Louisville is one of the best urban budget destinations in the USA © 4kclips / Shutterstock
Urban destinations don’t get much more affordable than Louisville. Set on a tranquil bend in the Ohio River, it has inexpensive lodging, cheap eats and plenty of attractions that won’t break your budget.
Some of the best ways to experience Louisville won’t cost you anything, whether strolling through walkable neighborhoods like the Highlands or having a picnic in Cherokee Park. You can get around cheaply by public transportation or better yet pedal power, with bikes available through LouVelo, the city’s extensive bike-share network. If you time your visit carefully, you can also enjoy free arts events and no-cost admission to iconic sights. Here are some of the best ways to save money visiting Kentucky’s most dynamic city.
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Figure out whether it’s cheaper to fly or drive to Louisville
Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport has direct flights to cities on the east coast, the midwest and the south, with discount airlines like Spirit offering rock bottom fares. You can sometimes save money and avoid an extra layover by flying into the larger airport of Cincinnati, about a 90-minute drive northeast of Louisville. If you’re not traveling across the country, you might save cash by taking a Greyhound bus or renting a car, which can come in handy when exploring the outskirts of Louisville.
Plan your trip around less-expensive travel times
The best room rates are generally from November through March, although the tradeoff to saving on lodging is experiencing colder temperatures. If you travel in these wintery months, just come prepared for frosty weather, especially in January and February when the lows hover around freezing. You can still score good rates in spring and summer, particularly in September, by booking well in advance.
One cardinal rule when it comes to Louisville: remember the Derby. On the first Saturday in May, thousands descend on the city for "the most exciting two minutes in sports" (aka the Kentucky Derby). Pricey three-night minimum stays are the norm then and places book up quickly.
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Reserve a room outside the city center for the best deals
Lodging need not put a massive hole in your travel budget. By staying outside the center of River City, you can often find decent double rooms for under $100 a night (more spartan quarters can be had for even less). For something even more wallet-friendly, you can pitch a tent or stay in a cabin at Louisville North Campground, located just a few minutes’ drive across the river in Jeffersonville. Even with the added cost of transportation, you’ll spend far less than you would staying at a hotel or B&B near downtown.
Once you make peace with the thought of overnighting in a chain hotel, you can focus on the undeniably positive aspects: many chains have spacious, well-appointed rooms, and some even have small kitchen units, allowing you to save a bit more by economizing on meals. Also keep an eye out for places offering free breakfast.
Ditch the car and take TARC to get around town
The Transit Authority of River City (TARC) operates numerous bus routes around town, and you can get just about anywhere using public transportation. The downside is that buses don’t always run on time and you may need to transfer from one line to another to get to your destination. Fares range from $0.75 for short circulator loops to $2.75 for express services. Pay in exact change or purchase a myTARC card from the TARC kiosk at 1000 W Broadway or from select Kroger grocery stores.
The LouVelo bike-share program is an ideal way to explore Louisville on a budget © Arne Beruldsen / Shutterstock
Go green and travel by bicycle
Louisville has become much more bicycle-friendly in the last few years. The city’s bike-share program LouVelo makes it easier than ever to lower your carbon footprint while getting from A to B. Some 321 bikes at 32 different bike kiosks are scattered throughout downtown, Old Louisville, Nulu and even across the river at Big Four Station Park in Indiana.
The cost is $3.50 for a one-off 30-minute ride or $7.50 for unlimited hour-long rides for a 24-hour period (you'll pay extra if any individual ride exceeds an hour in that time). LouVelo can even hook you up with a free helmet if you don’t have one (just stop by their office at 822 E Market St). Bear in mind that any cyclists under the age of 18 are legally required to wear a helmet in Louisville.
Discover Louisville’s secret, deliciously affordable eating spots
You don’t need to drop a lot of cash to eat well in this food-loving city. You can taste your way around the globe at cheap eats spots sprinkled throughout Louisville. Pho Baa Lou serves Vietnamese street food like pho (noodle soup) and bahn mi (baguette sandwiches), while El Molcajete whips up some of the best Mexican fare in town (with tacos under $4, you’ll want to make repeat visits). At Yummy Pollo, you can feast on Peruvian-style charcoal-grilled chicken and all the fixings, with two eating quite well for under $25.
Save money by visiting Louisville’s epicenter of fine art on Sunday
You can visit one of Louisville’s best collections without spending a dime by carefully timing your visit. On Sundays through 2024, there’s no admission to visit the Speed Art Museum, which is well known for its wide-ranging works from masterpieces by Rembrandt and Rodin to multimedia pieces by Hank Willis Thomas.
The iconic home of the Kentucky Derby is a fun budget day out © Barry Winiker / Getty Images
Watch the thoroughbreds racing at Churchill Downs
Probably the most famous track in the country, Churchill Downs has an action-packed lineup of horse racing from late April through early July, and again from mid-September through November. Apart from special events like the Kentucky Derby, general admission costs just $7 (free for kids under 12) most days, and if you place your bets right you can leave richer than when you arrived.
Join the art-minded revelry by visiting on the first Friday of the month
One of the liveliest times to visit Louisville is during the First Friday Hop when dozens of art galleries and boutiques celebrate a new month with art walks, live music, food and drink specials and other events. Artists are often on hand to talk about their work, and the whole downtown becomes something of a street party.
The beautiful public parks in Louisville are perfect for enjoying a family picnic in the sunshine © monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images / iStockphoto
Skip the restaurant scene and have a picnic in the park
One of the best ways to spend a sunny day is to pick up some provisions from the nearest grocery store and head to Louisville’s leafy backyard. The rolling hills, meadows and woodlands of Cherokee Park make a memorable backdrop to a moveable feast.
Aptly named Waterfront Park is another fine spot for a picnic. You’ll find lush green lawns and shaded pavilions, with sweeping views over the Ohio River. Afterward, you can stretch your legs with a stroll along the 6.9-mile Riverwalk.
Enjoy a cost-free day and go for a hike
Louisville has some enticing green spaces within a half-hour drive of downtown. When you need a quick nature fix, head to the Parklands of Floyds Fork. Encompassing some 4000 acres across four parks, this admission-free nature reserve has 60 miles of hiking-biking trails, from easy jaunts along Beckley Creek to more challenging rambles along the Chinkapin Trail in Turkey Run Park.
Daily costs in Louisville
Rustic cabin outside of town: $50
Budget hotel room for two: $80
Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): from $110
One-way transport on the TARC bus: from $0.75
Dinner for two: $40-70
Beer/pint at a microbrewery: $5-7
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