A new year dawns, and with it, the resolve to get off the sofa and make something of this year. How many New Yorkers never bother to visit the Statue of Liberty? How many Georgians never eat a peach? (Probably zero.) But whether you’re a bluegrass native, or just visiting Kentucky, there is a long list of things to do in our fair state that make it clear, Kentucky Kicks Ass.
With heavy reliance on 23 years of Ace’s annual Best of Lexington and Best of Kentucky Readers’ polls, here’s a top 20 list of things to do in Kentucky that make sure you live like a Local when you’re here.
HAPPY TRAILS! Five of Them.
1. Do the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear welcomed the world to Danville, Kentucky and the 2012 Vice Presidential Debate with a bourbon reception, announcing, “95 percent of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky…and the rest is counterfeit.”
Irishman and Kentucky adopted son, Alltech CEO Pearse Lyons said, “When we are talking about the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, we are talking about Kentucky’s history.” In addition to Lexington’s Town Branch Distillery, the other distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail are: Four Roses, Lawrenceburg; Heaven Hill, Bardstown; Jim Beam, Clermont; Maker’s Mark, Loretto; Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg; and Woodford Reserve, Versailles (which just celebrated its 200th birthday). Tourists are encouraged to set aside at least two days to “do” the entire Kentucky Bourbon Trail. With the Kentucky Bourbon Trail “Passport” program, visitors collect stamps on a passport at each visit and receive a not-available-in-stores t-shirt that celebrates the achievement.
2. Tour the Kentucky Bourbon Craft Trail.
As Heather C. Watson puts it: “micro is having a moment. Small batch products are all the rage, and Kentucky is no exception.” She writes, “Bourbon is as quintessential to Kentucky’s heritage as horses, basketball or limestone. Most any Kentuckian can tell give you a quick rundown of bourbon facts: the charred oak barrel-aged spirit first named for Old Bourbon County is made from a mash that is at least 51% corn and distilled to no more than 160 proof. We know these details by rote, like the assassination of Governor William Goebel or the years in which UK basketball’s eight National Championship titles were earned. These days, however, a host of new distilleries are broadening bourbon’s horizons. Louisville’s Whiskey Row and Lexington’s Distillery District are bringing bourbon to the forefront of Kentucky’s nightlife. The state’s new micro-distilleries are now on display in the recently created Kentucky Bourbon Craft Trail. Like its big brother, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the new Bourbon Craft Trail provides a hands-on expedition for bourbon lovers to explore participating distilleries’ production facilities. Following the original Trail’s pattern, the Bourbon Craft Trail features seven distilleries and will offer participants a Passport program to reward visitors who earn stamps from each distillery.”
3. Cheers to Kentucky’s Brewgrass Trail
Don’t just take our word for it. Southern Living says, “Bourbon will always be king in Kentucky, but there’s a new sipping trend in the Bluegrass State—craft beer. The state has seen half a dozen breweries open in the past few years—so many that there’s now a Brewgrass Trail lined with hops-packed stops. Perfect for: Beer aficionados with a soft spot for pastoral, tree-lined allées.” (October 2012) The trail includes: Against the Grain Brewery, Alltech’s Lexington Brewing Company, Beer Engine, Bluegrass Brewing Company, Country Boy Brewing, Cumberland Brewery, Lore Brewing Company, and West Sixth. Lexington’s craft brew scene has exploded in the last year, and a new entry, Blue Stallion Brewing, at the corner of Newtown Pike and Third Street, will add to the mix in 2013.
4. Take a bite outta Kentucky’s Doughnut Trail
The New York Times caught on this year to a tradition Kentuckians have prided themselves on for years: the Kentucky Doughnut Trail. While we might not agree with every stop, and they left out some serious contenders, they did visit Lexington legend Spaldings, and Danville’s Burke’s, so they are off to a good start in their quest for the Hole-y Grail.
5. Walk or Bike Lexington’s Legacy Trail
We all remember when the idea of a trail that would wind through the beautiful bluegrass wasn’t even a dream. Now Lexington’s Legacy Trail extends from Lexington’s downtown out to the Kentucky Horse Park and is a car-free dream for area cyclists, walkers, and art lovers.
FIVE FAIRS AND FESTS
6. Go to Louisville’s Lebowski Fest
The dude abides. Lebowski Fest is an annual celebration of all things related to the Coen Brothers’ 1998 movie, The Big Lebowski. Louisville was home to the very first Lebowski Fest in 2002 (and it has since expanded to include celebrations in Vegas, Seattle, NYC, LA, Chicago, and Austin.) “If you will it, it is no dream.”
7. Go to ideaFestival in Louisville
ideaFestival was founded in 2000 by Kris Kimel in Lexington, and subsequently relocated to Louisville, every fall. It “is a celebration for the intellectually curious. It’s an eclectic network of global thinkers and one-of-a-kind innovators bound together by an intense curiosity about what is impacting and shaping the future of the arts, business, technology, design, science, philosophy and education.” What does that mean? Past programming has included everyone from filmmaker Spike Lee to Anthony Bourdain to the founders of Mental Floss.
8. Go to the Kentucky Bourbon Cooking School at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival
Yes, bourbon appears in several incarnations on this List, but bourbon’s never redundant, and the Bourbon Cooking School at Bardstown’s annual fall Bourbon Festival is always a sell-out. So schedule early.
9. Art Smart
Kentucky is known for two Arts Fairs that are legendary neighborhood events, but have also gained regional and national popularity among art lovers (and art buyers). Every August, Lexington is host to the Woodland Arts Fair, and Louisville is home to the St. James Art Fair in October every year.
10. The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports
The Kentucky Derby isn’t just the greatest two minutes in sports, it’s the Kentucky Derby festival that consumes Louisville the entire week prior, including Thunder Over Louisville, waiter races and more.
FIVE FOODS TO ENSURE YOU WILL EAT LIKE A KENTUCKIAN in Kentucky
11. Drink an Ale 8
The soft drink is manufactured in Winchester, Kentucky and has a cult following that the Coke vs. Pepsi wars can never hope to replicate. Served on tap in many Kentucky restaurants, it bears a fizzy resemblance to ginger ale, but with all the caffeine kick of a Mountain Dew.
12. Eat where it all began
Kentucky is the birth place of fried chicken. Or at least the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken. And you can still eat where it all began.
13. Have a Hot Brown
The famous open-faced sandwich originated at Louisville’s Brown Hotel, but there are variations to be found throughout the state, even for vegetarians, though the classic should contain both turkey and bacon and a plate full of mornay sauce.
14. Try a chili bun
What is a chili bun? The eastern seaboard has chili dogs, of course, but the chili bun, in its pure form, will have no dog. The midwest is home to loose meat sandwiches, which has a slightly similar consistency, but the chili bun must be served on a hot dog bun (with mustard and onions), and no, it isn’t like a sloppy joe. At all. Chili buns are legendary 1960s pool hall fare, but the homemade kind can still be found in many a gas station along the Eastern Kentucky chili bun trail, which encompasses small towns like Corbin, London, Williamsburg, Middlesboro, and even Somerset.
15. Have some burgoo
Louisiana has jambalaya and gumbo; Texas has posole; Kentucky has burgoo. What goes into and what must be left out of it to be defined as burgoo is a topic of fierce debate. It’s a stew that is heavy on meat — often including wild game (deer, elk, and rabbit are common), usually lamb or mutton, and some kind of fowl (chicken, pheasant, duck). You won’t find it on every Kentucky restaurant menu by any means, but it is a popular entry at many inns and hotels, especially during racing season.
HORSE AND HOUND
16. Spend a day at the Races
Although Kentucky is nationally identified with the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May, there is nothing like a day at the races at Lexington’s Keeneland race course.(Spring Meet is April; Fall Meet is October.) The late Christopher Hitchens once wrote, of Keeneland, in Vanity Fair, “A bit like Cuba’s, Kentucky’s economy depends almost entirely on things that are good for you but are said to be bad for you: Cuba has sugar, rum and tobacco; and Kentucky has bourbon, tobacco, and horse racing. When you see the Derby run on TV, the cameras linger on opulence in hats and horseflesh, and the farms often look like rolling feudal estates, but if you go to Keeneland racetrack at Lexington you see…real, popular participation in the sport of kings.” He was mistaken about a lot of that of course. The cameras at Derby are typically lingering on corpulence more than opulence at Churchill Downs, along with its NASCAR-like infield (which everyone should try at least once, along with Millionaire’s Row, preferably on the same visit). Keeneland far more closely resembles an English day at the races.
17. Blessing of the Hounds
Every November, Lexington’s Iroquois Hunt Club hosts its annual kickoff to the hunt season with the Blessing of the Hounds, with horse and riders in full regalia. The invocation of the blessing by the Bishop is not only for the hounds but the riders, horses, fox and coyote, as well. St. Hubert is the patron saint of hunting.”The scene is complete with men and women in traditional riding outfits, with classical music (heavy on the brass) lingering over the bottomlands, played from a stone terrace. Enthralling as the setting is, it’s a site unfamiliar to many Kentuckians. It was originally built in 1807, and was bought by the Hunt Club in 1928.” Though the Hunt is still not without controversy, the late Reverend Christopher Platt said in 2001, “there is little outcry when Christian churches bless oyster and shrimp divers, fleets of boats, assorted animals, and even athletic teams. Why then should the Anglican Church not bless the hounds, the horses, riders and even the wily fox? Are any of these beings of lesser creation than oysters or shrimp? …the blessing of a hunt adds a degree of reverence to what might otherwise be little more than a chase.”
18. Saddle Up
Home to the World Equestrian Games, the Kentucky Horse Park on Iron Works Pike outside Lexington is a beautiful way to actually see horse country, while getting close to the actual horses.
Walk, Run, and Bike the Bluegrass
19. Up for a Half Marathon?
Kentucky is home to dozens of walks, runs, and races every year. Lexington alone hosts the Bluegrass 10,000 as part of the city’s annual July 4 festivities, a Midsummer Night’s Run, a Shamrock Shuffle, the Race for the Cure, a Thanksgiving Thoroughbred Classic, a Reindeer Ramble, and more. Now there’s a half marathon, Run the Bluegrass, every Spring. (There’s even a Bourbon Chase relay that wraps up with a tent filled entirely with bourbon for all participants.)
20. The Horsey Hundred
Cyclists love Kentucky. Bike Month in May gets bigger every year; Lexington has bike polo, Bike Prom and progressive bike dinners; the Second Sunday program is growing; our Farmers’ Markets even have bike-powered smoothies. And then there’s the Horsey Hundred, the annual century route that winds through central Kentucky’s beautiful horse country. It’s not a race, just an embrace of cycling in Kentucky, and a signature event.