Kentucky’s capital city is the fourth smallest state capital in the United States, but if you’re intrigued by the Commonwealth’s history you’ll have enough to keep you rapt for a couple of days.
Frankfort’s status as capital was contested from 1792 until as recently as 1904 when the funding for the new capitol building was confirmed by the legislature.
A tour of the New Capitol Building is a must, along with the state museum, the Old Capitol and Frankfort Cemetery, posted high on the bluffs over the Kentucky River.
Don’t forget you’re in bourbon country too, and among the three distilleries is America’s oldest operating distillery, Buffalo Trace, which dates back some 250 years and was even allowed to function during Prohibition.
1. New Capitol Building
The building that reaffirmed Frankfort’s status as Kentucky’s state capital was built in an ornate Beaux-Arts style between 1905 and 1909.
This is the fourth permanent capitol building since Kentucky attained statehood in 1792, and is crowned by a terra cotta-clad dome 215 feet above the terrace.
A tour, available Monday to Friday, should be a priority in Frankfort, taking in the Executive Branch on the first floor, Judicial Branch on the second floor and Legislative Branch on the third floor.
With the dome rising 180 feet above you, the rotunda is memorable, with statues for the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Henry Clay, but also notable Kentuckians like “Colonel” Harland Sanders of KFC fame.
The grounds are no less worthwhile, with around 35 stops in a self-guided tour, including the iconic Floral Clock, which we’ll talk about later.
2. Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History
The headquarters of the Kentucky Historical Society are in Frankfort, and this modern state museum opened downtown in 1999.
The signature exhibit, and the ideal starting point, is A Kentucky Journey, chronicling 12,000 years of Kentucky history up to the present day, via bourbon, horses and baseball bats.
This timeline is filled with interesting items, from a mirror that hung in madam Belle Brezing’s parlor to a pocket watch carried by Abraham Lincoln and the coat Kentucky governor William Goebel wore on the day he was shot in 1900.
Also essential is the Hall of Kentucky Governors, with portraits accompanied by interpretive signs packed with intriguing titbits.
3. Frankfort Cemetery
The resting place of many of Kentucky’s most important personalities is in an inspiring location, atop the bluff in a bend of the Kentucky River.
From here you can see right across downtown Frankfort, the State Capitol and the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion. The first person laid to rest here in 1845 was Daniel Boone, whose grave we’ll talk about later.
Other significant Kentuckians at Frankfort Cemetery include 16 governors, including William Goebel who was gunned down in front of the Old State Capitol in 1900, and Richard Mentor Johnson (1780-1950), who was vice president of the United States from 1837 to 1841 under Martin van Buren.
4. Old State Capitol
Overlooking downtown Frankfort from a small rise along Broadway Street is Kentucky’s former state capitol building, constructed in a Greek Revival style in 1837.
This solemn building, with a fine Ionic portico and an unusual self-supporting stairway, remained the seat of state government until 1910 and witnessed many epoch-making moments and debates, involving important figures like Henry Clay.
One was the gubernatorial election of 1899, mired in controversy and accusations of vote rigging, culminating in the assassination of governor William Goebel right in front of the state capitol.
You can see the Old State Capitol on a guided or self-guided tour, with a detailed eight-stop audio guide available for smartphones.
5. Buffalo Trace Distillery
There are three bourbon distilleries operating in Frankfort, but this one deserves special mention as it’s thought to be the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States.
A National Historic Landmark, Buffalo Trace Distillery, now owned by the Sazerac Company, has been around in some form since 1775 and has garnered countless awards over the last 230+ years.
A tour is one of the necessary experiences in Frankfort, not least because you can reach the impressive distillery site on foot or by bike along banks of the Kentucky River.
A whole menu of tours is available, but the basic 75-minute Trace Tour is an intro to the sights, sounds and aromas of an historic distillery, taking in those monolithic brick warehouses to see bourbon aging in floor-to-ceiling stacks of white oak barrels.
6. Cove Spring Park
For a natural palate cleanse during your feast of history and bourbon in Frankfort you can head to this 250-acre park on the northern fringe of the city.
Cove Springs park is the source of the Penitentiary Branch, which flows westwards to the Kentucky River. There are three miles of trails here, enriched with interpretive signs and two interpretive shelters detailing the park’s history and nature.
An obvious highlight is the Hurst Waterfall, rising 25 feet, with a flight of irregular limestone terraces. The short Sky Trail meanwhile overlooks a big slice of Frankfort, and there’s also a Wetlands Trail, with a raised boardwalk.
7. Capital City Museum
If you’re curious about the history of Frankfort and Franklin County in particular, there’s a local history museum just around the corner from the Kentucky Historical Society museum.
In the Main Hall you can trace Frankfort’s story back to the 1780s, touching on the establishment of Frankfort as capital, Aaron Burr’s first trial for treason here in 1806, the Civil War and the growth of industry.
Elsewhere there are detailed exhibits for topics like Kentucky bourbon, the 1900 assasination of Governor William Goebel, traditional crafts, the military, dining in Frankfort, and much more.
8. Salato Wildlife Education Center
Managed by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, this attraction just west of Frankfort is a little like a zoo, showcasing the wildlife of Kentucky.
Outside, in spacious enclosures, you’ll get to see bison, black bear, deer, elk, turkey, bobcats, bald eagles and a habitat for monarch butterflies.
Inside you can safely watch bees in a hive, and check out alligator snapping turtles, various snacks and fish species. There are also four miles of trails on this property, as well as covered picnic shelters with charcoal grills and two fishing lakes.
9. Liberty Hall Historic Site
At this fine property backing onto the Kentucky River you can get to know the history of Kentucky’s prominent Brown family.
Liberty Hall was built for the lawyer and senator John Brown (1757-1837), who played a role in the creation of the State of Kentucky in the wake of the Revolutionary War.
In 1835 John Brown divided the property to give his sons equal inheritance, so on the same site you have the original Georgian Liberty Hall from 1796, and the newer, Greek Revival, Orlando Brown House, completed in the mid-1830s by the man who designed Kentucky’s Old State Capitol.
The Browns sold Liberty Hall to a non-profit in the 1930s, and the property, replete with fine art and period furniture, can be toured mid-March through mid-November.
You’ll get a sense of the refined lifestyle afforded to John Brown, while finding out about the enslaved people who made that possible.
10. River View Park
In the middle of downtown Frankfort, within a few steps of the Old State Capitol is a restful space along the Kentucky River.
This is a great spot for picnics, with several picnic tables on hand, as well as a pavilion. In the summer, River View Park is also the venue for the Franklin County Farmers’ Market, a lively, producer-only market taking place on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings.
Along the waterfront are roughly two miles of trails, leading from the Ward Oates Amphitheater in the south up to Buffalo Trace Distillery in the north, and dotted with interpretive signs.
Finally, there’s a boat dock at the park, serving as the embarkation point for Kentucky River Boat Tours and Kentucky State University’s Thorobred River Boat Tours.
11. Floral Clock
On the grounds to the southwest of the capitol building is an attractive monument dedicated in 1961 by Governor Bert Combs (1911-1991). The Floral Clock was a collaboration between the Garden Club of Kentucky and the state government.
The face, tilted at a 26˚ angle, measures 34 feet in diameter and is planted with around 10,000 individual flowers, mostly Joseph’s coat and begonias, that are replaced at regular intervals.
As for the clock, this has a 20-foot minute hand and a 15-foot hour hand, weighing about 500 pounds combined.
As soon as the clock was unveiled, it became a tradition for passers-by to toss a coin for good luck. This money is used to fund horticulture scholarships at the University of Kentucky.
12. Daniel Boone Grave
The very first burial at Frankfort Cemetery was the frontiersman and pioneer, Daniel Boone (1734-1820).
From 1867, Boone made his name exploring the Bluegrass Region, founding Fort Boonesborough and helping to protect the new settlements from Native American reprisals during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783).
Boone died at his son Nathan’s home in Defiance, Missouri, and his and his wife, Rebecca’s remains were later disinterred to mark the inauguration of the cemetery.
At a majestic spot, overlooking the Kentucky River, Boone’s grave is marked with a pedestal and accompanied by a Commonwealth of Kentucky historical marker.
13. Castle & Key Distillery
At the beautiful site of Glenns Creek, a short drive south of Frankfort, the previously abandoned buildings of the Old Taylor Distillery have found a new life as the Castle & Key Distillery.
The location could not be more atmospheric, with century-old architecture, including one limestone building designed like a castle, in more than 110 acres of verdant rolling grounds.
The new Castle & Distillery produces expertly crafted bourbon, along with rye, gin and vodka, using carefully selected grains.
This is a recent operation so the bourbon was still aging at the time of writing, but you could still visit to experience the remarkable site, and to taste Castle & Key gin and vodka.
As well as that castle, there’s a botanical trail, a store in the historic Boiler Room, a springhouse and an exquisite sunken garden to see on your tour.
14. Josephine Sculpture Park
Something unique on the southwestern outskirts of the city is this contemporary sculpture park, run by a nonprofit organization.
The Josephine Sculpture Park was founded in 2009 by artist Melanie Van Houten on what was previously her grandparents’ farm.
There’s a constantly changing display of some 70 works of art, many of which are interactive for children, all against a pleasing backdrop of meadows with native plants and a large wildlife habitat on one side.
You’ll encounter these sculptures on five different trails, adding up to two miles. The Josephine Sculpture Park has no admission charge, but donations are welcome.
15. Switzer Covered Bridge
Worth the journey northeast of Frankfort is this historic covered bridge on North Elkhorn Creek.
The only bridge of its kind in Franklin County, this crossing dates to the mid-1850s and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Switzer Covered Bridge is 120 feet long and 11 feet wide, and has interesting woodwork, with a sawtooth edge on each entrance.
Closed to traffic for some 70 years, the bridge was restored in 1906 and again in 1997 following damage by high water.