Explore Kentucky: Music, festivals, parks and more
In a single day, you can breakfast on a peculiar festival concoction called a goetta donut sandwich; go diving at the only scuba refuge in a state park; quaff a cold one at a gorgeous, 120-year-old oak bar that was once the centerpiece of a Chicago pub; catch live music at a legendary country music venue; and watch the sun melt into a lake with miles of pristine shoreline—all in Kentucky.
But why rush? Our state is made for both lazy days and active getaways. Here are 20 can’t-miss Kentucky experiences.
The numbers are as impressive as the lineup of marquee names in classical, country, rock, folk, blues, jazz, metal, classic rock, alternative rock and every other music genre: MegaCorp Pavilion (formerly Ovation by PromoWest) is the first indoor/outdoor concert venue in the northern Kentucky area and the third in America.
For its lineup of more than 100 shows a year, it has indoor seating for 2,700 and an outdoor audience capacity for summer shows of up to 7,000. Among the entertainers performing this year to date are four-time Grammy Award winners Snarky Puppy and jazz multi-instrumentalist Nate Wood on April 22, and alternative blues band Houndmouth on May 6.
A folksy woodland right in the middle of the city—that’s how MacLean Lessenberry, executive director of Glasgow-Barren County Tourism, describes The Grove, a new, one-of-a-kind outdoor music venue that draws visitors from all over.
“While inside you’d never realize you were in town,” she says. “It’s a magical, secluded experience.”
With lights strung through the trees this land of enchantment features a local beer garden, firepit and seating for live music every Friday and Saturday night, May through October.
Headliner folk and bluegrass music artists perform here regularly, including Grammy award-winning fiddle player Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, The Travelin’ McCourys, Sam Bush Band, Lost River Sessions and others.
The Barnyard Entertainment Venue
No need to travel to the big city when Sharpsburg (population: 366) keeps the entertainment coming all summer long with countryside concerts and comedy shows, family fun and fireworks. The Barnyard Entertainment Venue, served by Fleming-Mason Energy Cooperative, offers covered seating for up to 8,000 on its 170 acres of rolling farmland.
Since it opened two years ago, The Barnyard has hosted the likes of Hank Williams Jr., Travis Tritt and Alabama, and fans say there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Amenities include concessions, VIP parking and primitive camping. Visit The Barnyard’s Facebook page for updates on the entertainment lineup.
Renfro Valley Entertainment Center
Eighty-four years young, and it’s still going strong. You might say this nationally recognized event center, served by Jackson Energy Cooperative, is your granddaddy’s music venue.
“It boasts a rich history of strong country music roots and with a focus on the music that has kept fans returning since 1939,” says Ashley Enneking, director of sales and marketing.
Renfro Valley’s century-old Old Barn Theatre is considered one of country music’s most storied music venues, hosting the legends of the genre. The 1,500-seat New Barn Theatre gives music lovers that up-close-and-personal experience with seasoned country music legends, new and upcoming artists and classic bands. The on-site RV park, in walking distance from the shows, is icing on the cake.
Walt’s Hitching Post
For over 80 years, this culinary icon has been preparing ribs and other meats in the smokehouse steps from the restaurant’s front door and serving them up with Walt’s signature salted rye bread and legendary secret sauce.
“Although the ribs and the secret sauce are what made us famous, the steak selection is what keeps our guests coming back,” says General Manager Stefani Stein.
Its name recalls the restaurant’s original owner, Walt Ballanger, and those metal posts where diners would hitch up their horses once upon a time. Walt’s is beloved by locals and luminaries alike—most recently, Oscar-winning actor Tom Hardy, in town to film The Bikeriders.
Farmwald’s Restaurant & Bakery
This is the place where hungry diners fuel up on the Breakfast Hay Stack (crumbled biscuit, eggs, hashbrowns, sausage, bacon and cheese) doused in the restaurant’s signature gravy, or a lunch of grilled ribeye steak sandwich. Dessert? Amish fried pie or Myron’s creamy homemade, small-batch ice cream.
Farmwald’s is destination dining at a sprawling, red-roofed building in a country setting. Half of it is devoted to a country store stocked with Amish food products and Amish-made crafts, made cozy by a fireplace flickering in the corner. The other half is a casual order-at-the-counter restaurant with seating just past shelves stacked with fresh-baked breads and other goodies.
Copper and Oak
You’ll forget to check your watch and phone at Copper and Oak—and that’s the point. Owners Nicole and Beau Cacciatore purposefully designed the restaurant to be a place where people could lose themselves to good food and good times, focusing on the craft burgers, beer and bourbon that are served in an upscale speakeasy setting.
Menu favorites include the restaurant’s locally sourced prime steaks and dishes that add a twist on Southern favorites, like the Hot Honey Chicken. On the drinks side, Copper and Oak is known for an outstanding bourbon selection, with the bourbons of hometown distillery Wilderness Trail, a Kentucky Bourbon Trail member, topping the list.
“People know us as a UNESCO Creative City of Crafts and Folk Art,” says Sara Bradley. “Now they will know us for amazing culinary arts as well.”
Bradley, a self-described Top Chef superfan, is the owner of the farm-to-table restaurant famous for using ingredients from Paducah’s own backyard—meaning select farmers within a day’s drive.
A runner-up on season 16 of Bravo’s popular Top Chef series, Bradley returned recently for season 20. This special All-Star season, which began its run in March, features winners and finalists from around the world.
Catch the show, then grab a table at this gastronomical gem tucked in a historic railroad depot near Paducah’s waterfront.
Tousey House Tavern
You learn a thing or three after 200 years—like the best experience to be had at this historic tavern, one of the oldest buildings in Boone County.
“Start with a cocktail of your choosing and the fried green tomato appetizer,” says General Manager Eric Morehead. “Then invest in our family-recipe fried chicken. Finish your night off with a piece of our house-made bread pudding.”
The cocktail of choice? Customers love the Erastus Tousey, the tavern’s house Manhattan. It is named in honor of the attorney who built the Federal-style manse, circa 1822, that today stocks between 110 and 115 bourbons and is on The B-Line, northern Kentucky’s self-guided bourbon trail.
Urban Stillhouse Restaurant
American heroes who rode into Afghanistan on horseback weeks after the 9/11 attack are the founders of this new downtown restaurant. Following that clandestine mission in October 2001, the 12 Green Berets who became known as the Horse Soldiers tapped into a passion for making bourbon.
The smart-casual dining and cocktail bar, located in Somerset’s former Goldenberg Furniture building, is scheduled to open in spring and will feature Horse Soldier Bourbon.
The restaurant will eventually be joined by Horse Soldier Farm’s sustainable bourbon distillery and entertainment complex, under construction in Pulaski County and served by South Kentucky RECC. Spread over 200-plus acres overlooking Lake Cumberland, the family-friendly village will include shopping and dining experiences, live concerts and festivals, luxury lodging, a chapel and more.
Tomcat Bourbon & Brew House
Two bars. Two different atmospheres. The Tomcat Bourbon & Brew House, anchored by a solid oak bar that was original to a Chicago pub in the early 1900s, caters to bourbon and craft beer aficionados. The Alumni Tavern features all the regular domestics on tap. The bar’s popular house beer, Tomcat Lager, plays a starring role in each.
Both bars lead out to a large shared outdoor patio and band stage that has hosted such up-and-comers on the music scene as American Idol winner Noah Thompson and Holly Forbes from The Voice.
Tomcat also offers a free party bus service.
“We will pick up and take home any patrons within a reasonable drive,” says owner Scott Wamsley Jr.
The Granary Piano Bar at Harper House
The Granary Piano Bar at the Harper House Restaurant claims distinction as the only restaurant/bar designed and built inside a brand-new grain bin. Served by Pennyrile Electric, it is known for an extensive bourbon collection, 12 rotating local draughts and a signature drink—the Harper House Margarita.
Experience chef-driven cuisine like Harper House’s famous smoked prime rib, steakhouse tempura roll and maple bacon Brussels sprouts, plus scratch-made cocktails and desserts, with a baby grand on the center stage and live entertainment every weekend. The setting is rustic, with tractor seats for barstools, horseshoes for the foot bar and a bar top sporting a layer of local corn beneath an epoxy shine.
Big Bone Lick State Historic Site
Known as the birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology, this state park, served by Owen Electric, is a place of wonder, a nod to the area’s prehistoric past and the only living mammalian link to the Ice Age.
Everything is larger than life—from the live bison herd roaming the fields year-round to the megafauna diorama pit with its mega mammal replicas like the American mastodon, to museum exhibits, including a full Harlan’s ground sloth replica skeleton. It is an educational family outing, but kids just see pure fun.
Recent park improvements include a resurfaced Bison Trace Trail, rerouted Gobbler’s Trace Trail and refreshed campground sites. A new Discovery Center is expected in 2024.
Lake Cumberland State Resort Park
With a 60,000-acre lake for houseboating, fishing and watersports; panoramic views from Lure Lodge and Rowena Landing Restaurant; plus indoor swimming pool and hot tub, Lake Cumberland is a resort vacation just waiting for the family to arrive and unpack. Served by South Kentucky RECC, the park offers outdoor sports including hiking, disc golf, mini golf, tennis and geocaching, plus the nearby Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery Visitor and Environmental Education Center.
New this year are Wake Zone bar, the addition of 11 full hookup RV sites in the campground and a renovated outdoor pool expected to be open at the end of May. New activities include 3D archery featuring life-size targets of deer, bear and turkey, and astronomy in the fall.
Greenbo Lake State Resort Park
This state resort park with 3,300 acres of forestland, 33 miles of scenic multiuse trails and a 225-acre lake is known not only for its record-setting catfishing and bass fishing but for its scuba refuge—the only one among Kentucky’s state parks. It is served by Grayson RECC.
“The park is beautiful, with lots of nature to enjoy a quiet getaway and plenty of outdoor recreation— kayaking, fishing, boating, hiking, mini golf, swimming,” says Park Manager Brenda Danner.
Visitors love the park’s 36-room fieldstone lodge, named in honor of late Poet Laureate Jesse Hilton Stuart. Featuring private patios and balconies overlooking Greenbo Lake, the lodge hosts numerous events, including Murder Mystery Dinner Theater and a quilt show.
Rough River Dam State Resort Park
FALLS OF ROUGH
So many possibilities await at Kentucky’s smallest resort park, which is served by Meade County RECC: boating and fishing on the 5,000-acre Rough River Lake, which offers an accessible marina; lounging on the beach; playing disc golf on an 18-hole lakeside course; practicing navigational skills on the orienteering course (one of just a few that exist at state parks); and enjoying events like spring and holiday craft shows that spotlight Kentucky-made products.
“And music, music, music. Bluegrass every month and Friday night patio concerts throughout the summer,” says Park Manager Michael Ricks. “The park is not only a quiet, scenic retreat, but it has a large conference center and Grayson’s Landing Restaurant with wonderful food and great service.”
Great American Brass Band Festival
French horns, trumpets, trombones, tubas and more are joined by other musical instruments on Saturday morning of this four-day, family-friendly festival as they march through Danville’s historic downtown en route to Centre College for an afternoon and evening filled with music.
From the N’awlins sounds on Friday night during the Bayou and Brass performances to the varying brass band styles incorporated into Saturday and Sunday music on the college lawn, the Great American Brass Band Festival will provide top notch entertainment June1–4. It also gives festivalgoers a chance to bling out their rented picnic tables for the Great American Picnic’s Saturday evening decorating competition.
Outside the region, it may seem like a weird culinary proclivity, but eating the sausage-based sensation called goetta is a northern Kentucky obsession. Next to the region’s unique chili, goetta is the most popular local dish.
Glier’s free-admission GoettaFest celebrates this slow-cooked meaty mélange of pork, beef, steel-cut oats, onions and spices brought here by the German immigrants that settled in the area. Held at Newport’s Festival Park at the Levee, the festival is so appetizing that it needs two full weekends—this year July 27–30 and Aug. 3–6—to do it justice.
Taste goetta in everything from pizza to fudge while enjoying family-focused goetta games and lots of live entertainment.
Trigg County Country Ham Festival
What does it look like when a town of 2,500 welcomes more than 50,000 visitors for a two-day festival celebrating the local delicacy—country ham? Find out October 13–14 at the 47th annual festival, which combines food, family fun and a schedule packed with entertainment and live country music concerts.
Served by Pennyrile Electric, the festival has grown steadily since it debuted in 1977. Visitors and “home folks” alike come for the car and truck show, quilt show, carnival rides, Ham Fest Stomp, the World’s Largest Country Ham and Biscuit, petting zoo and, of course, the country ham—a Trigg County tradition.
Mt. Sterling Court Days
Two hundred twenty-nine years ago, the Kentucky General Assembly decided that each county should meet once a month to hold court.
“This day became an annual trading day where people came from miles around to buy, sell and trade,” says Tracy Pearce, tourism director at Mt. Sterling/ Montgomery County Tourism.
That event has become Kentucky’s longest running festival, this year October 13–16, when the streets of historic downtown Mt. Sterling will step lively with thousands of visitors from all over the world. Shop at downtown merchants and from hundreds of vendors with handmade crafts, antiques, tools, clothing, collectibles and more, along with a huge selection of foodstuffs and live music entertainment.