Louisville, although not actually the state capital of Kentucky, is still the largest city in the state, known for its annual Kentucky Derby horse race and as the home and headquarters of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
There’s a lot of American history to see in the city, but outside of the urban area, in the surrounding state, there is even more to experience and there are plenty of day trip opportunities available.
Kentucky is home to some of the largest caves in the world, and there are many places where it’s possible to head underground to explore the gloom and see incredible stalactite formations.
If you’d rather learn more about the famous fried chicken, it’s easy to visit the first ever KFC restaurant, where Colonel Sanders created his secret recipes.
History buffs can visit the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln near Louisville, where America’s most famous president was born and raised.
Frankfort is a small city in comparison to the sprawling metropolis of Louisville, but it is in fact the State Capital of Kentucky.
It’s one of the most historic cities in the state: namely, one of the original European settlements in the area.
To garner an understanding of Kentucky in general, it’s a great day trip to undertake from Louisville.
There are museums to visit where you can learn about this intriguing history, and plenty of grand, historic government buildings to see.
It’s also right in the middle of bourbon country, and whisky lovers will find there are a lot of distilleries to tour around.
2. Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Historical Park
The Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Historical Park is a nationally famous heritage area south of Louisville that comprises two important homesteads where Abraham Lincoln was born and raised.
Sinking Spring Farm is where Abraham Lincoln was actually born; here there is an interesting visitor’s center and a grand memorial building constructed to classical designs.
It’s a far cry from the small cabin where he was actually born, but this was torn down long ago.
There is a replica, which may or may not have been built with some of the original logs.
Knob Creek Farm, also in the park, is where Abraham Lincoln grew up after moving there when he was only two years old.
Here sits another log cabin, again a replica of the original, but it’s an historic site that shouldn’t be missed when visiting Louisville.
Bardstown is the second oldest settlement in Kentucky and should be included in any itinerary when planning historical day trips from Louisville.
Its real claim to fame is as the Bourbon Capital of the World.
This is where bourbon was refined into the world renowned drink it is today, and there are annual festivals here celebrating all things bourbon.
Jim Beam, possibly one of the most famous international brands, originated near Bardstown.
They have a distillery in the area and there are many museums dedicated solely to the history of this tipple.
4. Harland Sanders Cafe and Museum
South of Louisville, in the small town of Corbin, there is one real attraction to see: the Harland Sanders Cafe and Museum.
For fried chicken lovers, Corbin is worth the journey to see the site where Harland Sanders, otherwise known as Colonel Sanders, started the first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in the 1940’s.
Although now a museum, it is also still a functioning KFC restaurant, where diners can eat their meals in the same location where it all began.
This is where the Colonel himself first concocted the famous secret recipe of herbs and spices that KFC is known for; giving his fried chicken a distinctive taste that has now spread across most of the world.
It’s a piece of culinary history to be savored not far from Louisville.
Petersburg is a small, unassuming town of just a few hundred people on the Ohio River, where Kentucky ends and Indiana and Ohio begin.
Petersburg has two bizarre claims to fame: the first is the abandoned wreck of the USS Sachem, which met an unlikely end along the river here.
This shipwreck is a ghostly place to visit, and is being slowly reclaimed by nature in the wilderness along the river.
It was abandoned after being used by the Navy and then being turned into a river cruise liner.
The second unique attraction in Petersburg is the Creation Museum, which claims that the earth is only 6000 years old, as per the stories from the bible.
It’s a little controversial for some people, but here you can see dinosaur skeletons and dioramas depicting humans and dinosaurs living alongside one another, a remarkable state of affairs.
6. Tri State Peak
In the far corner of Kentucky, the Tri State Peak is the location where three states: Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, all merge and meet.
Found within the boundaries of the Cumberland Gap National Park, there is a visitor’s center at the base of the peak which provides historic information on the definition of these state boundaries.
The walk to the peak is only about one mile long and well worth the effort to be able to stand and look out over three different states of the US all at once.
7. Cumberland Falls
The Cumberland Falls are a truly epic sight to behold, found south east of Louisville.
Part of the extensive Cumberland River, this waterfall only ever reaches around twenty meters in height at any point, but its length is the really impressive feature; it’s known as Little Niagara for its dramatic appearance.
It’s also one of the only places in the world where, at the right time, with a full moon and misty conditions, a bizarre and mystifying moon-bow will form.
This is a night-time rainbow, and it’s an enchanting and unusual natural phenomenon.
8. Red River Gorge
The Red River Gorge is a huge area of canyon surrounded by pristine forest, which can be found east of Louisville.
Unique because of the huge number of naturally occurring limestone arches that have been hollowed out over millennia along the length of the canyon, it’s a spectacular sight to witness.
It’s also an area of outstanding natural beauty; perfect for outdoor lovers wanting to rock climb, kayak, canoe and hike through the untouched woodland.
9. Land Between The Lakes
The Land Between The Lakes is a beautiful area that, as the name suggests, lies between two lakes.
This is the border of Kentucky and Tennessee, and parts of this protected area lie in both states.
It’s a beautiful area for outdoor recreation; with water sports aplenty on the tranquil lakes and hiking a favorite activity amongst visitors.
10. Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave is the largest cave system in the world.
Totaling a current known length of 412 miles of twisting, underground tunnels and caverns, there’s probably much more waiting to be discovered underground.
The cave system can be visited on many tours, varying in length from just an hour to a whole day.
Some areas are lit and others have to be navigated by torch light.
There is something for everyone, no matter how deep you dare to delve into Mammoth Cave.
11. Mammoth Onyx Cave
Also located within Mammoth Cave National Park, the Mammoth Onyx Cave is known to be one of the most accessible caves in the world, and one of the most beautiful.
It’s perfect for people of all ages, no matter how young or old, with its wide and gentle slope creating easy access.
Along the short walk are stalactites, stalagmites, and many more unusual underground features.
12. Cave City
Near to the Mammoth Cave National Park, Cave City is the heart of cave country, and a destination in its own right.
The small city is known for its historical Wig Wam Village Motel, where visitors can see recreations of traditional Native American Wig Wams and even stay overnight if they wish.
It’s also where Dinosaur World is found: a real life Jurassic Park where huge models of prehistoric creatures are on display in an open air setting.
13. Bowling Green
Bowling Green is the third largest city in Kentucky and is known for its long history of relationship with the motor industry.
This is where you can visit the General Motors manufacturing plant and the Corvette Museum.
It’s also where you can see the bewildering sight of the Corvette Sinkhole.
At the museum, a Sinkhole randomly opened up and swallowed eight of the cars on display.
Now, it’s been turned into a surreal exhibition.
Lexington is the second largest city in Kentucky and its long history has always been entwined with horses and horse racing.
Here you can visit famous horse racing stables and grounds.
During your visit you will also experience the other side of Lexington: a modern American University City that has successfully turned around the decline of its industrial trades with growing craft scenes; where abandoned warehouses have been taken over by new whisky distilleries and craft beer breweries that offer a distinctive and unique flavor to visitors.
Cincinnati is not just an escape from Louisville, but an escape from the state of Kentucky entirely.
It’s northeast across the border in neighboring Ohio, but just an hour and half of driving away.
A historical city on the beautiful banks of the Ohio River, it has a 19th century city center full of distinctive architecture and an ever growing tourist scene – all just a day trip away from Louisville.