The Bluegrass State of Kentucky is home to sophisticated, vibrant cities such as Louisville and Lexington; incredible national and state parks; and of course, the blue-green rolling hills that are dotted with farm estates and horse pastures. Here are our picks for five great stops on an epic Kentucky adventure out of Lexington.
Lexington is an artsy, fun and eclectic city, with historic homes and sites right alongside art galleries, upscale restaurants, and craft brewpubs. Start at Gratz Park, the epicenter of Lexington’s historical district. This small, picturesque urban park first established in 1781 is surrounded by Federal-style houses, and is the perfect point from which to explore the neighborhood. Several homes in the Gratz Park Historic District are open to the public, including the Hunt-Morgan House and Bodley-Bullock House, both built in 1814.
A must-visit is the Mary Todd Lincoln House, where the First Lady grew up. She returned several times with Abraham Lincoln after their marriage, and the rooms on tour include the bedroom in which President Lincoln stayed. The wealth and lifestyle that Mary enjoyed was in stark contrast to Abraham’s poor upbringing; the log cabin in which he was born could fit into just one of the rooms in the Todd house. The home is open daily from March 15 to November 30.
Kentucky Horse Park
This is what the state is famous for: horses and horse racing. No trip to Kentucky would be complete without a visit to the Kentucky Horse Park, a working equestrian center and educational theme park spread over 1,229 acres. There are two horse museums on site, numerous stables and fields, restaurants, and activities like trolley tours and other events in the summer season. The Horse Park also boasts one of the world’s best equine competition facilities where national dressage are held.
Although Kentucky is famous for its bourbon, it might be surprising to learn that there is a significant craft brewing movement in the Bluegrass Region. The Brewgrass Trail, with its fun spin on the region, is dedicated to showcasing the craft breweries establishing themselves in the area. There are eight breweries on the trail, along with a dozen other spots serving their products. You can even get a Brewgrass Trail passport to get stamped at each one. (Passports can be picked up at any brewery or at the Lexington Visitors Center at 401 West Main Street downtown.)
Set on 3,000 acres about 45 minutes outside Lexington, Shaker Village was once the home of one of the largest Shaker communities in the United States (nearly 500 members at peak), who lived here from 1805 to the 1920s. The 34 original Shaker structures that remain make up the country’s largest private collection of original 19th century buildings, and is the largest National Historic Landmark in Kentucky. Shaker Village has restored these buildings to create a place of discovery and recreation for guests, both those who visit for the day or those who stay overnight in one of the original restored buildings. While visiting, you can take a tour, check out exhibits with hundreds of items from the Shakers who lived here -- from furniture, quilts and household items to medical records, books and personal items -- see modern-day craftspeople and artists in their working studios, do hands-on activities such as weaving or painting, and eat at the restaurant which sources much of its down-home cooking from the working farm on site.
Red River Gorge/Daniel Boone National Forest
For a spectacular driving tour combined with any level of hiking, don’t miss the Red River Gorge area inside the Daniel Boone National Forest. Spanning the gorge is a sandstone rock bridge called the Natural Bridge, 65 feet in height and spanning 78 feet across. The views from the bridge are magnificent, and an estimated 500 miles of trails make it the largest national forest trail network in Kentucky. Cabin rentals and campgrounds are available if you want to stay overnight, and other activities include picnicking, hunting, fishing, boating, swimming, horseback riding, bicycling, spelunking, bird watching, and zip lining.
Don’t miss a drive through the Nada Tunnel, built in the early 1900s for use on the logging railroad; it is pitch black and only 12 feet wide. The one-car-at-a-time passage is a bit harrowing but adventurous; make sure you honk first and confirm another vehicle isn’t coming through from the other side — and watch for hikers who often trek through the tunnel on foot.