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Road Trip Guide to Central Kentucky

by Staff
Central Kentucky

Illustrated map by Brainstorm

Winter in Kentucky is cold. The fields are stubbly with sheared stalks of corn and studded with bales of hay. Weathered gray barns and outbuildings sit alongside thickets of skeletal trees and bare bushes. Set beneath white-blue skies, the land is stark and lovely, the place seemingly simple, straightforward. But there are stories here, threaded through the abiding hills and intermittent valleys, the beginnings of so many things.

Log cabins and split-rail fences abound and hint at one of the histories one will encounter: Abraham Lincoln was born here on February 12, 1809, and spent his early boyhood on the family homestead at Knob Creek. Today, the area is encompassed in a national historical park, the jumping-off point for a trip along the 72-mile Lincoln Heritage Scenic Highway. As one would expect, the route includes significant sites in the life of the Lincoln family, as well as museums and statues paying tribute to the 16th president, but there’s far more to discover.

Central Kentucky is home to the world’s oldest bourbon distillery, as well the oldest bourbon bar. Too, it’s the site of the nation’s first Trappist monastery, founded in 1848. All of this—as well as the birthplace of Kentucky’s statehood and My Old Kentucky Home (yes, it’s a real place)—lies in store for travelers to this surprisingly rich land, this place of destiny, spirits, and faith.

• • •

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park
In 1911, the nation’s first memorial built to honor Abraham Lincoln was dedicated in Hodgenville. The stately Memorial Building, constructed of pink marble and granite, crowns a rise near the site where the 16th president was born and houses a period cabin from the area. Ten miles northeast of the birthplace sits Lincoln’s reconstructed boyhood home. Stop in at the Lincoln Museum in downtown Hodgenville (set between the two park sites) and follow his life journey, from the cabin to Ford’s Theatre, through a dozen impressive, life-size dioramas.

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Memorial Building

Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Tourism

Abbey of Gethsemani
Regarded as the motherhouse of all Trappist monasteries in the United States, this abbey set among New Haven’s small lakes and rolling hills—or knobs, as they’re called—is home to 40 monks. Along with a commitment to silence, prayer, and work, the monks recognize hospitality as an important part of the monastic tradition and welcome guests to walk their nature trails or take in a presentation on monastic life. Before departing, visit the Gethsemani Farms Gift Shop to stock up on the fruits of their labor: Kentucky bourbon fruitcakes and slabs of bourbon walnut or mint julep fudge.

The entrance to the Abbey of Gethsemani, home to 40 monks

Photo courtesy of Bardstown Tourism

Talbott Tavern
Built in 1779, the tavern is regarded as the oldest Western stagecoach stop in the country. It’s also home to the world’s oldest bourbon bar, making it the ideal homebase for a stay in Bardstown, the Bourbon Capital of the World. Book a night in one of six historic rooms, named for famous guests including Daniel Boone, Jesse James, and a young Abe Lincoln. Plan on dinner at the Talbott; the bourbon walnut chicken and bread pudding topped with—you guessed it—bourbon caramel sauce are musts. Cap the evening at the bar, which houses more than 300 distinctive bourbons and whiskeys and offers flights as well as several specialty cocktails.

Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience
Set alongside row after row of multistory rickhouses, where thousands of barrels of bourbon sit aging, this Bardstown attraction is a standout in a town that offers * 11 distillery experiences, from world-famous operations to innovative craft outfits. Founded in 1935, family-owned Heaven Hill produces every major category of American whiskey. Learn about the different types, from bourbon to rye, enjoy tastings, or opt for the ultimate experience: sample exclusive products, choose your favorite, and bottle the spirit yourself.

* Plan Ahead
Even though central Kentucky is home to a wealth of distilleries, many tours and tastings book weeks or even months in advance. To be sure you see—and sip—everything on your wish list, reserve your spaces well before your visit.

The tasting room at Heaven Hill

Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Tourism

Hadorn’s Bakery
Since 1935, members of the Hadorn family have risen early to turn out oven-fresh pastries and confections. Today, the third generation throws open the doors of the tidy, white-clapboard shop in downtown Bardstown at 7:00 a.m., and anyone hoping to score a glazed doughnut, cherry Danish, or yum yum (a doughnut–cinnamon roll hybrid drizzled with chocolate and vanilla icing that reigns as the local favorite) should plan to arrive early.

Hadorn’s Bakery offers a wide variety of oven-fresh pastries and confections

Photo by Scott House Creative

My Old Kentucky Home
Federal Hill, a stately 1818 brick mansion set atop a rise just steps from the heart of Bardstown, is among the most famous structures in Kentucky. It’s best known as the inspiration for “My Old Kentucky Home,” written by Stephen Foster in 1853 as an anti-slavery anthem and adopted in 1928 as the official state song. But it’s also renowned as one of the finest house museums in the South, with more than 75 percent of its contents original to the property and theatrically trained docents in period dress leading fascinating themed tours, from 19th-century Easter traditions to mourning and funerary customs in Victorian America.

Star Hill Farm
The Loretto home of Maker’s Mark has long been a place of pilgrimage for bourbon enthusiasts. Set on 1,100 acres, the campus includes 10 original Victorian buildings, among them the distillery built in 1805 on the banks of Hardin’s Creek and recognized today as the oldest bourbon distillery on its original site. While traditional tastings and classic tours of the grounds will certainly impress, consider booking one of the new in-depth offerings, known as Star Hill Farm Experiences. A favorite is the Oak Experience, which tells the story of the tree “from seed to sip” and culminates with guests each planting a seedling.

A variety of livestock roams the grounds of Star Hill Farm, including sheep

Photo courtesy of Makers Mark Distillery

This picture-perfect small town stakes its own claim to the Lincoln legacy: Abraham’s parents, Nancy Hanks and Thomas Lincoln, both moved to the area from Virginia as children in 1782. On June 12, 1806, the two were wed here, and the marriage certificate remains on file in the 1816 courthouse on Main Street, which also houses the Lincoln Legacy Museum. Ten minutes north of town, Lincoln Homestead State Park maintains the house in which Nancy lived while she was courted by Thomas (legend holds he proposed in front of the large fireplace), as well as a replica of the 1782 cabin where Thomas lived until he was 25.

The Lincoln Legacy Museum

Photo by Marty Justice Photography

A visit to this little hamlet begins in the countryside a couple miles north of downtown. On October 8, 1862, almost 7,000 soldiers were killed or wounded here at the bloodiest Civil War battle fought on Kentucky soil and the Confederacy’s last serious attempt to seize possession of the state. Visit the recently renovated museum to watch an in-depth film on the campaign and pick up a map before exploring the battlefield, one of the least-altered Civil War sites in the nation. In Perryville, walk the town’s Historic Merchants Row, featuring a handful of structures built in the 1830s and 40s and used as field hospitals during the battle.

Known as the “City of Firsts,” this largest town along the scenic highway served as the site of 10 constitutional conventions between 1784 and 1792, when Kentucky was a Virginia county on the nation’s frontier. Visitors to Constitution Square will find a replica of the log courthouse where the conventions that led to statehood were held, as well as the first post office west of the Allegheny Mountains and the meeting place of the first political club in the West, Grayson’s Tavern, built in 1785. After exploring the many historical and reproduction structures in the three-acre park, stroll to Main Street for dinner. Great options include craft burgers at Copper & Oak, classic Italian dishes at La Cosa Nostra, or gourmet hotdogs at the Catered Dog.

In Danville, visitors can visit a replica of the log courthouse where the conventions that led to statehood were held

Photo courtesy of Danville-Boyle Convention and Visitors Bureau

Beaumont Inn
Venture beyond the Lincoln highway to Kentucky’s oldest town, Harrodsburg, for a stay at this impressive century-old inn. The Beaumont began as a women’s college in 1845 and was transformed into an inn in 1919. Today, the property is known for its large guestrooms appointed with antiques and period replications. Visitors also flock for its classic Southern fare—cornmeal cakes with brown sugar syrup, Kentucky-cured country ham, and corn pudding—which earned the Beaumont an America’s Classics Award from the James Beard Foundation.

The Beaumont Inn Parlor

Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Tourism

This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of Southbound.


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