Beyond the Bourbon: Expect the Unexpected From Louisville
If you’ve never been to Louisville, then the city might conjure up images of the Kentucky Derby, hot brown sandwiches and eponymous “Slugger” baseball bat. But in-the-know locals and visitors alike know that this Kentucky city on the Ohio River is more than just bourbon, fried food and horse racing — it’s also one of the best destinations in the country for award-winning arts and culture festivals, fine dining and one-of-a-kind accommodations. As it turns out, the only thing you can expect from a spirited destination like Louisville is the unexpected.
For those looking to further nurture their souls and expand their minds, the Humana Festival of New American Plays is held each spring at Louisville’s Actors Theatre, a National Historic Landmark originally built as the Old Bank of Louisville in 1837. Since 1976, the theatre has produced more than 300 Humana plays representing more than 200 playwrights; each year, the festival stages five new world premiere productions. Unlike other world-renowned theater festivals, the Humana Festival focuses on supporting and advancing contemporary playwrights who represent “the future of American theatre,” with an emphasis on elevating voices who use their work to address salient current issues like immigration, fat-shaming and race. The festival features full-length, one-act and monologue performances, and the 2020 event will take place March 1 to April 12.
Festival of New American Plays
Louisville also has an appreciation of visual arts, which the city celebrates at the free outdoor St. James Court Art Show. Held each year over the first weekend in October, the three-day event is held in the heart of the Old Louisville neighborhood, home to the largest contiguous collection of Victorian mansions in the United States. Against this historic backdrop, the event features more than 700 exhibitors and draws more than 100,000 attendees interested in viewing (and buying) jewelry, pottery, paintings, sculpture and other works of original art created by talented artists and artisans. In addition to offering a platform for creatives to share their work with the public, the St. James Court Art Show also gives back to the local community by awarding more than $50,000 in college scholarships to local high school seniors each year.
St. James Court Art Show
The spirit of giving is strong in Louisville, thanks to local icons like native Muhammad Ali. Besides being “The Greatest” boxer of all time, Ali was also a world-renowned humanitarian and philanthropist who dedicated his time and money to supporting people in need; Ali is believed to be personally responsible for feeding more than 22 million hungry people across the globe. At his core, Ali was a man who loved where he came from — and he never forgot about his Louisville roots. In 2017, the inaugural Ali Week was organized by the Muhammad Ali Center on the one-year anniversary of the hometown hero’s death. It included, poetry readings, bike rides, film screenings, carnivals and other events.
Ali Week has since become an annual festival designed to celebrate Ali’s life, legacy and six core principles of life: confidence, conviction, dedication, respect, giving and spirituality.
That’s because there’s always something unique happening in Louisville. Far more than just the legendary day at the races, the Kentucky Derby Festival takes place in the weeks leading up to the main event at various locations across the city. Designed to bring the Louisville community together in anticipation of the Kentucky Derby, the festival features a packed calendar of parades, air shows, balloon races, mini and full marathons and other activities for locals and tourists of all ages. Signature programs include Thunder Over Louisville, one of the largest annual fireworks displays in North America, and the Great Steamboat Race, featuring one of the oldest operating steamboats in the world, the Belle of Louisville. The festival concludes on the eve of the oldest continuously held major sporting event in North America which has also been nicknamed “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.”
KEntucky derby festival
With so much to do in Louisville, there will inevitably come a time when you need to refuel — and when you do, there’s more to try than the hot brown and Derby-Pie®. As the “Culinary Capital of Bourbon Country,” Louisville played a significant role in the development of New Southern Cuisine and has been called “one of the best foodie small towns in America” by Bon Appetit Magazine. With more than 2,500 restaurants and multiple James Beard Award nominees, Louisville is bursting with flavor— from prix-fixe tasting menus at
610 Magnolia to elevated Italian dishes at Volare, small plates at MilkWood, farm-to-table cuisine at Lilly’s and baked goods at Butchertown Bakery.
As a melting pot of people from different backgrounds, Louisville also offers a diverse range of restaurants offering authentic cultural cuisines, including Mayan cuisine at Mayan Cafe, Latin flavors at Seviche and Mexican breakfast foods at Con Huevos. For those looking to get both their food and drink on, New American restaurant Decca hosts live music in a cellar lounge, and the Urban Bourbon Trail features 46 different bars and restaurants where visitors can try bourbon flights, bourbon cocktails and bourbon-infused food dishes. Those interested in a deeper dive into the spirit-making process can sign up for distillery tours along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which includes six different stops in the Louisville area.
Savory dish at Volare
Behind the scenes at Seviche
A stop on the Urban Bourban Traill
After a long day of exploring (and eating your way through) Louisville, there’s no better way to end the day than by retiring to one of the city’s many memorable lodging options. Those looking to immerse themselves in a slice of Louisville history will love the Brown Hotel, opened in 1923 and home of the hot brown sandwich. The Seelbach Hilton Hotel opened in 1905 and is where F. Scott Fitzgerald met notorious bootlegger George Remus, who inspired the character Jay Gatsby from his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby. More eclectic accommodations are available at the 21c Museum Hotel, the brand’s flagship property featuring a free 24/7 on-site art gallery and 30-foot-tall golden replica of Michelangelo’s David statue out front.
As of February 2020, guests can also stay at the new 16-room Hancock House, located in a former grocery store originally built in 1865. Of course, those looking for the ultimate in Southern hospitality can find their home-away-from-home with Old Louisville Bed & Breakfasts, a collection of inns located in and around the historic city center. Built with Bourbon in mind (and heart), Hotel Distil offers a range of themed amenities, including a nightly 7:33pm (19:33 military time) toast in honor of the year Prohibition was repealed and an annual Repeal Day party. The Omni Louisville, named one of the best hotel resorts in 2018 by Forbes, features bourbon in every room as well as a speakeasy bowling alley and cozy library bar.
Main lobby at the Brown Hotel
Fallen Fruit exhibit at 21c Musuem Hotel
DuPont Mansion Bed & Breakfast
There’s more to Louisville than you think — and more to discover yet. Arts and culture festivals, fine dining and award-winning accommodations await. Find out more about this Kentucky city and how to book your next vacation to Louisville at LouisvilleIsAFestival.com.