The North Christian Church is just one of many striking buildings in Columbus, Indiana, an easy day trip from Louisville © gnagel / Getty Images
Kentucky’s most vibrant city, Louisville has a lot going for it. On top of a great dining and drinking scene, fun arts events and picturesque neighborhoods, the city lies within easy reach of a diverse range of attractions. Snaking caverns, world-renowned thoroughbred horse farms and some of the best distilleries in America are all less than two hours’ drive from the River City.
If you've come down for the Derby and want to see more of Kentucky, the following day trips are ideal for travelers interested in exploring rural and urban landscapes. The state's sun-dappled bluegrass pastures make a fine counterpoint to historic downtowns dotted with whiskey bars and eclectic eateries. You’ll also find plenty of surprises, from a tiny city famed for modernist architecture to a Tibetan monastery on the edge of a vibrant college town.
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Wherever you head from Louisville, you’ll need a car – public transportation is unfortunately quite limited here. Once you've sorted out your wheels, aim them at these five top day trips from Louisville.
Why Go: To admire an astonishing collection of 20th-century architecture
Even many Indiana locals are unaware of the great architectural treasure trove in the southern part of the state. From the middle of the 20th century, the town of Columbus, Indiana, became a veritable drawing board for some of the world’s greatest living architects. More than 60 buildings here were designed by famous names, including Eero Saarinen, Richard Meier, IM Pei, Cesar Pelli, Harry Weese and Deborah Berke among many others.
The American Institute of Architects has ranked Columbus the sixth-best city in the nation for its outstanding array of architecture – not bad for a city with a population of just 50,000. Don’t miss the First Christian Church, designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen (father of Eero Saarinen) in 1942; the brick-and-limestone structure is a Modernist masterpiece.
There’s also some impressive public art on display, with works by the likes of Henry Moore, Robert Indiana and Dale Chihuly. Download the free ''Columbus, IN Tours" app on your smartphone and you can explore the great art and architecture at your leisure. You can also arrange tours and pick up maps at the Columbus visitors center.
If you need a break, stop in at Zaharakos, a beautifully restored, 1900s-era ice cream parlor with a mahogany counter, stained glass windows and Tiffany-style lamps, as well as outstanding homemade ice cream and classic American fare.
How to get to Columbus from Louisville: If you’re driving, it’s a straight shot up I-65 from Louisville to Columbus; allow about 75 minutes for the 70-mile drive. For a dose of nature along the way, stop in at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge. You can walk one of five trails while keeping an eye out for the 290 bird species that pass through each year, including greater sandhill cranes in winter.
It's all about the horses in Lexington, Kentucky © Lottie Davies / Lonely Planet
Why go: To visit leafy neighborhoods and thoroughbred farms in America's horse capital
Set in the heart of Kentucky's Bluegrass country, Lexington often outscores its bigger neighbor to the north when it comes to desirability for both visitors and residents. The state’s second-largest city regularly makes the top 30 in annual round-ups of the best places to live in the USA (this is something you might want to keep to yourself when you’re back in Louisville, as the two towns are long-time rivals).
Historic homes, inviting parks and a wide assortment of family-friendly attractions make Lexington well worth your time for a day trip, or even an overnight stay. This equine-obsessed town is often called "the horse capital of the world" for the thoroughbred farms just outside of town. You can learn all about Lexington’s beloved racehorses (or even go for a ride) on a visit to the Kentucky Horse Park. Alternatively, catch turf racing at Keeneland or see harness racing at the Red Mile racetrack.
Beyond horses, there’s much to do in Lexington, from visiting the grand mansion and manicured gardens at the Ashland Estate to sipping your way through the town’s notable distilleries and microbreweries. You can check out the city's liquid largesse on the whimsically named Brewgrass Trail.
How to get to Lexington from Louisville: Allow about 90 minutes for the 80-mile drive east from Louisville on I-64. Along the way, you can stop in Frankfort, the state’s charming capital on the banks of the Kentucky River. Take a bite at Frank’s White Light Diner, which serves up hearty Cajun cooking near the Singing Bridge.
Stalactities, stalagmites and huge subterranean passageways are the key features of Mammoth Cave © Posnov / Getty Images
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Why go: To see a glittering subterranean landscape in the world’s largest cave system
Covering more than 400 miles of underground passageways, Mammoth Cave National Park staggers the imagination. Strolling through these cool, silent passageways, you’ll see natural wonders formed over millions of years, from waterfall-like columns to shimmering stalactites adorning vast cathedral-like chambers.
National park guides run a wide variety of guided trips throughout the year. The four-hour Grand Avenue tour takes you through slot canyons, gypsum-lined tunnels and up steep hills – a journey that showcases the caves’ geological diversity. You can also learn about centuries of human influence in the cave on a historic tour, or see the caverns lit up by lantern on the Violet City tour. Be sure to book well ahead, as tours can fill up weeks in advance.
How to get to Mammoth Cave National Park from Louisville: The 88-mile drive from Louisville to the caves takes about 90 minutes. It's worth spending the night for a bit of uninterrupted stargazing – in 2021, Mammoth Cave was named an international dark sky park. You can stay overnight at the Lodge at Mammoth Caves (run by the park service) in pleasant wooden cottages surrounded by greenery.
Barrels of bourbon whiskey in a rick house (storage barn) at Heaven Hill Distillery, Bardstown © Lottie Davies / Lonely Planet
Why go: To taste Kentucky’s finest bourbon at historic distilleries
One of the oldest settlements in Kentucky, Bardstown is a charming small town with Georgian red-brick architecture and a walkable center that invites you to explore. You can check out eye-catching locally owned shops and tempting food stops such as Hadorn’s, a third-generation family bakery famed for its cinnamon rolls and donuts.
Snacking and window shopping are fine preludes to the main event here – namely delving into the lore of bourbon whiskey. Bardstown calls itself "the bourbon capital of the world" and it’s hard to dispute that claim given the town’s staggering number of distilleries and bourbon bars. You can learn about the spirit’s past on a visit to the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, then go for tours and tastings at iconic distilleries such as Barton 1792, Heaven Hill or Willett.
How to get to Bardstown from Louisville: It takes about an hour to cover the 44 miles between Louisville and Bardstown. If your focus is just on bourbon, you can book an excursion from Louisville with Mint Julep Tours, which visits three bourbon distilleries (they also offer custom tours).
Bloomington's Tibetan Mongolian Cultural Center is a major hub for Buddhist study – even the Dalai Lama has spoken here © Craig Lovell / Getty Images
Why go: To see Indiana at its most eclectic
One of the loveliest college campuses in America lies amidst the rolling hills of south central Indiana. Spread across 1900 acres, Indiana University is an inviting expanse of grassy lawns, woodlands and creeks, with historic limestone buildings sprouting among the greenery. After strolling the grounds, you can spend the day taking in some impressive culture, from modernist masterpieces tucked inside the IM Pei–designed Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art to the rare manuscripts in the Lilly Library.
Sprawling around the university, Bloomington is one of Indiana’s most culturally dynamic small towns. You can find outstanding ethnic fare at places such as Samira, a much-loved Afghani restaurant, or hear up-and-coming local bands at The Bluebird. Southeast of the center, take time to stroll the peaceful grounds of the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center, founded by Thubten Jigme Norbu, the late brother of the Dalai Lama, back in 1979.
How to get to Bloomington from Louisville: Bloomington is a two-hour drive northwest of Louisville. Set out early so you can stop in at Brown County State Park along the way; 18 miles of hiking trails loop through Indiana’s largest state park, offering some fabulous views across to the hill-covered horizon.
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