Kentucky is generally associated with derbies, whiskey and fried chicken, but there is much more to the Bluegrass State. A sprawling underground cave system, a plunging river gorge, and a stunning waterfall all call the state home, as do Corvettes, an unlikely castle and a museum dedicated to creationism. And while there is certainly a quirky roadside attraction for every taste, many museums and attractions close down for the winter, so travelers should plan their itineraries accordingly. There is plenty to occupy families and road trippers within Kentucky’s state lines, but it’s also helpful to know that Cincinnati is just a John A. Roebling suspension bridge away — 83 miles from Lexington, Kentucky, or 100 miles from Louisville, Kentucky. So whether you’re on the hunt for the famous Kentucky Bourbon Trail or ready to forge your own path, read on for 29 of the top things to do on your next visit to Kentucky.
Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory
(Courtesy of Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory)
The prolific Louisville slugger baseball bat began production in Louisville in 1884, and it’s still being produced at the site’s active factory today. Baseball fans from across the country pilgrimage to this factory tour and museum dedicated to the love of the game. Galleries of memorabilia — including a Babe Ruth bat — await, as well as rotating exhibits, like “The Best Black Baseball Team You’ve Never Heard Of,” to keep things fresh. General admission is less than $20 (and kids under 5 are free) and includes a factory tour and a mini bat keepsake. Meanwhile, $299 will buy you an exclusive All-Star Experience pass to restricted areas of the factory floor, the bat vault, the archive room with the museum’s most prized artifacts and a personalized bat. Take a picture with it outside next to Louisville’s iconic Big Bat — at 120 feet tall, it’s the world’s largest.
Address: 800 W. Main St., Louisville, KY 40202
Cumberland Falls State Resort Park
Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, located in Corbin, Kentucky, is one of the state’s most picturesque natural preserves. The park’s highlight is Cumberland Falls. On clear nights around a full moon (about five days each month), Cumberland Falls creates a moonbow: a natural phenomenon that refracts light in its water droplets. Roughly 17 miles of hiking trails wind through the park, with many connecting to Daniel Boone National Forest. Both parks are of particular interest to birders, who come seeking species like the Carolina wren or tufted titmouse. Horseback riding is offered daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day and on select weekends in September and October. Families will also enjoy organized gem mining, located just past the gift shop. The park permits fishing with a license and welcomes campers from mid-March through October.
Address: 7351 Highway 90, Corbin, KY 40701
Channel History on an Old Louisville Ghost Tour
(Courtesy of Louisville Historic Tours)
Kentucky was established as the 15th U.S. state in 1792, and it has developed a lot of history during the last 230-plus years. Louisville was the center of Kentucky society during the 1800s, and sordid reminders of booze and tobacco industries pockmark the city and lend the Gothic architecture its spooky stories. Local author David Domine specializes in true crime and the paranormal, and he crafted a 100-minute ghost tour of “America’s most haunted neighborhood” to share its fascinating narratives. Recommended by the New York Times, David’s ghost stories inform and entertain with the added benefit of getting your steps in. Tours run from March through November.
Address: 1300 S. Fourth St., Louisville, KY 40208
If you’re in Kentucky on the first Saturday in May — even if you’re nowhere near Louisville — there will be no avoiding the frenzy that surrounds the Kentucky Derby. Mint juleps, extravagant hats and seersucker suits characterize the iconic horse race, but Churchill Downs is also worth visiting year-round. Where the derby is held, Churchill Downs racetrack provides unparalleled insight into the world of horse racing. Kentucky Derby Museum offers two floors of related exhibits and various tours of the grounds, including experiences that range from meeting jockeys and working with the horses to tasting bourbon. Tickets to the museum cost less than $20, and children younger than 5 are free; all tour rates include access to the museum. Race day tours make a full-day experience of the nation’s most famous horse racetrack. Also, consider a visit to Keeneland in Lexington, another of Kentucky’s finest thoroughbred racecourses.
Address: 704 Central Ave., Louisville, KY 40208
The Galt House Hotel
(Courtesy of The Galt House Hotel)
Even if you’re not booking a stay, it’s worth visiting Kentucky’s largest hotel, which traces its roots back to the early 19th century. The Galt House, a Trademark Collection Hotel, located in downtown Louisville, was originally a private home owned by Dr. W.C. Galt. The Galt House Hotel opened in 1835, and the original home was absorbed as the hotel’s East Tower in 1984. The Galt House Hotel’s primary draw is its central location, near Museum Row, the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, the Muhammad Ali Center and more. There are two bourbon bars on-site, plus a spa with bourbon-infused treatments. Anyone looking for an offbeat and free thing to do can find a hidden installation on the hotel’s grounds; near the main entrance, Gallop to Glory is the “Walk of Fame” of jockeys, featuring the handprints and signatures of the winning riders of the Kentucky Derby.
Address: 140 N. Fourth St., Louisville, KY 40202
Tour a Modern Castle
(Courtesy of The Kentucky Castle)
Appropriately located in the town of Versailles (not to be confused with the French palace), The Kentucky Castle is a stunning boutique hotel just 10 miles outside Lexington. As you might expect, the castle’s origins are a bit strange. The castle began construction in 1969 by a wealthy couple but was not completed due to the couple’s divorced six years into the castle’s construction. The castle was eventually purchased, though a fire in 2004 delayed renovations. The Kentucky Castle finally opened to the public in 2008 as a bed-and-breakfast called the Castle Post, just shy of 40 years in the making. Today, curious tourists not staying at the B&B can book a 45-minute tour of the grounds for $25. Events, like murder mystery dinners, are also occasionally held here.
Address: 230 Pisgah Pike, Versailles, KY 40383
National Corvette Museum
(Courtesy of National Corvette Museum)
Head to Bowling Green, Kentucky, the self-proclaimed “Home of America’s Sports Car,” to drool over all things Corvette. There will be more cars than you can manage between the exhibits of ‘Vettes old and new, which span Chevrolet’s automotive achievement since they introduced the Corvette in 1953. A more unexpected installation features heavily damaged Corvettes; in 2014, a massive sinkhole took eight cars about 30 feet down. They say to make lemonade from lemons, and the museum made a permanent exhibit of the cave-in called the Skydome Sinkhole Experience to document the event. An interactive driving game and a massive gift shop are just some of the museum’s other added features. If you’re looking to bring home a serious souvenir, you can custom-build your own Corvette — Bowling Green is the only plant in the world that builds them.
Address: 350 Corvette Drive, Bowling Green, KY 42101
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Slavery to Freedom Museum
(Courtesy of Maysville-Mason County Tourism)
In 1833, Harriet Beecher Stowe visited one of her students in Maysville, Kentucky. During the visit, she witnessed a slave auction at a local courthouse, and it was this distressing event that, in part, inspired her to write her classic novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Her former student’s family home, the Marshall Key House, now also houses the Harriet Beecher Stowe, Slavery to Freedom Museum. The small house is more than 215 years old and decorated in the style it would have been when Stowe visited. Patrons can also observe artifacts related to the American Civil War and slavery. Anyone interested in a tour can book one through the Old Washington Visitor Center on Main Street in Maysville. While in Maysville, visitors may want to explore the National Underground Railroad Museum and the Kentucky Gateway Museum for historical collections and temporary exhibits.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Slavery to Freedom Museum was closed for renovations at the time of publication. It is scheduled to reopen in 2023.
Address: 1001 Forest Ave., Maysville, KY 41056
Mammoth Cave National Park
Did you know the longest recorded cave system in the world is in Kentucky? Mammoth Cave National Park and its more than 400 miles of recorded caves, located about 40 miles northeast of Bowling Green, is free to visit (cave tours incur an additional fee). Aboveground, the park offers hiking, biking, camping, scenic drives, horseback riding and more. Still, the park’s cave tours showcase the area’s interesting history and serve as its primary draw. Enslaved Black Americans mined the caves for saltpeter in the 18th century, and enslaved men and women also developed cave tour routes as Mammoth Cave transitioned into a tourist destination. Following the Civil War, generations of now-free Black guides continued to lead tours. Today, tours are remarkably accessible, including versions for various levels of mobility and hearing. Routes range from a quarter-mile with a dozen stairs to more than 2 miles with 600 stairs.
Address: One Mammoth Cave Parkway, Mammoth Cave, KY 42259
Vent Haven Museum
(Courtesy of Vent Haven Museum)
Don’t be a dummy — if you’re in Fort Mitchell, come check out the world’s only museum dedicated to ventriloquism. Vent Haven is the result of a decades-long personal collection of ventriloquist dummies and paraphernalia by W.S. Berger. In operation since 1973, the museum now houses more than a thousand dummies spanning three centuries of use. Special exhibits have included the characters used by Darci Lynne, the 2017 winner of “America’s Got Talent.” Tours are by appointment only, customized to visitors’ interests and range from 45 minutes to an hour. The museum operates seven days a week, seasonally. Vent Haven Museum is in Kentucky but located just 7 miles from downtown Cincinnati.
Vent Haven Museum was closed for renovations at the time of publication. It is scheduled to reopen in August 2022.
Address: 33 W. Maple Ave., Fort Mitchell, KY 41011
Muhammad Ali Center
(Courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Tourism)
Born Cassius Clay in Louisville in 1942, Muhammad Ali went on to have an iconic career in boxing that eventually earned him the nickname “The Greatest.” Most people know him as a charismatic athlete, but Ali donated his time and money to charitable causes throughout his life. In 2005, Ali cofounded Kentucky’s Muhammad Ali Center, a multicultural gathering space and nonprofit museum dedicated to the “Six Core Principles” that he lived his life by: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality. The exhibits inspire greatness with artifacts, historical footage, multimedia presentations and more. The Muhammad Ali Center is located along Louisville’s renowned Museum Row. Admission ranges from $9 to $14; children under 5 are free.
Address: 144 N. Sixth St., Louisville, KY 40202
Take Five at the Big Four Bridge
(Courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Tourism)
Linking Kentucky and Indiana, the Big Four Bridge straddles the Ohio River with its Kentucky entrance located along the 85-acre Louisville Waterfront Park. The 53-foot-high bridge, originally built in 1895, allowed railroad cars to enter Louisville through 1968, when train traffic was diverted. In 2014, an access ramp was constructed to convert the previously decommissioned train bridge into a mile-long pedestrian space. The reimagined bridge provides walkers and bikers a panoramic view over the Ohio River, and recent travelers say it is especially stunning at sunset. From twilight to 1 a.m., a rainbow of LED lights illuminate the bridge. About 1.5 million visitors are estimated to cross the bridge every year.
Address: 1101 River Road, Louisville, KY 40202
U.S. 23 Country Music Highway Museum
(Courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Tourism)
Part roadside attraction, part homage to country music royalty, this museum sits along a gas station exit ramp off U.S. Highway 23, also known as “the country music highway.” Highlighting talent from the eastern part of Kentucky, the U.S. 23 Country Music Highway Museum features 14 exhibits spanning country artists who have called the Bluegrass State home, including artists like Loretta Lynn and Chris Stapleton. Keeping the tradition alive, a bluegrass musician takes to the porch steps to play every Thursday night. The museum costs $4 to enter and is located in Paintsville, Kentucky, more than 100 miles east of Lexington and not very far from the border of West Virginia. If you’re traveling toward Louisa, the Kentucky Country Music Museum is yet another collection of local legend paraphernalia — and this time, it’s inside of an actual gas station.
Address: 120 Stave Branch, Staffordsville, KY 41256
Harland Sanders Café and Museum
Sure, KFCs are found everywhere — even in Egypt with a view of the pyramids. However, the world-famous chain started in Corbin with Colonel Harland Sanders (an honorary title, not a military colonel). The Sanders Café opened in 1937, but the structure was rebuilt after a fire in 1939 and reopened on Independence Day in 1940. Colonel Sanders’ “secret” fried chicken recipe was developed on-site, and in 1956 he began to franchise restaurants across the nation. The original cafe remains, now a museum listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can walk through a model of the motel room, view KFC memorabilia including a Green Lantern and Colonel Sanders crossover comic book and, of course, try some chicken and biscuits in a distinct dining room.
Parts of Harland Sanders Café and Museum were closed for renovations at the time of publication. It is scheduled to reopen in 2022.
Address: 688 U.S. Highway 25 W, Corbin, KY 40701
(Courtesy of the Creation Museum)
From curators not sold on the Big Bang Theory — the astronomical event, not the comedy series — the Creation Museum is dedicated to “creation science,” an explanation of human existence drawn straight from the pages of the Bible. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly half of Kentucky’s adult population identifies as evangelical Protestant. In a survey by the same group, 67% of respondents believed humans have always existed in our present form or evolved due to God’s design. Regardless of what you think, the Creation Museum offers a unique perspective on the origin of life with more than 140 exhibits. Admission costs about $45 for adults and $25 for kids ages 11 to 17, while children under 10 are free. A companion exhibit features a life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark about 40 miles south.
Address: 2800 Bullittsburg Church Road, Petersburg, KY 41080
Conrad-Caldwell House Museum
(Timothy Miller/Courtesy of the Conrad-Caldwell House Museum)
This house museum with an alliterative name and design — Richardsonian Romanesque — particularly delights fans of HBO’s “Gilded Age.” The Conrad-Caldwell house, originally constructed in 1895, is a prime example of Louisville’s elaborate Victorian architecture. Louisville holds the distinction of having the highest concentration of Victorian homes in the country. Surround yourself with beautiful objects on a tour of the home, which was purchased by William Caldwell in 1908. Caldwell’s firm was responsible for the creation of the giant bat at the Louisville Slugger Museum and the Mickey Mouse ears at Orlando-Walt Disney World. Self-guided and docent-led tours of the Conrad-Caldwell House Museum cost from $8 to $12 and can be reserved online.
Address: 1402 Saint James Court, Louisville, KY 40208
(Courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Tourism)
With a name like Cave City, Kentucky, maybe it’s not all that surprising that visitors will find hundreds of life-size dinosaur figures in the town. While it might seem a little cheesy initially, past travelers to Dinosaur World rave that the colorful statues and interactive “fossil digs” were a huge hit with their kids and more fun than they originally expected. Walking trails and an indoor museum encourage visitors to learn about their ancient ancestors. Admission costs $15.75 for adults, with discounted rates for children and seniors. For about $6 more, visitors can purchase an Excavation Pass, which allows them to “excavate” shiny rocks, minerals and bones to take home. Unlike prehistoric times, Dinosaur World is a dog-friendly attraction for leash-trained pups. A 5,000-square-foot gift shop might add to the bill, but Dinosaur World encourages families to bring their own food and drink.
Address: 711 Mammoth Cave Road, Cave City, KY 42127
(Courtesy of Newport Aquarium)
Do the words “shark rope bridge” instill fear or excitement? If it’s the latter, you’re in for a treat at Kentucky’s Newport Aquarium. Considered one of the best aquariums in the country, Newport Aquarium is known for its sharks above all else. Walk through a glass tunnel while these sea predators swim above and around you. Or, if you’re extra daring, attempt to cross the Shark Bridge, a suspended rope bridge where thrill-seekers can walk inches above the 385,000-gallon shark and fish tank (free with admission). Of course, there’s more on display at this lively aquarium, including penguins, crocodiles, stingrays and an exhibit featuring eels that dwell in an old shipwreck. The museum is located in Newport, Kentucky, and tickets start at $59.99, with discounts available for children and seniors.
Address: 1 Aquarium Way, Newport, KY 41071
Pleasant Hill Shaker Village
Shaker is a sect of the Quaker religion, and Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, has the largest restored Shaker community in the United States. Most people might know of them from their sought-after furniture designs, but the Shakers have a fascinating history. The Pleasant Hill Shaker Village began in 1805 and lasted until 1910. Now, just 34 of the original 250 pre-Civil War buildings have been restored, but visitors can immerse themselves in 3,000 acres of craft demonstrations, history exhibits and 40 miles of hiking trails that cross organic gardens and cow pastures. Pleasant Hill’s Shaker Village, about 25 miles southwest of Lexington, Kentucky, is free to visit; however, a $10 donation is suggested for hikers, and admission for tours and exhibits starts at $14.
Address: 3501 Lexington Road, Harrodsburg, KY 40330
Take a Gander at the Mother Goose House
(Courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Tourism)
Is there anything more amusing than a house with a goose on top? We’re not talking about Canadian geese — the Mother Goose house in Hazard, Kentucky, features a 15-foot goose structure resting on a round stone home with egg-shaped windows. The avian idea was that of George Stacy, who built the home for him and his wife between 1935 and 1940. Its origins are slightly more grim than its whimsical appearance suggests, with Stacy killing an actual goose to use its bones as a blueprint. The fantastical structure continues to stand today, despite a temporary goose decapitation due to high winds in March 2021. Though its creator has passed on, the home is still occupied 80 years later. Driving along Interstate 476, it’s hard to miss.
Address: 2906 N. Main St., Hazard, KY 41701
Cozy Up at The National Quilt Museum
(Courtesy of The National Quilt Museum)
Past travelers, who visit from all 50 states and more than 40 countries, generally agree that this textile museum is one of the top attractions in Paducah, Kentucky. The National Quilt Museum describes itself as displaying “the finest quilting and fiber art in the world.” With 600 quilts in its collection, the museum offers rotating displays, with thousands more submissions for consideration sent in each year. World-class quilters decide on new additions to the museum based on quality and diversity, and the museum prides itself on a well-rounded contemporary collection. Visitors note that the museum is artistic and not kitschy, defying expectations of what a quilt museum can be. Tickets to the museum start at $12, with discounts available for seniors and students, while children under 12 are free.
Address: 215 Jefferson St., Paducah, KY 42001
Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Ponies and chicken aside, the most famous Kentucky offering is its American-style whiskey, known as bourbon. Dozens of working bourbon distilleries are operating in Kentucky today; the state produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon, with more than two aging barrels for every resident, at any given time. It’s a $9 billion industry, and travelers can experience it firsthand with a distillery tour — or two, or three. Locations for favorites like Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark are sprinkled between Louisville, Lexington and Frankfort, the Kentucky state capital, with one outlier — Green River Distilling — out west in Owensboro, Kentucky. Of course, you can pick and choose your favorite brands to visit, or you can go whole hog by following Kentucky’s official Bourbon Trail, a liquid adventure across 18 distilleries lasting an estimated four days.
Sip Sweet Wine at Purple Toad Winery
(Courtesy of Purple Toad Winery)
If you don’t drink the brown stuff, head to Purple Toad Winery, Kentucky’s largest winery and a traveler-favorite attraction in Paducah. Visitors to the 25,000-square-foot facility will find a staggering more than 40 types of wine, including seasonal and test varietals in addition to best-selling bottles. Tastings are free and include up to eight wines for oenophiles to enjoy. Sweet wines are Purple Toad Winery’s specialty, with inventive combinations like a mango chardonnay and a strawberry jalapeno wine. Nonalcoholic fruit punch slushies are available for purchase, and pets on a leash are welcome on the grounds. Wine-tasting is one of the best things to do in Kentucky in November, or throughout the fall, due to cool temperatures and ripe grapes.
Address: 4275 Old U.S. Highway 45 S, Paducah, KY 42003
Mary Todd Lincoln House
(Courtesy of Mary Todd Lincoln House)
Head to Lexington to connect with the life of former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln in her childhood home. The Federal-style house was built in 1806 and designated as a museum in 1977, making it the first historic site dedicated to a first lady. Mary’s life was not without complexities, including the assassination of her husband, President Abraham Lincoln. The museum strives to shed light on her whole life, including her years outside the White House. On the museum’s website, a 1-mile walking tour guide is available for download, which allows visitors to experience Lexington as the Lincolns might have. Admission to the museum costs $15 for adults and $6 for children ages 6 through 17, and children 5 and younger are free. The Mary Todd Lincoln House is only open seasonally, mid-March through November, and closed on Sundays.
Address: 578 W. Main St., Lexington, KY 40507
Journey to Germany via MainStrasse Village
(Courtesy of John Lair)
The address might say Covington, Kentucky, but Deutschland inspired this tourist town. MainStrasse (Main Street) Village is a National Historic District and includes examples of 19th-century homes, businesses, and restaurants. The shopping and dining district blends wheat beer with bourbon and polka with Dixieland music for a unique convergence of the American South and Western Europe. MainStrasse is the place to be year-round for festivals and events like Mardi Gras, Oktoberfest (but of course) and more offbeat gatherings, like the “World’s Longest Yard Sale” in August.
Address: 406 W. 6th St., Convington, KY 41014
Red River Gorge: The Grand Canyon of Kentucky
Explorer Daniel Boone first took in the scenery of the Red River Gorge in the 1700s, and tourists today can explore the aptly named Daniel Boone National Forest in several ways. The Red River Gorge is an acclaimed climbing and rappelling destination, but more risk-averse visitors can also hike, kayak or drive along the scenic byway. Hourlong kayak tours take travelers through the Gorge Underground, an unground portion of the canyon system that’s easily navigated with a gentle paddle and a headlamp. Red River Gorge is about 70 miles southeast of Lexington, and those looking to spend the night can reserve a campsite at the nearby Natural Bridge State Resort Park.
Address: 3451 Sky Bridge Road, Stanton, KY 40380
Stretch Your Legs at the Paducah Riverwalk
(Courtesy of Paducah CVB)
Architectural Digest recognizes historic downtown Paducah, Kentucky, as one of the most beautiful main streets in America. See what the fuss is about as you familiarize yourself with this town by foot; it boasts more historical markers per capita than anywhere else in the state. Paducah sits in the southwestern corner of Kentucky and is separated from Illinois by the Ohio River. Along the Paducah waterfront, pedestrians can enjoy views of the river and (occasionally) the paddle wheel boats that still navigate it. Past travelers praise the lively floodwall murals and the peaceful waterfront views. If you do get tired of walking, a free trolley regularly runs through historic downtown.
Address: Riverfront at Broadway & Kentucky Ave., Paducah, KY 42001
Catch a Wildcats or Cardinals Game
Sports are always in season in Kentucky, with college baseball games held February through May and college basketball games October to March. The state’s two most prominent sports programs are the University of Kentucky’s Wildcats and the University of Louisville’s Cardinals. The Wildcats play baseball games at the Joe Craft Center in Lexington, and the Cardinals shoot hoops at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. College sports are a big deal in these parts, and both colleges are known to sell out games. Buy tickets early or opt for a less popular sport when you know you want to catch a game. If you’re rooting for the Wildcats, go blue; otherwise, be sure to dress in your best reds for the Cardinals.
Address: 338 Lexington Ave., Lexington, KY 40506 (Joe Craft Center); 1 Arena Plaza, Louisville, KY 40202 (KFC Yum! Center)
Frazier History Museum
(Courtesy of Frazier History Museum)
From the explorations of Lewis and Clark to the largest public collection of toys soldiers in the world, the Frazier History Museum in Louisville provides patrons with an eclectic mix of historical curiosities. Visitors have commented that they particularly enjoy being able to take in the unusual artifacts, like President Theodore Roosevelt’s “big stick,” while sipping bourbon — for educational purposes only, of course. Temporary exhibits buffer the museum’s permanent collection, like “West of Ninth,” a photography exhibition that comments on race, and “Border State,” which delves into Kentucky’s role in the American Civil War. General admission is $14, with discounted rates available for students, seniors, children and military members.
Address: 829 W. Main St., Louisville, KY 40202