Outdoor markets, warmly lit downtowns, cozy restaurants, cheerful locals... there is something special about American…
As the largest city in a state that prides itself on history and legacy, it’s no wonder there are so many unique things to do in Louisville, Kentucky.
Considered one of the oldest cities west of the Appalachians, Louisville has had over two centuries to cultivate a sort of strength and determination that is still seen and even tasted here today. The city has a number of claims to fame that even those the least familiar with it will recognize.
I’m talking about the Kentucky Derby (complete with the fantastic hats), everyone’s favorite, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and, for baseball fans, the famous Louisville slugger. Of course, I can’t forget its two most famous exports: bourbon and the one, the only, Muhammad Ali.
Kentuckians take great pride in Louisville and its continued place in the great story of the American spirit. There’s so much to do and see whether you’re coming solo, with friends, with a loved one, or even with kids. Just book yourself a weekend getaway and follow this guide to fully enjoy all the unique and interesting things Derby City has to offer!
Unique Things to Do in Louisville, Kentucky
1. Discover Bourbon Country
With a name that comes from France and a flavor developed by the Scotch-Irish settling further west, bourbon truly is a Kentucky-born product. Back then, unable to find the ingredients they normally used to distill whiskey, settlers turned to corn and delightedly discovered a sweeter taste. This key change along with the natural, limestone-filtered water only found in Kentucky, developed a drink that thrives even today.
There are, of course, a lot of places to visit along the Bourbon Trail, which includes Louisville and goes out to Bourbon County. However, the first place on your tour should be, without a doubt, Buffalo Trace Distillery. With a history going back over two centuries, it’s considered the oldest, continuously operating distillery in the country. It even made it through Prohibition! Of course, this was only for medicinal purposes.
When you visit, request a tour with the incredible Freddie Johnson. He’s a third-generation employee who has memories of Buffalo Trace going back to his early childhood.
Another area to visit near Louisville is the small town of Bardstown, a place where you can quite literally smell the bourbon on the streets. If California wine has Napa Valley, Kentucky bourbon has Bardstown. Head into The Bardstown Bourbon Company for an immersive distilling experience and stay to dine at their full-service restaurant.
If you want to stay in Louisville itself, then check out Bourbon Bistro, which offers up over 130 bourbons at their bar as well as a seasonal, locally-sourced menu to complement your drink.
2. Visit the Giant Wooden Sculptures at Bernheim
At first glance, it might not make much sense that a Danish recycle art activist would choose a Kentucky forest to house three of his wooden creations. However, if you dig a little into Bernheim’s history, you’ll discover it’s actually the perfect match.
Back in 1929, a German immigrant and businessman, Isaac W. Bernheim, bought over 16,000 acres of land to endow to the people of Kentucky. After immigrating in 1867 with a measly $4, he struggled for years trying to make a living around the Northeast. It was only when he made the move to Kentucky that he found success in the bourbon industry with the Bernheim Brothers Distilling Company and I.W. Harper.
To show his gratitude to the place he now considered home, Bernheim wanted this newly purchased land to act as both an arboretum as well as a natural forest with art sprinkled around. His goal was to provide a place that would both renew and restore the bond between people and nature.
Over two decades later, the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest opened to the public. It has since seen visitors from all over the world come to walk the 35 miles of trails, enjoy the new art installations, and reconnect with nature.
Three of the most famous of these art installations, as mentioned above, are collectively known as the Forest Giants in a Giant Forest. While photographs can capture the whimsical nature of Mama Loumari, Little Nis, and Little Elina, nothing quite compares to seeing them in person. In order to make these giants, aforementioned Danish artist, Thomas Dambo used recycled palettes from local companies as well as recycled barrels that were once used in making bourbon. In order to see all three giants, you just need to follow an easy two-mile loop.
After you’ve visited the Forest Giants, I also highly recommend making time to see the Jayson Fann’s 25-foot tall Spirit Nest. It’s one of fifty spread out around the world, and you can climb up and imagine yourself as a bird coming back to its home. This nest, designed in a golden ratio using fallen trees and branches, is more than a fun experience. It allows the visitor to feel the comfort that a nest provides for birds – a sort of shelter and place to feel protected.
3. Learn about the Local Stoneware
If you’re looking to do some shopping in Louisville, you’ll find nothing more special than a handcrafted item from Stoneware & Co. Pair your browsing with a factory tour so you can see just how special one of the last great pottery companies in America creates its masterpieces.
Instead of finding huge mechanical machines, you’ll find craftsmen skillfully transforming clay into works of art, using the knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation. On my trip, I met with master mold maker, Ngoc Phan, who’s been working at Stoneware for forty years after coming to the United States following the Fall of Saigon in 1975.
You can also get more hands-on and join one of Stoneware’s interactive workshops — either Handprint Memories or Paint Your Own Pottery.
4. Visit Retired and Rescued Horses
If you asked Michael Blowen, former movie critic for the Boston Globe, how he’d review his life story should it be turned into a film, he’d scoff and say, “I’d write it seems too sappy!” But sometimes truth is better than fiction. And there is nothing more beautiful than the way this Bostonian fell in love with Louisville and the many racehorses he encountered here.
As a fan of drinking and gambling at horse racing tracks, Blowen’s motivation for learning more about horses was purely monetary. He just wanted to see if he could improve the chances of winning his bets! However, as he learned more about these famous equine athletes, he soon realized an uncomfortable truth to his favorite pastime. When he began asking what happens after his favorite racehorses were reading to retire, he got a very vague answer. People would tell him the horses would “find homes in Maine” much like you might tell your young child his dog went to live on a farm.
After learning about this cruel fate, Blowen began to plant the seeds of Old Friends Equine, a sanctuary for retired thoroughbreds who deserve a safe, dignified retirement. Today it houses 136 horses and welcomes visitors from all over to come and meet their favorite racehorses up close. All you need to do is book a tour!
5. “Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee”
By far one of the most unique things to do in Louisville, Kentucky is to visit the Muhammad Ali Center. Nicknamed “The Greatest,” he truly was one of the most influential and well-known athletes of all time. Despite the fact that Ali was revered around the world and could have chosen to build this center anywhere, he returned to his roots and chose the place where it all began.
This interactive center is dedicated to his larger-than-life career and hopes to inspire visitors with Ali’s many accomplishments both inside and outside of the ring. He was still alive when the museum was being built and had a hand in designing its mission to encourage visitors to be the best versions of themselves that they can be.
Not only can you learn more about Ali’s life, both the beautiful and the ugly, there are also a number of fun exhibits all around to let you test your own boxing skills. Whether it’s learning virtually from his daughter, Laila Ali, who also became a professional boxer, or doing a 21st-century version of shadowboxing, the center really allows you to imagine yourself floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, just like him.
As you can see, there truly is something so unique about Louisville and Kentucky. This is a place where you can literally taste the strength of its history in a drink. Discovering a culture where everyone is linked to everyone else, whether they’ve been here for centuries or moved here on a whim is why we loved visiting this city for ourselves.