When you think about Kentucky, your mind probably goes to horses, bourbon and caves. After a trip to Mammoth Cave or the Kentucky Horse Park, you may think you’ve done everything Kentucky has to offer. But you’d be wrong.
Kentucky is full of lesser-known attractions that are off the beaten path. “I’m hearing more and more from travelers, ‘We don’t want to go to the things that everybody knows about. We want to go where the locals are,’ ” says Scottie Ellis, communications manager for the Kentucky Department of Tourism & Travel. No matter where you are in the state, you can find a local attraction you may never have heard of before.
It may come as a surprise, but Western Kentucky has a fantastic art scene. You may never of heard of Paducah, a Kentucky city on the Ohio River, across from Missouri. But it was recently named a UNESCO Creative City of Crafts and Folk Art, and it’s easy to see why. Its LowerTown Arts District is a 26-block district listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is filled with studios and galleries featuring potters, jewelry makers, painters and printmakers. Paducah’s “Wall to Wall” Murals are life-size paintings on the city’s floodwalls done by renowned artist Robert Dafford. But what Paducah is most known for is its quilts. The city is home to the National Quilt Museum, which features classic and modern quilts in its 27,000-square-foot exhibition space.
“To think that someone actually stitched those things is kind of mind-blowing. I think I was very shocked when I saw it for the first time,” says Ellis.
Music lovers can travel northwest of Paducah to Owensboro to bask in some bluegrass. There, you can take part in the annual ROMP Bluegrass Roots and Branches Music Festival.
“It’s almost like Bonnaroo, only for bluegrass,” laughs Ellis.
Held June 26-28 this year, popular bluegrass artists like Ricky Scaggs, Sam Bush and Del McCoury will perform.
The Bourbon Trail is a Kentucky staple, but you can take a trip into Louisville if you’re craving more. The city is ready to quench your thirst with its Urban Bourbon Trail. Instead of looking at how it’s made, you get a chance to taste how it’s used. Each stop is stocked with anywhere from 50 to 150 varieties. But even nondrinkers can enjoy this tour, since the bars and restaurants also serve plenty of food made with bourbon.
“They’re really emphasizing that you go into these local restaurants and you can experience bourbon outside of the distillery,” says Ellis. “The Urban Bourbon Trail really offers a whole other side of bourbon away from historic sites but into how it is really consumed here in Kentucky.”
For those who want to explore Louisville’s Nulu district the way the locals do, try the First Friday Trolley Hop. You can jump on the trolley at any of its stops and visit the restaurants, shops, clubs and galleries along the way for free. The stops include Garage Bar, which features some crashed cars out front and lit-up table tennis in the back; Flame Run Glass Studio & Gallery, the region’s largest glassblowing studio and gallery; and Flea Off Market, a once-a-month outdoor flea market that includes live music and food trucks.
If you want to cool off during the day, take a trip underground to Louisville’s Mega Caverns. A massive limestone quarry created this underground cavern, but now adventurous visitors can take zip line tours or explore a ropes challenge course in the approximately 100 acres of caves. Have a fear of heights? Mega Caverns also offers an educational tram tour.
“It really is a challenge,” Ellis says. “I would say that that is probably a different approach [to caves] because [when] you think about going through caves, you think about climbing or learning about things that live there … but the Mega Caverns, you zip line down below the ground.”
Both foodies and outdoor adventurers can rejoice in Eastern Kentucky. For those that like to get their hands dirty, Red River Gorge offers opportunities for climbing, kayaking and hiking. If you want to make a weekend of it, Natural Bridge State Park has the space for camping.
When you need a food break or some climbing advice, visitors can go to Miguel’s Pizza for both.
“It’s a climb shop and pizza shop,” says Ellis. “Most people go there and they gear up for their stuff ... or they find out the best hiking routes or where to go paddle around, then they grab some slices of pizza and they go.”
If you’re a lover of delicious beer cheese, a trip to Winchester for the Beer Cheese Trail is a must. Clark County is considered to be the birthplace of beer cheese, so it celebrates this heritage by serving it in new and fun ways at its many restaurants.
“You can eat at all these local places, you can experience the outdoors of Eastern Kentucky, but then you can also get a local favorite that most states wouldn’t be able to offer in the way that Winchester does,” says Ellis.
From the arts scene of the West to the cuisine of the East, an area of Kentucky is always waiting to be rediscovered. “It really is the local gems that make Kentucky what it is,” says Ellis.