The Ultimate Southern Adventure: Kentucky
Explore your favorite food, music, parks, and more in Kentucky.
Experience the Culture
Blaze a trail across the nation’s original frontier: Kentucky, the first U.S. state west of the Appalachians. From Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, roughly retrace the wilderness route taken in 1775 by pioneer hero Daniel Boone. The 120-mile-long (193-kilometer-long) Boone Trace corridor encompasses cultural attractions—such as October’s Daniel Boone Festival in Barbourville—from Middlesboro north to Fort Boonesborough. On the drive from Lexington west to Louisville, ramble past rock walls and regal horse farms on scenic Old Frankfort Pike.
Best Bets: Celebrate Louisville’s thoroughbred traditions at the Kentucky Derby Museum and the annual spring Kentucky Derby Festival. Spend a night at the historic Boone Tavern Hotel and Restaurant in Berea, home to the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea. Visit multiple Louisville cultural attractions—such as the Muhammad Ali Center and the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory—in the four-block Museum Row on Main.
Insider Tips: The Kentucky Folk Art Center at Morehead State University in Morehead houses a collection of nearly 1,400 pieces from self-taught artists. InLexington, visit Kentucky Horse Park before meandering the back roads to hunt for covered bridges.
Don’t Miss: Check out Bardstown’s Kentucky Bourbon Festival in September and Owensboro’s International Bar-B-Q Festival in May.
See the Cities
Louisville, Lexington, and Bowling Green are three big reasons why Kentucky is tailor-made for urban explorers. In Louisville, the state’s largest city, East Market Street’s NuLu—or New Louisville—district is a hip haven lined with local-centric businesses. Make a game out of touring Lexington’s historic neighborhoods by taking the Lexington Mural Challenge or going on a “Big Lex” Scavenger Hunt. In downtown Bowling Green, a former department store houses the originalCorsair Distillery. Sign up for a tour (Tuesday to Saturday) to see how small-batch spirits, such as Corsair’s Wry Moon rye white whiskey, are handcrafted and taste.
Best Bets: Shop for handmade jewelry, art, and other one-of-a-kind gifts at Revelry, a NuLu boutique and gallery promoting Louisville-area artists. Tour five restored railcars—including the Duncan Hines Diner named for the native son behind the famous cake mix—at the Historic Railpark and Train Museum in Bowling Green.
Insider Tip: Get a caffeine-and-creativity infusion at High on Art & Coffee, an artisanal coffee shop and local art gallery in Lexington’s bohemian Woodland Triangle neighborhood.
Don’t Miss: Louisville’s historically hip Butchertown Market is a retail and light-manufacturing space located in a renovated 1880 factory building.
Explore the Parks
Arguably the crown jewel in Kentucky’s national park collection is Mammoth Cave National Park. The park, a World Heritage site, has the longest known cave system in the world, at 400 miles (644 kilometers) explored. To get the most out of your visit, make reservations for a ranger-led cave tour, such as the family-friendly Frozen Niagara Tour or the extreme Wild Cave Tour deep down into the primordial darkness.
Best Bet: Bring your bike and hiking shoes to enjoy Mammoth’s free aboveground locations, such as the Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail.
Insider Tip: Straddling the Kentucky-Tennessee border, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area preserves 125,000 acres (50,586 hectares) of the Cumberland Plateau. While you can explore the area on your own, authorized concessionaires like Sheltowee Trace Outfitters offer guided rafting and kayaking experiences.
Don’t Miss: South of Louisville, the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park memorializes America’s 16th president. The site was the first to honor Lincoln, who died at age 56—also the number of steps up to the memorial building housing a re-creation of the tiny cabin where Lincoln was born. After touring the park, head northeast to the Knob Creek site of Lincoln’s boyhood home.
Hear the Music
It’s no wonder that bluegrass is the signature sound of the Bluegrass State. The International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro is open during construction of its new $15.4-million facility, scheduled for completion in 2018. The museum sponsors the ROMP Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival in June. Travel south to Rosine and visit the Monroe Homeplace (boyhood home of “the father of bluegrass music” Bill Monroe). Listen to live bluegrass Friday nights from March to December at the Rosine Barn Jamboree. Farther east in Lexington, attend a Monday night taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatreand catch a performance at the historic (built in 1886) Lexington Opera House.
Best Bet: Follow the Wendell H. Ford Western Kentucky Parkway east to My Old Kentucky Home State Park in historic Bardstown. June to August at the park, see Kentucky’s Official Outdoor Musical, The Stephen Foster Story, celebrating the life and music of the composer of “Oh! Susanna” and other American classics.
Insider Tip: Drive the U.S. 23 Country Music Highway to see landmarks such as Loretta Lynn’s birthplace.
Don’t Miss: Front Porch Pickin’ every Thursday night at the U.S. 23 Country Music Highway Museum in Paintsville.
From fine bourbon and fried chicken to beer cheese and burgoo (a savory stew), Kentucky has plenty on the menu to tempt the taste buds. See how bourbon is made (and get samples) on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The trail’s nine distilleries include the state’s biggest, Jim Beam, and the oldest and smallest, Woodford Reserve. On the trail, you can dip the tip of your own bottle into the distillery’s trademark red wax at the Maker’s Mark gift shop. Alternatively, follow the Beer Cheese Trail in Clark County to taste Kentucky’s favorite spicy cheese spread at places such as Hall’s on the River. Get your fill of beer cheese, beer, and barbecue at June’s Beer Cheese Festival in Winchester.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Best Bet: In Louisville, order a Hot Brown—an open-faced turkey sandwich on thick-cut toast, topped with Mornay sauce and Romano cheese, and garnished with bacon—at its birthplace, the Brown Hotel.
Insider Tip: Colonel Harland Sanders made Kentucky synonymous with fried chicken, and the elegant Claudia Sanders Dinner House (named for the colonel’s wife) in Shelbyville is the place to taste some of the best chicken in the state. Order the family-style option for all-you-can-eat fried chicken, vegetables, and homemade bread.
Don’t Miss: Two Kentucky Derby culinary classics: a slice of Kern’s Kitchen Derby-Pie (chocolate nut pie) and a mint julep.
Kentucky is horse country, but it’s also a place to go underground, get out and hike, enjoy the water, and savor scenery. Ride the horse trails with Hidden Cave Ranch in Burkesville, featuring American Bashkir Curly Horses, or Jesse James Riding Stables, with more than 500 acres (200 hectares) of trails in Cave City. At Carter Caves State Resort Park in Olive Hill, explore X-Cave, home to the Great Chandelier, the largest collection of stalactites in the cave, and Cascade Cave, which houses a 30-foot-tall (nine-meter-tall) underground waterfall.
Best Bets: Stay in a nautically themed village, sunbathe on the beach, or get out onto the water at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park in Gilbertsville. In Versailles (pronounced “ver-sales”), near Lexington, visit the Life Adventure Center of the Bluegrass, a 575-acre (233-hectare) farm with challenging obstacle courses, horse paths, water adventures, and hiking trails for groups.
Insider Tip: The Louisville area boasts two great wilderness preserves: the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, which covers 14,600 acres (5,900 hectares), including an arboretum and a canopy tree walk (a platform trail that leads 75 feet, or 23 meters, above the forest floor); and Jefferson Memorial Forest, which has more than 35 miles (56 kilometers) of trails for hikers.
Don’t Miss: Learn how to rock climb or go on a guided climb with Red River Outdoors in southeastern Kentucky’s Red River Gorge Geological Area.