The largest city in Kentucky, Louisville has long been a place of historic importance. A shipping center during the heyday of river and rail transportation, its forts were key to the Union Army's operations during the Civil War. Nowadays its importance is even more action-packed: tour the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory for insight into the massive baseball industry here, pay a visit to the Kentucky Derby ground or keep up with the kids as they race for the rides at Kentucky Kingdom. Culture vultures need not fear either, as the center itself owns a healthy portion of theaters showing Broadway hits, impressive New York-style cast-iron architecture, and plenty of establishments selling smooth Kentucky bourbon.
Churchill Downs, which hosts the Kentucky Derby, is one of the most famous racetracks on the planet. It debuted in 1875 and can hold as many as 120,000 spectators. Even if there's no race taking place when you visit, you can tour the grounds and explore the Kentucky Derby Museum. With vintage racing films, trophies and hats galore, you can ride mechanical horses, play trivia games and even pretend you're a star jockey with a photo in the Winner's Circle.
The privately-owned, 100-acre Louisville Mega Cavern is a quarry that would have served as a bunker for 50,000 people in the event of a Cold War nuclear attack. Today, it's an underground playground featuring six zip-lines, a ropes course, a tram ride and a restaurant.
The downtown Muhammad Ali Center is a museum and educational facility that tells the compelling life story of the boxing great and Louisville native through movies, art galleries and various relics. There's great emphasis on charity work and world peace in the vibe here, and don’t forget to check out the amphitheater and sculpted plaza overlooking the Ohio River.
The Kentucky Derby, the first race of the U.S. Triple Crown, takes place each year on the first Saturday of May, but Louisville's residents start celebrating it two weeks ahead of time. The Kentucky Derby Festival kicks off with one of the biggest fireworks shows in North America, and it continues with marathons, steamboat and hot-air-balloon races, sedate wine tastings, and massive parades on Louisville's own version of Broadway.
If any Louisville tradition can rival the Kentucky Derby Festival in size and scope, it's the 520-acre Kentucky State Fair, which rages for 11 days in August at the Kentucky Exposition Center. This family-friendly event boasts whirling, scream-inducing rides as well as an exhausting line-up of agricultural displays, acrobats, jugglers, trained dogs, balloon artists and the Kentucky State Fair World Championship Horse Show, which is an elite equestrian competition that draws horses and riders from across the globe. Altogether, this fair attracts around 600,000 visitors every year.
Getting to Louisville is relatively simple. You can enter the city on one of three interstates: 64, 65 and 71. Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains take passengers in to the station on W Muhammad Ali Boulevard, roughly five blocks south of the river.
Louisville International Airport (SDF) is 10 minutes by car from the city's downtown, or you can easily catch a taxi or public bus. For flying visits, plenty of Louisville hotels are in close proximity to the airport, including the Galt House Hotel, with its must-see revolving restaurant, or the Marriott Louisville Downtown.