In the first decades of the 19th century, before the locks were built in Louisville, New Albany was one of the largest cities in the Midwest and a vital stop on the Underground Railroad.
This growth was powered by shipyards building steamboats, and New Albany had a high reputation for the workmanship of its vessels.
When this industry dwindled after the Civil War it was replaced by glass manufacturing, and the first plate glass windows in the country were built in this city.
You can still feel the ripples from those times, in the quaint and eclectic downtown and in the sublime architecture of the Mansion Row Historic District.
1. Culbertson Mansion State Historic Site
At one time the dry goods entrepreneur and investor, William Culbertson was the richest man in Indiana, and this wealth is reflected in the lavish mansion that he commissioned in 1867.
This 25-room, French Second Empire residence was extremely expensive for the time, costing an eye-watering $120,000, although still just a fraction of the $3.5 million fortune he left to his widow when he passed away.
An ongoing restoration project is returning the Culbertson Mansion to its 1869 appearance. Among the many exquisite surviving details are crystal chandeliers, marble fireplaces, a carved rosewood staircase and hand-painted ceiling and wall frescoes.
On a tour (Wednesday through Sunday) you’ll pick up astounding details about the mansion as you look around the formal parlors, dining rooms, kitchen, bedrooms and laundry room.
2. Downtown New Albany
The old center of New Albany combines handsome old architecture going back to the city’s peak with a growing shopping and dining district packed with independent businesses.
This all makes for a quaint place to do some exploring, combined with a Saturday farmers’ market present all year round.
Folded in with some new spots that have popped up in the last few years are a few businesses that have stood the test of the time. One of these is the venerable Rookies Cookies, a treasured bakery going back to 1939.
Elsewhere you’ve got boutiques, gift shops, galleries, a vintage clothing store and an eclectic array of bars, cafes and restaurants, whether you’re up for Mediterranean & Middle Eastern, pizza, tacos or tapas.
There’s history at every turn, but one property, the Scribner House (1813-1814), has been here since the very start and was built by Joel Scribner, one of the three brothers who founded New Albany.
3. Mansion Row Historic District
The Culbertson Mansion is just one of a long line of grand old residences on Main Street, dating from the 19th to the early 20th century. If you want to get a feel for the fortunes created by New Albany’s steamboat industry, this is the place to come.
The district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, and you could while away an hour or two admiring the architecture in a spectrum of styles including Federal, Italianate, Victorian, Beaux-Arts, Gothic Revival and Greek Revival.
As well as William Culbertson, some of the important figures to make their home here are playwright William Vaughn Moody (1869-1910), Speaker of the House, Michael C. Kerr (1827-1876) and wealthy industrialist, Washington C. DePauw (1822-1887).
New Albany has enough going on that it can be easy to forget that Louisville is right across the Ohio River.
Just the name, “Louisville” brings plenty of famous things to mind, and you’ll have ample opportunity to explore signatures like Louisville Slugger baseball bats, the Kentucky Derby and bourbon.
The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory is a must, heralded by what is officially the largest baseball bat in the world. At Churchill Downs a tour and visit to the Kentucky Derby Museum will run you through the 150-year history of this fabled track and the most famous event in horse racing.
Also make time for a distillery or three, and Evan Williams, Old Forester, Angel’s Envy, Kentucky Peerless and Rabbit Hole are a few names to keep on your radar.
Last but not least, Louisville is the birthplace of Muhammad Ali, with a high-profile musuem and cultural center opened by the epoch-defning heavyweight in 2005.
5. Carnegie Center for Art & History
In New Albany’s collection of sumptuous old buildings is the Carnegie Library, built in the Beaux-Arts style in 1904.
After a big renovation in 1998 the library’s scope was expanded to become a contemporary art gallery and local history museum.
There are two permanent history exhibitions here, both dealing with different aspects of the Underground Railroad.
One covers the remarkable life of Lucy Higgs Nichols born into slavery in Tennessee before becoming a nurse in the Civil War and living in freedom after the war.
Meanwhile, the interactive Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage studies the efforts of everyday people helping fugitive slaves reach freedom crossing the Ohio River.
6. Ohio River Greenway
New Albany is at the western trailhead for a multi-use path tracing the Ohio River for 7.5 miles and connecting three historic towns.
Part of the appeal of the Ohio River Greenway is the near constant views of downtown Louisville and succession of overlooks where you can pause to take it all in. The trail runs as far as Jeffersonville, another city associated with the steamboat industry.
Here you’ll come to the majestic Big Four Bridge (1895) built for the famous namesake railway and converted for pedestrians and cyclists in 2014.
Along the route of the Ohio River Greenway are parks, historical sites and no fewer than three interconnecting trails if you’re in the mood for a detour.
7. Falls of the Ohio State Park
Some of the largest exposed Devonian fossil beds in the world can be found on the Ohio River just upstream in Clarksville.
Exploring the Falls of the Ohio State Park you’ll be walking on a 390-million-year-old sea bottom, and the amount that you can see depends on the river level.
The best time to come is late summer, when much of the 220 acres of fossil beds is dry and you can go on a “dry snorkel” to see the many varieties of fossils underfoot.
There’s an interpretive center on the cliff top at the park, with a great view of the fossil beds and a wealth of immersive exhibits bringing to life the tropical sea that covered this place almost 400 million years ago.
You can also find out about this site’s connection to the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803-1806), and watch the sunset from the scenic River Viewing Room.
8. New Albany Farmers’ Market
The New Albany Farmers’ Market is a big weekly event, with dozens of vendors and a permanent setting under the shelters at City Square.
The market is held on Saturday mornings all year round (shorter hours November to early May), and there’s an additional afternoon market on Wednesdays July through September.
For an idea of what to expect you’ll find fruit and vegetables, cheeses, grass-fed meat, poultry, eggs, honey, pickles, salsas, baked goods, maple syrup, artisanal candy, jewelry, pet supplies, handcrafted soap and much more.
9. River Run Family Water Park
In 2015 New Albany opened a state-of-the-art outdoor pool complex, giving families in the city and Floyd County another reason to look forward to the summer.
A few of the attractions at River Run Family Water Park are a lap pool with a connecting activity pool, a giant steamboat play feature, a lazy river, three water slides, a spectacular bowl slide, a splash pad and a wading pool for toddlers.
These features are complemented by a large poolside deck for relaxing, as well as a beverage bar and concession stand.
10. Floyd County Historical Society Padgett Museum
If you’d like to know more about New Albany and the surrounding county, the Floyd County Historical Society maintains a museum at a historic residence southwest of downtown.
The William Young House is a Federal-style brick I-house, constructed for a local entrepreneur.
One unusual feature is the two-story porch along the rear ell. Inside, you can check out a surprising number of original fittings, as well as well-presented local history displays.
The permanent exhibit, By the River’s Edge examines the Ohio River’s role in the development of New Albany and Floyd County.
Other exhibits delve into local industries like steamboat building, leather, glassmaking and the railroads. Some highlights include historic glass canes, a 38-star American flag from the 1870s and a 200-year-old surveyor’s chain.
11. Sam Peden Community Park
In the north of New Albany is the largest community park in Floyd County, spread across more than 100 acres.
A big portion of Sam Peden Community Park is taken up by the scenic Kiwanis Lake, which attracts plenty of water birds and is a great spot for some fishing.
There’s a paved trail tracing the water for walking, jogging or biking. For families with young children, the park also has four different playground areas to choose from, while sports facilities include soccer fields, tennis courts, basketball courts, a sand volleyball court and horseshoe pits.
12. Riverfront Amphitheater
The sloping bank of the Ohio River in New Albany creates an awesome place to watch live entertainment in summer. There has been an amphitheater at this site for decades, but the current steel half-dome structure dates to the summer of 2009.
This is complemented by grassy terraces and several rows of permanent seating. The Riverfront Amphitheater has sensational views of the Ohio River, framed by the Sherman Minton Bridge (1962).
The Riverfront Amphitheater is the scene for a series of concerts and shows, including performances by Kentucky Shakespeare.
Even when there’s nothing going on, this is a good place to get a sense of the Ohio River as a transport artery, with barges and tugboats passing by in front and freight trains running behind the flood wall.
13. Loop Island Wetlands
The Ohio River Greenway leads past this wetland site next to Silver Creek, just southeast of downtown New Albany.
With newly extended and improved trails, the 54-acre Loop Island Wetlands is a fantastic place to spot wildlife so close to the city, including several species of water birds, occasional birds of prey and beavers.
The site has an intriguing past, having been mentioned in a survey by Lewis and Clark and witnessing a duel between politicians Humphrey Marshall and Henry Clay in 1809, leaving both men slightly wounded.
You’ll also see interpretive signs mentioning the tannery that stood here from the 19th-century until not so long ago. Founded by German immigrant George Moser, the Moser Leather Company made use of New Albany’s rich stocks of chestnut trees, prized for their natural tannins.
14. George Rogers Clark Homesite
West of the main unit at Falls of the Ohio State Park, separated by private land, is the site of the home of George Rogers Clark (1752-1818).
Often known as the “Conqueror of the Old Northwest”, Clark served as the leader of the militia in Kentucky during the American Revolutionary War, making several key captures during the Illinois Campaign of 1778-1779.
Later, in the first decade of the 19th century, he built a cabin at this spot at the lower end of the Falls of the Ohio, chosen for its commanding view of both the falls and river on the bend towards New Albany.
George’s younger brother, William, met with Meriwether Clark at this very place in October 1803 before they set off on their famous expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase and Pacific Northwest. A replica of George’s cabin was erected in 2001 but was burned down in 2021.
15. Harvest Homecoming Festival
One of the largest events in Indiana takes place in downtown New Albany in the first couple of weeks of October.
Celebrated for more than 50 years now, the Harvest Homecoming Festival kicks off with a hotly anticipated parade on the opening Saturday.
Then things ramp up a few days later for the main part of the event, from Thursday to Sunday of the second weekend of October.
These days bring a feast of live music, rides, children’s activities, as well as scores of craft and food booths. Food-wise, think oysters, chicken and dumplings, porkchop sandwiches and freshly made glazed donuts.