April 02, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) When the azaleas and dogwoods burst into springtime bloom, thoughts in Louisville turn to parties, fashion and fast horses in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby. This city along the Ohio River spends weeks celebrating a two-minute horse race on the first Saturday in May. It has a growing reputation as a foodie destination, with fare ranging from corn dogs and turkey legs at the Chow Wagon during Derby season to creative cuisine in trendy neighborhoods. This is bourbon country, so cocktails featuring the signature whiskey are staples. In the downtown museum district, visitors can reconnect with Muhammad Ali's boxing career or watch slabs of wood turn into Louisville Slugger baseball bats. Here's a look.

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WHAT'S NEW

The Big Four Bridge connecting Kentucky and Indiana has become a popular destination since opening last year, allowing people to walk or jog from one side of the Ohio River to the other. The bridge offers panoramic views of the river and downtown, and at night the span is illuminated by color-changing lights.

For a subterranean adventure, there's Louisville Mega Cavern. Its newest attraction is an indoor bicycle park with miles of dirt trails, jumps and stunt courses that opened recently inside the abandoned limestone mine. Bike rentals are expected to be available soon. The cavern also features a zip line course and tram tours. Each holiday season the cavern is transformed into a drive-thru Christmas light show.

The city's Urban Bourbon Trail has spiced up the night scene with its cocktail and culinary experience at dozens of restaurants. Tapping into bourbon's revival, Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc. offers tours and tastings at its downtown attraction - The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience. Several other whiskey makers have opened or are planning craft distilleries nearby.

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CLASSIC ATTRACTIONS

Louisville pays homage to many of its best-known residents - past and present - in giant murals. Local attractions also include an impressive lineup of iconic names, brands and events. The Muhammad Ali Center highlights the boxing career and humanitarian causes of the three-time world heavyweight champion who grew up in Louisville. Ali's rapid-fire punching and talking are relived in video replays. Visitors can shadowbox, punch a speed bag and lean into a heavy bag that lets them feel the power of an Ali punch. Other exhibits focus on Ali's humanitarian efforts.

A short walk away, a 120-foot-tall steel bat looms outside the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory. Visitors can grip a treasure trove of bats once used by a lineup of Hall of Famers, including Mickey Mantle, Cal Ripken Jr. and Johnny Bench. In the factory, there are the sounds of machines and the smell of wood as the bats are shaped.

At the Kentucky Derby Museum, the first leg of the Triple Crown is relived every day. Videos give visitors a feel for the Derby Day atmosphere - from the hard-charging thoroughbreds to the regalia of hats and fashion. The museum offers tours of Churchill Downs that can include visits to the backside where horses are stabled or into the grandstand area. The museum is just off Gate 1 at the track. The museum is closed Derby Day and the day before when the Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies is run. It's open Monday through Thursday of Derby Week and reopens the day after the Derby.

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TIPS

Hotels and restaurants fill up quickly during Derby Week as race fans and those just wanting a taste of the Derby experience converge. So make dinner reservations early - like right away, if you haven't already - for popular spots on Derby and Oaks days. For those determined to get into a booked-up restaurant, try calling close to race time. Some people make multiple reservations, get worn out at the track or have too much fun - those mint juleps can add up - and cancel at the last minute.

The weather can be as unpredictable as the races. So pack for any eventuality, with outfits for hot or cold weather.

For a quick tour of Louisville, there's Trolley de `Ville. The old-time trolley rides offer 14-mile, 75-minute tours that are narrated. Riders can learn about the city, the Kentucky Derby and good places to eat.

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HANGING OUT

Downtown's East Market District - commonly known as NuLu, standing for New Louisville - is becoming a popular destination for its array of art galleries, specialty stores, antiques shops and restaurants. Garage Bar, housed in a former auto service garage, serves up Kentucky bourbons, seasonal cocktails, an eclectic lineup of draft and bottled craft brews and wine. The menu at the casual neighborhood spot includes pizzas from a wood-fired brick oven, country ham and Southern specialties, with a nod toward fresh, local ingredients.

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