The thundering hooves of Thoroughbreds, rolling hills covered in bluegrass and the sweetness of bourbon whiskey, the state’s most revered spirit — these gems are among Kentucky’s most appealing offerings.
Kentucky welcomes any visitor with Southern hospitality that imbues even its most metropolitan areas, as its small towns radiate an easygoing charm. The state’s signature industries and its wealth of one-of-a-kind attractions blend leisure and excitement in a landscape of picturesque natural scenery and bustling industry.
For the perfect itinerary, travel planners should schedule stops at these charismatic Kentucky cities.
Kentucky’s largest city was founded in 1778 on the Ohio River and was named to honor King Louis of France for his contributions to the American Revolution. The invention of the steamboat led to an explosion of industry in the 19th century, cementing Louisville’s position as Kentucky’s most populous city.
“This is one of the most exciting cities you’ll ever eat, drink, explore and meet in,” said Saundra Robertson, senior tourism sales manager at Louisville Tourism.
One of Louisville’s most iconic sites is Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. Tours can be arranged through the Kentucky Derby Museum, conveniently located next to the racetrack. Groups can tour the museum and take a guided tour of the track to watch horses complete their morning training and stroll through the track’s gardens and greenhouses. The Derby Café and Bourbon Bar, the museum’s on-site restaurant, offers buffets with Southern fare and Kentucky classics.
Louisville is also home to several distinct museums. The Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory is easy to locate, thanks to the Big Bat, a 120-foot-tall wooden baseball bat that leans against the factory wall. At the Muhammad Ali Center, groups can learn about the legendary boxer’s career and legacy as they tour multiple floors of interactive exhibits.
Whiskey Row is one of the most varied bourbon attractions in the country. The one-block entertainment district’s historic buildings have cast-iron storefronts; the buildings once served as offices for bourbon distilling companies. Today the block is home to distilleries and bars where visitors get a taste — or a pour — of Kentucky’s favorite spirit. Well-known brands like Old Forester Distilling Company and Angel’s Envy have distilleries on the row that offer tours and tastings for groups, each with their own special twist. The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience even offers a tour that finishes with a bourbon and charcuterie tasting. Whiskey Row is also a good place to grab a bite to eat. Groups can try some of the city’s best fried chicken and Southern cooking at Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen.
Just south of Louisville, the small township of Shepherdsville in Bullitt County makes a great stop for groups. Bullitt County has long been known for being industrious, and its rich history is fun to explore.
“The buffalo made the pass into Shepherdsville and Bullitt County for the salt licks,” said Troy Beam, executive director of Shepherdsville-Bullitt County Tourism. “Pioneers followed them in and ended up doing salt mining, then iron ore.”
Today, the town’s major industries have shifted to all things spirits, wine and ale. Groups can enjoy a tour and a tasting at the county’s two bourbon attractions, four wineries and brewery. One of the more famous options is the James B. Beam Distillery, where eight generations of the Beam family have been producing one of the world’s most popular bourbons since 1795, with a little break for Prohibition. Groups can tour the distillery and visit the Kitchen Table, the distillery’s restaurant, for an upscale dining experience.
The Four Roses Warehouse and Bottling facility is the second bourbon related attraction in the area. Four Roses, a popular brand with a distillery in Lawrenceburg, is known for using 10 distinct recipes to craft its signature bourbons. Groups can take a guided tour and tasting at the warehouse to learn more about what makes the brand so well loved. In addition to bourbon experiences, groups can visit MillaNova Winery, Forest Edge Winery, Wight-Meyer Winery and Brooks Hill Winery to sample Kentucky varietals and take in views of the countryside. They can also taste what’s on tap at Gallant Fox Brewing Company, the county’s first brewery, which opened at the end of 2022.
A visit to Shepherdsville’s Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest is another must. This 16,000-acre nature preserve has 40 miles of hiking and biking trails, wildlife and plenty of programs for groups, including themed, educational tours of the forest. Isaac’s Café, in the bright visitors center, uses fresh ingredients from the Edible Garden to prepare its healthy offerings.
Bourbon enthusiasts will recognize the name Elijah Craig, but when it comes to Georgetown, that name takes on a special significance.
“A lot of people are not aware it was founded by Elijah Craig,” said Bailey Gilkerson, marketing director at Georgetown/Scott County Tourism. “He did a lot of great things for our community.”
Local legend says Craig, who founded the town in 1784, was the first to distill bourbon. While this is hotly disputed by other Kentucky towns that claim to be the birthplace of bourbon, Craig is credited with being the first to age bourbon in charred oak barrels, a method that became a requirement when producing Kentucky’s favorite spirit.
Kentucky’s other major industry, Thoroughbred racing, also plays a major role in Georgetown. Groups can spend half a day at the Kentucky Horse Park, a working horse farm and attraction for all things equestrian. The park hosted the World Equestrian Games in 2010. Each day, horses are paraded in front of visitors during the Parade of Breeds and other scheduled programs. Exhibits at the park’s International Museum of the Horse, a Smithsonian affiliate, detail the history of these magnificent animals and their relationship with humans.
Old Friends, another horse attraction, is a farm where retired racehorses go to live out their days. Silver Charm, the oldest living Derby winner, is a current resident. During tours, visitors meet some of these famous horses, feed them carrots and take selfies as they learn about each horse’s career and learn about the farm’s operation.
In addition to its handsome Victorian architecture, downtown has plenty of shopping and dining to enjoy. For an afternoon on their own, tour members can meander on their own through antique shops, boutiques, galleries and museums. They can also hit favorite local eateries like Fava’s, Galvin’s and Desserts by Rebecca. For a group meal and country cooking, Wilshire’s Restaurant is known for catfish, country-fried chicken and bourbon-glazed salmon.
Lexington’s thriving downtown is surrounded by miles of serene horse farms, offering a blend of city and country living. Although this central Kentucky city is the state’s second largest, it doesn’t always feel like it.
“One of the things we love about Lexington is that you get the best of both worlds here,” said Martina Barksdale, director of communications at VisitLex.
Lexington is known as the Horse Capital of the World for good reason. The city is home to Keeneland Race Course, which has two meets each year, one in April, the other in October. Groups can tour the track, or if they’re in town during a meet, they can catch a race. Tours of area horse farms can be arranged through Horse Country, a local organization dedicated to promoting the horse industry in the Bluegrass. These tours are a way to see privately owned horse farms where some of the most famous racing legends were born and bred.
Lexington is surrounded by bourbon distilleries, but several are also within city limits. The James E. Pepper Distillery, a recently reopened historic distillery in the aptly named Distillery District, offers a signature bourbon experience. After a tour and a tasting, groups can enjoy an afternoon in the revitalized historic district, home to Goodfella’s Pizzeria, local craft ice cream shop Crank and Boom, and the Burl Arcade. Those with a passion for craft beer will be delighted to find two stops on the local Brewgrass Trail, Ethereal Brewing Company and Wise Bird Cider, in the district.
Lexington is also a foodie’s paradise. It’s a hub for locally owned restaurants with a wide range of cuisines, from Hawaiian to Cajun to barbecue. A trip to town warrants a visit to any one of James Beard-nominated Chef Ouita Michel’s many restaurants, including Honeywood, in the popular Summit shopping district; Wallace Station, renowned for its award-winning burgers; and Windy Corner Market, in the country, serving up po’boys and Southern fare. Groups are also in for a treat when they dine at group-friendly, signature Lexington restaurants, such as Epping’s on Eastside and Coles 735 Main.
Just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, northern Kentucky is made up of Newport, Covington, Florence and several other small communities, each with amenities and attractions.
“In northern Kentucky, we pride ourselves on having a little bit for everyone who comes,” said Lorey Hall, leisure sales manager at the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Newport was nicknamed “Sin City” long before Las Vegas claimed the title. On a Newport Gangster Tour offered by American Legacy Tours, groups can walk the streets of Newport and hear tales of mobsters, gamblers and illicit casinos. Also in Newport, the Newport Aquarium has a stunning variety of marine animals, from playful penguins to colorful jellyfish.
For a tasty meal accompanied by views of the Cincinnati skyline, BB Riverboats offers dinner cruises. Upscale, fresh seasonal meals are served as the boat glides along the Ohio River. For authentic Bavarian food and beverage, the Hofbrauhaus Newport Brewery and Restaurant’s menu features plenty of German cuisine, like bratwurst, schnitzel and sauerkraut, and, of course, a wide selectin of “bier.”
Another big draw is the Ark Encounter, a ship of the same proportions as Noah’s Ark is described in Genesis. This 510-foot-long, seven-story structure shows what the Ark might have looked like and doubles as a museum, with exhibits throughout that tell the story of the flood. Groups can tour the massive structure and pair their outing with a trip to the Creation Museum, a 40-minute drive from the Ark. Outside the Ark, the fun continues with a petting zoo and zipline course.