Kentucky Travel Guide: Pristine Countryside and Lively Cities Await
From Rural to Urban
Kentucky has come a long way in the past few years to establish itself as one of the premiere destinations, not just in the South but in the nation. While many pull their first impressions of the state from the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, the rising popularity of bourbon is bringing more and more visitors to the Bluegrass State.
Plus just envision those picturesque green rolling hills and quaint country lanes.
No matter what you like to do when you’re exploring a new place, Kentucky tourism doesn’t disappoint. From food and drink to music and the outdoors, a trip to Kentucky should be on everybody’s itinerary.
If you want to go to the Kentucky Derby, it runs on the first Saturday in May every year. It’s expensive and it’s crowded, and it can be challenging to find a place to stay anywhere in or near Louisville.
However, if you want to experience the charm of Churchill Downs and top-tier horse racing without the hassle, consider attending the Kentucky Oaks. This series of races runs the day before the Kentucky Derby, and it’s a local favorite.
If you travel to Kentucky in April or October you should visit the Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington. While Churchill Downs is fun to visit due to its fame, Keeneland is arguably one of the most beautiful horse tracks in the country. Don’t forget to pack something nice — everybody dresses up for a day at the races.
If you’d prefer to skip the track altogether, you can still experience the bucolic majesty of a true working Kentucky Thoroughbred horse farm. There are dozens of operations scattered throughout central Kentucky that offer guided farm tours. If you visit Coolmore Stud, you may get a chance to see American Pharoah — the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
If you’ve ever tasted bourbon, chances are it came from Kentucky. Around 95% of the world’s stock comes from Kentucky, and there are more barrels of bourbon in Kentucky than there are people. Bourbon is a serious commercial industry in Kentucky, as well as tourist attraction.
As America’s native spirit has grown in popularity during the past decade, so has interest in where it comes from. Many of the most productive distilleries, such as Jim Beam and Heaven Hill, have reinvented themselves as multi-million-dollar visitor attractions, as well as working industrial facilities.
Millions of visitors come to the state each year to travel the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which includes 10 distilleries across Kentucky. A quick note, Buffalo Trace is not on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, but isn’t to be missed. And if you’re more interested in artisan bourbon production, the Bourbon Trail Craft Tour features over a dozen additional sites.
You want to make sure you plan your trip to Kentucky when it’s going to be enjoyable outside. Otherwise you may not be able to experience Kentucky’s memorable outdoor opportunities.
The Red River Gorge has become a rock climbing mecca throughout the South and the Midwest, thanks in part to its many stunning and massive sandstone cliffs jutting out from the tree line. For something more relaxed, the hiking opportunities are just as impressive as they meander around more than 100 natural arches throughout the park.
The area, located within the Daniel Boone National Forest, is a National Natural Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Come in the fall if you can; it’s well worth sharing the busy trails.
If bad weather does dog your visit to Kentucky, consider going underground. The impressive Mammoth Cave National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At 400 miles long, it’s the longest known cave system in the world. Dozens of different guided and self-guided tours are available throughout the park, as are places to stay and camp.
You can even stay in a teepee or wigwam if the urge strikes you.
If you want a little history with your outdoor excursion, consider heading to the southeastern corner of the state. There you can walk through the Cumberland Gap just like the pioneers did as they spread across the frontier before the United States was even a country.
Most trips to Kentucky will take visitors through one of its two main cities, Louisville and Lexington. About 80 miles apart from each other, both cities serve as advantageous locations for day trips around the state.
Louisville — with its many pronunciations — is the largest Kentucky city. Along the Ohio River, it has many outlying neighborhoods, such as the Highlands, Germantown and Butchertown, that have as much, if not more, vibrancy and character as its downtown center. Bardstown Road, in particular, is teeming with local shopping, bars and restaurants.
Derby City has emerged as one of the most popular cities for food lovers, as astute chefs produce traditional Southern fare, put a modern spin on country staples, or create entirely new cuisines. For the best in “farm to table” dining, don’t miss Harvest Restaurant. For something truly different, try Mayan Cafe.
But no trip to Louisville would be complete without having a classic Hot Brown where it was invented at the Brown Hotel.
Lexington, on the other hand, has the best of both worlds: a lively downtown core with respected restaurants and bars, and world class rural settings just minutes away.
To the west of downtown, one of the city’s newest entertainment district is garnering lots of attention. The Distillery District, named for the re-purposed bourbon distillery warehouses, is home to many unique local businesses and restaurants. For a truly innovative dining experience, you need to get a table at Middle Fork Kitchen Bar.