More Than Just Fast Horses and Baseball Bats, this city offers unique museums and the WORLD’S ONLY FULLY UNDERGROUND ZIP-LINE COURSE
When you think of Louisville, the Kentucky Derby or the Louisville Slugger often comes to mind. But it may surprise you to find this city on the banks of the Ohio River has a number of other attractions to offer.
Louisville hosts the world-famous Kentucky Derby, but if you can’t make it on the first Saturday in May, you can see plenty of racing action at Churchill Downs during other times of the year. Many of those same Derby-riding jockeys saddle up for races in late April through late June, most of the month of September, and late October through November. (Check www.churchilldowns.com for an exact racing schedule.) For a few dollars admission, you can watch a full day of thoroughbred horse racing on this well-known track.
The Kentucky Derby Museum, right next to Churchill Downs, is open year-round and features exhibits, film clips, a gift shop and even a tour of the track. You can hear the call of Derby races from years past, and for a short time feel as though you’re right in the middle of the greatest two minutes in sports. Make sure you catch “The Greatest Race,” a 360-degree panoramic film experience that shows the Derby on every level, from the birth of a horse on a Kentucky farm, to the training that goes into developing a champion horse, to all aspects of Derby Day itself. You’ll see the pomp, circumstance, color and excitement as tens of thousands pour onto the grounds sporting fancy hats, dresses and suits as they head for box seats or perhaps tables on Millionaire’s Row. You’ll also see regular folk who pay a smaller admission for access to the infield to spend the day in tents, chairs and whatever they brought with them. The day offers a chance simply to hang out, drink, and have a good time – though parts of the infield have been known to get quite rowdy at times. The Kentucky Derby definitely has it all.
Minerva Garcia of Miami, Fla., expressed surprise after touring the museum.
“I didn’t expect to see all of this,” she said. “I didn’t realize there were so many aspects to the Derby. I love how they used technology so the visitor can go back to, I think the 1870s, and see what was actually happening here. It’s a great experience.”
She’s more determined than ever to someday make it to the Kentucky Derby.
“Oh my gosh! It’s on my bucket list now,” she added, laughing.
Native son, Muhammad Ali
The Muhammad Ali Center honors one of Louisville’s most famous native sons. Here, you’ll view historic videos of some of the champion boxer’s greatest fights, try interactive exhibits, see boxing memorabilia and get insight into his work on behalf of international peace in his later years.
Michael Kraft, who lives in Louisville, grew up admiring Muhammad Ali.
“Growing up, Muhammad Ali was something you waited for, to watch on TV when it would come on with Howard Cosell. Back then, the prize fights were followed by everyone in the world.”
The Center offers an opportunity to reflect on Ali’s boxing career, as well as other parts of his story. Learn about how the boxing legend changed his name from Cassius Clay, faced discrimination in his hometown – even after winning an Olympic Gold Medal – and his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War, a decision that cost him his championship belt and resulted in a three-year ban from boxing. The museum does a thorough job of telling it all, including Ali’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
“The museum has been a success for Louisville,” Kraft said. “And the memorabilia, where they got it all, I have no idea, because there’s so much. It’s really neat.”
Louisville Mega Cavern
If you’re the adventurous type, you might enjoy the Louisville Mega Cavern. This 100-acre underground cavern, which began as a limestone quarry, has seen many different uses. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, preparations were made to house 50,000 people in the event of a nuclear attack. Open to the public today, the cavern offers zip-line tours, challenge bridges and tram tours throughout its 17 miles of underground space.
Tram tour guide Juanita Larkin said people are often surprised to hear how it once served as a fallout shelter. Many who lived here during the Cold War never knew of its existence.
“It was the largest fallout shelter in the state of Kentucky,” she said. “It had enough food, water and equipment to take care of 50,000 for up to three years.”
Now, parts of the cavern are used for storing large equipment and traffic salt, the type used to clear snow and ice off the roads during wintry conditions. The cavern also houses recycling worms, as part of a Mother Earth recycling program.
“We recycle, still to this day, dirt, rock, brick, gravel and concrete. We use recycling worms.”
Larkin added that the worms are edible, and as part of each tour, shows the worms in their recycling bins and even stops to eat one.
“That gets a big reaction out of people,” she admitted.
And what do the worms taste like?
“Dirt,” she said, laughing. “My doctor thinks I’m nuts, but they can’t hurt me.”
During the past couple of years, the cavern has set up courses and has become the only fully underground zip-line operation in the world.
Mindy Grewell from North Canton, Ohio, recently zip-lined at Mega Cavern.
“I’ve never zip-lined in a cavern. It was exhilarating, a good adrenaline rush!”
Michelle Cameron of Magnolia, Ky., backed her up.
“It’s awesome, so fun! I’ve never done anything like this and it’s thrilling. I’m scared of heights but it’s really fun!”
Her son John agreed.
“While there’s the thrill of the rush, there are also points, on the longest one, where it starts to slow down and you can kind of hang there,” he explains. “It’s peaceful and exciting at the same time.”
The Belle of Louisville
Built along the Ohio River, Louisville remains very proud of its heritage. The city holds events and festivals along its waterfront throughout the year. A steamboat, the Belle of Louisville, offers cruises along the Ohio River, giving those on board a unique view of Louisville on one side of the river and Indiana on the other. In fact, with the two states so close, those who live here often refer to this part of the country as Kentuckiana.
Kentucky Hot Brown
During your visit to Louisville, you’ll definitely eat well. Louisville is proud to be known as a city of restaurants offering many types of unique dishes. For a quick dessert, sample some Derby Pie, and when it comes to an entrÃ©e, you don’t want to miss a Kentucky Hot Brown. Many restaurants offer it, including the English Grill at the historic Brown Hotel, where it got its start. Chef de Cuisine Ryan O’Driscoll said the open-face sandwich consisting of brioche bread, turkey, bacon, Mornay sauce and cheese was created by the hotel chef in 1926.
“They would have hundreds here for an evening of dancing and then it came to a point where people got bored with the normal fare and wanted something different. He came up with a late-night meal that was sort of comforting and filling.”
O’Driscoll noted that the hotel still prepares the hearty dish the way it has from the beginning, with the key being the care taken in preparing each ingredient.
If you’re passing through downtown, you’ll likely see the 120-foot-tall bat in front of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory. Through a side window you can watch as factory workers make Louisville Slugger bats. Baseball fans will enjoy a trip inside to get an up-close look at the operation that still turns out every wooden bat used by players in the major leagues today.
The museum offers a rich look at the game’s history. Curator Nathan Stalvey takes great pride in what he calls its crown jewel.
“This is a game-used Babe Ruth bat from 1927. It was the year he hit 60 home runs, the first 21 with this bat. How do we know that? Look at the center brand logo. Those are notches he put in there for each home run he hit.”
In Louisville, you’ll find quite a few options that appeal to a variety of different interests.
Whatever you choose, you can be sure these are one-of-a-kind attractions you won’t find anywhere else.
Pam Windsor is a freelance writer in Louisville, Ky., who enjoys traveling and sharing the stories of the fascinating people and places she finds along the way.