While most Kentucky itineraries include racing at Churchill Downs and a tasting at a bourbon distillery or two, these certainly aren’t the only things the Bluegrass State has to offer! The beautiful state of Kentucky is chock-full of incredible places to visit, so whether you think you’ve seen it all or just like to explore off the beaten path, we’ve come up with a list of the 30 best overlooked attractions in Kentucky.
Abbey of Gethsemani
For more than 150 years, Cistercian monks have been living, working, and praying at Abbey of Gethsemani. This peaceful and beautiful setting has hosted visitors from all over the world, though one need not be a monk or even particularly religious to visit and enjoy the Abbey. The Abbey hosts a number of retreats throughout the year, but is also open for day visits during which visitors can enjoy the grounds, walk the miles of trails, shop the many Abbey-made products, and even attend a church service. Just keep in mind that the Abbey remains a working monastery, and the resident monks appreciate guests’ respect.
American Saddlebred Museum
Across the parking lot from the immensely popular Kentucky Horse Park is the lesser visited American Saddlebred Museum (though it can be visited with tickets to the Horse Park). This fascinating tribute to the American Saddlebred horse is filled with various artifacts, trophies, artwork, and Saddlebred-specific tack.
Among the horse farms and rolling hills of Lexington is Ashland, Henry Clay’s former plantation, and an oft-overlooked attraction in Kentucky. Visitors can go back in time on a tour of Clay’s 18-room mansion, which has been lovingly restored to look just as it did during the 18th century. Perhaps even more enjoyable than the house are the grounds. Walking trails meander their way through the wooded surroundings, while the self-guided grounds tour includes plantation outbuildings, a formal garden, and a Civil War monument.
Bardstown, an easy day trip from either Louisville or Lexington, has been named by both USA Today and Rand McNally as the Most Beautiful Small Town in America. Indeed, its main historic drag oozes with charm, and is a nice place to stroll, window shop boutiques and antique stores, and grab a meal or at least an ice cream cone. Visitors can catch the My Old Kentucky Dinner Train in Bardstown, or visit the five local bourbon distilleries in the area, including Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark.
Located approximately 30 minutes from Louisville and just up the road from Bardstown and the Jim Beam bourbon distillery, Bernheim Forest makes for a wonderful place to spend a morning or afternoon. The massive nature zone has dozens of trails to choose from, each of which ranges in length and ability level. An overlook provides stunning views of the surrounding valley, while a lake and mile-long walking path are perfect for the visitor who only has a short time to enjoy this beautiful area.
Big Sandy Heritage Center
The feud between the Hatfields and McCoys simmered around these parts for generations, and stories of perennial revenge still manage to fascinate historian and traveler alike. At the Big Sandy Heritage Center, visitors can go back in time to the days of heightened violence through written accounts of events, old photos and busts, and lots of firsthand memorabilia.
Big South Fork National Park
To experience all that Kentucky nature has to offer, head to Big South Fork National Park, located in the southernmost part of the state near the Tennessee border. Charit Creek and a few other lodges make for the perfect home away from home for visitors who want to spend a long weekend exploring. Photograph pristine natural landscapes, hike and explore the park’s many natural bridges, or get even more active by horseback riding, hunting, fishing, stargazing, or any other popular outdoor activity.
Breaks Interstate Park
Kentucky — and our list — is chock-full of stunning natural sights. To see what is called the Grand Canyon of the South, head to Breaks Interstate Park on the border between Kentucky and Virginia. Here, you’ll find the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi. The nature trails are beautiful in and of themselves, but the view of the gorge is truly awesome. Breaks Interstate Park can be a fun day trip, though for those coming from further away, there are lots of lodges for rent.
Mammoth Caves, the largest known cave system in the world, usually tops the list of things to see and do while visiting Kentucky. But if you’ve already seen it, or would prefer to explore off the beaten path, then Carter Caves is a must-visit attraction. Unlike at Mammoth Caves, you can actually mine for gems, and visitors frequently walk away with crystals and other minerals.
Most people drive right past it on their way to Mammoth Cave National Park, but Cave City makes for a worthy stop on any itinerary. This fun place has certainly seen better days, but remains a unique throwback to the time of roadside attractions. Stop by such sites as Funtown Mountain, the Floyd Collins Museum, and our favorite: Dinosaur World, complete with large dinosaurs peeking out from behind lush Southern flora. If you’ll be in the area for more than one night, you can’t do better than a bed at Wigwam Village, one of only a few remaining teepee-shaped motels that were popular during the 1940s and 1950s.
Most people who make the totally-worth-it trek to Cumberland Falls State Resort Park do so to witness Cumberland Falls. This awesome waterfall, which is sometimes referred to as Little Niagara or the Niagara of the South, is pretty impressive at any time, but we suggest planning your trip on a clear evening with a full moon. Under these conditions the Falls’ famous moonbow — a lunar rainbow — appears.
Dog Slaughter Falls
Head to Daniel Boone National Forest in Corbin to experience firsthand some of the Bluegrass State’s most stunning natural scenery. The 15-foot Dog Slaughter Falls is especially impressive, and can be reached via the moderately rated two-mile Dog Slaughter Falls Trail. Enjoy the trail (you can even bring your dog!), take in the many plants you’ll see along the way, then stand in awe when you reach your final destination.
Frazier History Museum
There is a ton to see and do in Louisville, so for most visitors, the worthy Frazier History Museum is often forgotten about. This is a shame, as the museum is constantly hosting large-scale international collections, learning exhibits, and interactive displays on everything from Napoleon to The Hunger Games (starring Louisville native Jennifer Lawrence). History buffs will especially love the Frazier’s permanent collection of historic weapons.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Slavery to Freedom Museum
This small but powerful museum is housed in the antebellum home where Harriet Beecher once stayed, and from which she witnessed the slave auction (taking place across the street) that inspired her anti-slavery book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The house has been restored so that is looks just as it did when Harriet visited in 1833. Besides interesting information about the woman Abraham Lincoln once called “the little lady who started the big war,” visitors will find artifacts from the Civil War and slavery.
Hidden River Cave and American Cave Museum
Located between Louisville and the famous Mammoth Caves is Hidden River Cave and the American Cave Museum. At only 8-miles long, Hidden River Cave may not be as long as its “mammoth” neighbor, but the river which runs through it makes it especially unique and memorable. Take the tour and learn some interesting facts about why Kentucky has so many cave systems.
International Bluegrass Music Museum
Bluegrass music is synonymous with Kentucky and the South, and the International Bluegrass Music Museum is the perfect place to learn about its history and overall influence. Visitors will find instruments, costumes, photos, and videos from bluegrass’s heyday, plus lots of musical samples and fun facts.
Keeneland Race Course
Churchill Downs may have the Derby and appear on all of the postcards, but for a genuine Kentucky experience, Keeneland is the place to go. With race meets in the spring and autumn, Keeneland is a favorite tradition for locals, who dress their best and tailgate before the first race. To experience this beautiful track without the crowds, get there early — 6 a.m. early! — to enjoy a beautiful sunrise and gorgeous thoroughbreds working out on the track. This is Kentucky.
Kentucky River Palisades
Stretching for more than 100 river miles, the Kentucky River Palisades is one of the state’s most unique areas. 450-million-year old limestone cliffs, dozens of caves, and deep gorges are here, along with hundreds of different trees, plants, and animals. For some of the best views, head to Nicholasville, where you can find a 2.4-mile loop trail that is accessible year round and almost never has a crowd.
Kentucky State Capitol
Capitol buildings are overlooked as tourist attractions in most states, and Kentucky’s own gorgeous building is no exception. But one doesn’t need to be politically savvy to appreciate all that this site has to offer. Located in Frankfort, Kentucky’s state capitol boasts some of the most beautiful architecture in the Bluegrass State, including stunning marble features that resemble those of Paris’s famed Opera Garnier. Stroll through the pretty grounds, or join a guided tour to learn about the state’s history and see some unique attractions such as the First Lady Doll Collection.
Locust Grove Historic Home
Locust Grove is an 18-century plantation located in the midst of a modern and upscale neighborhood in Louisville. The 55-acre site is a National Historic Landmark, thanks to its history as a meeting spot for U.S. Presidents and people like George Rogers Clark and Lewis and Clark. Enjoy a tour of the Georgian-style house and grounds, or check the calendar for any one of the site’s many interesting special events.
Mill Springs Mill
Step back in time to 1877 Kentucky with a visit to the historic grist mill at Mill Springs. On weekends, this historic mill still grinds corn for the pleasure (and wallets) of visitors to enjoy. Once you’ve tried your freshly ground corn meal, picnic on the beautiful wooded grounds, or take a guided tour of the mill.
Monroe Moosnick Medical and Science Museum
Lovers of science and, well, the creepy, are sure to enjoy the Monroe Moosnick Medical and Science Museum. Located at Transylvania University, the museum is full of the former belongings of the titular chemistry professor. The collection of this oddly fascinating museum includes anatomical models, botanical paintings, odd specimens, and some scientific artifacts from as early as 1820.
Lexington and its many surrounding small towns are world famous for their impressive horse farms. And while these are certainly worth visiting, we suggest heading off the beaten path to Old Friends, a different kind of horse farm. Old Friends is a thoroughbred retirement farm, and home to some of horse racing’s most famous names who, unfortunately, have few options once they’re done with racing and/or breeding. On a tour of Old Friends, visitors will learn all about the farm’s mission, plus get up close and personal with horses like Game on Dude, Amazombie, and Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm, among dozens of others.
Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History
If you’ve come to Kentucky to trek the Bourbon Trail, then the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History is an absolute must visit. Located in Bardstown, a beautiful small town where local bourbon plays a huge role, the museum takes visitors on a journey from the earliest days of bourbon production in Kentucky (Colonial times), through prohibition and the revival of the 1960s, to the major economic force it is today.
The small town of Perryville is an excellent option for those in search of Kentucky’s best underrated sites. During the Civil War, the bloody Battle of Perryville (also known as the Battle of Chaplin Hills) was fought here, and lots of Civil War history remains to be seen and learned on a visit. Even a stroll through the downtown is a memorable experience, as many of Perryville’s buildings are nearly two centuries old.
Pine Mountain State Resort Park
If you haven’t noticed, Kentucky is full of beautiful state parks, and Pine Mountain is one that is particularly off the beaten path and especially worth visiting. Located in southeastern Kentucky, Pine Mountain is full of hiking trails that lead to incredible views of wooded valleys and mountainscapes. For visitors who need more time to explore this stunning piece of nature, the Park has a lodge, cottages, and cabins that can be rented.
Pinnacles of Berea
If you’ve come to Kentucky to enjoy some hiking — it has some of the best! — then the Pinnacles of Berea are a must. The main 6.6-mile loop takes about three hours to complete, and leads past myriad wild flowers and other flora. For the views worth writing home about, head to the West Pinnacle and Indian Fort Outlook. Keep in mind that the trail is only accessible from April through October, and is also dog friendly!
Pleasant Hill Shaker Village
Get an up-close look at what was once the third largest Shaker community in the country at the Pleasant Hill Shaker Village. Surrounded by beautiful farm land, the village turned museum is certainly an eye-opening experience. To add to this unique experience, grab a bite to eat at the farm-to-table restaurant, or stay the night in the inn, a restored Shaker building with sparsely decorated rooms, just as the Shakers preferred.
Red River Gorge
A favorite getaway for Kentucky city dwellers, Red River Gorge is one of the state’s most beautiful places to enjoy nature. In fact, recent years have seen Red River Gorge become one of the world’s most sought after spots for rock climbers. But the Gorge has plenty to offer even those of us who aren’t world-class rock climbers. Spend some time hiking and taking in the many unique rock formations, sandstone cliffs, and stone arches, the latter of which are the area’s most famous features.
Waverly Hills Sanatorium
This abandoned sanatorium was originally opened in order to cure tuberculosis patients with fresh air and good vibes — though not surprisingly, it became their final resting place instead. Waverly Hills is especially popular in October, when it is turned into a Halloween Haunted House, though we can attest that this unique site has enough creepiness to give you chills at any time of the year.