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12 Best Places to Visit in Kentucky

Written by Anietra Hamper
May 22, 2020

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There are many great places to visit in Kentucky, from the quiet communities tucked within the rolling pastures to the excitement of cities like Louisville that come alive on the world-wide stage during the Kentucky Derby. There are caves to explore near Bowling Green, and Thoroughbred retirement farms in Georgetown.

You can plan a trip to one of the national parks in the state for some tranquility, or you can plan some family activities on the riverfront in Newport. While the state is known for its horse racing and bluegrass, there are many places to visit in Kentucky that will let you experience its culture and so much more. Determine your best options with our list of the best places to visit in Kentucky.

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1. Louisville

Downtown Louisville and the Ohio River at night
Downtown Louisville and the Ohio River at night

If you only have time to visit one city in Kentucky it should be Louisville. It is home to Churchill Downs horse racetrack and most known for its annual Kentucky Derby, which attracts horse lovers from around the world. The city is one of the oldest in the state, founded in 1778, so you will find a lot of history here.

Start your Louisville visit on West Main Street in downtown, one of the most historic sections of the city. The downtown area's Museum Row has 10 attractions to visit, including the Muhammad Ali Center, the Louisville Slugger Museum, the Kentucky Science Center, and the Frazier History Museum.

For interactive experiences, you can spend an afternoon at the Speed Art Museum or plan a river cruise on board the Belle of Louisville, the city's historic paddle wheel boat. You can stay at Homewood Suites by Hilton in downtown and walk to some of the top Louisville attractions.

Much of the social action in Louisville happens on Fourth Street in downtown, where you will find local theaters and entertainment; a variety of restaurants serving up authentic homemade Southern cuisine; and seven blocks of shops, historic hotels, and the riverfront activities on the Ohio River.

For outdoor recreation, you can take a walk or bike ride along part of the 100-mile loop around the city or sit and relax in the 85-acre green space at the waterfront park.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Louisville

2. Lexington

Horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky
Horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky

The city of Lexington is considered the horse capital of the world. It is the place to visit to experience the history of Thoroughbred racing that goes back for several centuries in the city.

You can start your trip to Lexington at its famous horse racetracks. The Kentucky Horse Park has a number of museums to visit and regular horse demonstrations. You can watch Thoroughbreds go through their morning exercises at the Keenland Race Course and walk through the grounds, then plan breakfast at the Track Kitchen.

If you enjoy learning about the horses, you should definitely plan a Horse Farm Tour, which is a unique experience in Lexington. There are nearly 450 horse farms where you can book an appointment and see where some of the famous Kentucky Derby winners now reside.

You can also just drive along the Lexington countryside on the Bluegrass Country Driving Tour and see the farms and horses grazing in the pastures. If you want to stay in the countryside, you can book a room at Steele's Run Bed and Breakfast, which is surrounded by scenic farms.

Besides its horse fame, Lexington has some nice historical sites and a vibrant arts scene. While in town, you can tour some historic homes previously owned by famous Lexington residents, like Mary Todd Lincoln, and visit the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, a restored Shaker village with original buildings and land. You can take a guided or self-guided Historic Downtown Walking Tour or just stroll on your own along the streets to enjoy local dining, art galleries, and shops at Victorian Square.

Accommodation: Where to stay in Lexington

3. Newport

Historic home in Newport, Kentucky
Historic home in Newport, Kentucky | Jeff Kubina / photo modified

Newport in northern Kentucky is a small and fun waterfront city located just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Newport on the Levee is where you can spend much of your time.

One of the top attractions is the Newport Aquarium, which has world-class exhibits and interactive demonstrations, from the Shark Bridge and fish feedings to interacting with penguins.

The Newport on the Levee complex has a wide range of dining and entertainment options, from stand-up comedy to movies. Another fun must-do in Newport is to walk across the half-mile Purple People Bridge, officially called the Newport Southbank Bridge. The pedestrian bridge connects both sides of the river and provides one of the best views of the Ohio River.

Newport also has a nice historic district in the East Row neighborhood. The district is the second largest historic area in Kentucky, established in the 1700s, where you can walk around and see some of the homes. While you are exploring the area be sure to see the World Peace Bell, which is the world's largest swinging bell.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Newport

4. Cumberland Gap

Foggy morning at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Foggy morning at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

The majestic Cumberland Gap near Middlesboro, Kentucky is one of the best places to visit for outdoor beauty in the state. The Cumberland Gap National Historical Park is not only a beautiful area but it's also historic: early settlers used it to move buffalo to the west. There are more than 85 miles of trails. Most are easily accessible, but some backcountry trails spread across the 24,000 acres of wilderness.

Besides the many outdoor experiences at the Cumberland Gap, you can visit the Hensley Settlement in the park, which is a living history village representative of early Appalachian settlement. The Cumberland Gap Visitor Center, the Artists Co-op, and Mitty's Metal Art workshop are also fun stops in the park if you are looking to fill out a day in the area.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Middlesboro

5. Bowling Green

National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green
National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green | Alberto Cabello / photo modified

The town of Bowling Green is one of the best places to visit in Kentucky, especially if you are an automotive or aviation enthusiast. It is home to the National Corvette Museum, where you can see a large collection of restored vintage Corvettes and exhibits related to the iconic American car.

Bowling Green's contributions to transportation are also on display at the Historic Railpark and Train Museum and the Aviation Heritage Park, which are both open to visitors.

The more natural side of Bowling Green is best seen at Lost River Cave, where you can spend a day. There are underground cave boat tours that are great for families and a fun way to explore the cave system. The complex above ground has ziplining, several miles of hiking trails, and a butterfly habitat.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Bowling Green

6. Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park

The massive cave system at Mammoth Cave National Park, near Brownsville in central Kentucky, is the longest known in existence in the world. There are more than 400 miles of pathways and cave chambers, and many are open to visitors for tours. Several types of tours are available that showcase dripstone formations and other natural elements inside the cave system.

In addition to exploring the caves, this is one of the best places to visit in Kentucky because there are so many other things to do in the park, like kayaking or fishing on the Nolin River and Green River.

Hiking is another popular activity. There are several miles of trails that start from the visitor center and can accommodate every skill level. You can also book a horseback riding tour through the national park.

Accommodation: Where to Stay near Mammoth Cave National Park

7. London

McHargue's Mill at Levi Jackson State Park
McHargue's Mill at Levi Jackson State Park

There is one reason that London makes the list of one of the best places to go in Kentucky: it is the birthplace of the world-famous Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants. It is a quirky town and is probably best known for hosting an annual World Chicken Festival, although the town has plenty of things to do during other times of the year.

If you visit during the festival, which is usually held in the fall, you can bite into a fresh piece of Kentucky fried chicken from the world's largest skillet.

Outside the festival timeframe, London is a great place to visit, especially if you enjoy Civil War history. The Camp Wildcat Battlefield is nice to visit, especially during one of the Civil War reenactments that occasionally take place here. It was one of the sites of the first engagement in the Civil War for Kentucky troops.

The Levi Jackson Wilderness Road Park is another place to visit to see how early settlers navigated the wilderness to eventually call Kentucky home. There is a living history pioneer settlement at the Mountain Life Museum inside the park.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in London

8. Paducah

Paducah Floodwall Mural
Paducah Floodwall Mural | David Wilson / photo modified

Paducah is a small town in Kentucky, situated along the banks of the Ohio River, but it has a surprisingly impressive number of museums and attractions that are easy to see in a short visit.

In downtown Paducah there is an impressive and artful display along the city's floodwall. The Paducah Floodwall Murals feature 50 painted murals that tell the story of the city's history.

You will also want to visit Main Street in Paducah, which is filled with historical architecture and a charming collection of shops and small dining establishments. There is an arts district located in the historic LowerTown neighborhood, which has art galleries and local artisans selling their work.

There are a number of museums to visit in Paducah, from the Lloyd Tilghman House and Civil War Museum to the National Quilt Museum of the United States.

Paducah has about 12 city parks, including Bob Noble Park, which has baseball fields, walking trails, and a nice lake.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Paducah

9. Frankfort

Capitol building in Frankfort, Kentucky
Capitol building in Frankfort, Kentucky

The capital city of Frankfort, which sits on the banks of the Kentucky River, is rich with American history. Most people who visit Frankfort make a stop at the burial site of American frontiersman Daniel Boone at Frankfort Cemetery. You can book a tour at the cemetery to uncover the final resting places of some of Kentucky's most notable figures.

Another great stop in Frankfort is the Salato Wildlife Education Center, where you can learn about wildlife like bison, bald eagles, bobcats, and snakes at indoor and outdoor exhibits. There are also hiking trails and lakes for fishing.

One of the tastiest stops in Frankfort is at the Rebecca Ruth Candy Museum. It opened in 1919 and still produces some of the best confectioneries in the state. Take a tour and taste some samples from this piece of Kentucky history.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Frankfort

10. Red River Gorge

Red River Gorge
Red River Gorge

Red River Gorge is an unforgettable wilderness area in Stanton, Kentucky. While it is popular with those who enjoy hardcore adventure, like rock climbers, it is a great place to visit for anyone who appreciates the outdoors. The Red River Gorge is a designated geological area that has a unique canyon system, with much of it surrounded by the Daniel Boone National Forest.

One of the most impressive sites to see is the Natural Bridge in the gorge area. This is just one of the many natural elements. You will see sandstone cliffs and unique rock formations. It is easy to spend a day just wandering on the many trails through the gorge, but if you are looking for something a bit more adventurous, this is the place to find it.

In addition to hiking, you can take a zipline tour, learn how to rock climb, try bird-watching, or step into the Gorge Underground. This is an immersive way to explore the Red River Gorge by taking a guided kayaking tour along the underground rivers for a different perspective on the geological elements of the Red River Gorge.

11. Owensboro

International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro
International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro

The city of Owensboro has a mix of natural beauty with its parks but also a nice waterfront scene along the Ohio River. Smothers Park is an active waterfront complex where locals and visitors congregate, especially in the evenings to watch the sunsets on the river. There are playgrounds, swings, river overlooks, many restaurants, and regular entertainment.

Owensboro is a scenic town that has the Western Kentucky Botanical Garden, the International Bluegrass Music Museum, and the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art.

It is easy to wander around on foot in Owensboro and enjoy some of the delicious Southern cooking at the local restaurants. You cannot leave Owensboro without seeing the World's Largest Sassafras Tree near the public library.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Owensboro

12. Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area

Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area
Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area

The most spectacular place to exhale in Kentucky is the natural and breathtaking Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. The natural area sits between Kentucky and Tennessee and has more than 170,000 acres of outdoor wilderness. There are so many things to see and do in the area that you might want to book a cabin and spend several days.

The outdoor recreation has multi-use trails for hikers and bikers. There are more than five designated water trails that range from one to three hours, where you can kayak along the quiet lake systems. Horseback riding is another popular activity in the area because there is so much outdoor space.

Other things to see include The Homeplace 1850s, which is a living history experience on a Civil War-era farm. The Woodlands Nature Station has interactive demonstrations about the wildlife in the National Recreation Area, and one of the best things to see there is the Elk and Bison Prairie. The 700-acre drive-through preserve gets you up close to these beautiful animals in their natural environment.

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