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Kentucky’s largest city may be steeped in Southern history, but it’s enjoying a renaissance as a decidedly 21st-century travel hotspot, thanks to forward-thinking hotels and attractions providing more reasons than ever to visit. From bourbon to baseball bats to horses, Louisville serves up Southern-sized portions of excitement.

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The downtown area, known as Whiskey Row, is a prime example of the surging popularity of one of Kentucky’s most legendary creations: bourbon. This year, the neighborhood’s array of distilleries, bars and restaurants was joined by the new, 70,000-square-foot Old Forester Distillery, which provides guests insider access to the bourbon-making process. It’s a must-see complement to the city’s Urban Bourbon Trail; the Louisville Tourism office distributes free “passports” with information about nearly 30 bars, restaurants and hotels specializing in bourbon.

If you’re an especially ambitious fan of the spirit, take advantage of Louisville’s location as the starting point for the statewide Kentucky Bourbon Trail; a new welcome center was scheduled to debut by press time at Louisville’s Frazier Kentucky History Museum, to help travelers plan visits to bourbon distilleries around the state.

Also in growth mode is Louisville’s burgeoning hotel scene, which has been making waves ever since the opening of the artsy 21C Museum Hotel more than a decade ago. Among the newest properties to debut are the luxurious Omni Louisville, a downtown hotel with a rooftop pool and bar, Vu Guesthouse, a 34-room boutique property set in a former tobacco warehouse, and the 156-room AC Hotel Louisville Downtown, the first hotel in the hip NuLu district.

Even Whiskey Row will soon have its own accommodations, when a dual-branded property—Hotel Distil, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, and Moxy Louisville—open next year.

The Kentucky Derby Museum, at Churchill Downs. PHOTO: Mark Chesnut @mundera

Sports, culture and a beautiful graveyard

Louisville loves sports, so it’s no surprise that several of the top attractions are related to active pursuits—including the Kentucky Derby, which takes place every year on the first Saturday in May. Even if you can’t visit during that legendary event, you can still tap into some of the excitement by visiting its home venue, Churchill Downs. Throughout the year, the recently expanded Kentucky Derby Museum offers guided tours of the entire facility, while the Derby Café serves up tasty Derby Pie, a delightful confection of chocolate chips and walnuts. During the warmer months, opt to sip a mint julep (the derby’s official cocktail) while attending a live racing event (Churchill Downs hosts spring, September and fall meets). You could also plan a festive nighttime visit in summer, when Downs After Dark stages events that often include live music, DJs, cocktails and dramatic lighting to accompany night races.

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Slugger Museum in Louisville, Kentucky

Slugger Museum in Louisville, Kentucky | Flickr CC: Steven W.

Also in the sports vein is the Louisville Slugger Museum, where factory tours reveal the birthplace of Major League baseball’s official bat. You can also test your skills in a batting cage and stop for a selfie with a120-foot baseball bat.

Boxing is another sport that’s had a major impact in Louisville, thanks to native son Muhammad Ali. But the spectacular Muhammad Ali Center goes way beyond the boxing ring, to address the champ’s struggles and triumphs, including his involvement with spirituality, human rights and the civil rights movement.

Ali’s final resting place is yet another worthwhile place to visit. Cave Hill Cemetery, which stretches out for nearly 300 acres, is a Victorian Era, park-like cemetery that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Ornate sculptures, statues and tombs are among the eye-catching landmarks here, and you can even pay your respects at the monument to Colonel Harland Sanders, the man who taught the world to love fried chicken.

Louisville Slugger Field and the city skyline. PHOTO: Louisville CVB

Fab food and drink

Louisville’s 21st-century sophistication has spread into several interesting neighborhoods, and each has its own allure for foodies and cocktail aficionados. Right in the heart of a hip area called NuLu (New Louisville), hungry locals and visitors alike dive into hand-crafted seasonal cocktails accompanied by tasty brick-oven pizza at Garage Bar, a trendy eatery set in an old service station. A few blocks away, creative bourbon cocktails and one of the city’s best brunches are the draw at Butchertown Silver Dollar.

In the ever-popular Highlands neighborhood, Bardstown Road is the axis for a variety of gustatory delights—including Fat Lamb Modern Kitchen & Bar, which stylishly combines Mediterranean and Southern U.S. flavors, and Holy Grale, a craft beer bar set inside a former church. Not far from the Highlands, 8020 @ Kaelin’s claims to be the birthplace of the cheeseburger; while that may be debatable, their burgers certainly are tasty.

In addition to mint juleps and other bourbon-based delicacies, another locally produced favorite treat is the hot brown. A heavenly union of thick, toasted bread, sliced turkey, bacon strips and mornay sauce, it’s a satisfying and filling treat invented at the historic Brown Hotel (and now available at a variety of restaurants). One thing is for sure: you won’t leave Louisville hungry.

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Mark Chesnut
Mark Chesnut is a travel writer, editor and photographer. He's written for Fodor's, the Huffington Post, the Miami Herald, Travel Weekly, various inflight magazines and the New York Times best-seller "1,000 Places To See Before You Die." He also operates a travel blog, LatinFlyer.com, which focuses on travel to Latin America. Find more from Mark on Twitter @munderamedia and Instagram @mundera

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