On the first Saturday in May, tradition finds the world turning its attention to Churchill Downs for the pageantry of the Kentucky Derby.
But, Louisville is so much more than the Derby. And with this year’s event rescheduled for September 5th, there’s never been a better opportunity to highlight the wide-ranging gems throughout this southern city. We checked in with Louisville-based travel advisor Erin Trager Kusman – momma of twins, avid runner and equally dedicated foodie – and her right hand, Taylor Cremo, to round up their tried and true local favorites.
21 C Museum Hotel Louisville: Swanky, provocative and chic with art around every corner, 21c makes you feel completely removed from the city outside its walls (in a good way). Its minimal and modern design is the perfect backdrop for the surprising art scattered throughout the hotel. From the award-winning restaurant and bar to the gallery space and interactive art, you could spend a weekend here without leaving the hotel.
Omni Louisville Hotel: Nestled in the heart of downtown, the Omni arrived to the scene in 2018, mixing Louisville hospitality with luxe modernity. Walking its expansive footprint, you’ll find a refined leather-clad library bar, an exclusive bourbon tasting room, a classic steak house, a rooftop pool, the Mokara Spa, a food hall, and even stumble into a speakeasy-style bowling alley, Pin & Proof.
Hermitage Farm: This five-bedroom a historic home on a thoroughbred horse farm will be the city’s newest product upon opening in mere months. A legacy project for 21c founders Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, the site includes a bourbon lounge, a direct farm-to-table restaurant, and the exceptional modern art we’ve all come to expect.
Bernheim and Yew Dell Gardens: Kentucky is the land of limestone, which lends to great bourbon, and even greater waterways, rolling hills and steep cliffs for climbing. If you don’t have time to make it out to a state park, Bernheim Arboretum and the Yew Dell Gardens host well-marked trails with exceptional lookouts educational centers, at only 30 minutes away from downtown.
Speed Art Museum: A stunning glass structure in the middle of the University of Louisville’s campus, you’ll find Dali to Degas, and a killer cinema schedule to boot. If you happen to visit on a third Friday, “After Hours at the Speed” boasts special exhibit activities, performances, a themed menu and bar, and always a silent disco.
Portland Museum: Located on the west side of Louisville, this charming museum highlights the heritage and communities that make-up Louisville, engaging you in exploration.
Rent a bike: Visit the lush parks and neighborhoods with a rented bicycle! From Cherokee Park – designed by Olmsted of Central Park – you can ride through the streets of the Highland neighborhoods even to Old Louisville, taking in all the charm of renovated mansions and their carriage houses.
Night Racing at the track: Check out the Churchill Downs calendar to catch the thrill of the race with none of the crowds.
The Kentucky Derby Festival is heralded as a “two-week party for the fastest two minutes in sports” including Oaks, Thurby, a parade, and even a day off of school for the kids! The true local experience comes from attending one of the house parties hosted all over the city. But no matter where you celebrate, months of preparation go into custom Derby Hats and showy outfits. Don’t be afraid of color when picking out your Derby look – men are breaking out the patterns too!
While Derby is Louisville’s big holiday, horse-racing doesn’t stop there! With Oaks the day before, and “Thurby“ before that, there are ample opportunities to don a hat and place your bets!
For Derby Day, there are many seating options at the track and where you sit will greatly impact not just your view of the race but the vibe of your day. The infield is notorious for turning into a mudbath – rain or shine – so enter at your own risk. The 300 level boxes are thought to be some of the best seats in the house if you want cover (rain is notorious on Derby day!) but to still be in the mix for the wonderful people and hat watching. And of course, you’ll have stellar views of the track if you remember to watch the racing! Boxes seat six people and are truly just marked off blocks of concrete above the grandstand with six folding chairs – all part of the experience.
Pick your horses the night before. This will help expedite placing your bets upon arrival. Make sure you file your tickets safely away in your wallet for later reference!
Don’t forget, it’s “Lou-a-vul”, not “Lou-is-ville”. If you want to fit in, proudly use your best country accent and pronounce it like the locals do.
Classic Mint Julep
Of course, the traditional drink of the Derby is the mint julep, and over 120,000 are said to be consumed at the race each year. Here’s the classic recipe.
.5oz simple syrup
8 mint leaves plus a sprig
Add mint and simple to glass and gently muddle. Add the bourbon and enough crushed ice to fill the glass 3/4 of the way up, then swizzle your ingredients! Fill glass the rest of the way up with crushed ice and insert straw and mint sprig.
Bourbon distilleries have come back to downtown’s historic Whiskey Row, gentrification is preserving its oldest neighborhood and reviving another industrial pocket. A recent trend finds distilleries with their main locations out in the gorgeous rolling hills on the “Bourbon Trail” and bringing smaller interactive spaces into the city center.
Quills Firehouse: To kick off your day with some morning espresso, this nationally recognized roaster is right downtown in a renovated Fire station. Find a seat in the backyard for a true reprieve.
Angel’s Envy: Once you’re ready to shift to something strong, Angel’s Envy is located right next to Louisville’s Slugger Field. They offer one of the best Louisville tours where at the end, you get access the upstairs bar (with a cocktail!) which is not open to the public.
Rabbit Hole Distillery: This spot takes distilling into the new age, where there’s no going back once you fall! In addition to the copper stills, the modern architecture houses, modern American art and mid-century style tasting room.
Hell or Highwater: When you make a reservation here (a must), request the library room. Upon arrival, look for the brightly-lit closet-sized room on Whiskey Row, from there you’ll be led to the velvet-clad, dimly lit speakeasy.
Expo: A brand new bar with an unsuspecting atmosphere, this dive does everything: high-class high ball drinks to a concoction you take with a special “berry” dreamt up by the well-traveled staff. If you go in the evening, expect locals and black lights.
Castle and Key: After a long renovation, the beautiful grounds and European-esque buildings of Castle and Key are open for touring. Choose from five different personalized, sensory experiences that set it apart beyond the typical Kentucky gin and vodka offerings!
Alex&er: A cocktail bar that toes the line between funky and serious with incredible city views. It happens to be in yet another distillery, but this time a brandy, gin, and absinthe distillery to expand the palette!
Nouvelle: If you’re looking for a bourbon break, the seriously knowledgable staff and surrounding gardens at Nouvelle are your respite. Wine up and wind down, right in the city.
The Champagnery: If bubbles are what you’re after, sip on a bottle here in a bright, almost pearlescent atmosphere. Call ahead and see about live music for the perfect experience!
Galaxie: For your spicy margarita pick-me-up, look no further. In the summertime, follow the locals through the back to an outdoor DJ set for late-night dancing. (beware: Louisville bars are open until 4am!)
Blue Dog: The ultimate brunch spot to see and be seen, you’ll feel like a true local here. The real stars on the menu are their flaky European-style pastries and artisan bread.
Red Hog: Walk down the street to from Blue Dog to this sister location, where they exchange ovens for an open flame. They also have a butcher shop with delicious to-go items.
Rye: This is your spot for elevated new American dishes in the perfect rustic-meets-contemporary setting. A bar seat is one of the best in the house, as you’ll get to watch the dance of experienced bartenders mixing the unexpected.
610 Magnolia: Famed Chef Edward Lee’s 610 Magnolia is a world-class culinary experience housed in the historic Old Louisville neighborhood. The locally sourced prix fixe menu changes weekly, making it a stop for each visit.
Decca: Louisvillians know her talent, but for those that don’t, know that the executive chef Annie Pettry was a Top Chef candidate, and in addition to crafting delectable dishes, she’s created a moody, unpretentious downstairs cellar with jazz each Monday.
Gralehaus and Holy Grale: Cafe in the front and party in the back, with a beer garden in between. In this tiny restored 1905 church, you’ll find craft and European beers alongside gastropub fare, and the most knowledgeable bartenders. Find a spot to sit in the choir loft. If you visit during summer, be sure to check if Sunner nights are happening!
Feast BBQ: There’s a line out the door for a reason. Don’t forget to add a bourbon slushie!
Please & Thank You: Voted “best chocolate chip cookie” by just about everyone who walks in the door, you have to stop here when in town.
Mozza Pi: A quick jaunt outside of the city will bring you to the charming neighborhood of Anchorage where a meticulously restored barn houses a serious wood-fired oven for perfectly charred pies.
Mayan Cafe: A long-standing local favorite for authentic, seasonal Mayan food. Grab a table outside to watch the passerby’s on this boutique shopping street, and please order the lima beans. You won’t regret it!
Barn8 at Hermitage Farms: Set to open soon, this highly anticipated spot will be the pinnacle of farm-to-table, with organic and local (like just-down-the-dirt-lane local) ingredients.