Louisville Travel Guide: Best Tips for Your Sports Visit

Louisville is rarely mentioned among the top sports travel destinations, but a quick trip to Kentucky has me believing that it is one of the more underrated cities to visit. From places to eat to Churchill Downs, there is plenty to do in Louisville that make an extended weekend trip appealing.

My alma mater was playing a college football game at Louisville which prompted a friend and I to plan a road trip. What unfolded was one of the best sports days I have experienced. Instead of tailgating in an abandoned parking lot, we headed to Churchill Downs to spend the afternoon. Not only did we get to cross off another place from our sports bucket list, but Cardinal Stadium in the background proved to be a perfect reminder of the college football grande finale to come.

Here is an overview of our trip to Louisville along with a few recommendations of the best places to eat, where to stay and pro tips for visiting Churchill Downs as well as a Cardinals college football game.

Best Places to Stay in Louisville, Kentucky: Airbnb vs. Hotels

Churchill Downs Airbnb
A view of Churchill Downs from a nearby Airbnb in Louisville, Kentucky.

The big decision of the weekend is whether to stay downtown near the riverwalk or closer to the University of Louisville. We opted to do the latter and found an old house on Airbnb with a view of Churchill Downs. Our no frills abode offered plenty of space, and more importantly, a splendid view of Churchill Downs.

Not only can you walk to the track to see the day’s horse races, but the master bedroom offers a great view of the venue. This spot is one of several Airbnb options in Louisville worth considering, especially if you are attending a college football game and checking out the ponies at Churchill Downs.

If you are interested in a more upscale experience, staying at a downtown hotel near the riverwalk may be more your speed. Downtown Louisville offers plenty of restaurants and bars within walking distance. Some of the city’s top downtown hotel options include The Brown Hotel, 21c Museum Hotel, The Galt House Hotel and The Seelbach Hilton. There are also a plethora of your typical chain hotel options throughout the area as well.

What to Do in Louisville, Kentucky

Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky
Taking in a day of horse racing at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

There are countless bourbon distillery tours offered downtown and visitors would be wise to pace themselves if you are visiting multiple places. Downtown offers a number of Lousiville’s top tourist attractions as well including the Louisville Slugger Museum and the Muhammad Ali Center dedicated to the boxing legend who grew up in the city.

We arrived in Louisville late our first day but took about a 15-minute Uber ride from the Churchill Downs area to the Troll Pub downtown, the site of an old hotel built in 1835. When you arrive there is a giant troll that has probably seen some things over its years. There are steps that lead down from ground level to the actual pub with a big wooden door to greet you. Think speakeasy vibe meets sports bar.

Where to Eat in Louisville? Some of the Best Restaurants to Visit

Wagner's Pharmacy Louisville, Kentucky
A view of the iconic Wagner’s Pharmacy, a Louisville diner located across from Churchill Downs.

The next morning we found the perfect place to start the day grabbing breakfast at the iconic Wagner’s Pharmacy. The diner’s doors have been open since 1922 and the walls are covered with photos of old horses along with their jockeys. As a bonus, the front window has a view of Churchill Downs. It is the kind of place where those working with the horses grab a big breakfast as they sit next to degenerates taking one last look at the day’s odds sheet before heading to the betting window. 

Unfortunately, our time in the city was limited, so we did not get to hit all the top Louisville restaurants. Next visit, I plan to try the Hot Brown at the city’s iconic Brown Hotel. It felt like a risky decision for a day in the sun.

What is the Hot Brown? It is the signature dish of Louisville featuring an open face sandwich on Texas toast with bacon, turkey, cheese, tomatoes and their signature sauce all baked together.

Best Tips for Visiting Churchill Downs: What You Need to Know at the Track

Churchill Downs horses
The Churchill Downs viewing area where you can get an up-close look at the horses.

Louisville is one of the more underrated college football road trips as it is rarely discussed among the sports iconic destinations. It is hard to imagine a better tailgating experience than losing money on the horses with the football stadium in the distance. Since the game was on a Friday, we were treated to the fillies racing throughout the afternoon.

Much is made about the Kentucky Derby, but Churchill Downs offers plenty of races throughout the year. Check the track’s calendar to see if there are any races scheduled during your trip. We were able to pay just a few dollars for general admission tickets which allowed us to walk all over the track. There are also more premium seating options which offer food and drinks with the tickets.

If you want the signature mint julep or another drink, an added benefit is you get to keep the souvenir glass. Even for the non-gamblers on your trip, fun can still be had by throwing a couple dollars on each race. There are no high minimum bet requirements which makes wagering accessible for everyone. Be advised that all bets are cash-only so make sure to hit your bank before coming, but Churchill Downs also offers ATMs which likely require a small service fee.

A few simple betting options for you to try: pick a favorite number to win, place or show. This means you are taking a horse to place in the top three. There are more complicated bets like a trifecta which has you picking the top three horses in a race. The odds of doing this are low which means the payouts are much higher.

A pro tip is to make sure to “box” your trifecta pick which means it does not matter the order they finish as long as you correctly pick the top three horses. Upon arrival, you will get the day’s program which can also help you make picks with some of the articles along with the day’s schedule complete with horses that are competing.

The merchandise store is worth checking out, and when I visited there were plenty of items with major discounts. I secured a nice polo for about $30, much lower than its original price. Even if there are not races coinciding with your trip to Louisville, the track offers tours and there is also a museum you can explore at the track as well.

Attending a Louisville College Football Game: What You Need to Know at Cardinal Stadium

A view from the club 200 section at Cardinal Stadium for a Louisville college football game.

Churchill Downs is just a little over a mile from the football stadium making for an easy walk between the two venues. Since we opted for an Airbnb near both locations, we were able to take a quick pit stop after a day at the track before walking to the stadium.

We snagged tickets on Stubhub and were able to get club-level tickets for about $50 since kickoff was closely approaching. As an aside, the best time to buy tickets for any sporting event is usually a couple of hours before the event starts. Thanks to the popularity of apps, I have purchased tickets through Ticketmaster, SeatGeek and Stubhub while literally standing in front of the gate. Sometimes it can take a few minutes before the tickets are delivered virtually, but you can save $100s of dollars on most events by using this last-minute purchasing method.

For those wondering, Cardinal Stadium sells alcohol throughout the venue. The stadium is a lot nicer than I was expecting and offers plenty of club-level options. We choose the 200 level in the back of the end zone which provided smaller sections with higher quality concession options. Here is a look at the club section indoor gathering area.

There was a carving station offering steak or turkey sandwiches with homemade chips for $12. In the middle of the air-conditioned common area there is also a large bar where you can order drinks (not included with the ticket), a normal concession stand and a pair of bathrooms. Drinks were also cheaper than what I have found at most stadiums.

Our school lost in the closing minutes, and the starting quarterback sustained a season-ending injury on a final Hail Mary attempt to close the game. It made for a long walk back, but something tells me I will be visiting Louisville again sooner rather than later. I can hear the Kentucky Derby bugle calling my name.

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