- Associated Press - Thursday, April 19, 2012

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Shadowbox with a silhouetted Muhammad Ali. Grab a bat and take a few swings in a batting cage at the Louisville Slugger Museum. Dig into a Hot Brown at the place where the savory sandwich was created. Sip Kentucky bourbons at a hotel where Al Capone played blackjack.

Louisville is home to plenty of originals that liven up a visit to Kentucky’s largest city, best known for a 2-minute sporting event.

It’s the iconic horse track that overshadows everything else in town on the first Saturday in May. That’s when the Kentucky Derby is run at Churchill Downs - where mint juleps flow, women sport flowery hats and sleek thoroughbreds race for immortality.

Visitors don’t have to be horse racing buffs to enjoy the charms of this city along the Ohio River.

The city usually is adorned in red, pink and white blossoms as springtime thoughts turn from following NCAA basketball brackets to handicapping the Derby. But this year’s unseasonably warm weather resulted in a showy, but early, bloom.

The spring greenery is always dazzling in the Bluegrass State. While in Louisville, visitors can stroll along Waterfront Park - the city’s 85-acre front yard. The expansive playground near downtown offers panoramic views of downtown and the Ohio River.

“This time of year, Louisvillians get so happy,” said local restaurateur Lynn Winter. “It’s like everyone comes out.”

Not far from the park, several museums are clustered within four blocks in the city’s downtown, which features an array of restaurants and shops. Among the most popular destinations are the Muhammad Ali Center and the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory.

The Ali Center showcases the boxing career of the former world heavyweight champion known as the “Louisville Lip,” and highlights his social activism and humanitarian causes out of the ring. Mr. Ali, who turned 70 in January, grew up in a West End neighborhood of Louisville.

The center replays his most famous bouts and features plenty of memorabilia. 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 retrace Mr. Ali’s fight against war, segregation and poverty.

A short walk away, visitors can see workers crafting bats used by big leaguers. The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory is a treasure trove of memorabilia that features bats used by Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams and other Hall of Famers.

Visitors can pick a bat, wood or aluminum, and take a crack in the batting cages.

“We have little kids and big kids alike,” said employee Tony Fowler.

The springtime pace in town can seem as fast as that on the track at Churchill Downs.

The big horse race may last only two minutes, but the pre-race celebration lasts weeks during the Kentucky Derby Festival.

Leading up to the derby, the city celebrates with a giant fireworks show, a parade, a steamboat race and a balloon race - among the highlights of a festival that also features athletic events, music and food.

Restaurants and watering holes are abundant in town, an hour’s drive or so from distilleries producing world-famous bourbons.

At the Brown Hotel, one of the city’s landmark places to stay, visitors can dig into a Hot Brown. The local favorite, an open-faced turkey and bacon sandwich covered with Mornay sauce (a creamy cheese sauce), was first served at the hotel decades ago.

At the Seelbach Hilton, another renowned Louisville hotel where Al Capone played blackjack, there’s an extensive bourbon collection, including ultrapremium single-barrel bourbons, served in a bar restored to an early 1900s feel.

One restaurant that has become a staple for visitors and locals alike is Lynn’s Paradise Cafe, where the funky decor and comfort foods are big draws in the Barret Avenue neighborhood east of downtown. The baked macaroni and cheese, hot browns, meatloaf and omelets are among the favorites. You can wash it down with a bourbon ball milkshake.

Ms. Winter, a Louisville native who opened the restaurant in 1991, said the trend toward owner-operated restaurants has mushroomed in the city’s many distinctive neighborhoods in recent years.

But Louisville’s most enduring landmark is Churchill Downs, situated south of downtown. The historic track underwent a face-lift several years ago that refurbished the six-level clubhouse, added luxury suites and spruced up the home of the Kentucky Derby. The spring racing meet begins April 28, a week before the Run for the Roses.

Visitors can watch Derby contenders go through workouts in preparation for the big race, but it requires an early wake-up call.

Churchill’s Dawn at the Downs offers runs Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of Derby week, May 1-3 this year, and includes a sumptuous Kentucky-style breakfast buffet from 7-8:30 a.m. in a dining space overlooking the finish line.

Next door, the world’s most famous horse race is a daily attraction at the Kentucky Derby Museum.

Situated just off Gate 1 at Churchill, the museum is filled with Derby memorabilia. Interactive displays let visitors pretend they are in the middle of a thoroughbred race. They can take a crack at calling a horse race as track announcer. The museum also offers tours of Churchill.

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