One of the oldest cities west of the Appalachian Mountains, Louisville, Kentucky, has a rich history and culture. Louisville owes its beginning to geology. The third-largest river in the United States – the Ohio – has only one barrier to navigation between its origins at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers near Pittsburgh to its merger with the Mississippi.
That barrier, the Falls of the Ohio, is a 26-foot drop of the river level over a distance of two miles caused by erosion of the river’s limestone bed. Since boats of the 18th and early 19th centuries could not navigate a fall of that magnitude, cargo had to be portaged around the falls. It was only natural that a town would spring up at that point to serve those who moved cargo and the riverboat men waiting for their boat to be loaded or unloaded.
General George Rogers Clark established the first white settlement in the area in 1778. By 1780, Louisville – then still part of Kentucky County, Virginia – had grown sufficiently to be chartered as a city. Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson signed that charter on May 1, 1780. Kentucky County split off from Virginia as a separate state 12 years later.
Thoroughbred horse breeding is one of the great industries in Kentucky. Most of the major horse ranches are located near Lexington, about 70 miles east of Louisville.
But Louisville is home to Churchill Downs, site of the “greatest two minutes in sport” – the Kentucky Derby. Although the Derby occurs on the first Saturday in May, there are spring and fall meets where you can experience horse racing at the world’s most iconic race track. And the best part of the ‘off-season’ is that admission is very reasonable.
Churchill Downs, located at 700 Central Ave., also houses the Kentucky Derby Museum, with memorabilia dating back to the first Derby in 1875.
Kentucky is known worldwide for the bourbon whiskey it produces. Visitors can see smaller distilleries in operation within the city of Louisville. Still, a short drive can take you to major distilling operations such as Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Heaven Hill, Four Roses, and Woodford Reserve.
Even if you aren’t a bourbon drinker, the process of making the iconic alcoholic beverage is interesting to watch. And you will learn why it is said that “All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.”
Distilleries in Louisville
- Evan Williams Experience
- Old Forester
- Angels’ Envy
- Rabbit Hole
- Kentucky Peerless
Muhammad Ali Center
One of the greatest boxers who ever lived, Muhammad Ali was born and raised in Louisville, as Cassius Clay Jr. His boyhood home at 3302 Grand Avenue in Louisville’s West End houses a small museum. But the real tribute to Ali’s boxing and philanthropic careers is the Muhammad Ali Center, located at 144 N 6th St.
The center hosts numerous permanent exhibits documenting Ali’s life. Additionally, temporary exhibits highlight specific events.
On a side note, as an 18-year-old amateur boxer, the then-Cassius Clay won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Italy. Louisville was a very racially segregated city at that time. When Clay returned home, a downtown restaurant denied him service because of his race.
Frustrated, he went to the George Rogers Clark Bridge, also called the Second Street Bridge, about four blocks from the Ali Center’s current location. There, he threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River – a symbolic reaction to the dichotomy of being a national sports hero and being ‘just another Black man’ in America. The International Olympic Committee later replaced the medal.
KFC YUM! Center Arena
The KFC YUM! Center Arena is a 22,000 seat entertainment venue located at 201 W. Main St in downtown Louisville. The YUM! Center, as it’s locally known, is situated on the south bank of the Ohio River. The glass north wall of the upper floors offers a spectacular view.
The YUM! Center is primarily the home of the University of Louisville basketball teams – men and women. However, it is not part of the university that is located about three miles south. It is also the area’s primary concert venue. Click on the link above for the latest schedules.
Louisville Slugger Museum
While in the downtown area, be sure to stop by the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum. Located at 734 w. Main St., the factory manufactures the famous Louisville Slugger baseball bats. The factory hosts regular guided tours demonstrating the process of creating unique wooden baseball bats.
The adjacent museum is a cornucopia of baseball history – a must-see for any baseball fan. Access to the museum is included in the factory tour price.
The factory and museum are easily located, even without the address. Just look for the 120 foot-long baseball bat resting against an adjacent building.
Belle of Louisville
The Belle, anchored on the Ohio River Waterfront near the north end of 4th Street, is the oldest operating Mississippi River-style steamboat in the world. Originally launched as a commercial riverboat called the Idlewild in 1914, the boat plied the river trade on the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers. In 1934, the boat docked in Louisville and remained in port at the city through World War II.
During the war years, the Idlewild offered dinner cruises on the Ohio River and raised money for USO efforts. In 1948, the boat was renamed the Avalon, granting a death-bed wish of its longtime captain. In 1962, the boat was for sale and was purchased by the Jefferson County government. It was then renamed the Belle of Louisville.
After a year-long restoration effort, the Belle began offering dinner and sightseeing cruises on the river. 1963 also saw the first Great Ohio Steamboat Race, an annual event where the Belle competes with the Cincinnati-owned riverboat Delta Queen in a race on the Ohio River.
A river cruise on the Belle is a great way to see one of the great waterways of the United States and to experience travel as it was 150 years ago.
Speed Art Museum
The Speed Art Museum, located on the campus of the University of Louisville at 2035 S. Third St, houses myriad collections of all different varieties of art. From paintings to sculpture – contemporary to ancient, the Speed – as it is known locally – has something for everyone.
Additionally, the Speed serves as an event venue. Several people I know have held their wedding receptions in the Speed.
Bardstown Road – Highlands
Louisville has many great nightlife spots, including downtown’s Fourth Street Live. But the most iconic is Louisville’s answer to SOHO – the Bardstown Road area of the Highlands neighborhood.
Many of Louisville’s most iconic restaurants are located on or near Bardstown Road. It also features many unique shops and boutiques. It is also a great area for simply watching people.
Louisville is home to a large number of great eating spots. It is said that Louisville has more restaurants per capita than any other major city. I don’t know if that’s true, but Louisvillians eat out a lot. While this list might not be as useful as it could be for visitors at any other time due to pandemic restrictions, I hope that most of these places will open again soon.
Of course, there are numerous chain restaurants, but Louisville also has some great local eateries. A few of my favorites are:
Doc Crows (127 W. Main St)
Doc Crows is a staple of the downtown area and conveniently located less than ½ block from the KFC YUM! Center Arena. They bill themselves as a “southern smokehouse & raw bar.” I particularly like their shrimp po’boy sandwich and their brisket.
Hammerheads (921 Swan St)
Hammerheads is located in the Germantown neighborhood, east of downtown. Some people are taken aback by Hammerhead’s appearance. It is located in the walk-out basement of a house in the middle of a neighborhood. But reviews speak to the friendly service and great food.
They feature a sandwich fare focused primarily on burgers. However, in addition to traditional beef burgers, they also have burgers of pork belly and elk. They also feature beef brisket, catfish, roasted duck, and pulled pork sandwiches.
The Café (711 Brent St)
Also located in the Germantown area, The Café is another of my favorite places. Named one of the “Must Try Breakfast and Brunch Spots Around Louisville,” it is sometimes difficult to get a seat. That’s especially true during the lunch hour. However, the wait is worth it. I haven’t had a bad meal there, and the staff is super friendly.
Mark’s Feed Store (11422 Shelbyville Rd)
If you like Southern BBQ, Mark’s Feed Store is the place to go. There are three locations in Louisville. The original location in the Highlands neighborhood is small and can be crowded, but the other two are larger. My favorite is in the Middletown area, but there is also a southwest location at 10316 Dixie Hwy.
Both their brisket and pork BBQ are great. This is not a fancy restaurant – expect paper towel napkins and butcher paper table coverings – but it’s a true BBQ experience. And unlike many such restaurants, they offer both Texas and Carolina style BBQ.
Mussel and Burger Bar (9200 Taylorsville Rd)
Just as the name says, Mussel and Burger Bar features seafood and burgers. But they are not just any burger. My favorite is the “Italian Job”: Taleggio cheese, caramelized onions, balsamic glaze, house mixed greens, crispy Prosciutto, sweet pickled peppers, and oven-roasted tomatoes on the burger.
They have regular hamburgers but also surprises like foie gras, chorizo, and seafood burgers.
My favorite location is in suburban Jeffersontown, but there is also a location downtown at 113 S. 7th St.
Befitting its heritage, Louisville is replete with historical locations. Some of my favorites are:
Abraham Lincoln’s Grandfather
In May 1786, Captain Abraham Linkhorn was murdered near his home by members of the Shawnee tribe. A Shawnee also began carrying away his son, 8-year-old Thomas. The oldest son, 16-year-old Malachi, killed the Shawnee with a rifle shot, thus saving his brother’s life. Thomas grew up to father Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States.
The captain used the Germanic spelling of the family name – Linkhorn. When Thomas grew to adulthood, he adopted the Anglicized spelling – Lincoln.
Captain Linkhorn’s wife and sons buried his body on his cabin’s south side. The grave’s exact location is now unknown, but a stone memorializing Captain Abraham Linkhorn was placed in the approximate location of his grave in 1937. The Linkhorn homestead is now the Long Run Cemetery, located about 22 miles east of downtown Louisville, at 16106 Old Stage Coach Rd.
I make it a point to take everyone who visits me in Louisville to this site. Most people have never heard of this saga of American history.
Shortly after the Revolutionary War, Virginia Militia Colonel Richard Anderson established a homestead called Soldier’s Retreat east of Louisville. His son, Robert Anderson, was born on the homestead in 1805. A graduate of West Point, Robert Anderson served as the commander of the Illinois Militia in 1832. In that position, he mustered in a young lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, as a captain in the militia to fight in the Blackhawk War.
Later rejoining the U.S. Army, he commanded a small fort in Charleston harbor called Fort Sumter, the site of the first shots of the Civil War in 1861. Major Robert Anderson took possession of the fort’s flag upon surrendering to the Confederates.
Four years later, to the day – April 14, 1865, then Brigadier General Anderson hoisted the same flag over Fort Sumter. However, President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination later that evening overshadowed the event’s historic nature.
Soldier’s Retreat, now within Louisville’s city limits, is located at 848 S. Hurstbourne Parkway.
Zachary Taylor National Cemetery and Home
Zachary Taylor – “Old Rough and Ready” – the 12th President of the United States, was born in Virginia in 1784. His family relocated to Louisville in the late 1780s, and his father built a brick home he called Springfield in 1790. That house, where Taylor lived for almost 20 years, is still occupied. It is privately owned and not open to the public. However, it is not uncommon for visitors to drive by the house, located at 5608 Apache Rd.
Taylor, a career soldier commissioned in 1808, returned to Springfield several times over the years until 1829. That year, his father died, and the family had to sell the house to pay off debts. However, the family retained possession of the family cemetery behind the house.
In time, that grew to what is now the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. Located at 4701 Brownsboro Rd, the National Cemetery still contains the Taylor family plots. Zachary Taylor and several members of his family are buried there. A monument to Taylor marks the family area.
Taylor’s Daughter Weds
On a side note, Taylor returned to Louisville in 1835 for the wedding of his daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor. She married a young army lieutenant who had served under Taylor, Jefferson Davis. Davis would later serve as the president of the Confederate States of America. Since Taylor no longer had a home in Louisville, the wedding took place at his sister’s home on June 17, 1835. That house burned in later years but a new structure replaced it. Interestingly, in light of Davis’ later life, the wedding site has a memorable current address – 2 Rebel Rd.
Sarah Davis contracted either malaria or yellow fever after the wedding during a visit to Louisiana. She died on September 15, 1835 – only three months after her wedding. Her death devastated Jefferson Davis. When he married Varena Banks Howell on February 2, 1845, he insisted that part of their honeymoon include a visit to Sarah’s grave.
In 1866-67, 19-year-old Thomas Alva Edison lived on the left side of a shotgun duplex at 729 E. Washington St in Louisville. Each day, he walked to his job as a Western Union telegraph operator at 1st & Main St. The location is currently the site of an Aloft Hotel. (Some entries state that the Western Union office was at 2nd and Main St, the current site of the KFC YUM! Center Arena, but that is unlikely.)
On his lunch breaks, he liked to experiment with new inventions. In 1867, Western Union fired him after he spilled some sulfuric acid, which dripped through the floor and onto his boss’s desk. He never returned to Louisville.
There is some question whether the house at 729 E. Washington is actually where Edison lived, but it is certain that he lived in a shotgun duplex in that neighborhood. The house houses a small museum with several Edison inventions on display.
Have you visited Louisville? If so, what were some of your favorite spots?
Tell us in the comments below.