day!
2. City Taste Tour – If you want to capture the essence of the city you can’t go wrong with the Louisville City Taste Tour. Our hosts, Leslie and Paula, picked us up from the hotel in the “Party Bus,” decked out with the heads of stick horses. The fun was just beginning. Once on the bus, Leslie explained we would be exploring all the aspects of Louisville; culture, food, and history. The tour began “across the river” at Schimpff’s Confectionery in Jefferson, Indiana. If you are a candy fan, this is a must. Not only do they make candy the old-fashioned way, they have a museum, samples, and, best of all, plenty of candy for sale. Our trip continued to the Falls of the Ohio before returning to Louisville to explore.
Along the way, we sampled local specialties, played trivia games for bottles of Bourbon, and had our very own fashion show, culminating in our wearing Derby hats into the Kentucky Derby Museum. The hosts do a wonderful job bringing the history and culture of Louisville to life. This wasn’t just a tour. It was an experience. By the end of the day, everyone on the bus was clapping and singing along with the songs and chatting like old friends.
*Note– Although the tour could be taken by any age, it is approximately a four and a half hour -mostly riding-tour with a lot of booze. I would recommend the tour for older kids- no one in the car seat set-or adults.
3. Belle of Louisville Cruise– Want a relaxing evening with the family, a romantic night out, or a girlfriend getaway? A dinner cruise on the Belle of Louisville or the Mary M. Miller is the perfect way to end the day. We sailed on the Mary M. Miller. It’s named in honor of the first woman to receive her Steamboat Captain’s License in 1884. The Mary M. Miller is smaller than the Belle of Louisville, able to hold 350 people, and was built in 1985.
We arrived fifteen to twenty minutes early, as advised, and was able to board the ship quickly. After the boat began our two- hour cruise along the Ohio River, dinner was served. The food is served buffet style and the crew makes sure the lines form in an orderly manner. Expect to have the option of two to three salads, two entrees- including Bone-In Roasted Chicken, Meatloaf or Chef’s Choice, two to three sides, mostly veggies, and two desserts. Tea, Water, Lemonade or Coffee is included in the price of the meal. Alcoholic beverages and soft drinks are available at the bar for an additional fee. Notes: The dinner is catered so they are unable to respond to special requests for food allergies.
After the meal, we were able to stay in the dining room to chat or make our way outside to one of the viewing decks. The scenery along the river is beautiful and the friendly staff will answer any questions about the surroundings. Be sure to bring a light wrap as the temperature on the deck can be a little chilly.
4. Downtown Area– Filled with restaurants, shops, and museums, Downtown Louisville has an attraction for everyone in the family. Baseball fans will enjoy the Louisville Slugger Museum. Take a tour through the museum and learn how the classic bat is made and see the world’s largest bat, weighing in at 68,000 pounds. Historians will want to visit the Frazier Museum, which covers over 1000 years of history. While adults read the exhibits, the kids will delight in the interactive offerings, like the 55-foot replica of Lewis and Clark’s Keelboat.
If you are a Bourbon fancier, stop by Angel’s Envy or Evan Williams for a tour. And, if you like candy and bourbon, Art Eatables is a must. These candies are so tasty they’ve been featured in Oscar Goodie Bags! When you’re hungry, stroll over to 4th Street Live. It’s filled with an array of restaurants to satisfy any taste. You’ll find everything from TV personality Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse, a massive Barbeque joint, to The Fudgery, a dessert emporium.
No stop in downtown would be complete without a stroll along the River Walk. Located on the banks of the Ohio River, the Riverwalk is the perfect place for a bike ride or walk with the family. Take time to visit the Adventure Playground and Waterplay area before walking across the Big 4 Bridge. Linking Louisville, Kentucky to Jeffersonville, Indiana, this was originally a railroad bridge which has been converted into a pedestrian walking bridge. While visiting downtown be sure to keep an eye out for the horses, whimsically colored statues placed around the area
5. Louisville Mega Cavern under Louisville has had quite a few roles over the years. It has gone from limestone mine to nuclear fallout shelter and has been used for storage by the US government. It’s even been a business park! These days, most of the Mega Cavern is a tourist attraction. With underground tram tours, a ropes course, cave biking, and ziplining, there’s something for just about everyone. You can even host a birthday party there! This time, I got the chance to go zip-lining. The Mega Zips course is the world’s only fully-underground ziplining course. Although I had already checked zip-lining off my bucket list, I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to do it again…underground! For the zip-line tour, you must wear closed toe shoes, and if you have long hair, it must be pulled back in a ponytail. Since the tour is underground, it’s a little chilly, so a jacket is advised.
When I arrived at the Mega Caverns, check in was simple. After that, I waited around and got to know the other people who would be going on the tour with me. There were three couples, me, and two guides on the tour. Once it was time to start, the guides ran us through a crash course on zip-line dos and don’ts, geared us up, and we started walking to the location! There are six lines and two bridges on the course, which meant that it was long enough that even the most cautious of our group had gotten the hang of it by the end. The guides are very personable and made everyone feel comfortable. Possibly my favorite thing about the Mega Zip was that it was a full-service tour. That means they do the braking for you! On my last zip tour, I had to brake myself…and almost broke my glasses. No worries on this tour! The Mega Caverns are a great place to check out anytime, but the fact that they’re underground makes this a cool option for rainy days. And where else can you zip-line underground?
6. Kentucky Derby Museum– Did you know that a thoroughbred can go from zero to forty miles per hour in three strides? Or the first Kentucky Derby was held 142 years ago in 1875? Those are just a few of the fun facts you’ll learn on a tour of the Kentucky Derby Museum. Or a horse only gets one chance in a lifetime to race in the Derby because all participants must be three years old?
This interactive museum gives insight into a Thoroughbred’s life, spanning the time between birth and their entry into the Kentucky Derby. After exploring the museum, we took one of the extra tours offered, the Barn and Backside Tour. This one-hour tour, an additional $15 after general admission, gives a glimpse into the “backside” of horse training. Our host, Chandra, was an expert in the field, explaining the complex role of a horse trainer and their duties.
We watched as horses entered the track to begin their practice and discovered the horses were as curious about us as we were about them. One horse, in particular, kept eyeing us until someone asked why. “He’s looking at you,” Chandra explained. “He’s new from the farm and he is curious about his surroundings.”
If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the history of the Derby, this is the place to be! Begin with the 4D film, The Greatest Race, and then wander the museum to learn about each facet of the Derby. Be sure to take one of the many available additional tours, ranging from a Historic Walking Tour to a spooky Horses and Haunts tour. The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 8:00 AM until 5:00 PM.
7. Old Louisville Tour–Boasting of one of the largest Historic Districts in the nation, Louisville has more than one thousand historic homes. Covering over 1200 acres and many different architectural styles, it’s easy to see why Old Louisville one of the most exuberant neighbors in the United States. This hidden treasure is best discovered on a walking tour of the area.
Our tour was hosted by David Domine and based on his book, Old Louisville: Exuberant, Elegant and Alive. This 90- minute tour showcases the architecture and history of the area. Mr. Domine is a knowledgeable host, having lived in the area, and seamlessly weaves the history of the residents into this fact-filled tour. Fun Fact: Louisville has its own Central Park! It was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same man who designed Central Park in New York City.
Along the way, we discovered secret gardens nestled among the streets and colorful histories of the residents. Two of my favorites were the story of the Witch’s Tree, an Osage orange tree used as a gathering point for witches in the past (and present!), and the Pink Palace, originally a neighborhood Gentleman’s Club and later purchased by Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Horrified to discover its illicit past, they painted the structure pink.
The tour begins at Smokey Bean’s Coffee Shop and is held twice daily, at 11:00 AM and 1: PM. Mr. Domine also hosts the Old Louisville Ghost Tours held at 7:30 each evening. Street parking is available on 4th street.
Where to Eat:
Annie May’s Sweet Cafe– Annie May’s is a soy free, gluten free, and nut free (except coconut) establishment. Many of their products are vegan and free of the top 8. It was an allergy-friendly pastry wonderland. We went on a Friday, which is the day they carry the least stock. Despite that, we faced nearly a case full of options! There were only three or four things that Critter couldn’t eat in the pastry case. She had never been faced with that many options before.
One of the things I liked about Annie May’s was how well-trained everyone was in allergy protocol. When we walked in, we were immediately greeted by a clerk who asked if there were any food allergies in the group. “Tell me all of them,” she said, “some people act embarrassed about their allergies. This is the one place you don’t have to feel bad!” After we told her about our long list of combined allergies, she steered us towards safe options in the case. “The ones that say AF are top 8 free!” She also pointed out a freezer full of take and bake options. For anyone with food allergies, swing by Annie May’s and pick up some sweet treats. You won’t be disappointed.
Where to Stay:
Aloft Louisville Downtown– If you like to be in the center of the action, this is the place to be. An upscale, modern hotel, the Aloft is located at 102 West Main Street near the Riverfront, Museum Row, and the downtown Bourbon distilleries. Valet and Self- Parking is located across the street from the hotel at a cost of $22 to $26 per night. Safe and secure, the Aloft features keyless entry to rooms. The elevator provides an extra measure of security. Any floor above the second can only be accessed by swiping the room key. The staff is friendly and helpful and the convenient location makes it easy to walk to nearby attractions.