In Western Kentucky, it’s easy to blow a wad of money when you’re out for a good time—private suite at the Derby, anyone? But there’s also plenty to do without spending a dime. You’ll find lots of freebie fun in Louisville and more terrific options all around the countryside. Whether you’re looking for music, theater, museums, kitsch, a special stroll, or tasting a little bourbon, it’s all free for the doing.
1. Free walks in Louisville
To get to know this charming city, sign up for a free, 75-minute Looking at Louisville walking tour, which departs from the Louisville Visitors Center and covers 10 surrounding blocks in the downtown area. A second tour that highlights the story of bourbon is also sometimes offered.
About a mile away in Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, stop at the Old Louisville Neighborhood and Visitors Center (Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–3 p.m.) for free information on strolling the scenic Louisville Historic District. Tree-lined avenues lead walkers through the nation’s largest contiguous collection of elegant Victorian mansions built for Louisville’s prominent families in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Guided walking tours are also available seasonally. Adults, $20.
On the 100-plus-year-old Big Four Bridge, an iron railway span that has been converted for pedestrian and bicycle use, you can cross the Ohio River from Louisville’s Waterfront Park to Jeffersonville, Indiana, and back—a 2-mile round trip—while taking in panoramas of the city. Go for the sunset and stay for the colorful LED nighttime lighting.
The 296 verdant acres at Cave Hill Cemetery offer a peaceful place for a contemplative walk. A downloadable map displays the resting places of Louisville’s native son Muhammad Ali and KFC king Colonel Harlan Sanders.
2. Free music
On the last Wednesday of every month between April and September, free 6 p.m. concerts liven up the family-friendly atmosphere at Louisville’s Waterfront Park, next to the Big Four Bridge. You’ll find locals enjoying the end of the workweek here, too, with music and food trucks every Friday evening.
Summer also brings free concerts to Central Park. This year’s Old Louisville LIVE series features Mike Tracy and Hora Certa Brazilian Jazz Band on September 10, In Lightning (classically inspired rock orchestra) on September 17, and Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band (country blues) on September 23.
Kentucky is Bluegrass Country, and it’s celebrated in grand style at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro. While there are ticketed concerts throughout the year, you can also sit in on free jam sessions every Saturday and Sunday afternoon from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Bring your instrument if you play—or borrow one of several available there—and join the pickin’ and strummin’, or just sit a spell and enjoy the lively, old-time music.
3. Free Shakespeare
The play’s the thing in Louisville’s Central Park when the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival—now in its 62nd season—takes to the outdoor stage every summer. Presented at 8 p.m. on several nights each week through August 7, free productions include Twelfth Night, Richard III, The Merry Wives of Windsor (starring high-school students), and Much Ado About Nothing.
On select Saturday evenings, Late Night Shakes features the Louisville Improvisors, who turn audience suggestions into amusing new Shakespearean scenes. The Louisville Ballet gets into the act, too, with a Shakespeare-inspired dance premiere. Arrive early to enjoy food trucks, a drinks vendor, and pre-show family activities.
4. Free art museums
Kentucky’s oldest, largest, and most prominent museum, Louisville’s Speed Art Museum is home to a world-spanning collection of ancient, classical, and contemporary paintings and sculpture. Thanks to funding from the Brown-Forman Foundation and the Owsley Brown II Family, admission is free every Sunday through 2024 (10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m). All you have to do is book tickets online in advance. The Free Owsley Sundays also include such extras as free film screenings, art-making activities, and live music.
Near the riverfront, admission to a 9,000-square-foot art exhibition space at the 21C Museum Hotel is free every day, 24/7. Shows, which change annually, feature works by 21st-century artists from the world over. Thursday-evening docent-led tours are also complimentary, as are occasional concerts, films, and poetry readings.
5. Free bourbon tours
The best way to toast Bourbon Country? Visit a distillery. Even if you don’t imbibe, it’s fascinating to see how grain, yeast, and water are transformed into the legendary amber spirit.
While other bourbon makers charge for tours, those at Frankfort’s Buffalo Trace are free. After observing the distilling process in the aging warehouses, you’ll be offered a complimentary tasting (nonalcoholic beverages, too). You’re also welcome to stroll through the distillery’s botanical gardens and bird sanctuary, or buy lunch from onsite purveyors of barbecue and traditional Kentucky burgoo.
Tours are available Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Online reservations are required. Always arrange for a designated driver if you plan to consume alcohol.
6. Free auto museum
Take a free ride through automobile history at the Swope Cars of Yesteryear Museum in Elizabethtown. The impressive display includes more than 60 vehicles ranging from a 1910 Brush roadster and 1910 Hupmobile Runabout to a 1953 Jaguar XK120, 1956 Thunderbird, and 1969 Camaro 350SS.
Among about a dozen elegant Packards on view are a 7-passenger sedan from 1928 and a 1948 Victoria convertible. Imagine the stories a 1921 Dodge built for the Maharajah of Bradesh could tell. Then there’s the silver 1939 Rolls Royce Wraith Sedanca De Ville, whose owners drove it across Europe in the summer of 1939, hurriedly exiting Poland just as Hitler began his blitzkrieg there.
All of the cars—most of them in original, museum-quality condition—were collected by the late F. W. Swope, who founded the Swope Family of Automobile Dealerships in 1952 and created the museum as a gift to his community. Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
7. Free quirkiness
The Apple Valley Hillbilly Garden and Toyland in Calvert City isn’t for everybody, but if you like weird-to-the-max wackiness, put it on your list.
According to owner Keith Holt, his 6-acre “garden” is an homage to the tacky roadside attractions of yesteryear. The gregarious, way-outsider artist loves showing visitors around the somewhat unkempt grounds, enthusiastically demonstrating 30-plus tongue-in-cheek assemblages of cast-off objects (another man’s junk) that embody puns, common sayings, and dad jokes.
There’s also a small general-store/diner/gas-station complex established by Holt’s grandfather in 1928. Today, it houses a dizzying diorama of more than 3,500 vintage toys as well as several operating model trains. Admission is free; donations are welcomed. Open daily, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
A native Virginian, Maine-based Mimi Bigelow Steadman contributes to several AAA publications.
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