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Kentucky is not only filled with lots of Southern charm, it has a rich history, spectacular scenery, beautiful small towns and exciting cities. If you plan to travel to the Bluegrass State, don’t miss checking out some of its very best places to visit.
Louisville is Kentucky’s largest city and renowned as the namesake of the Official Bat of Major League Baseball, the Louisville Slugger, as well as for hosting the Kentucky Derby. It also makes the very best bourbon in the world, hosts a world-class zoo, numerous festivals and a number of fantastic historic hotels. A place where Southern charm meets big-city amenities, visitors of all types will find lots of things to see and do. If you aren’t here during its famous sporting event, you can still visit Churchill Downs, as well as the Kentucky Derby Museum. Downtown, at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, easily spotted by the world’s tallest bat at 120 feet high leaning outside. Inside, view the bats of Babe Ruth and Cal Ripken, take a swing at a fastball and tour the factory. Old Louisville is an architectural treasure trove as the third-largest National Preservation District in the nation, and the largest Victorian district in the U.S., ideal for history buffs and architectural enthusiasts.
One of the top travel destinations in Kentucky, Lexington aka the “Horse Capital of the World,” is located in the heart of the Bluegrass region and has traditionally been dominated by the horse industry for decades. It’s still home to hundreds of horse farms and is also a big college town that’s heavily influenced by the University of Kentucky. You’ll find traces of both throughout, with a diverse culture that offers a lot more than you’d probably expect from a city of its size and location. Here you can check out nearly 50 breeds of horses, and meet some of Lexington’s four-legged celebrities in their homes by taking a horse farm tour, as well as watch demonstrations at Kentucky Horse Park. There are loads of museums, art galleries, and fascinating historic homes. Visit four period homes of the area’s most famous citizens, Mary Todd Lincoln, Henry Clay, John Hunt Morgan and Joseph Bryan, a grand-nephew of Daniel Boone.
Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area offers a three-in-one package that includes the largest publicly owned bison herd east of the Mississippi River, the second-largest inland peninsula in America, and the second-largest contiguous block of forested public land east of the Mississippi. Spread across rural southwestern Kentucky and northwestern Tennessee, this 360-square-mile peninsula that was formed when the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers were impounded to create Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, is renowned as a water sports mecca, offering the chance to enjoy some of the best fishing in the southeastern U.S., as well as swimming, boating, and water skiing. But it’s a lot more than a water wonderland. It’s home to all sorts of wildlife like eagles, osprey, bobcat and deer, in addition to the 750-acre Elk and Bison Prairie, as well as a number of fascinating historic sites.
Nicknamed Quilt City USA, Paducah is considered a mecca for quilters and other fiber-based artists. Set along the banks of Tennessee and the Ohio rivers on the border of Illinois, it hosts the annual QuiltWeek festival and is home to The National Quilt Museum. It was even designated a UNESCO City of Crafts and Folk Art in 2013. This quaint town also has an interesting history and 20 blocks of its downtown district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It showcases magnificent examples of 19th-century architecture, and in Lower Town, its oldest neighborhood, this artsy district is filled with unique boutiques, antique stores and local indie art galleries. After dark, you’ll find a vibrant nightlife scene with live music, flavorful cuisine and engaging events like theater, independent film and improvisational comedy as well as distinctive venues hosting national touring bands and local musicians.
Harrodsburg is the state’s oldest city, dating back to 1774. As such, you’ll find a host of interesting sites related to its long history including the America’s biggest restored Shaker settlement, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, and Dedman Drugstore which first opened its doors in 1865. Today, it still houses its original soda fountain, along with The Kentucky Fudge Company. Visitors can also take an excursion aboard the authentic Dixie Belle paddle steamer to see the picturesque Kentucky River Palisades from a more unique perspective. In downtown Harrodsburg, streets are lined with colorful storefronts, stores selling locally-made crafts, antique shops and eateries serving up delicious Southern cuisine.
Mammoth Cave National Park preserves the world’s longest known cave system, with nearly 400 miles of caves, and who knows how many more that are still uncharted. The crystal columns suspended from the cave ceilings seem as if they’ve been sprinkled with fairy dust. In the low light, the haunting formations sprout from the walls and rise from the floor to cast murky shadows. Visitors can gaze at the Giant’s Coffin, Bridal Altar and Star Chamber, formations of stalactites and stalagmites that were naturally carved from stone and eroded by water, their beauty is frozen in time. While you can explore a small part of the cave without a ranger during the summer, all other areas require ranger-guided tours, like the Frozen Niagara Tour, a short tour that visits the most highly-decorated area of the cave. The Historic Tour enters through the natural entrance and covers two miles of cave passages, a number of old mining areas, Mammoth Dome, and a variety of lengthy caverns.
Rand McNally called Bardstown one of the “Most Beautiful Small Towns in America.” This lovely town sits in the heart of the state’s Bluegrass Region and is known as the “Bourbon Capital of the World,” with some of its local distilleries dating back as far as 1776. It celebrates its tipple history in September each year with the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Bardstown also has a characteristic downtown with a blend of fantastic eateries, eclectic boutiques and historic buildings, while its My Old Kentucky State Park hosts The Stephen Foster Story – a Broadway-style musical about the ‘American father of music’ and composer of Kentucky’s state anthem.
Danville is one of just six certified Kentucky Cultural Districts in the entire state. It features a wealth of historic landmarks and practically an endless number of museums, art galleries and top-notch restaurants. The site of many firsts, its Constitution Square is the location of the first post office ever built west of the Alleghany Mountains. Danville was also the home of pioneering American surgeon Ephraim McDowell, the first physician to perform a successful abdominal surgery. The town’s gorgeous Main Street was acclaimed with a Great American Main Street award in 2001 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and hosts a number of great locally-owned pubs, independent shops and the annual Great American Brass Band Festival.
Kentucky houses two treasures that are practically next-door neighbors: Red River Gorge and Natural Bridge. Located near the town of Slade, the Gorge, which sits within the Daniel Boone National Forest, is a spectacular wonderland of cliffs, rock shelters, caves, waterfalls, tranquil mountain pools and about 100 natural arches, the largest concentration found east of the Rockies. The best-known of the arches is Sky Bridge, an ideal spot for enjoying panoramic vistas of the Clifty Wilderness. Take just about a 10-mile jaunt from the entrance of the gorge, and you’ll enter Natural Bridge. Its main attraction is the sandstone formation from which it gets its name. The 65-foot-high and 78-feet-long natural bridge is the biggest of the park’s arches. It took some 65 million years to be carved by the roaring waters of the Red River and can be reached by hiking a trail or taking a sky lift, both of which start at the park’s lodge.
Greenville is a quintessential small American town that sits among the lush forest and rolling hills of western Kentucky and is famous for its warm Southern hospitality. Its beautiful historic town square is the site of a spectacular 1907 Beaux-Arts style courthouse which showcases the state’s second-largest bell tower dome and the largest pre-fabricated cupola in the entire nation. Greenville’s charming downtown has become increasingly known for its festivals and events like Saturdays on the Square, a series of summertime events, the Twi-Light Drive-in Antique Car Show, the outdoor art festival Squash & Gobble Arts Bazaar and Fall Festival, and the annual Christmas Parade. Its streets are lined with outstanding local eateries and specialty shops too.