NOT QUITE NORTH and not quite South, Kentucky stands at the crossroads of America. And while it may be famous for its bluegrass, bourbon, and horses, there’s a lot more going on than the obvious cultural touchstones. Here are nine places in Kentucky that might not be on your radar.
1. Daniel Boone National Forest
Kentuckians normally conceptualize their state as comprising distinct areas. The western third is the agricultural base, the center is home to the state’s major metropolis — Louisville — and, often, the eastern part is simple referred to as “the mountains.” This rugged terrain butts up against the Appalachians and is home to Daniel Boone National Forest.
Spread out across 21 counties and covering 706,000 acres in total, this region is large and wild, with tons of opportunities to hike, climb, fish, and enjoy gorgeous spots like Red River Gorge and Sky Bridge — one of several natural sandstone arches in the area.
2. Bardstown Road and Cherokee Park, Louisville
Bardstown Road is the beating heart of Kentucky’s largest city. Here you’ll find some of the state’s best restaurants, bars, live music, coffee shops, and quirky stores. Start the day off with a Heine Brothers’ Coffee, then have a root through the awesome digs at Nearly New Thrift Shop under the Mid City Mall. For Kentucky’s finest microbrews, check out locally owned Cumberland Brews; for some dancing to go with your drinks, O’Sheas is where it’s at. Oh, and the bars in Louisville stay open till 4am, so you know you’re in for a good time.
When you need a break, Bardstown is a stone’s throw from Cherokee Park, a quiet spot that’s perfect for a bike ride or picnic among woods and meadows.
3. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
One of Kentucky’s founding myths is that when explorers like Daniel Boone crossed over the Cumberland Gap, they remarked that the grass in Kentucky looked blue in the sunlight. While that tale may be a little tall, it’s true that Boone was a serious pioneer who left the east coast in search of buffalo, adventure, and a better life.
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, the site of Boone’s crossing, and known as the first great Gateway to the West, is a mountainous area filled with the rich history of the thousands who traveled through this rough landscape. Straddling Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, the park offers guided tours, challenging hikes, and great camping.
4. Kentucky Down Under
For those who dislike flying halfway around the world but still want to say hello to a kangaroo, Kentucky Down Under is the place. Located in Horse Cave, a small city between Louisville and Bowling Green, the zoo is home to Australian animals that turn out to be as well suited to Kentucky’s rolling hills as they are to the Outback. Plus, there’s a whole host of other animals from around the world — coatimundis, Arctic wolves, ring-tailed lemurs…
If nothing else, you can be the only person at your next dinner party who can say they met a dingo while traveling in the Bluegrass State.
5. World Peace Bell
Made from melted-down coins donated by countries all over the globe, Newport’s World Peace Bell is the largest free swinging bell in the world. Inscribed with a beautiful commemoration to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as engravings marking key moments from the past millennium, this is one of 20 Japanese Peace Bells found across the world. Guided tours run Monday to Friday. Or come at noon, any day of the week, to see the epic 66,000-pound bell swing and ring, deep and resonant.
6. Lost River Cave
It may not be as famous as Mammoth Cave — that’d be the longest cave system in the world, also right here in Kentucky — but hitting the waters of Lost River Cave in Bowling Green is an awesome way to explore what lies beneath the Bluegrass State. The seven-mile subterranean network has one of the largest cave openings in the eastern United States. Boating and kayaking tours along the submerged river make for an unforgettable experience.
Note: While exploring the area around Lost River, you’ll want to read up on its colorful history, chock full of all kinds of smooth operators, idealists, and charlatans looking to make a quick buck on a unique natural wonder.
7. Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area
Little says Kentucky better than a boat, a fishing pole, and endless water. A favorite place to bring these three beauties together is Land Between the Lakes. The narrow strip of land in the state’s southwest sits between the two large lakes created by the dammed Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.
Land Between the Lakes was bestowed national recreation area status under President Kennedy in 1963, in order to help preserve a region of natural splendor and to create an economic boon for the area. Kennedy’s vision remains true, and the lakes are still a gorgeous place to spend a summer day or three. Bring your tent and hiking boots, and get ready to explore the largest inland peninsula in the country.
8. Wooldridge Monuments
While a cemetery may not usually jump out as place to visit, Maplewood Cemetery stands out from the rest thanks to the Wooldridge Monuments. Starting in 1892, lifelong bachelor and horse trader Henry Wooldridge commissioned a collection of 18 life-sized limestone statues of his family, loved ones, a horse named Fop, and his two dogs, Towhead and Bob. The entire troupe is packed into Henry’s modest 17″x33″ plot just outside Mayfield. Henry himself is at the center — a 6-foot vision replete in Italian marble.
9. Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
A visit to the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is a fantastic way to experience firsthand what, for a time, was one of the largest Shaker communities in the whole country. And the village today isn’t some staid museum — it’s 3,000 acres where you can explore and relive the Shaker past. Check out the working farm, help out in the veggie garden, or sample some of the delicious homemade preserves being whipped up in the kitchen.
For those who might not be interested in getting their hands dirty, the village also has some very fine dining, featuring regional ingredients served up by award-winning chefs. You can also stay overnight here, enjoying the Shaker furniture, original hardwood floors, and fantastic views of the Kentucky countryside.