Bourbon, horse races, mile-long caves, lunar rainbow, corvettes, & hot brown are just some of the images that come to mind when you think of Kentucky. This state in the Upland South has a lot of cultural experiences, events, & manmade & natural attractions in store for visitors to the Bluegrass State. Read on for a complete Kentucky travel guide to have an amazing trip!
The State of Kentucky came into being in 1792 when it was added to the union as the 15th state. When it took up statehood it also took on the title of Commonwealth. As such, the state of Kentucky is also known as the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Kentucky, or where the present-day state is, is known to have been occupied since the prehistoric days. Signs of existence of early Native Americans have been recorded in several places. The area is said to have seen early occupants turn to farming & the tussles among different tribes & later settlers.
European settlers are said to have arrived in these parts in the 1770s. They came through the Cumberland Gap on horseback. Soon after, horses, racing, & breeding became important here.
Today, the state is known for horse racing, which attracts a lot of people to the state of Kentucky.
What to see and do
The Kentucky Derby is one of the biggest sporting events in Kentucky. It takes place in Churchill Downs near Louisville, KY. If you’re not able to make it to Kentucky during the event, there are other things you can see and do to learn about the equine industry here. You can visit the Kentucky Derby museum and familiarize yourself with the history of Kentucky’s derby and take in the exhibits they have there. You might also be able to do a tour of the venue of the popular event.
Kentucky Horse Farm in Lexington also has equine museums and provides opportunities to interact with horses. The farm conducts events like parades & equestrian shows. If that’s not enough, you can visit Keeneland, which also has race tracks and conducts auctions of thoroughbreds. They have a couple of tours for visitors where you can enjoy the surroundings and experience the working of the stables.
Another must-do in Kentucky is to get onto the state’s Bourbon Trail and visit some of the participating distilleries where you’ll be able to taste bourbon and learn about the process of making US’s National Spirit.
The Louisville Slugger Museum is another place that is rarely left out of Kentucky itineraries. This is where to go to see a giant baseball bat and see how the bat is made, and check out some interesting exhibits from the national sport.
Among the other museums here that you might want to visit are the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum, & some rail museums.
Yet other not to be missed places in Kentucky are the Mammoth Caves (the longest cave system) & Kentucky Lake (the largest lake in terms of surface area east of the Mississippi). There is also Lake Barkley, which is the deepest lake.
Other attractions in the state are: Cumberland Gap (a mountain pass in the Appalachian), Lake Cumberland, & Cumberland Falls where you get to see lunar rainbows on full moon nights.
Cumberland Falls is also known as the Niagara of the South. Other natural sites in the state are the Red River Gorge in Daniel Boone National Forest, and Black Mountain, which enjoys the title of highest point in Kentucky with a height of over 4100 ft.
There’s also the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Museum where the president was born and had spent his early years. You can also visit Mary Todd Lincoln House, where Lincoln’s wife grew up.
For more ideas on what to do in Kentucky that aren’t included in this Kentucky Travel Guide, check out my post: Top 10 Things to do in Kentucky.
Lying on the northern part of the US’s South, the food of the area is mostly ‘Southern’ in style. So being in Kentucky means getting to eat good fried chicken, shrimp & grit, pies, & other southern comfort food. However the one thing you must have that is a 100% Kentuckian is Hot Brown! This is a dish that was created right here in Kentucky. A Hot Brown is toast topped with turkey, bacon, tomato, & Mornay Sauce. It was originally put together by Brown Hotel in Louisville. Now you’ll find several restaurants serving Hot Brown, & it’s become a Kentucky specialty!
Kentucky is also the home of Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC was brought into being by Harland Sanders at his service station in North Corbin, much before it became the fast-food chain it is today.
Although there’s a lot of southern food here, Kentucky also has restaurants serving Latin American, Peruvian, & Cuban food among other cuisines.
Another Kentucky special you have to taste is the Bourbon made here!
For specific restaurants you must visit that aren’t included in this Kentucky Travel Guide, check out my post: Best 10 Restaurants in Kentucky.
Bourbon is also something to shop for when you’re visiting Kentucky. And the best places for it are on the Bourbon Trail, when you go touring and do tastings in the many distilleries in the state. Some of these places will let you bottle the drink and seal it yourself, making them perfect souvenirs!
Other gifts to take back from the state are personalized baseball bats from the Slugger Museum and Factory or horse souvenirs from the Kentucky Derby Museum/the Kentucky Horse Park.
Kentucky is located in the area known as the Upland South or the northern part of the ‘South.’ The Appalachian Mountains run across the eastern part of the state. The Mississippi River runs west of the state and the Ohio River is to its north.
Kentucky is surrounded by a total of 7 states, making it one of the states with many neighboring states.
Kentucky has hotels, resorts, camping areas, & bed and breakfasts for tourists. Where to stay in the state depends on what you’re here to do. You can pick an area that’s close to what interests you most: derby, bourbon distillery tours or the natural attractions of the state.
If you’d like to stay in the bigger cities of the state, book a room in Louisville, Lexington or Frankfurt. If you’re into camping, you should try Kentucky Horse Park, Red River Gorge, or one of the other parks in the state.
Kentucky Castle in Versailles is another option you should look at if you would like to try staying in a palatial & luxurious bed n’ breakfast.
If you’re driving in, the state is well connected to its neighbors with 5 interstate highways. There are several US highways running through the Bluegrass State.
If you’ll be flying in, Louisville International Airport is the airport that’s the busiest in the state. Other commercial airports here are the smaller Barkley Regional airport and Owensboro-Daviess County Airport.
Best time to visit
Kentucky doesn’t have extreme weather so anytime is a fairly good time to visit; just know that it gets rain in summer as well in the winter and that it does get hot in the summer.
If you’re interested in the Equestrian tourism here, the best time to visit is the first week of May when the Kentucky Derby takes place. If not, you can go by the other horse related events that take place at different times of the year.
Yet other events you might want to check out are Kentucky State Fair in Louisville & the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown in September.
Despite being a Kentucky travel guide, I always want to share nearby destinations for your trip. As Kentucky shares borders with 7 states — Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, & Tennessee — it becomes easy to travel to these states. As such, you can look at the attractions in these states that are closer to Kentucky and plan side trips accordingly.