What to do in Louisville during March Madness

Contributing Travel WriterMarch 14, 2012 

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    The Louisville Visitors Center, 301 South Fourth Street, on Fourth Street Live, will offer Wildcats and Hilltoppers fans a 25 percent discount on all merchandise with a game ticket. During the tournament, the center will have extended hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Visitor hotline: (502) 561-3100 or 1-888-568-4784. Web site: Gotolouisville.com

The first day of the NCAA basketball tournament will have a distinctive Kentucky flavor: The University of Kentucky and Western Kentucky University will meet Thursday evening in Louisville's KFC Yum Center for what's bound to be a bruising Bluegrass minuet.

Another Kentucky team, Murray State University, will get things started when it plays Colorado State University earlier in the day.

If you are lucky enough to have tickets to the games, lucky enough to know someone who might be willing to dispose of tickets or just lucky enough to be in Louisville during the first weekend of March Madness, here are a few tips for recreation in the River City when the basketballs aren't bouncing.

Fourth Street Live: The pedestrian mall between Muhammad Ali Boulevard and Liberty Street will be the gathering place for the basketball faithful. It always seems to be hopping and promises to be even more so starting Thursday.

In addition to a fan fest with big-screen TVs, a pop-up beer garden and live music, there are restaurants (J. Gumbo's and Hard Rock Café are among them) and bars ranging from the boisterous (Wet Willie's) to the more sedate (Maker's Mark Bourbon Lounge).

Urban Bourbon Trail: Celebrate your team's victory (or mourn its loss) with a journey on the Urban Bourbon Trail. Pick up your passport at any of the 13 participating restaurants and bars or at the Louisville Visitors Center, 301 South Fourth Street, on Fourth Street Live.

Each establishment on the trail has come up with a way to celebrate the commonwealth's favorite beverage, whether with a flight of Four Roses bourbons at Baxter Station or what possibly might be the world's best mint julep at the Brown Hotel.

Participating Urban Bourbon Trail venues within walking distance of the KFC Yum Center are the bars at the Brown and Seelbach hotels, Jockey Silks Bourbon Bar, Maker's Mark Bourbon Lounge, Proof on Main and The Bar at Blu.

Sports museums: This weekend is all about basketball, but Louisville, recently dubbed "America's manliest city" by GQ magazine, has some worthwhile museums dedicated to other sports — baseball, boxing and, of course, horse racing — that are worth a visit.

The Louisville Slugger Museum (Sluggermuseum.com) is easily recognizable because of the five-story baseball bat propped against the building on Main Street. The literal birthplace of the major league bat (factory tours are available), the Slugger Museum is the Hermitage of home runs, the Louvre of line drives and the Smithsonian of swings, all rolled into one, for hard-core baseball fans.

Within walking distance of the Slugger Museum is the Muhammad Ali Center (Alicenter.org), dedicated to the Louisville native who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee en route to three world heavyweight titles.

With 40 interactive exhibits on 21/2 floors, the museum chronicles Ali's life not just as a boxer but as a champion of civil rights, an anti-war activist and a global humanitarian.

You'll need a car to get to the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs (Derbymuseum.org). The museum, which was closed for nearly a year after a 2009 flood, is better than ever.

Interactive exhibits allow visitors to immerse themselves in the Sport of Kings, whether it's through the Derby Time Machine, which shows newsreels of past Runs for the Roses, or the Riders Up exhibit, which teaches kids how to ride like a jockey.

Louisville Mega Cavern: If watching the UK Wildcats and the WKU Hilltoppers battle on the boards and under the basket doesn't give you enough of an adrenaline rush, you can take the world's only underground zip line tour at Louisville Mega Cavern (Louisvillemegacavern.com).

With 17 miles of underground passageways, the cavern, formerly a limestone mine, is the logical choice for daredevils who want to fling themselves through the air at heights of 70 feet above ground clipped to a steel cable — in the dark. And why settle for only one line when you can have five, plus three wobbly challenge bridges?

If the two-hour zip line tour is too much adventure for you, there is a one-hour tram tour of the cavern.

With all that Louisville offers, you can combine basketball mania with a mini-vacation.

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at pnickell13@bellsouth.net.

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