Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to one day in Louisville! When people talk about the loveliest and most genteel Southern cities, they usually bring up places like New Orleans, Louisiana, Charleston, South Carolina, or Savannah, Georgia. But I am amazed that more people don’t name Louisville, Kentucky as their favorite Southern city.
After all, Louisville is famous for that most genteel and lovely of Southern sporting events, the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Join me for one day in Louisville, and we will try on silly hats at the Churchill Downs Museum gift shop, swing a Slugger, and swill some bourbon. We might even meet a celebrity!
One Day in Louisville
Where to Stay?
Louisville is a fairly spread out city with attractions in many different neighborhoods. But I still found that the best neighborhood to stay in, both in terms of restaurants and attractions, was Downtown Louisville. That’s why I chose to stay in the Hyatt Regency Louisville.
It was right in Downtown Louisville near all the major attractions like the Louisville Slugger Museum and the Muhammad Ali Center. The rooms were huge and comfy, but it was still affordable. Plus they have citrus water all the time in the lobby, which always makes me feel like a Fancy Lady. I’d definitely stay there again.
One Day in Louisville
What to Pack?
You’ll need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do today. If it’s summertime, I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
Louisville can get very hot, so don’t forget the sunscreen. My favorite is the Neutrogena spray bottle because it’s so easy to apply. And as a solo traveler, I can actually use it myself on my own back. I just put it in my purse and re-apply throughout the day.
Finally, since we’re going to be out all day, you’ll want a battery for your cell phone. I always use the Anker charger. It’s light enough to fit in even a small purse. Plus the Anker lasts for several full charges of a phone, so I’ll never run out of juice!
One Day in Louisville
Morning: Churchill Downs
Going to Louisville without visiting Churchill Downs is like going to the moon and not eating any green cheese. Why would you even want to do that? Churchill Downs is the racetrack where the world’s most famous horse race, The Kentucky Derby, takes place every year in May. I first learned about the Kentucky Derby at the tender age of five, which was the first time my father took me to an OTB to place a bet on the ponies. (I had a weird childhood.)
However, even if you don’t like horse racing, bourbon, or gambling, there will be something for you to enjoy at Churchill Downs and its Kentucky Derby museum. (Although if you don’t enjoy horse racing, bourbon, or gambling, I’m not sure you are a trustworthy person, Internet Stranger!) So on your mark, get set, and we’re off to Churchill Downs! But first, breakfast!
24 hour treat: breakfast at Wagner’s Pharmacy
Just as no trip to Louisville is complete without a stop at Churchill Downs, no trip to Churchill Downs is complete without a stop at Wagner’s Pharmacy. Wagner’s has been serving coffee to the horsemen of Churchill Downs since the 1920s. It is a seriously old school diner. You get packets of creamer with your coffee, you pay in cash, and nobody is going to smile at you. But despite those quirks, it’s worth it to grab breakfast here to be a part of Derby history.
Also, lest you think I’m sending you to some mediocre tourist trap, please know that the bacon is rich and crispy, and the biscuits are some of the best biscuits I’ve ever tasted in my life. (My family has lived in the South since before the Revolution, so I know from biscuits.) The whole thing will set you back about 8 dollars, which is excellent value for a full breakfast in Louisville.
Now that I’ve fed you, we are literally off to the races! Allow me to share with the Derby newbies…
three fun facts about Churchill Downs
1) It’s all about the hat
One of my favorite traditions at Churchill Downs is the amazing hats that the ladies of Louisville don every Derby Day. The Kentucky Derby museum located at Churchill Downs has an astonishing collection of some of the most famous Kentucky Derby toppers.
You can find anything from hats by “milliner to the royals” Philip Treacy to homemade wonders like the one pictured above. I love how this combines horses, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and bourbon into one magical creation. Demented!
One pattern you’ll notice is that the color red or red roses feature in many of the Derby hats. That’s because the winner of the Kentucky Derby is presented with a garland of roses at the end. For this reason, the Derby is often called “The Run for the Roses”. I personally bought a red fascinator at the Kentucky Derby store that looks like its topped with roses, and I have since worn it…exactly never.
2) She Bop
As I mentioned, my father first introduced me to the wonders of the Kentucky Derby when I was in kindergarten. I was excited to be allowed to place a bet on my very first pony. Of course, I only choose ponies based on random feelings and illogic, so it didn’t take me long to place my bet on a horse named Winning Colors.
First of all, Winning Colors sounds like “True Colors”, which was my favorite Cyndi Lauper song. And more importantly, Winning Colors was a filly! She was the only filly in the Derby, and only two other female horses had ever won the big race. I really wanted her to stick it to those macho horses.
It was a happy day in my household when Winning Colors crossed the finish line first, making her the third (and to date, last) filly to win the Run for the Roses. I made a decent amount of money off my two dollar bet for a five year old. (Also please watch this footage of Winning Colors winning the Derby if you enjoy beautiful horses and happy crying. Girls run the world!)
3) For My Old Kentucky Home
Aside from hats and drinking mint juleps, the tradition most associated with the Kentucky Derby is the playing of the Kentucky state song, “My Old Kentucky Home” before the race begins at Churchill Downs. This song was written in 1853, by Stephen Foster, who was probably the most popular American songwriter of the 19th century. Many people think he was Southern, but he was actually from Pennsylvania and never lived in the South.
“My Old Kentucky Home” came about because the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin inspired Foster to write a song from the point of view of an enslaved person. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass praised the song for creating sympathy for enslaved people at a time when slavery was still legal in much of the country.
Nowadays some people forget that the narrator of the song is an enslaved person, and they think it’s some sort of Gone With the Wind-esque lament for the Old South. The original version of the song did include an offensive term for black people, but this word was removed by the Kentucky Legislature…in the 1980s.
24 Hour Tip
A 30 minute walking tour of the Churchill Downs racetrack is included with your admission to the Derby Museum. Find out the tour times for the day as soon as you arrive, so you can choose the walking tour time that works best with your schedule.
One Day in Louisville
Afternoon: Explore Downtown Louisville
Call a rideshare like Uber from Churchill Downs (public transpo in Louisville isn’t amazing) and head back to Downtown Louisville. We’re going to spend an afternoon checking out the sights and sounds of what Wikipedia says is the 29th biggest city in the United States! There will be baseball, there will be bourbon, and there will definitely be goat races. I present to you…
Approximately Top 5: Downtown Louisville
1) Lunch at Wild Eggs
We had eggs for breakfast this morning, and we had a Hot Brown for dinner last night. So why not mix it up and have Hot Brown Eggs for lunch? Stop at Wild Eggs, which is a small, local breakfast chain. Fortunately for us, breakfast here extends into lunch, so it won’t be too late for us to have the world’s fattiest and most delicious egg dish.
The Kelsey “KY” Brown dish here, has the same ingredients as the Brown Hotel’s Hot Brown sandwich. You’ve got your turkey, your bacon, and your Rebecca de Mornay sauce. What Wild Eggs adds, naturally, is a fried egg on top of the whole thing. Hmm, I definitely looked at the original Hot Brown and thought that the only thing it needed was even more fat. Turns out that I was correct! Adding fat makes everything more delicious. That’s just science.
2) Louisville Slugger Museum
For what is probably only the 29th biggest city in the country, Louisville has made an out-sized contribution to our national culture. And of course the most effective way to contribute to American culture is to participate in our national pastime, baseball! The Louisville Slugger factory is famous for making baseball bats for Major League Baseball’s greatest hitters.
At the Louisville Slugger Museum, you can learn the history of its company and how it went from a 19th century furniture producer to the world’s most famous maker of baseball bats. You can see precious artifacts, like the Slugger Hank Aaron used to hit his 700th home run. (Sadly, you can also read about the death threats Aaron received from people angry that a black man was going to beat Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record.)
Finally, you get a 25 minute tour of the factory. Photos are not allowed inside the factory, but all guests receive a mini wooden slugger when they leave. I guess that’s so people don’t complain about not getting one of those famous “baseball bat manufacturing photos” to put on their Instagram.
3) Evan Williams Distillery
I believe it may actually be against Kentucky state law to spend One Day in Louisville without trying a bourbon tasting. Fortunately, there’s an enjoyable distillery offering tours right on Whiskey Row in Downtown Louisville. The Evan Williams Distillery tour will teach you the basics you need to know about bourbon and let you sample some of their products. What more could you want?
Before going to Evan Williams, I actually didn’t know what made bourbon different from regular whiskey. Was it something to do with the kings of France? But apparently not. Bourbon is a type of whiskey, but there are strict rules about what makes a whiskey a bourbon.
It has to be made with a mixture that is at least 51 percent corn. Then, it has to be aged in charred oak barrels, and these barrels can only be used once. Next, you can’t add any flavoring to bourbon. Finally, it needs to be made in America. (USA, USA, USA!)
Evan Williams is not one of the most prestigious bourbon brands in the country, but it gets the job done to my satisfaction. I definitely took some home with me so I could make my favorite cocktail, the old fashioned, at my leisure while I wear my rose-colored fascinator and feel like a crazy lady.
4) Random Exploration!
I’m a big believer in taking some time every afternoon for random explorations! And you are in luck because there is so much to see and do in downtown Louisville during your One Day in Louisville. For starters, take a stroll along the…disturbingly brown Ohio River.
This is famous for being the spot where Lewis and Clark met up before heading out on their expedition. Legend has it that Clark walked right up to Lewis in the middle of downtown Louisville and said, “Dr. Lewis, I presume?” At least, I think that’s what happened. I didn’t really pay attention during history class.
As with any Southern city, you can find monuments to the Civil Rights movement all over Louisville. This plaque commemorates the sit-ins at the Kaufman-Straus Department Store that were protesting segregation in Louisville.
Louisville has a wonderfully oddball collection of statues. My favorite is this one of former mayor Charlie Farnsley. A lot of people enjoy getting their picture taken with this statue because you can make it look like you’re having a real conversation. I was a little uncomfortable because in some of the photos with young ladies, it looks like the statue is creeping on them. That made me angry, until I remembered that it’s just a statue and statues probably don’t have libidos.
24 Hour Treasure
The best plaque in Downtown Louisville is the one commemorating the Billy Goat Strut. I think we need to bring this tradition back. Do they have billy goat races at Churchill Downs? Clearly this could be a major tourist attraction. We could call it Strut for the Roses.
One Day in Louisville
Evening: Dinner at Doc Crow’s
As soon as I read about Doc Crow’s, I knew I needed to dine there when I was in Louisville. The restaurant specializes in three things: bourbon, barbecue, and raw oysters. These might possibly be my three favorite things to consume in the world!
The staff is very friendly and knowledgeable, so as far as the raw bar goes, I suggest just getting half a dozen of whatever your server suggests. I know that there are no oysters native to Kentucky, but these beauties tasted like they’d just been pulled from the sea by the walrus and the carpenter.
24 Hour Treat: Bourbini
My cocktail for my One Day in Louisville was a combination of Kentucky bourbon, peach liqueur, peach bitters, and sparkling wine. I would never have thought to combine the bellini and bourbon, but I’m glad someone did. This is probably the girliest thing you can do with bourbon unless someone decides to make a bourbon cosmopolitan.
Every Southerner has strong feelings about barbecue, but because my family is from Georgia, my first love is always pulled pork. This dish is served with something called “tobacco onions”. I thought this was a cute nod to Kentucky’s history growing tobacco, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to eat onions that tasted like Joe Camel. Fortunately, they’re just called tobacco onions because they supposedly look like tobacco. No tobacco plants were actually hurt in the making of this dish.
The pulled pork lived up to my high standards. Otherwise, I would have had to challenge the chef to a banjo duel in which he would play “My Old Kentucky Home” and I would play “Georgia on my Mind” until one of us died or was taken away by the devil. I’m very glad this didn’t happen because I don’t know how to play the banjo.
That’s a Perfect One Day in Louisville!
What would you do with one day in Louisville? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Louisville right now? Should they have the Billy Goat Strut at Churchill Downs? And how do you win a banjo duel to the death? Please leave your thoughts below.
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend One Day in Louisville. If you have another One Day in Louisville, add this itinerary. And if you’ve got another One Day in Louisville and are dying to see the Muhammad Ali Center, try this itinerary.