And they're off! Last-minute guide to the Kentucky Derby

Dan Dry  / Today
There's plenty to do and see in Louisville, Ky., besides the Kentucky Derby.

So you're headed to Louisville for this weekend's Kentucky Derby, wondering what to do besides sip a mint julep, cheer on your favorite horse, and take in all those hats.

There's plenty.  

James Moses / Today
Baseball fans can see where history is made at the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory in Louisville, Ky.

“The attractions are open … including the new Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, which I think will be a big hit, and the iconic attractions that you can't find anywhere else, like Louisville Slugger and the Ali Center,” says Stacey Yates of GoToLouisville, referring to the popular baseball bat museum and factory and the multicultural center dedicated to former heavyweight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali. 

The Kentucky Derby Museum is closed on Friday and Saturday for private parties, but Yates notes the museum is open on Sunday.

Beyond the Kentucky Derby, Louisville has several year-round attractions and is brimming with special events this week. 

“Nobody really works Derby week,” says New2Lou founder Stacey Servo. “It's just a big party. [People] wake up with a Bloody Mary and go to bed with a mint julep.”

Among attractions to look for are the pop-up shops and activities. For instance, milliners come in with hats and fashion for Derby, according to Servo, who posts information about parties and events on the New2Lou blog.

One pop-up, House of the Public, will feature “tons of local artisans and makers,” says Josh Meredith, founder of Original Makers Club. 

“Instead of another gala with a high ticket price and red carpet, we're creating a pop-up space where people can be real and enjoy an atmosphere that's not Derby,” he says. The pop-up club is hosted at downtown cocktail lounge Meta, with a different look and feel on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. No admission price, no reservations, he says. "Really good mixology. Nobody's seen or really done [anything like this] before.”

Many locals recommend people-watching at Wagner's Pharmacy restaurant and Proof on Main's bar. Proof also “always does a great Derby party,” says Meredith.

Thoroughbred excitement isn't limited to Derby on Saturday. Dawn at the Downs, held Tuesday through Thursday, gives visitors the opportunity to check out the contenders while enjoying breakfast in Millionaires Row. “You get to see sunrise at the track; it's magical," says Servo. "I almost prefer it to Derby itself. You can hear some buzz and see people in the business, see how the horses are warming up and get some good tips on who to bet on.”

Still looking for lodging? It's not hopeless. While Derby really does fill the city, rooms can be found, says Yates. “But finding that room is the trick," she says. "It really is about getting on the phone. Our call center – 1 (888) LOUISVILLE – is a good place to call for help." Agents call lodgings daily to find open rooms. 

Increasingly, travelers are finding alternatives to hotels as locals open up their homes to Derby fans. Alex Davis and his wife, Jen McVeigh, have rented their Victorian home on during Derby for the past five years. “I think it's probably easier to find something last minute where you have hundreds of options versus hotels,” Davis says. “You have a huge range of options from $400-500 a night [and up] to 30 bucks for a couch to crash on.”

Airbnb offers more than 300 listings in Louisville — more than double the number available for last year's Derby, according to the website's managing editor Andy Murdock. As of late April, less than a third of the listings were still available for this week.

Hungry travelers who haven't yet reserved a Derby dinner needn't despair, either. “Everybody's booked up for Derby,” says chef Shawn Ward, who recently left Louisville institution Jack Fry's to launch his own venture, The Brewery. “We're going to do three or four courses for … people that didn't make a reservation for Derby.”

Dana McMahan is a food, travel, and fitness writer. Follow her @danamac.