Where to go and what to do in Kentucky?
March 19, 2015 10:41 AM   Subscribe

In May, my parents and I are heading to Kentucky. I've never been. What should we do there?

Last year, my mom and I went to Cape Cod and had a blast following your suggestions. This year, my father has asked to join the mother-daughter trip, but this means the whole tenor of the vacation changes. He wants to have everything planned down to the minute, and he wants it planned right now, whereas last year, my mom and I would get up, decide what we were doing that day and head out for adventure (I'm trying to be a good sport about this and not just going, "Sorry, dad, changed my mind; you can't come.")

We're planning on going for a long weekend over Memorial Day (that Thurs-Tues).

My dad has requested we check out UK's campus (he's been a super-fan of their basketball team forever). Other than that, I don't know where to go or what to do.

I would like to ride some horses (but I am an extreme beginner, as in, have only been on a horse when someone else was walking the reins) and listen to/see some live bluegrass music. Though I'm interested in moonshine culture, my parents are not and any sort of touring distilleries is out. My mom and I also like exploring little shops and taking walks. I might be able to convince her to go to a national park (which I would like to do, but no caves). My dad and I would be interested in going to a horse race if there are any during this time.

I know UK is in Lexington, but if there are must-sees/dos in other cities, I'm willing to drive a few hours. Please no suggestions, though, for other states. The point is to explore a state I've never been.

Any suggestions? Thanks!
posted by dearwassily to Travel & Transportation around Kentucky (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
  • The state capitol, Frankfort, is near Lexington. The statehouse is worth looking at.
  • Louisville is less than an hour from Lexington.
  • Lincoln's birthplace is about 90 minutes from Lexington.
  • Fort Knox is also in the neighborhood.
  • Mammoth Cave is about two hours from Lexington (ok, you said no caves. But I had to mention it).
If it were me, I'd fly into Louisville, see some of the sights, and then do a loop through Frankfort, Lexington, Lincoln's Birthplace, Fort Knox and back to Lexington. You'll wish you had more time.
posted by ubiquity at 11:03 AM on March 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Adding on to the previous excellent suggestions: The Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington is lovely. There are any number of whiskey distilleries you might tour in the general area of Lexington and Lousiville. And if you don't want caves, Lake Cumberland is lovely.

Louisville has any number of destinations worth seeing, including Churchill Downs, of course, not to mention the Louisville Slugger museum and the famously quirky Bardstown Road area.
posted by Gelatin at 11:12 AM on March 19, 2015

You'll want a day or two in Louisville. Keep in mind that downtown is totally dead on the weekends- if you plan on staying at a downtown hotel I'd definitely make it a weekday trip, personally.

-There will definitely be live horse racing at Churchill Downs over Memorial Day weekend.
-Crescent Hill, St. Matthews, and Clifton are beautiful, historical, and walkable neighbourhoods with lots of little shops and good places to eat.
-The Louisville Slugger Museum is fun even if you're not a huge baseball fan.
-The Frazier Historical Museum is excellent, but expensive.
-If you like beautiful period homes (I do) go to the Conrad House

Other places I might go -
-Mammoth Cave National Park is beautiful even if you don't go underground. There are some easy walks on nice paths that start and end at the visitor Center. There are also some short super-easy cave walks that don't involve tight spaces, stairs, etc - basically broad paths that go a short way into the system - that you might be able to stretch to?

-Bardstown is a nice little tourist town, with a few museums (railway, Civil War) and a famous outdoor musical called "The Stephen Foster Story". He's the guy who wrote Oh, Susannah and My Old Kentucky Home. I remember loving the show as a kid, but in retrospect it's all a bit racist and celebratory of the Antebellum south in a way that would make me uncomfortable now.

-Paducah - I spent a big part of my childhood there, still have friends there, and I think it's a great little town. The downtown area is gorgeous, there are good restaurants, the quilt museum is really cool (much better than you would probably expect). The riverfront area has huge flood walls with fascinating historical murals. I also recommend the Market House Museum (as a child, I used to tread the boards at the adjoining theater in a variety of children's productions) and a walk through the Lower Town Arts District. I know a few really good bluegrass musicians based in and around Paducah, and I can ask them what's going on in Paducah, Louisville, Lexington, and anywhere else in terms of live music around then - drop me a memail closer to time, if you remember! I'd also personally go take a tour of Kentucky Dam near Paducah, just because I love massive civil engineering projects. The area around the dam is a lovely national park. There is also the tiny but perfectly-formed town of Russelville nearby - I wouldn't stay overnight there, but it's worth a walk around to see all the beautiful old houses if nothing else.
posted by cilantro at 11:12 AM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's be several hours' drive from Louisville or Lexington, but there's also the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green.

If you and your mother enjoy exploring little shops, i really can't emphasize a walk down Louisville's Bardstown Road enough. And I forgot to mention stately Cave Hill Cemetery.

I wouldn't consider the distilleries really part of moonshine culture; Jim Beam and Maker's Mark are nationally known brands and professionally operated. I think the process is fascinating, but if your parents don't enjoy that kind of thing you could skip it. You'd have plenty of opportunity to sample good bourbon wherever you stop to eat, as long as it isn't a dry county (which Louisville and Lexington are not).
posted by Gelatin at 11:19 AM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just want to expand a bit on the Kentucky Dam area - Land Between the Lakes State Park - it's a very nice place to drive around, if you like scenery. The park itself is about70% in KY and 30% in TN.

A visit to Homeplace 1850 in the park will take you JUST over the border into Tennessee - but I wouldn't rule it out. It's a working historical farm and visitor's center with information about the park and lakes (which are very important to my family history- they were displaced from the area by the creation of the lakes and the park in the 1930s and 40s) and I am very willing to bet that there will be something involving live bluegrass music over Memorial Day weekend.
posted by cilantro at 11:24 AM on March 19, 2015

Berea is about 45 minutes south of Lexington. It is a GORGEOUS little town. Tons of arts and crafts, open studios, hands-on stuff, shops, wide sidewalks, porches with rockers, etc. Berea College is there and it's a work-college, so lots of student crafts, Appalachia revival things like brooms as well as an organic farm that feeds a co-op and the student kitchens. An eco-village that's a self-sustaining neighborhood where non-conventional students live, grow hydroponic foods, etc. It's a fascinating place, a little bit of sustainability in coal country.

You could hit Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond in between Lexington & Berea - very pretty campus & walkable downtown. I don't know much more about it...

And then just south of Berea is a Branson-type of place called Renfro Valley Entertainment Center.

All along I-75 on the way to Cumberland Gap & the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail (if anyone is a history buff).
posted by headnsouth at 11:30 AM on March 19, 2015

I like Keeneland better than Churchill Downs.

Woodford Reserve-- one of the distilleries, and I like it.

Go to Rick's White Light Diner while in Frankfurt.
posted by oflinkey at 11:30 AM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Slugger Museum is fun, especially if you've ever wanted a baseball bat with your name on it. The Churchill Downs tour is okay, but it feels a bit weird being show round it when there's nothing going on.

Perhaps you can make the case for a distillery tour by pointing out that it's as much a part of Kentucky's deep institutional history as any racetrack or museum. If they're still no-way about it, perhaps they'd be interested in a cooperage tour to see where the barrels are made and maintained?
posted by holgate at 11:36 AM on March 19, 2015

I was just going to suggest Woodford for a distillery trip. The grounds of the distillery are immaculate with green grass and rolling terrain. Most of the building are old stone and the fermenting takes place in giant two story vats constructed out of cypress trees. It is really a sight to see even if you don't care to try the bourbon. The plus side to visiting Woodford is that it is in the heart of horse country so all around it is horse farms with the ubiquitous white rail fences. Maker's Mark is another distillery that has beautiful grounds and buildings.
posted by mmascolino at 11:37 AM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Bernheim Arboretum.
posted by asockpuppet at 11:41 AM on March 19, 2015

Go to Rick's White Light Diner while in Frankfurt.

I was just in Frankfort for business a week and a half ago and I can't second this enough. Went here for lunch and was blown away. The place is a tiny dive, but man is it good.

Also the drive from Frankfort to Louisville is actually quite beautiful as it runs through the river valley. I would deffinately check out Churchill Downs for the history and catch a race or two. The place is massive.
posted by Benway at 1:16 PM on March 19, 2015

If you have any interest in frontier history, check out Fort Boonesborough State Park. It's a restored 18th century fort, and during the season resident artisans (blacksmiths, glassblowers, soapmakers, etc.) demonstrate their skills and their products are often available for purchase. Fort Boonesborough is located close to I-75 in Richmond, KY.
posted by workerant at 1:49 PM on March 19, 2015

If you're going to be in Lexington so your dad can see the UK campus, the Kentucky Horse Park mentioned above is great. You can take a trail ride (no experience necessary), and it's super fun!
posted by cooker girl at 2:30 PM on March 19, 2015

Shakertown, lovely

and nthing Woodford Reserve, very picturesque!
posted by pennypiper at 2:54 PM on March 19, 2015

Yes, definitely Kentucky Horse Park and Keeneland in Lexington.

In Louisville, Cave Hill Cemetery is an excellent suggestion. If you like Victorian architecture, Old Louisville is a great place to go for a stroll. Old Louisville is between downtown and Churchill Downs. It is also full of bed and breakfasts, though I'm not sure how booked they get for Memorial Day. I normally wouldn't think about steering people away from downtown, but right now it is the Worst Place because of road closures due to construction on the new bridge and utility work (fortunately the flooded Ohio should recede by then). Near to downtown NuLu is a great place for cute shops and spots for a fabulous meal, as is the Bardstown Road/Baxter Ave corridor in the Highlands. The Big Four Bridge is really cool. And the Reggae Festival is that weekend.

Berea and Shakertown are great suggestions. And you may want to check out the Abbey of Gethsemani. It is a monastery near Bardstown where Thomas Merton spent a number of years.
posted by chaoticgood at 3:10 PM on March 19, 2015

-Definitely go to a horse race. Ideally you know someone who can get you in the club house, but it's still fun if you hang out with all the common folk. Lexington has Keeneland and Louisville has Churchill Downs. I think Churchill Downs is definitely the nicer, bigger venue, but you'll still get the horse race experience at Keeneland.

-Bourbon distilleries. Bourbon is a big deal in Kentucky and you can go see bourbon being made and even do bourbon tastings. Look into the "Kentucky Bourbon Trail" if you want to stop at a bunch. Or you can just go to one, like Maker's Mark -- they let you dip a bottle in wax and they put your name on it for you. Not sure on the cost for that, but I have friends who did it. I know your parents aren't into drinking, but you'll get to see how they make the bourbon and stuff. I visited the Buffalo Trace distillery and it was pretty cool to watch them bottle it, watch the old-fashioned system they used to roll barrels across the property, etc. I don't like bourbon.

-A bit of a random place to go eat, but the Windy Corner Market is a little restaurant smack dab surrounded by horse farms, which is pretty cool and very Kentucky feeling. If you're close by, the drive through the horse farms is nice. If you intend on going to a horse farm directly, then this may not be worth it.
posted by AppleTurnover at 5:05 PM on March 19, 2015

Seconding the Buffalo Trace tour. Fascinating, lots of history, and they let you try lots of things at the end, including their non-bourbon drinks (which they also make).

But most important is that you visit Old Friends, a thoroughbred retirement home in Georgetown. It is an amazing nonprofit, and SO MUCH FUN. You call aheadmtomlet them know you want a place on a tour, and then you get to walk around the farm and feed carrots and peppermints to the retired horses. (Retired thoroughbreds used to be sold for meat after earning millions for their owners, so Old Friends gives them a place to live and raises money for their upkeep.)

There is a mini-horse who kicks around a giant soccer ball! There is a horse who drinks beer! There is a horse who is owned by a sheik, and his paddock-mate who never won any races but is famous because he was one of the horses who played Seabiscuit! There is a horse named Swann's Way who is owned by a famous Boston journalist and the guides will be super impressed if you know who Proust is! There are herds of barn cats who wander around supervising the horse-ery! You can sponsor a horse in their annual calendar by donating the cost of one horse's daily food! Go to Old Friends! It is amazing!

Oh, and if you like super-hipster regional local food, maybe check out County Club in Lexington. Amazing smoked meats, seasonal salads, and pulled pork poutine.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:19 PM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

The full moon is June 2 this year, so you will have a chance to see a moonbow (classic webpage!) at Cumberland Falls. And if you go to Cumberland Ffalls, you will be so close to Corbin, might as well stop by the home place of KFC. It's kitschy but interesting from a recent history perspective.
posted by at the crossroads at 8:38 PM on March 19, 2015

I did my postdoc at UK. Great city, green and pretty.

Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill is magnificent, absolutely world-class attraction, a MUST.

Natural Bridge State Park is awesome.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:28 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Lotsa good suggestions here. I live in Lexington so I'll add a few tidbits:

--The UK campus is not all that much to look at though there might be an event or two while you are visiting that make it a nice stop. Adolph Rupp is buried at the Lexington Cemetery and that's a nice place to walk around, especially in the spring when it's getting green again.

--Keeneland only has two short racing meets per year and if you are visiting around Memorial Day, there won't be races. Likewise for The Red Mile, the harness racing track in town--their meet starts in July, iirc. I do think Churchill Downs is racing around Memorial Day.

--Fort Harrod has a replica of the pioneer fort and I once spent a nice, not too strenuous day trip taking an out-of-town friend there and to the Perryville Battlefield site.

Down near Slade, KY is the Natural Bridge State Park. It has nice hiking trails.

Musically, both Red Barn Radio and Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour record before live audiences.

Lastly, right in the Lexington area there are a number of smaller historically-oriented things to do, including visiting the Henry Clay estate, Waveland, and McConnell Springs.

Have a nice trip to Kentucky!
posted by CincyBlues at 10:31 PM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

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