Along the Ohio River, just south of Indiana, is a spirited city where the country’s finest bourbon flows generously, strangers are smiley, and the architecture tells a story. Remnants of French influence and rich American history can be found along its streets and bridges, as well as in its industrial-cool areas. Overlooked as a destination more often than not, Louisville, or Loo-a-vul as the locals pronounce it, is an unexpected surprise. Before visiting, I knew very little aside from it being the home of the Kentucky Derby, birthplace of its iconic namesake baseball bat, and UPS’s bustling global air hub. In just a few days, I discovered that its hip downtown neighborhoods are sprinkled with countless distilleries, lively eateries, and vibrant local artwork. Louisville’s craft cocktail scene won me over (seriously, the bourbon libations just taste better here), and so did its wonderfully eclectic vibe of old and new. Below, check out our complete guide to spending a weekend in this southern city.
Where to Stay:
With a striking façade and prime location in Fourth Street district, the stunning Omni Louisville Hotel is a perfect choice for travelers seeking contemporary spaces and an abundance of cool-kid amenities such as its speakeasy bar Pin + Proof (marked by a neon sign displaying the word “shhh” and housing a bowling alley inside), cozy Library Bar, rooftop pool deck, Mokara Spa, and adjoining Falls City Market. Off the lobby is a gorgeously lit bourbon barrel installation that makes for a brag-worthy Instagram post. The vintage-obsessed visitor will love the Seelbach Hilton Louisville, which is a historical landmark famous for its old-timey vibe, grand staircase, and Old Seelbach Bar (Billy Joel played the keys there). Then, there’s the artsy, celebrity-frequented 21c Museum Hotel set along Museum Row, which boasts a golden, double-size replica of Michelangelo’s David out front.
Where to Drink:
Louisville is referred to as Bourbon City for a reason—the barrel-aged distilled whiskey spirit is practically baked into its culture, just like it’s fleur-de-lis seal. Thirsty folks who want the full bourbon experience should map out an afternoon of tours and tastings at top spots such as Rabbit Hole Distillery, Old Forester, Michter’s Distillery Fort Nelson, Angel’s Envy Distillery, and Evan Williams. At Rabbit Hole, there are plenty of camera-friendly interior and exterior sights, along with a private cocktail space boasting sweeping views of the skyline and the friendliest bartenders (they make a mean whiskey sour).
Hop over to Copper & Kings distillery in the up-and-coming, LGBTQ-friendly Butchertown neighborhood for some authentic brandy, absinth, and gin. The distillery, which specializes in non-traditional brandies influenced by American whiskey and rock and roll (they play tunes as the brandy distills in old-fashioned alembic copper pot stills), has an outdoor event space outfitted with a butterfly garden, repurposed storage containers, and a fire pit. Its third-floor rooftop, Alex&nder, is a fun hangout serving creative libations (the tiki cocktails are must-try) and tasty bites with a great sunset view.
Across from Alex&nder, tucked above Butchertown Grocery, is Lola, a discreet lounge where locals and tourists alike unwind over a nightcap. A combination of smooth music, dim mood lighting, and quirky seasonal beverages makes it one of the highlights of the trip.
In NuLu, or New Louisville, pop by the super chill Garage Bar, situated inside a former auto service garage, for a casual draft brew or bottled craft beer.
Where to Eat:
With delicious restaurants of all kinds, the city’s burgeoning foodie scene is brimming with casual-chic options. For breakfast, snag a flavorful, life-changing breakfast sandwich at Con Huevos Craves and indulge in comfort food at a cute little joint called Biscuit Belly.
Brunchers and lunchers will love Porch Kitchen & Bar’s southern-inspired menu, especially the savory Fried Chicken & Waffles and the sweet Lemon Buttermilk Pancakes. Coffee drinkers: their cocktail, The Irish Breakfast, is served with iced coffee balls for a caffeinated, yet boozy jolt.
Don’t leave Louisville without tasting an over-the-top burger at Mussel & Burger Bar, piled high with dreamy toppings, as well as the mouth-watering handmade pasta at Butchertown Grocery and its swanky upstairs venue, Lola.
What to Do:
Aboard the little green Bourbon City Cruiser, newbies will not only get a full lay of the land, but also countless fun facts about the city. It’s worth the ride just to scope out all of the playful street art and murals around town, and to step inside the majestic Brown Hotel, where the legendary Hot Brown sandwich was invented.
Named after the railroad that once ran across it, the revitalized Big Four Bridge is perfect for an outdoor stroll (Jeffersonville, Indiana or “Jeff” awaits you on the other side). At night, the bridge’s ironwork illuminates in vibrant colors spanning the rainbow.
Fans of the Kentucky Derby should sign up for a behind-the-scenes tour of the Churchill Downs to walk through the Millionaire’s Row, where Hollywood’s elite and the who’s who of society watch the races in May, and the locker room where the jockeys hang their colorful silks and prepare for victory. Tourists will also get an up close look at its famous Twin Spires.
Boxing enthusiasts and history buffs can spend an hour or two getting lost in the struggles and triumphs of Louisville’s hometown hero, Muhammad Ali, at the Muhammad Ali Center. His unique memorabilia on display is worth seeing.
Lined with charming shops, cafes, and bakeries, wandering the NuLu neighborhood is the best way to end a weekend adventure. Before you leave, swing by Please & Thank You for one of their coveted chocolate chip cookies.