Home of the world’s greatest horse race (the Kentucky Derby), the world’s biggest baseball bat (a 120-foot-tall Louisville Slugger), and the man who was simply “The Greatest” (boxer Muhammad Ali, who grew up here, and whose life and times are featured in a riverfront museum), Louisville (pronounced “LOO-a-vil”) is a characterful midsize city on the south bank of the Ohio River. During Kentucky Derby week, the mint julep-fueled party leading up to the first Saturday in May, the whole city comes alive, but Louisville is an enjoyable place to explore any time of year.
Within a short walk of the Muhammad Ali Museum (144 N. 6th St., 502/584-9254, Tues.-Sun., $12) is another of the country’s top pop-culture destinations: the Louisville Slugger Museum (800 W. Main St., 502/588-7228 or 877/775-8443, daily, $14), marked by that giant baseball bat and full of memorabilia on big hitters from Babe Ruth to Hank Aaron. Thanks to the Louisville Slugger connection, the local baseball team is called the Louisville Bats (401 E. Main St., 502/212-2287), a Triple-A farm club for the Cincinnati Reds. Games are broadcast on WKRD 790 AM. The Bats play at Louisville Slugger Field, right downtown. It’s across from the 85-acre Waterfront Park, which has an authentic 100-year-old steam-powered paddlewheel riverboat (502/574-2992, $15-43). From here, the newly restored “Big Four” railroad bridge reaches across the Ohio River to the historic town of Jeffersonville, Indiana.
Louisville has managed to preserve a great number of its fine old homes. Unusual brick-built mansions from the 1870s now form the heart of the Old Louisville neighborhood, south of downtown along 4th Street, near the expansive University of Louisville campus. Around the historic and lushly landscaped Cave Hill cemetery (701 Baxter Ave., 502/451-5630, free), southeast of downtown, you can pay your respects to diverse luminaries, including frontier soldier George Rogers Clark, early settler George Keats (brother of the English poet John Keats), and Kentucky’s chicken-frying “Colonel” Harland Sanders.
Adventurous eaters will be rewarded with lots of good food all over Louisville. If you want a sure thing, head three miles east of downtown via old US-60 to Momma’s Mustard, Pickles & BBQ (102 Bauer Ave., 502/938-6262), for authentic smoked beef brisket, pork ribs, creamy mac ’n’ cheese, and health-restoring side dishes (green beans, cole slaw—you name it).
Outside Louisville, along US-31 about 30 miles to the southwest, you can cruise past another icon, Fort Knox, and dream about the 10 million pounds of pure gold locked inside.