If you’re in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby, you may find yourself overwhelmed with all the things to see and do during the city’s biggest and most anticipated event. The Kentucky Derby (and the week leading up to it) is an experience like no other and we want to help you get the most out of your visit. After many years of attending this unique event, we’ve nailed down our best pieces of advice for anyone planning to go for the first time.
What to Wear
One of the highlights of Derby is dressing up in fashionable dress, including — but certainly not limited to — spring dresses, seersucker suits, and fabulous headwear. Our best tip for those starting the day in high heels: bring a pair of flip-flops or flats to change into later in the day. After a day of walking between the paddock, spectator seating and the refreshment areas, your feet will thank you.
There are a few other things to keep in mind when planning your wardrobe for the day. One is to consider the forecast. If there is any chance of rain, plan to bring a poncho with you. Umbrellas are not allowed inside Churchill Downs. It’s never a bad idea to toss some sunscreen in your bag either, though you’ll want to make sure the bag you’re bringing complies with Derby’s bag policy.
Check out the Paddock Area
This large, open space is a place to see and be seen, and while visitors can’t go in, they can get surprisingly close to the horses as they’re paraded through the paddock pre-race. It’s also a great location to photograph the spectacular hats and colorful outfits of the spectators.
For the 2023 event, Derby-goers will have the opportunity for a unique paddock experience. The venue’s paddock area is currently undergoing a $200 million renovation so a temporary paddock has been constructed for use at this year’s races.
As one of the top sporting events in the world, the Kentucky Derby always seems to attract a number of big names from the entertainment industry. Famous faces at the 2022 Derby included Jack Harlow, Michael Phelps, Melissa Joan Hart, and Miss USA Elle Smith, just to name a few.
For those hoping for a celebrity sighting, check out the Derby Red Carpet (usually found near the VIP gate) where many celebrities will walk on their way up to their seats. If you want to get even closer to the celebs, you may want to consider attending the Barnstable Brown Gala, the most exclusive event of the weekend.
VIP Seating Options
Speaking of VIP seating, those seats aren’t just for celebrities. If you want the ultimate Derby experience, we can arrange for a spot for you in one of the premium viewing areas including Millionaires Row, the Stakes Room, and the new Homestretch Club.
If you simply want to make sure you have a covered seat to protect you from the elements, our team can advise on which sections will best suit your needs.
Food and Drink
No visit to Louisville would be complete without two things: sipping a mint julep and having a hot brown: an open-faced sandwich with sliced turkey, bacon and mornay sauce. As far as we’re concerned, there’s no better place to try your first mint julep than at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby. As for the Hot Brown, we suggest trying the original at the historic Brown Hotel, one of our luxury properties.
As for dinner reservations, you’ll want to plan early. Popular eateries book up well in advance of Derby week. If you’d like some recommendations, we go into detail on some of our favorite Louisville restaurants here.
A popular event with locals, Thursday at Churchill Downs (aptly named Thurby) offers a different experience than Friday or Saturday. There are races, of course, and there are also musical performances and other entertainment acts. Thurby also provides guests with a great opportunity to explore Churchill Downs before the main event on Saturday.
If you are hoping to attend the Kentucky Derby, we encourage you to plan early. We are seeing increased interest in this event and travelers are booking earlier than usual. Booking early gives you the best opportunity to secure your preferred Derby seating and accommodations.
For more information on how to make the most of your time in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby, download our Louisville Travel Guide.