Mint juleps, ornate hats, celebrity sightings, gaudy prints, and raucous partying. Oh, and did we mention horses? If those images don’t conjure up the Kentucky Derby, we don’t know what will! Held annually on the first Saturday in May, the Derby is a time when people come together to celebrate the thrill of horse racing, fashion, and southern hospitality — or what is affectionately called the “Run for the Roses,” on account of the lush garland of 554 red roses awarded to the winner each year.
Notably, rain, snow, and even world wars haven’t stopped the Derby from taking place, cementing its legacy. The population of Louisville swells by more than 150,000 for this popular spectator event in the Bluegrass State that has been proudly going strong since 1875, making it the longest-running sporting event in U.S. history. But the Derby is more than just a longstanding horse race that brings a significant crowd sporting fancy attire and sipping mint juleps. The town of Louisville prides itself on having plenty of traditions and culture for its guests, whether they are eating, drinking, or sightseeing.
If you’re planning to travel to Kentucky for the 149th running of the Derby, here’s everything you need to know.
Traveling to the Kentucky Derby
Getting to the Kentucky Derby can be a fun adventure, but it is important to plan ahead to ensure a stress-free experience. If you are flying in, the nearest airport is Louisville International Airport, which is just a 15-minute drive from Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby takes place. However, be prepared for crowds and lines, as the airport will be busy during the event.
Another option is to drive to Louisville, which can be a great way to see the scenic countryside of Kentucky. However, parking can be challenging, so it is best to plan ahead and reserve a parking spot at one of the many designated lots near Churchill Downs.
Where to Stay
If you are planning to stay for the Kentucky Derby, there are plenty of accommodation options to choose from in Louisville. However, booking your hotel or vacation rental well in advance is important, as rooms tend to sell out quickly during the event.
One popular option is to stay in downtown Louisville, which is close to Churchill Downs and offers easy access to the city’s many restaurants, bars, and shops. Another option is to stay in one of the nearby towns, such as Lexington or Bardstown, which offer a more laid-back and scenic atmosphere.
Lodging hinges on several factors, including traffic and weather. In the case of the Derby and the Kentucky Oaks — the latter a gender-specific race held the Friday before the Derby — the proximity of where you stay and distance to the racetrack at Churchill Downs comes into play. Your rental’s location also depends on how many races you plan to watch. Prior derby schedules have started at around 10:30 a.m. with up to 13 races per day and the main event slotted for race #11 at around 6:25 p.m. Similarly, depending on where you stay and when you expect to arrive, it’s important to note that the races will take place rain or shine.
Also, it’s good to keep in mind that re-entry is not permitted at the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby. This means that once you’re inside the grounds, under no exceptions will you be allowed to leave and come back in.
How to Enjoy the Derby
Of course, the main attraction during the Kentucky Derby weekend is the horse racing itself, which is spread across three days: Thurby (Thursday before), the Oaks (Friday before), and the Derby on May 6, 2023. There are a variety of ticket options available, from General Admission in the infield to VIP packages that include access to exclusive areas of Churchill Downs. The rule is, the sooner you get tickets, the cheaper they will be. Tickets generally go on sale around mid-November, so make sure to try and secure yours as soon as possible.
For Partygoers & Horse Racing Aficionados
In addition to the races, there are plenty of other events and activities to keep you entertained, including live music, food and drink vendors, and a fashion contest. The infield, also known as the Derby Party, gets the rowdiest, with 80,000 people partying in the center of the racetrack. However, if you actually want to see the race, you might be out of luck, with standing room around the rail going for a premium. It also generally devolves into a muddy, sloppy mess, so if you want to keep your finest clothes clean and want to watch “the fastest two minutes in sports,” you’ll want to pay a little more for the Uncovered Bleacher Seating. Keep in mind that the races are held rain or shine, and umbrellas aren’t allowed in Churchill Downs, so make sure to pack a poncho!
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the Kentucky Derby, be sure to visit the Kentucky Derby Museum, located on the grounds of Churchill Downs. The museum features exhibits on the history of the race, as well as interactive displays and memorabilia.
If betting on races, people-watching, and getting festive isn’t enough, you’re in luck, because Louisville has plenty of other activities:
Baseball fans can head to the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, where the famously celebrated bat takes front and center.
There is also the Louisville Zoo, Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, and the Kentucky Science Center.
And if you feel that your trip to a southern river city wouldn’t be complete without a riverboat excursion, the Belle of Louisville is waiting for you!
How to Get Around
If you’re planning on attending events at Churchill Downs, there are a variety of transportation options available, including shuttles and buses. These options are easiest if you’re staying in downtown Louisville. However, keep in mind that public transportation can be crowded and lines can be long, so it’s a good idea to plan ahead and leave plenty of time to get to your destination.
Many visitors opt to use ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft to get around, as the local bus takes roughly 30 minutes to get from the city center to the racetrack. Schedules and other information can be found here.
What to Eat & Drink
No trip to Louisville would be complete without trying some of the city’s famous cuisine. Some local favorites include the Hot Brown, a sandwich made with turkey, bacon, and Mornay sauce, and the Derby Pie, a chocolate and nut dessert that was created specifically for the Kentucky Derby.
For a taste of Southern comfort food, you might consider trying some of the dishes at Hammerheads, a popular restaurant that serves up dishes like smoked pork belly and fried green tomatoes. Another good option is Butchertown Grocery, which offers a modern take on Southern cuisine. But if you’re looking for the swankiest locations to drink some mint juleps to your heart’s content, make your way over to Swizzle Dinner & Drinks, which has revolving floors and river views, or the rooftop bar at Copper & Kings.
Where to Shop
Louisville is a shopper’s paradise, with a wide range of stores and boutiques to choose from. If you are looking for high-end designer brands, head to the Summit at Fritz Farm, a luxury outdoor shopping center that features stores like Louis Vuitton, Tory Burch, and Vineyard Vines.
For a more eclectic shopping experience, check out NuLu (New Louisville), a trendy neighborhood filled with art galleries, antique shops, and independent boutiques. Some of the must-visit stores in NuLu include Revelry Boutique Gallery, Red Tree, and Scout.
Where to Shop for Derby Hats
The Kentucky Derby is as much about fashion as it is about horse racing. One of the essential elements of any derby outfit is a stylish hat. If you’re a gal in the market for a Derby hat, there are plenty of places to get your dome decorated. Here are some of the best places to shop for derby hats in Louisville:
The Mysterious Rack: This vintage shop specializes in unique and one-of-a-kind hats, including a selection of derby hats.
Dee’s: Dee’s has been a staple of Louisville’s derby fashion scene for over 30 years. They offer a wide selection of hats, fascinators, and other accessories.
Formé Millinery: Formé Millinery is a high-end hat shop that creates custom-made hats for the Kentucky Derby and other special events.
Enjoy Attending Your First Run for the Roses
A trip to the Kentucky Derby can be an unforgettable experience, but it’s important to plan ahead and make sure you have everything you need to make the most of your trip. With the right accommodations, transportation, and dining options, you’ll be able to enjoy all that Louisville has to offer and experience the excitement of one of the world’s most famous horse races.
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