Why Iconic Kentucky is a Must-See (and its Surprises Even More So)

Aug 2, 2019

When we say Kentucky, you think—wait, wait, don’t tell us—bourbon, horses and Hot Browns, right? Right. And of course, you’re not wrong about the icons. They’re inextricably linked to the state’s soul—and amazing to experience when you’re visiting.

For every Kentucky icon, however, there’s a surprising find that could well become one of your favorite travel memories. So this fall, we think we should have the best of both worlds—the legendary and the lesser known—on a trip through the Bluegrass State. Read on for our picks of each, then start planning.

The four-legged locals

Legendary: the official horse of Kentucky—which is to say, the Thoroughbred. Of course, the mere fact that there’s an official state horse says a lot about equine influence here. Kentucky is a very horsey state, and even if you don’t happen to visit during its most famous event—i.e., the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs—there are countless ways to experience that culture. One of the best? Get up close and personal with past Derby winners (among other retired champs) at Old Friends Farm in Georgetown—a retirement home for hundreds of Thoroughbreds. Take a 90-minute group walking tour (book online) or a private tour in a vehicle with owner (call to book). Whichever tour you choose, you’ll get to meet (and yes, pet) the residents, whose glory days you’ll hear about en route.

To see horses at their racing peak, head to Lexington’s Keeneland Race Course, a National Historic Landmark where you’ll find races Oct. 4-26 (and again in April, if you decide to return next spring). Book a tour or show up at sunrise for a trackside view of the morning workouts (the Track Kitchen Restaurant conveniently opens at 5 am so you can get a much needed caffeine jolt at this hour or perhaps enjoy some sunrise steak and eggs next to a jockey).

To learn about some of the Thoroughbreds’ most interesting offshoots, head to Lexington’s American Saddlebred Museum at the Kentucky Horse Park, home to the largest collection of Saddlebred artifacts. Don’t miss the newly-renovated History Wing and its collection of paintings by George Ford Morris, the foremost American equestrian artist of the turn of the last century. Also don’t miss the gift shop, where you’ll find everything from stirrup-inspired candleholders to a celebrity makeup artist’s tribute in lipstick to one of the most gorgeous Saddlebreds in history (and Broodmare Hall of Famer), Dream Waltz.

Lesser known: elk! Thanks to a hugely successful restoration program, more than 10,000 of these giant deer roam free here—the most of any state east of the Mississippi River. And the best time to spot them and hear their “bugle” mating call is in the fall (bonus: gorgeous foliage). Head to any of three state resort parks—Jenny Wiley, Pine Mountain or Buckhorn—for guided elk-viewing ops.

The eats

Legendary: the Hot Brown. This open-faced sandwich of toast, turkey, bacon and tomato—all bathing in a cheesy Mornay sauce—was first served at The Brown Hotel in the 1920s, when chef Fred Schmidt was looking for ways to sustain revelers after an evening of dancing. These days, the hotel’s English Grill still serves up the original recipe and General Manager Troy Ritchie says the dining room can easily plate up to 100 of these a day—and that’s in the off season.

As for another Kentucky legend—burgoo—locals are undecided on who does it best because most grew up with their own homemade version of this hickory-smoked meat stew. But you can’t go wrong with the version at Stella’s Kentucky Deli in Lexington, where you’ll get a side of classic drop biscuits and gravy.

What’s for dessert? Derby Pie, a dessert so iconic it's actually trademarked. And it's best enjoyed right at the source: Louisville's Kern’s Kitchen, which patented its chocolate-nut brainchild in the '60s, having already sold thousands at that point. You’ll see what all the fuss is about at first bite.

Lesser known: Kentucky-grown farm-to-table. But after the Top Chef: Kentucky series ended earlier this year, the cat’s out of the bag: The star was runner-up Sara Bradley, whose restaurant—Freight House, in her hometown of Paducah—serves up amazing seasonal fare that’s mostly sourced from inside the state. (Think braised pork shoulder with black eyed peas, sweet greens, fennel aioli and cornbread.)

Then there's The Blue Raven, a farm-to-table trailblazer in chef/owner Matt Corbin's hometown of Pikeville. Though the menu changes seasonally, as you'd expect, Corbin does make the occasional exception: The fried goat cheese salad and jumbo lump crab cakes are so beloved, he doesn't dare take either off the menu. 

The drink scene

Legendary: bourbon. In fact, 95% of the world's supply comes from this state. So entrenched is the drink here that the terms for tasting it properly—then feeling it warm your upper body—are the Kentucky Chew and the Kentucky Hug, respectively. So naturally, a distillery tour is one of the best ways to get an education on and appreciation for this mainstay. A few to consider: Frankfort’s Buffalo Trace, which claims to be the oldest continuously-operated distillery, has barreled the amber liquid since 1755; Woodford Reserve in the rolling hills of Versailles, often lauded as the most beautiful distillery, hosts the popular Best of Kentucky Dinner Series in September, when local chefs create the perfect bourbon accompaniments; and Loretto’s Maker’s Mark, a classic of the genre, runs no fewer than five tours, one of which is a mixology class.

Then, of course, there are the state’s great bourbon-forward bars. One of Louisville’s newest additions is Whiskey Dry, where bar director Stacie Stewart painstakingly sources local and unusual ingredients for cocktails such as the Commonwealth (bourbon, locally-farmed sorghum molasses, peppercorns, sassafras and Ale-8-One—a ginger citrus “pop” dubbed the “pride of Winchester KY” since 1926). Meanwhile, Covington’s The Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar can turn a novice into a connoisseur with its 600-plus selection of bourbons and whiskeys.

For a full-immersion experience, head to Bardstown for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival (Sept. 18-22), when the tastings are paired with live music, barrel relays and games, local food and much-appreciated shuttle service at the end of the day. Or—if you've got a travel buddy who can double as a designated driver—spend an entire vacation exploring both the icons and craft bourbon producers along the various trails dedicated to this drink, not least, the new Northern Kentucky B-Line. The original trail's new Welcome Center at Louisville’s Frazier History Museum is also worth checking out—for starters, because there's an actual bourbon concierge on site. 

Lesser known: beer. In fact, the state claims one of only four modern beer styles that are indigenous to the U.S.: Kentucky Common (aka Common or Dark Cream Ale), which originated in the 1800s, hit a production hiccup with prohibition and has now seen a resurgence thanks to the craft beer movement. Take a sip at Louisville's Apocalypse Brew Works, where the house version is called the 1912 for the original recipe from Oertel’s Brewery from the same year.

If Kentucky Common is the holy grail for beer geeks, it has a close second: In a state where bourbon barrels outnumber people, the barrel-aged beers—from Alltech's Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale to Country Boy Brewing Double Barrel Shotgun Wedding—inspire deep devotion.

Then there are the new and notable brewers hitting the scene: White Squirrel Brewing in Bowling Green was recently voted Best Kentucky Beer Bar by Craftbeers.com and serves up seasonal Pumpkin Ale that’s not to be missed. Another new kid on the block is Lexington’s Mirror Twin Brewing, where you’ll find not only amazing beer, but also an outpost of the beloved local Rolling Oven Pizzeria—because everyone knows pizza and beer are the ultimate relationship goal.

The nature

Legendary: the Appalachian Mountains. Of course, they're gorgeous in and of themselves, but when they're blanketed in fall foliage, they're truly epic. And while you're leaf-peeping, why not meet some other local legends? Follow the Country Music Highway—which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year—to such stops as the Loretta Lynn Homeplace in Butcher Hollow (she and her sister, Crystal Gayle, grew up in this neck of the woods); the U.S. 23 Country Music Highway Museum in Staffordsville (don’t miss the Front Porch Pickin’ performances on Thursday nights) and the Hatfield and McCoy historic sites of Pikeville (the family feud got fierce here).

Or for straight-up, drop-dead gorgeous mountain views, hit up Kingdom Come (seriously)—a state park known for its unique rock formations, hiking loops and year-round fishing. Or hit the trails in Blanton Forest State Nature Reserve, home to the largest old-growth forest in the commonwealth with several trees dating back to the 1600s.

Lesser Known: Kentucky’s lakes. One easy choice? Dale Hollow Lake State Resort Park, home to wintering bald eagles (a live cam was recently set up by the local Marina Operator’s Association so you can spy on our national symbol whenever you’d like).

If fishing is your thing (or just surveying the sunset from a deck chair), head to Lake Cumberland—or to Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. 

And if you’re looking to really get away from it all, there’s Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park. For the perfect, mellow overnight, reserve a cottage at the water’s edge, pop open a bottle from any given distillery tour—and feel that fabled Kentucky Hug take hold.

Ready to go? Order your Kentucky Visitor's Guide or head to KentuckyTourism.com to start planning your Kentucky fall getaway today!

This year, Travelzoo is falling for the South. Check out our picks for the best eye-popping autumn colors, entertaining festivals, charming small towns and mouth-watering foodie finds.

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