I know what you’re thinking: Kentucky is all about bourbon and horses, right? There’s no denying that many memorable days do start with these storied activities but there are so many more reasons to visit Kentucky.
There are plenty of reasons to visit Kentucky. It isn’t all horse racing, bourbon distilleries, and bluegrass music—although it’s got all three in abundance. Kentucky’s incredibly diverse array of geological features and ecosystems means it offers opportunities for all your favorite outdoor activities, too.
Here are the best places to visit in Kentucky.
Lexington is known as the “Horse Capital of the World.” Situated deep in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Country, Lexington has several main attractions including the Kentucky Horse Park, The Red Mile, and Keeneland race courses. Outside of the equestrian scene, the city is known for Rupp Arena, Transylvania University, and the University of Kentucky.
Lexington has imposed a unique urban growth boundary to protect the miles of pastures where horses are kept. This means that large swaths of green fields can be found throughout Lexington. In the heart of the city, visitors will find plenty of intriguing places to explore, including the Aviation Museum of Kentucky, Kentucky Theatre, the Mary-Todd Lincoln House, and Martin Castle.
This famous and historic horseracing arena attracts visitors year round. Even when races are not in session, Keeneland’s significance and extensive history make it a popular Lexington destination. Horses began racing at Keeneland, one of the top Lexington attractions in 1936 and since then, annual races have become a traditional event.
Keeneland is also host to practice meets for jockeys and horses preparing for the Kentucky Derby as well as a series of horse auctions throughout the year. Visitors to Keeneland are able to view the racecourse, visit the indoor facility, and tour the sales complex. Keeneland’s website offers a calendar of upcoming events and ticket purchasing options.
Keeneland is located at 4201 Versailles Road, Lexington.
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If Kentucky can be described as the state of horses and bourbon its capital Frankfort is at the heart of it all. Located on the banks of the Kentucky River, it is a quintessential river community with small-town charm, rich history, and typical Southern hospitality. Stroll through the city to admire its fabulous architecture, especially the new and old capitol buildings as well as the new and old governor mansions which are open to the public. Get a sense of 200 years of city history at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History and learn about the way of life in old Kentucky at the Liberty Hall Historic Site.
Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History
The Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History is a 167,000-square-foot modern research facility and a museum. It also serves as the headquarters of the Kentucky Historical Society. The center has a range of permanent and temporary exhibitions and an extensive research library. The main permanent exhibit is called “A Kentucky Journey” and it provides insight into Kentucky and its inhabitants from prehistoric times to today. The Martin F. Schmidt Research Library is a history and genealogy research library.
The Center offers resources such as manuscripts, books, oral histories, and graphic collections about the places and people that made Kentucky what it is today. The library is popular among family historians who are trying to trace their genealogy. The center also has the Keeneland Changing Exhibits Gallery which hosts various temporary exhibitions and a collection of Lincoln memorabilia.
The Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History is located at 100 W Broadway Street, Frankfort.
Kentucky Capitol Building
Completed in 1910 in the Beaux-Arts style the beautiful, stately building of today’s Kentucky Capitol is the fourth building to be the home of the Kentucky government since 1792. Its predecessor still stands in downtown Frankfort. The building, designed by architect Frank Mills Andrews has an elegant façade covered with Vermont granite and Indiana limestone.
The interior is decorated with brilliant white Georgia marble, dark green Italian marble, and gray Tennessee marble. The Capitol’s State Reception Room is used as a place for ceremonies and has hand-painted walls with murals and scagliola created to look like Gobelin tapestries. There is a huge amount of art displayed throughout the building. One of the most popular pieces is the Lincoln statue in the rotunda. There is also an interesting collection of dolls that belonged to various First Ladies.
The Kentucky Capitol Building is located at 700 Capital Avenue, Frankfort.
The Floral Clock
On the grounds of the state capitol in Frankfort stands the beautiful Floral Clock. Its face stretches 34 feet across and is covered by flowers exclusively grown in the state of Kentucky. Beneath the clock is a pool of water that is often used as a wishing well and the coins thrown into the well are used to fund scholarships. The Floral Clock is one of the most-visited attractions in Frankfort and is open to the public every day from dawn until dusk.
The Floral Clock is located at 700 Capital Avenue, Frankfort.
Buffalo Trace Distillery
A national historic landmark and home of the world’s most award-winning bourbon, Buffalo Trace Distillery is a true Kentucky Landmark. The state’s native spirit has been distilled and aged at Buffalo Trace for over 150 years. The distillery offers five different tours from behind the scenes of the whiskey making process to a tour of the barrels used to store and age the product.
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All tours are free and include a sample of Buffalo Trace’s award-winning bourbon at the end. The distillery is open every day except for major holidays. Groups of over 25 people are required to reserve the tour in advance.
Buffalo Trace Distillery is located at 113 Great Buffalo Trace, Frankfort.
Rebecca Ruth Candy Tours and Museum
Two former schoolteachers, Ruth Booe and Rebecca Gooch, started Rebecca Ruth Candies in 1919. Their business has survived fires, family tragedies, two world wars, and the Great Depression and it is now a Kentucky institution.
Rebecca Ruth’s is home of the famous “bourbon balls,” a treat that mixes chocolate with Kentucky’s best-known liquor. The candy factory and museum is open for tours Monday-Saturday for a $5.00 admission fee. Children 5 and under get in free. After the tour, guests can purchase these sweet treats to take home with them at the company store.
Rebecca Ruth is located at 116 East Second Street, Frankfort.
Home to 30,000 people, Elizabethtown is the 10th largest city in the state of Kentucky. The town was once home to the log cabin where Abraham Lincoln’s daughter Sarah was born in 1807.
Elizabethtown was also the site of a dramatic Civil War battle in 1862. Modern Elizabethtown boasts a variety of cultural and natural attractions. There is a cluster of museums and event centers in the downtown area and for outdoor adventures, visitors can check out the Bourbon Trail and the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. Another popular attraction in town is Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home.
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest
At 15,625 acres, Bernheim boasts the largest protected natural area in Kentucky. Bernheim contains a 600-acre arboretum with over 8,000 unique varieties of trees. Take a scenic drive through the forest on paved roads or bicycle around the Arboretum, a living library of trees.
Over 40 miles of trails with varying degrees of ease and difficulty weave their way through the forest at Bernheim; no matter what level you are looking for, there’s a trail for you. Some are handicap accessible. Hang out on the tree tops in the Canopy Tree Walk. This short boardwalk extends into the forest canopy, suspending visitors an astonishing 75 feet above the forest floor.
Bernheim Arboretum is located 20 miles northeast of Elizabethtown off Clermont Road.
Jim Beam American Stillhouse
Leaving Shepherdsville and heading southeast to Bardstown your first stop is in Clermont at the home of one of the world’s most noted whiskeys—the Jim Beam American Stillhouse. Although it’s now owned by Japanese mega-conglomerate Suntory, the seven-generation family-owned company’s rich history is still evident. The Jim Beam name dates back to before Kentucky was even a state. Their German immigrant ancestors settled on the land to grow corn that would soon after be used to make their original-recipe whiskey. You would be remiss to pass up one of its most influential brands.
Jim Beam is located 22 miles northeast of Elizabethtown off Clermont Road.
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Kentucky’s second-oldest city, Bardstown was first settled in 1780. Nearly 200 buildings in the historic downtown district are listed on the National Register of Historic Places including a 1779 stagecoach stop that today is the Old Talbott Tavern, the oldest bourbon bar in the world.
Bardstown was described by Rand McNally and USA Today as the Most Beautiful Small Town in America and it is hard to argue with that description. The county seat of Nelson County, Bardstown is famous around the world for its bourbon while its eclectic shops are well worth exploring too.
The Bourbon Capital of the World is home to six notable distilleries. Kentucky’s “Official Outdoor Drama,” one of the country’s most highly regarded Civil War museums and one of the most recognized structures in the world is here at Federal Hill, better known as My Old Kentucky Home.
Distillery tours are a good way to get up close and personal with the beloved oak-aged liquor. By staying in Bardstown you’re roughly a half-hour drive from Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, and Four Roses. You’re practically spoiled for choice right in Bardstown, as well: The Barton 1792 distillery is a stone’s throw from downtown while Lux Row (which produces Rebel Yell, Ezra Brooks, and more), Willett, and the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center aren’t much farther.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail
For whiskey lovers, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a bucket-list trip, full of opportunities to visit distilleries and learn about bourbon—plus, of course, plenty of sampling along the way. Kentucky is the spiritual home of bourbon, an American whiskey made with at least 51 percent corn and aged in charred new American oak barrels. Kentucky’s bourbon distilleries are sprawled across the state with most of them between Louisville and Lexington.
The official Kentucky Bourbon Trail exists under the auspices of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association and it includes 18 distilleries as well as 23 smaller distilleries designated as the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour. This official trial doesn’t include every bourbon producer in the state. But it’s still a pretty comprehensive overview and provides a useful way to organize a visit—including a website with plenty of maps and links.
With 11 unique distilleries within 16 miles of Bardstown’s court square, the Bourbon Capital of the World is a logical starting point for the journey.
My Old Kentucky Home State Park
My Old Kentucky Home State Park consists of many elements including a 39-site campground, an amphitheater, an 18-hole golf course (the Kenny Rapier Golf Course), and wedding and conference space. But what it is most famed for is Federal Hill more lovingly known as My Old Kentucky Home. Visitors can explore the historic mansion that was once owned by US Senator John Rowan.
It was an important site in US politics but was most famously known for its association with Stephen Foster’s ballad which the home inspired. Visitors can explore the mostly-brick structure and its amazing architecture which includes hand-carved windowsills and mantels, a stable, and a garden house. Guides dressed in period costumes who are full of fun facts lead the tours to take visitors back to another time.
My Old Kentucky Home State Park is located at 501 East Stephen Foster Avenue, Bardstown.
Visit the campus-like setting of the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto on the banks of Hardin’s Creek. Established in 1805 as a gristmill distillery, Maker’s Mark is the oldest working distillery on its original site—and a National Historic Landmark. The historic charm is not the only reason to visit the Maker’s Mark distillery; the beautifully manicured grounds are a functioning arboretum; hosting more than 275 species of trees and shrubs and making for an ideal picnic spot.
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Tours allow guests to experience the entire bourbon-making process first-hand from the processing of the grains to the rotating of the barrels to the purposely inefficient process of hand-dipping every bottle in signature red wax (visitors even get the chance to dip their very own!). Maker’s Mark promises a truly unique, intimate experience that sheds light on the specialness and tradition of making Kentucky bourbon.
Maker’ss Mark is located 20 miles south of Bardstown in Loretto.
The picturesque town of Georgetown is often noted for providing “pure small town charm” within Scott County’s country setting of rolling hills. This charming area offers a diverse assortment of things to do for both visitors and locals alike, both indoors and outdoors. From taking in history and art to getting up close and personal with Thoroughbred horses to sampling some of the best bourbon around, Georgetown and the surrounding Scott County is home to a variety of interesting things to do in the Kentucky horse country.
Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm
The Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm is a farm for retired Thoroughbred horses that encompasses nearly 140 acres. The unique home for horses offers an opportunity for guests to get up close to several Thoroughbreds including winners of the Kentucky Derby like War Emblem and Silver Charm and Breeders’ Cup Champions Amazombie and Alphabet Soup as well as stakes winners Ide and Game On Dude. The Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm offers daily public tours for a fee, private tours by appointment, and a visitor center.
Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm is located at 1841 Paynes Depot Road, Georgetown.
Yuko-En on the Elkhorn
The Yuko-En on the Elkhorn is a symbol of friendship between the nation of Japan and Kentucky State. As a four-season garden, travelers and locals alike are welcome to visit the Yuko-En on the Elkhorn all year round. Access to the park is via the Tokugawa Gate along Cincinnati Pike which will lead visitors into the lush 5.5-acre garden.
Yuko-En features gorgeous Bluegrass landscaping that is presented in the style of a Japanese stroll garden. Stroll along the garden’s many pathways to explore Japanese-style bridges, a serene pond, and several other elements that make the Yuko-En a unique and enjoyable recreational destination.
Yuko-En on the Elkhorn is located at 700 Cincinnati Pike, Georgetown.
Located just off the Martha Layne Collins Blue Grass Parkway, the charming town of Versailles in Kentucky is the beating heart of Woodford County. Surrounded by magnificent rolling farmlands and world-renowned bluegrass horse farms, Versailles offers a range of attractions and activities from the impressive Stonewall Farm to the Woodford Reserve which produces one of Kentucky’s finest bourbon whiskeys. Versailles’ beautiful landscapes also offer excellent hiking, horseback riding, and fishing.
Bluegrass Railroad and Museum
The Bluegrass Railroad and Museum is a traveling museum dedicated to the history of the Bluegrass Railroad and the rail transport industry in the region. Based in Woodford County Park, the mobile museum was founded in 1976 by members of the Bluegrass Railroad Club and offers visitors a unique experience that delves into the history of the railroad on an 11-mile round trip excursion. The train journey travels through the beautiful horse farms of Kentucky to Young’s High Bridge in the town of Tyrone where passengers can disembark and soak up spectacular views of the Kentucky River valley area.
Bluegrass Railroad and Museum is located at 175 Beasley Road, Versailles.
Woodford Reserve Distillery
Woodford Reserve Distillery is an award-winning distillery that produces a range of whiskeys including limited-edition releases like the Kentucky-only Distillery Series. Established by Elijah Pepper in 1812 the distillery is one of the oldest distilleries in Kentucky and is listed as a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.
Formerly known as the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery and later the Labrot & Graham Distillery, the distillery produces several whiskeys including Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Woodford Reserve Straight Rye Whiskey, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, and Woodford Reserve Wheat Whiskey. Visitors can enjoy guided tours and tastings at the facility which is eight miles from Versailles.
Woodford Reserve Distillery is located at 7785 McCracken Pike, Versailles
Historic Midway was the first town in Kentucky founded by a railroad. Electricity was introduced in 1911. During the railroad’s heyday, the 1930s, and 40s, up to 30 trains, a day rumbled through the middle of town. Revitalization and rebirth began in the mid-1970s when several antique shops and galleries were established. In 1978, 176 buildings in Midway were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Now, Historic Midway once again thrives and enjoys its present reputation as one of Kentucky’s favorite spots for antiques, crafts, gifts, restaurants, and clothing.
The Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky, Berea is ranked among the top art communities in the U. S. Nestled between the Bluegrass region and the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, Berea offers visitors over 40 arts and crafts shops featuring everything from handmade dulcimers and homemade chocolate to jewelry stores, art galleries, quilt-makers, and glassblowing studios.
Sculptures of mythical beasts, vibrantly painted open hands, and historic architecture are a few of the delights as one wanders the town and college. Berea offers a public art experience on multiple levels. You can enjoy the sculptures, architecture, galleries, and shops, or you can enter the studios of working artists and watch art being created.
Heaven must be a Kentucky kind of place.