From houseboats to horses, Kentucky is the place to be
What if you could experience some of the world’s most treasured art, exhilarating sights and cultural riches—all without worrying about jet lag, learning a new language or packing a passport? Enticing? Here are five capitals to visit—and they’re all in Kentucky.
Lake Cumberland: Houseboat
Capital of the World
With all the houseboats manufactured in the Lake Cumberland area and the millions of houseboaters who annually flock to this 65,530-acre come-hither watering hole with its 1,200-plus miles of shoreline, it makes sense that it would be deemed the “Houseboat Capital of the World.” And it was, in 2014.
But that’s not all the area is known for. Russell County, which encompasses the largest section of the lake and has five commercial marinas, is known as the “Houseboat Rental Capital of the U.S,” and Jamestown and Russell Springs are home to the largest fleet of rental houseboats in the country.
“At last count, Russell County had 86 rental houseboats,” says Janette Marson, tourism director at Lake Cumberland Tourist Commission, “and that number grows each year.”
If you see or do nothing else: Pair waterfalls and waterfront dining for a memorable house boating experience, with a day cavorting along the Lake Cumberland Waterfall Trail, followed by dinner at one of the marina restaurants.
Know before you go: Enhance the houseboating experience with both practical tips and packing suggestions: www.lake
cumberlandvacation.com, click on Blog, search “houseboat tips.”
Capital of the World
Lexington cites 61 reasons backing up its claim as the “Horse Capital of the World,” starting with its place in horse history as the first city outside of Europe to host the World Equestrian Games and ending with American Pharoah’s headline-grabbing win at Breeders’ Cup 2015 at Keeneland Race Course. (American Pharoah, the 2015 Triple Crown winner, by the way, resides in Lexington at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud Farm.)
In between are a slew of honors and awards, and such high-profile horsey attractions as Kentucky Horse Park, the International Museum of the Horse, the American Saddlebred Museum, Red Mile Harness Track and Thoroughbred Park with its dramatic bronze horse sculptures. It is home to world-famous horse farms, tome-heavy Keeneland Library, riding stables and shops loaded with equine-themed souvenirs.
If you see or do nothing else: Book a tour with Horse Country, Inc. From horse farms specializing in mares and foals to equine medical clinics, stud farms and equine attractions, there is something to entertain every member of the family.
Know before you go: About 1,000 horses live and train at the Thoroughbred Center, where tomorrow’s racing champs are taught how to look and act the part. See them on a behind-the-scenes tour: watch their morning workout, peek inside the barns and learn what a day in the life of a racehorse looks like.
Capital of the World
Known as Quilt City USA, Paducah is a UNESCO Creative City of Crafts and Folk Art. There are just nine UNESCO Creative Cities in the U.S., only two of which—Paducah and Santa Fe, New Mexico— carry the Crafts and Folk Art distinction.
“The founding of the American Quilter’s Society in Paducah by quilt visionaries Bill and Meredith Schroeder and hosting the original AQS Quilt Show and Contest was a foundation for some of the city’s most exquisite quilting attractions,” says Laura Oswald, director of marketing at the Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau.
At the National Quilt Museum, three galleries show the finest quilt and fiber art from around the world, with rotating exhibitions eight to 10 times a year. In the primary gallery, visitors are dazzled and inspired by quilts from a permanent collection of more than 600 works of art by award-winning quilting masters.
If you see or do nothing else: Take the National Quilt Museum’s behind-the-scenes Amazing Fiber Art VIP tour and art card fusion experience.
Know before you go: Rita’s Quilt, a story of “women uplifting other women,” was unveiled in March at the National Quilt Museum, on display through May 17, 2020. The unfinished quilt and embroidery artwork of crafter Rita Smith, it was discovered at an estate sale and purchased for $6, then completed by over 100 volunteers.
Capital of the World
Bardstown has not only officially trademarked its title, “Bourbon Capital of the World,” it has earned it through an abundance of authentic bourbon distilleries, attractions, experiences and history. With six distilleries in the city, another three within a handful of miles of downtown and two more planned (Kentucky Owl Park and Log Still Distilling), Bardstown is boomtown for all things bourbon.
“For a town of a little over 13,000, our bourbon heritage and the sheer scale of our bourbon offerings is so incredibly special,” says Sam Lacy, director of social media marketing at the Bardstown-Nelson County Tourist & Convention Commission.
If you see or do nothing else: Before touring and tasting at a distillery, visit the free-admission Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History to learn about the intricacies and history of bourbon and how it shaped Bardstown and Kentucky.
“See how much times and scale of production have changed,” says Lacy, “but also how the actual process of making bourbon is basically the same as it was a century ago.”
Know before you go: Is there a Bardstown beyond bourbon? Emphatically, yes: Federal Hill at My Old Kentucky Home State Park, The Stephen Foster Story outdoor drama, My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, the top-rated Civil War Museum of the Western Theatre and a proliferation of locally owned restaurants and shops.
Shelby County: American Saddlebred Capital of the World
As if 90-plus saddlebred farms aren’t enough, visitors may well spot horse-loving celebs William Shatner, Carson Kressley and others out and about.
Officially designated the American Saddlebred Capital of the World in 2005 by the Kentucky General Assembly, Shelby County is fertile ground for the dozens of saddle seat barns and stud/breeding barns that mark the rolling landscape.
Each saddlebred farm offers a unique experience to see these high-stepping show horses known for their grace, beauty and athleticism.
If you see or do nothing else: Tour a working American saddlebred horse farm, walk through the barns, see a training session. Tours are given by appointment, Monday through Saturday, primarily in the morning. Between spring and summer, visitors have the added allure of possibly interacting with a new foal for a memorable photo op.
Know before you go: For visitors who would like to saddle up and ride a saddlebred horse, Shelby County has several stables that offer riding lessons and camps for all skill levels.
Kathy Witt is an award-winning travel and lifestyle writer based in northern Kentucky and the author of Secret Cincinnati and The Secret of the Belles.
More Kentucky “capitals”
For music, crafts and covered bridges, alpacas and artisan cheeses, head to these Kentucky “capitals.”
Renfro Valley: Kentucky’s Country Music Capital
For more than eight decades, Renfro Valley has been synonymous with great music. Country music, gospel, bluegrass—whatever the genre, it fills the two show theaters at the Renfro Valley Entertainment Center every weekend, April through December. No wonder the Kentucky General Assembly designated this homegrown musical hotspot, frequented by headliners like B.J. Thomas, Sebastian Bach, the Oakridge Boys and Jesse Keith Whitley, as Kentucky’s Country Music Capital.
If you see or do nothing else: Pull into Renfro Valley in an RV and park at one of two on-site RV parks. Both put visitors within walking distance of the main attraction: the theaters and the music.
Know before you go: Renfro Valley went “wet” in 2019, meaning visitors can now order cocktails and other alcoholic beverages to enjoy during the shows. A liquor store is also on the property.
Berea: The Folk Art and Crafts Capital of Kentucky
As the official Folk Art and Crafts Capital of Kentucky (per the Kentucky General Assembly, 1988), Berea offers more arts/crafts experiences than you can shake a pair of blacksmithing tongs at.
Workshops for kids and adults, beginner through advanced, in fiber art, stone carving, wood turning and other arts are offered at different times throughout the year. Wander among working artist studios to see works in progress. Gallery- and shop-hop to find artisan-made jewelry, pottery, paintings and more.
If you see or do nothing else: Order a signature meal at Historic Boone Tavern Hotel and Restaurant, like the charmingly named Chicken Flakes In a Bird’s Nest, and spend the night in an eco-friendly guestroom with wooden furniture handmade by Berea College students.
Know before you go: Learn about and register for workshops in advance at Visit Berea.
Oldham County: Farm Tour Capital of Kentucky
Fifteen different hands-on, behind-the-scenes tours helped Oldham County earn its stripes as the “Farm Tour Capital of Kentucky.”
Feed carrots to a racehorse. Bottle-feed a baby calf. Harvest garlic and mushrooms. Make artisan cheese at a commercial dairy farm. Depending on your interests, there is a farm and interactive experience for you.
Meet Churchill, a donkey that guards sheep at Hemmer Hill Sheep Farm. From hobby to high-end art fairs—experience the path that boutique clothing made at Bluebonnets & Bluegrass Alpaca & Fiber Art Studio travels, from fiber to fabulous.
Learn about the historic thoroughbred farm that operates as an equine maternity ward and nursery. That would be Hermitage Farm, which also just opened Barn8 Restaurant, a farm-to-table eatery in the atmospheric and historic setting of former horse stables. The farm now offers small-batch and craft bourbon tastings at the Bourbon Bar & Lounge and private dining in the refurbished Hayloft.
If you see or do nothing else: Taste organic and heirloom foods on the new Oldham KY Foodie Farms & Experience Tour. Eight farms invite visitors into the “chef’s playground” (the farm) to savor the flavor while learning about sustainable agriculture and conservation. Many of the foods grown here show up on restaurant dining tables in Louisville and surrounding region.
Know before you go: Farm tours take place May through October and require a 24-hour advance reservation.
Fleming County: Covered Bridge Capital of Kentucky
Once upon a time, hundreds of covered bridges dotted the Kentucky landscape. Only a dozen remain, with three of them located in Fleming County, officially designated the Covered Bridge Capital of Kentucky in 1998 by the Kentucky General Assembly.
“The covered bridges demonstrate the ingenuity and craftsmanship of a generation and have stood the test of time,” says Crystal McCall Ruark, executive director of the Fleming County Chamber of Commerce.
While the official covered bridge of Kentucky (Switzer Bridge) is in Franklin County, Fleming County showcases these mid-19th century “timbered tunnels,” each listed on the National Register of Historic Places: the double post and brace Hillsboro or Grange City Bridge; Ringos Mills Bridge, open to foot traffic; and Goddard Bridge, the only town lattice truss bridge remaining in the state.
If you see or do nothing else: After photo ops at the three bridges (daylight hours are best for viewing), learn their history at the Fleming County Covered Bridge Museum, 119 E. Water St., Flemingsburg. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays and 12-4 p.m. Saturdays, March-December.
Know before you go: The Fleming County Chamber of Commerce can send maps of the county and bridges on request.