Kentucky: Beyond the Bourbon

Say 'Kentucky' in a word-association test and the response would probably be 'bourbon', with 'derby' in second place. But Kentucky has an impressive and eclectic range of visitor attractions, way beyond sports and spirits.

What Kentucky is Famous for: Bourbon

Photo by Mike Gerrard

Say 'Kentucky' in a word-association test and the response would probably be 'bourbon', with 'derby' in second place. But Kentucky has an impressive and eclectic range of visitor attractions, way beyond sports and spirits. They include historic sites, craft-making experiences, fascinating factory tours and a great deal of bluegrass music in the Bluegrass State. The music, by the way, is named after the state's nickname, which comes from the blue tinges its pasture grasses have at certain times of the year.

Some of Kentucky's best attractions beyond the bourbon include:

Federal Hill in Bardstown is the 1795 plantation mansion which inspired Stephen Foster to write what is now Kentucky's state song, My Old Kentucky Home. The wistful, longing lyrics give the impression that he's describing a simple, rural log cabin, but the home is a grand and beautiful historic house with 295 acres of land. It was built for US Senator John Rowan, a cousin of Foster's, whose other compositions include Swanee River, Camptown Races, Beautiful Dreamer, Old Folks at Home, Oh! Susanna and Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.

Even without the song connection, the house is worth seeing in its own right. It didn't have electricity till 1950, still doesn't have any indoor bathrooms, and 80% of the items on display are original to the family and the house. The best time to visit is June-August when The Stephen Foster Story, a musical featuring many of his songs, plays in the grounds. Expect to see numerous Japanese visitors, as schools in Japan use My Old Kentucky Home as part of the English curriculum.

And the Sun Shines Bright on My Old Kentucky Home

Photo Courtesy of Bardstown CVB

Paducah is one of the world's Cities of Crafts and Folk Art in UNESCO's Creative Cities Network. There are only two other places in the USA with that designation: Santa Fe and Iowa City. A major reason for that is the National Quilt Museum, which shows that quilt-making today is a true art form. On display are breathtakingly beautiful creations, some inspired by nature, others by The Beatles and The Hobbit, and all showing a degree of skill and craftsmanship that has you shaking your head as you wonder just how they did it. Regular workshops give you the chance to try for yourself, and Quilt Week each April brings 30,000 quilt makers from all over the world to little Paducah, with its population of just 25,000.

The Author Learns the Art of Quilt-Making in Paducah, Kentucky

Photo Courtesy of Neil Murray

Also in Paducah is one of the most remarkable dining experiences it's possible to have. The hotel was built in 1909 as a hotel for African-Americans to stay in while travelling in the segregated South. Many of these were musicians, and guests at the hotel included Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Ike and Tina Turner, Sam Cooke and James Brown. Dinner here starts with being greeted at the door by the original owner, Ms Maggie, who - if you're white - points out that you can't stay at the hotel, and shouldn't be in the neighbourhood anyway. But she takes you in before anyone sees you and gets her into trouble, and gives you a tour that is, literally, a tour de force, telling the hotel's history and involving an encounter with a famous musical guest. Finally a soul food supper sends you reeling into the street feeling you won't need to eat for a week.

Ms Maggie Shows Visitors around the Metropolitan Hotel

Photo Courtesy of Paducah Vistors Bureau

This museum in Owensboro is a hop, skip and a mandolin pick away from the Rosine birthplace of Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music. Pride of place in the museum goes to Uncle Pen's fiddle, the instrument that belonged to Monroe's disabled uncle, Pendleton Vandiver. It was Uncle Pen who helped raise Bill Monroe and taught him to play in his own distinctive style that gave birth to a whole new genre of music.

Bill Monroe Tells the Story of his Uncle Pen

Videos, audios, memorabilia, instruments and a Hall of Fame, plus music lessons and live concerts all go to make this the real home of bluegrass music.

The first Corvette was built in 1953 and ever since then the classy sports car has been one of the most liked and lusted after in the USA. Just outside Bowling Green in Kentucky is the factory where they're made, and one of the public tours here is an unusual and fascinating experience, whether you're interested in cars or not. It's absorbing to watch the cars travel at a snail's pace along the seven miles of track that take them through the factory, where they're assembled piece by piece. At the end you're shown the rigorous quality control that sends cars back if they don't achieve 100% success in all the tests that are thrown at them. And if you've got $55,000+ to spare you can place an order for one: all the models you see being built have already been sold.

The Corvette Assembly Plant in Bowling Green

Photo Courtesy of Bowling Green CVB

Berea is a town of under 15,000 people yet it has one of the most famous colleges in the USA, Berea College, and a thriving arts and crafts community. On the edge of town the Kentucky Artisan Center is 25,000 sq ft where the work of over 400 Kentucky artists is on display. In the Old Town, the Artisan Village District features galleries and more craft studios, where hands-on workshops are encouraged during the annual July Festival of Learnshops. Visitors can try their hand at glass-blowing, making stained glass, jewelry, sculpting or making your own pewter shot glasses. Well, you can't escape bourbon in Kentucky, though there's a whole lot else besides to taste and savour.

The Author has a Hands-On Experience at The Glass Studio in Berea, Kentucky

Photo Courtesy of Stéphane C. Jonathan


For further information on visiting Kentucky, see the website of Kentucky Tourism.


The North America Travel Service offers holidays in Kentucky, and Frontier Motorhomes has fly-drive holidays allowing you to set your own Kentucky itinerary.


Mike Gerrard is an award-winning travel and drinks writer, and co-editor of the 101 USA Holidays website.

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