(CNN) — Locals may debate whether this river city is the South or the Midwest, but everyone can agree that Louisville, Kentucky, is an exciting place to be.
Crowds pack the 'Ville for the Kentucky Derby the first weekend in May, but bourbon-fueled delights await year-round.
A dynamic culinary scene and rapidly growing lineup of urban bourbon attractions round out the rich arts and cultural offerings, with none-too-shabby shopping options to boot.
What to see
From a fabled horse race to the greatest of all time, Louisville lays claim to some heavy-hitting sites, with history and art stacking up alongside its star attractions.
You don't have to be a racing fan to appreciate Churchill Downs (700 Central Ave.). Home to the greatest two minutes in sports, the iconic twin spires represent this pinnacle of thoroughbred racing and first jewel of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby. If you don't make it to the big day you can still delve into the history of the race and its magnificent creatures at the Kentucky Derby Museum (704 Central Ave.).
Can't make it to the Derby? Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum are still worth a visit.
Human achievement is celebrated in Louisville, too. Hometown hero Muhammad Ali's Childhood Home Museum (3302 Grand Ave.) provides visitors a peek at the humble beginnings of the humanitarian and three-time world heavyweight boxing champion. And the Muhammad Ali Center (144 N. 6th St.) downtown offers fans an immersive experience in all things Ali with a journey through his life and contributions. The approachable Speed Art Museum (2035 S. 3rd St.), which reopened in 2016 after an extreme makeover, showcases art that spans centuries, styles, continents and mediums for visitors who likewise run the gamut of ages and interests. A real find for history and architecture buffs, the Conrad-Caldwell House (1402 St. James Court) presides over the elegant, mansion-lined St. James Court in historic Old Louisville. The opulent 19th-century residence has been restored to the Edwardian age and in its reincarnation as a museum offers a sumptuous glimpse at Louisville's past. At the other end of the spectrum, the 21c contemporary art museum (inside the 21c Museum Hotel downtown) keeps its free galleries open 24 hours a day, inciting much conversation -- and sometimes controversy -- over its regularly changing installations featuring the work of living artists from across the globe. And you haven't been to Louisville until you've experienced bourbon culture. Several in-town distilleries offer an up-close look at the art and science of whiskey-making. In the heart of Whiskey Row, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience downtown combines a craft distillery with a history lesson, highlighting how Louisville was built on bourbon. The city is also home to the Urban Bourbon Trail, a group of bourbon-centric bars and restaurants where visitors can collect bourbon knowledge and stamps toward a free bourbon trail T-shirt.
Where to eat
Chef Edward Lee creates a special dining experience at 610 Magnolia.
If you're in town any time other than jam-packed Derby weekend, it's an embarrassment of riches when it comes to dining. Across the city, talented chefs parlay their passion and Kentucky's rich agricultural heritage into memorable dishes worth the trip.
Louisvillians remember when Edward Lee was a local household name before vaulting onto the national scene. The celebrated chef, author and television personality's flagship restaurant 610 Magnolia (610 W. Magnolia Ave.) in Old Louisville is most visitors' top pick for fine dining, with good reason. Book ahead for this modern take on Southern fare where a changing tasting menu celebrates the best of Louisville and the region. Fellow "Top Chef" alum Annie Pettry makes local foods shine at Decca (812 E. Market St.), where her love for the ingredients is written on every plate. A series of intimate dining rooms inside and outside an elegantly restored 19th-century NuLu building makes for a dreamy night out. Across the street at the Mayan Cafe (813 E. Market St.), Bruce Ucan pays homage to his Yucatan roots with beautifully created dishes that make this elegant but relaxed spot a go-to. Over in Schnitzelburg, Monnik Beer Co. (1036 E. Burnett Ave.) turns out European inspired pub fare that draws as many fans as its craft beers. The agreeably boisterous vibe indoors and on the patio is just right for a night out. The butcher shop everyone in town was waiting for, Red Hog (2622 Frankfort Ave.) not only sells gorgeous cuts of local meat, but also serves them up in such tantalizing fare as wood-fired pizzas and burgers in a buzzing, stylish cafe.
Where to drink
Come to Louisville for the bourbon, stay for the other craft beverages ranging from coffee and kombucha to brandy and beer.
Pick your poison with a classic cocktail or a clever riff at swanky downtown cocktail lounge Meta (425 W. Chestnut St.). The folks who run Meta take their drinks seriously, but not themselves -- this is the bar that shocked the world when it served Pappy (as in the practically unattainable Pappy Van Winkle bourbon) Jell-O shots. Bars really have to offer knockout whiskey collections here in bourbon country, but even among some stiff competition The Silver Dollar (1761 Frankfort Ave.), a honky tonk inside an old fire station, stands out. Let the friendly bartenders build a flight and find your new favorite.
For a low-key, corner-bar-with-a-jukebox vibe, the Pearl of Germantown (1151 Goss Ave.) is your venue. Same team as The Silver Dollar, same precision in the cocktails, with friendly prices and laid back atmosphere.
Beer is booming in bourbon country, with craft breweries opening at a breakneck clip. A can't-miss selection of beers from near and far is found in a former church at the Holy Grale (1034 Bardstown Road) and best enjoyed in the heavenly beer garden. Louisville is gaining a national reputation for its coffee purveyors, and among the town's abundance of hip shops is Please & Thank You (800 E Market St.), where you can browse the vinyl collection and satisfy your sweet tooth while sipping a locally roasted cuppa.
Where to shop
Best save some room in your luggage for mementos of your time in Louisville, where independently owned shops showcase local creativity and craftsmanship.
Old Town Wine and Spirits (1529 Bardstown Road) in the Highlands is a local favorite for its extensive bourbon offerings, including private barrel selections, and friendly, knowledgeable staff. The Instagrammable neon sign outside doesn't hurt either. Outside downtown, Butchertown Market (1201 Story Ave.) -- once a leather tannery -- is home to several of Louisville's more intriguing and fun shops. Pick up whimsical creations at Cellar Door Chocolates, stock your spice cabinet with the ingredients every self-respecting Louisville food lover swears by from Bourbon Barrel Foods and find a unique metal accessory at Work the Metal. In hopping NuLu, Revelry Boutique Gallery (742 E. Market St.) sells handmade gifts including jewelry and home decor plus works by local artists.
Where to go for fresh air
Not every worthwhile distraction in Derby City is under a roof.
Hop on a shiny red bike to explore downtown, including Whiskey Row and Waterfront Park before crossing the Ohio via the Big 4 Bridge to pedal around the Ohio River Scenic Byway and Falls of the Ohio State park. The 90-minute Waterfront Tour with Louisville Bicycle Tours (325 W. Main St. #150) has the advantage of the best views of Louisville -- from the other side of the river.
Louisvillians are rightly proud of their parks, a string of green jewels threading through the city. Iroquois and Cherokee parks are treasures among the Frederick Law Olmsted parks system and perfect for a scenic stroll or strenuous hike, or maybe just a picnic under a shade tree.
Where to stay
Whether your tastes run to a boutique art hotel like 21c Museum Hotel (starting at $259, 700 W. Main St.), or classic glamor like The Brown Hotel (starting at $199, 335 W. Broadway), you can certainly find a place suited to lay your head.