With a unique blend of East Coast, Midwestern and Southern culture and a pleasant, progressive vibe, Louisville, Ky., is a surprisingly exciting year-round destination. Of course, the energy and excitement are highest during the weeks leading up to the famed Kentucky Derby. But the attractiveness of this small Kentucky city goes well beyond horse racing.

Louisville has a small, but growing, green scene. It has always had great public parks and plenty of places to enjoy the outdoors. There is a decent public transit system and a bike culture that is rapidly moving into the mainstream. Locally harvested foods are easy to come by and there are plenty of eateries that pay attention to their impact on the environment. Even the Derby’s organizers and attendees have taken steps to make the event more eco-friendly. With more green initiatives on the horizon, Louisville is set to become one of the region’s best eco-friendly destinations.

Go green

Like most small American cities, Louisville’s public transportation administration relies solely on a bus service , called the TARC. Though routes snake through most of Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County, the most useful and regular routes are located near the city’s core. If you want to explore further afield, a car is necessary. TARC has recently begun using hybrid buses and is active in lobbying for better public transportation in the region and across the country.

Louisville has a rapidly growing bicycle scene. The ambitious Louisville Bike Project is adding bike trails and bike lanes to the city’s roadways. It is possible to combine bike commutes with bus travel because all TARC buses are equipped with bike racks. There are a wealth of resources for cyclists, so bike trips through the city are easy to plan.

Sleep green

The 21c Museum Hotel is one of the most unique sleeping spots in country. It is part hotel and part classy-but-hip art museum. The public areas of 21c are basically art galleries featuring high quality contemporary art. This is an upscale hotel, but one that has an impressive commitment to the environment . Recycled material was used in the building process, from walls and windows to carpeting. Recycling, reusable cups and a complete lack of Styrofoam are also aspects of 21c’s green plan.

Eat green

Louisville has some unique eating options. The Hillbilly Cafe's headlining product is organic tea. It also uses local ingredients to make the dishes on its menu, which it defines as “Appalachian” cuisine.

Louisville has a huge number of farmers markets throughout the city. Most are open in the summer and fall (one or two days per week), though a few stay open later in the year. Though it would be a shame to miss out on the city’s restaurant scene, hard-core locally grown aficionados have the opportunity to truly eat local during their visit to Louisville.

Race green

Huge sporting events like the Kentucky Derby are usually not very environmentally friendly. But with the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and the SXSW Festival making green strides, other major festivals, including the famed horse race, are taking notice. The Kentucky Derby Festival , which includes art shows, wine fairs and fireworks displays, is a huge part of the Louisville experience during the weeks (and months) leading up to the Derby. The festival offsets the massive amount of carbon created by visitors to the Derby by purchasing green power from the local utility company to use in its office complex. A massive recycling effort is another one of the festival’s Earth-minded initiatives, with volunteers forming “green teams” to help with the process.

See green

Louisville is a city of parks. These open spaces are great places to take in some green landscapes during Kentucky’s long summers. The Waterfront Park , which sits on the banks of the Ohio River, is the most noticeable. The 85-acre stretch of green is not the most natural public space in Louisville, but it is impressive considering its location in the city’s downtown core. The gardens, walking paths and picnic areas are a good backdrop for outdoor, warm weather fun.

While the Waterfront Park sits front and center, there are plenty of other natural areas in Louisville as well. Some of the older parks were designed by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. A new initiative called City of Parks has facilitated the setting aside of new urban green spaces. The plan also calls for a 100-mile bike loop that will run through Louisville. The two-wheeler highway is about 25 percent complete. The Jefferson Memorial Forest , near the city center, features 6,000 acres of natural space and is one of the most impressive urban forests in the region.

The Louisville Zoo is a great family attraction. It has a decent amount of exhibit space and features given the size of the city. In addition to fund-raising for conservation projects , this zoo has a strong environmental education program aimed at youth. Backyard Action Hero is a good example of the zoo’s commitment to education. This program is basically an online guidebook that offers activities and insights into living an eco-friendly life.

Louisville is an interesting but often overlooked destination. Its laid-back, small city vibe and large parks make it a pleasant if not overly exciting destination. It is the city’s eco-friendly aspirations that make it an attractive travel destination for environmentalists. Judging by the green features that are already in place and its ambitions, Louisville is poised to steal the attention of urban eco-tourists.

Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.

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Why you should visit Louisville, Ky.
Farmers markets, a growing bike culture and plenty of parks make this horse-racing town worth a visit.