In 2011, the demolition of a row of historic buildings in downtown Louisville seemed inevitable. But preservationists interested in the buildings’ cast-iron beauty and historic significance helped sway officials to save the buildings. After having been spared, the buildings helped launch Louisville’s urban bourbon renaissance.
Now known as Whiskey Row, the stretch of Main Street joins a long list of Louisville’s signature attractions within walking distance of one another. Main Street’s Museum Row mixes with Whiskey Row’s offerings to blend the two popular trip themes. Groups can go from one attraction to another on an itinerary that could last for days.
Louisville Tourism helps groups set up tours to downtown Louisville. The organization offers group travel planners several promotional incentives, including a $500 shopping spree for groups that book overnights for 15 or more rooms.
Museums, art attractions, entertainment options and engaging bourbon tours await in Louisville’s thriving downtown area.
In the 19th century, a blocklong stretch of Main Street served as the home of the bourbon industry in Louisville. Many of the Revivalist and Chicago School-style buildings featured cast-iron storefronts, and the area was known collectively as Whiskey Row.
The nickname has returned to the area after years of renovations opened new distilleries in the buildings. Whiskey Row is now a bourbon tourism district with historic brands and emerging whiskey brands.
One of the first distilleries to open in Whiskey Row was the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.
“For groups, Evan Williams is one of the top bourbon tours,” said Saundra Robertson, tourism and group sales manager for Louisville Tourism. “The experience is 4D, so it feels like you are living it. You go through the wharf on the Ohio River. Then it leads you upstairs to the 1800s, when Louisville was home to Whiskey Row.”
In 1783, a Welsh immigrant named Evan Williams founded the first bourbon distillery on the Ohio River. His namesake bourbon eventually became one of the country’s best-known whiskeys. Tours at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience highlight the founder’s history, and guests learn about the intricate bourbon-distilling process and see an artisanal still at work.
After the tour, groups can taste the bourbon and buy bottles and other collectibles from the gift shop.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center illustrates the overlap between the Whiskey Row and Museum Row attractions. The welcome center is inside the Frazier History Museum, which features artifacts of American, Native American, Asian and European origin.
The museum’s bourbon experience opened in 2018 in partnership with the Kentucky Distillers’ Association. The center serves as the official start of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, with concierge service and information on how to navigate Louisville’s burgeoning bourbon scene.
Old Forester Distillery offers another bourbon tour that groups will like. The 70,000-square-foot distillery occupies the same venue the company used before Prohibition.
Opened in 2018, the company is the first distillery to use a single building for bourbon assembly, charring barrels and distillation. Groups can char a barrel for a hands-on way to experience bourbon-making.
Whiskey Row also offers a few recently opened hotels, including Hotel Distil, a 205-room, bourbon-themed hotel. The hotel’s design hearkens back to pre-Prohibition style with woods, black metals and copper fixtures.
Louisville Tourism refers to its Main Street downtown area as Whiskey Row or Museum Row, depending on the interests of the visitor. Guests can move from a bourbon tour to a museum to a bourbon-themed restaurant with ease in downtown.
“We have so many iconic museums in walking distance,” said Robertson. “A lot of cities can’t say that. We have the only Slugger Museum. We have the only Muhammad Ali Center. They are unique experiences.”
The Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory showcases the story of Louisville Slugger baseball bats. The museum isn’t hard to find, since a 120-foot-tall baseball bat leans up against its exterior. Tours walk groups through the bat production process, and docents demonstrate how the bats’ signature brand is burned into the wood.
Nearby, the Muhammad Ali Center is dedicated to boxer Muhammad Ali, a native of Louisville. The six-story cultural center opened in 2005 and features exhibits on Ali’s six core principles: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality. An orientation theater gives an overview of his incredible life.
This year, Roots 101 will add another standout museum to the street. The museum will feature Louisville native Lamont Collin’s immense African American art collection. The museum strives to create a “healing place” for the African American experience with historic exhibits alongside artworks.
Travelers love a good photo op. Louisville’s downtown has plenty of options, including a giant glass of bourbon at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience and a huge statue of David at the 21c Museum Hotel. Louisville Tourism even created a pamphlet with the best downtown photo spots.
“There is a lot of street art that has been popping up everywhere,” said Robertson. “We have a lot of murals. We have ones related to Louisville, such as a mural of a hot brown and a whiskey mural.”
Groups can casually enjoy the downtown street art or visit one of several art-focused attractions, such as the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, another Museum Row favorite. The art museum showcases one of the largest selections of Kentucky arts and crafts in the region, with three exhibition galleries, a gallery shop and a permanent collection. For a take-home project, groups can book two-hour workshops with snacks and wine.
More hands-on experiences await at the Flame Run Glass Studio and Gallery. Groups can watch artists blow glass art at the studio’s hot shop. They can also admire the finished pieces at the studio’s glass art gallery. The studio offers visitors a chance to make their own glass art.
The 21c Museum Hotel offers contemporary art installations and exhibits that groups can see, even if they’re not staying overnight. The 91-room boutique hotel offers 9,000 feet of exhibition space that is open to visitors.
The Kentucky Performing Arts organization manages several downtown theaters, including the Kentucky Center, the Brown Theatre and Old Forester’s Paristown Hall. Travel planners have plenty of performance options from companies including the Louisville Orchestra, the Kentucky Opera, the Louisville Ballet and PNC Bank Broadway. The 2,406-seat Robert S. Whitney Hall hosts many of the city’s major touring Broadway productions. Upcoming productions include “Miss Saigon,” “Anastasia” and “Come From Away.”
Fourth Street Live
To take advantage of Louisville’s nightlife, groups need look no further than a stretch of Fourth Street downtown. These seven blocks from the Ohio River to Broadway offer hotels, shops, theaters, restaurants and the 350,000-square-foot Fourth Street Live.
“A lot of groups love Fourth Street Live,” said Robertson. “Groups can go there together or individually. A lot of time they will let groups be on their own there for a meal. There are so many great restaurant options there.”
The entertainment and retail complex has numerous dining options, such as the Hard Rock Cafe, the Gordon Biersch Brewing Company, the Fudgery, Bourbon Raw and Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse. At night, Fourth Street Live stays active with sports bars, upscale clubs and cocktail lounges. Groups can stay together for a night of fun with casual activities like pingpong, billiards and arcade games. The popular Sports and Social Club combines a bowling alley and a restaurant.
Jim Beam’s Urban Stillhouse provides an interactive tour, tastings, a souvenir shot glass and possible classes. The venue’s Tableside Cocktail Class offers mixology workshops to help participants learn to craft well-balanced cocktails. Groups can also build their own bottles of Urban Stillhouse Select by creating a label, filling the bottle and sealing it.
Fourth Street is also home to upscale historic hotels, including the Seelbach, the Galt House and Suites and the Brown Hotel. The 16-story Brown Hotel is famous for being the birthplace of the hot brown, a Kentucky specialty.
“It is one of those iconic Louisville experiences to eat a hot brown at the Brown Hotel,” said Robertson. “A lot of groups will come to the hotel to eat a hot brown for breakfast or lunch. Groups will often order lunch; then the hotel puts a couple of hot browns on the table for groups to share. Many restaurants in Louisville have the hot brown on their menu, but the Brown Hotel originated it.”