In the Jackson Purchase, just west of Kentucky Lake, Murray is a friendly small town, home to Murray State University.
Sports fans will know all about the Murray State Racers, named for the region’s thoroughbred heritage. As NCAA tournament regulars, the men’s basketball team are a force to be reckoned with and have helped develop several NBA stars, most recently Ja Morant.
Murray can be your HQ for a vacation at Kentucky Lake, with the massive Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area less than 20 minutes from downtown, for a world of activities.
If you want to keep things local, downtown Murray is a treat, and the same goes for the gentle green countryside all around, with old tobacco farms that can be seen on a quilt trail.
1. Kentucky Lake
Drive ten minutes east of downtown Murray and you’ll reach the shore of the country’s largest artificial lake east of the Mississippi, with more than 2,000 miles of shoreline.
Impounded by Kentucky Dam, Kentucky Lake is on the Tennessee River and lies next to the also humongous Lake Barkley, the two vast reservoirs enclosing a finger of land, known as the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, which we’ll talk about next.
Close to Murray the shore is lined with marinas, a public golf course, campgrounds and family resorts. The good news is that you won’t need your own canoe/kayak or boat if you want to do some paddling or fishing, as most of the nearby resorts and marinas offer rentals.
Head north, closer to the dam and there’s a cluster of attractions, like the Kentucky Shores family fun center and Venture River Water Park.
2. Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area
In Murray you’re 15 minutes from the immense protected area that lies between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, inhabited by elk, bison, beavers and a wealth of birdlife.
Covering this 170,000-acre peninsula are unspoiled forests, wetlands and open fields, with some 300 miles of shoreline and around 500 miles of trails.
One of the best ways to discover the natural bounty of the Land Between the Lakes is by paddling along the system of waterways that meander through the forest, and there are five designated water trails to navigate.
And although wilderness reigns on the peninsula, it’s a visitor-friendly kind of place, dotted with campgrounds, picnic areas, boat ramps, fishing holes and attractions like the Woodlands Nature Station where you can glimpse the region’s diverse wildlife.
3. Historic Downtown Murray
In the space of four square blocks around the central Court Square there’s more than 200 years of history to dive into.
The Murray Convention and Visitors Bureau, on the south side of Court Square, has designed a thorough guide and map, so you won’t miss out on anything.
This includes the many local businesses, mostly lining Court Square, with a clutch of restaurants, as well as stores for collectibles, gifts, books, craft supplies, homewares and plenty more.
Within a block or two you can check out more than a dozen interesting landmarks, from churches to fine Victorian houses and the old National Hotel building, testifying to a blossoming city in the early 20th century.
4. Murray Court Square
If there’s something happening in downtown Murray, there’s a good chance it will take place on the lawn of the stately old Calloway County Courthouse (1913).
This is in a Classic Revival style, replacing a predecessor that burned down 1906, and then placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
We’ll talk about the farmers’ market that happens here in the summer, but there are plenty more seasonal festivities at this spot.
The biggest is December’s Dickens Downtown, centered on the lighting of Murray’s Christmas tree right here.
Another is Easter on the Square, with an egg hunt and visit from the Easter Bunny, or the Ice Cream Festival in September, when there’s free ice cream and inflatables for wee ones.
5. Wrather West KY Museum
Open on weekdays, this local history museum is in the grand namesake hall, which was the first permanent building constructed on the MSU campus when it was completed in 1924.
Wrather Hall had a variety of uses in those early years, staging classes, debates, pep rallies, performances, while also containing administrative offices, laboratories, a post office and bookstore.
At the museum here now you’ll get to know the economic, cultural and social development of Western Kentucky and the Jackson Purchase.
When we compiled this list, the museum was revamping its displays in time for the university’s centenary.
One absorbing temporary show was the traveling Smithsonian exhibit, “Voices and Votes; Democracy in America”, documenting the origins and progress of a government run by and for the people
6. Murray State Racers Men’s Basketball
One MSU varsity program with a national reputation is the basketball team, which is a force to be reckoned with and has had more than two dozen NBA draftees.
The most recent is NBA All-Star Ja Morant, whose No. 12 has been retired by MSU. Playing at the 8,600 CFSB Center,
The Racers won the Ohio Valley Conference no fewer than 18 times, and had just switched to the Missouri Valley Conference at the time of writing. In that final OVC year, they posted an incredible 18-0 regular season record.
Some of that invincibility comes from the crowd, which in 2012 set a record of 138 dBA for the loudest noise recorded at an indoor basketball arena.
7. Downtown Farmers’ Market
Murray’s colorful Downtown Farmers’ Market has been a summer staple for a quarter of a century at this point. The main market is in business on Saturday mornings, May through October, at Court Square in the heart of the historic downtown.
The list of vendors is long, featuring a host of local farms for seasonal produce, meats, honey, eggs, plants and flowers, as well as artisans for breads, pastries, preserves, jams, kettle corn, handmade gifts and a lot more.
This is a vibrant event with something new happening each week, be it a cooking demonstration or educational fun for kids. July through September there’s also a market on Tuesday afternoons at 8th and Poplar.
8. The Arboretum at Murray State
On the 40-acre Pullen Farm, in the southwest of the MSU campus, is an interesting public educational garden and also a tranquil sanctuary for many.
In blissful surroundings you can amble through the gardens, cared for by students, and admire constantly growing collections of perennials, annuals, trees and shrubs.
The Butterfly Garden is a delight in summer, and you can see home many different species you can identify. There’s also a sweeping vista of the Pullen Farm from atop the garden’s “Mountain”.
9. Central Park
East of the MSU campus is Murray’s premier public park, which is packed with things to do, particularly in the summer. One facility is the Murray City Pool, which has a lap pool and a brand new splash park that younger kids will adore.
Then you’ve got a highly-rated disc golf course, a skate park, multiple picnic shelters, a dog park, sports amenities, an amphitheater for outdoor events and the Playhouse in the Park, which we’ll cover later in this article.
If you’re just visiting for a stroll or easy bike ride, there’s a network of trails connecting the main facilities and leading through wooded areas and over undulating lawns.
10. Clara M. Eagle Art Gallery
Open during the semester, this gallery can be found at MSU’s Department of Art and Design, and is a key part of the department.
With four distinct spaces, the gallery has more than 1,200 works in its permanent collection and stages fantastic temporary exhibitions.
A few recent standouts have included contemporary art from across the United States, African art, ironwork, contemporary textiles, and contemporary woodwork.
The two landmarks in the calendar are the biennial Magic Silver photography exhibition and the Kentucky National (for all media), both of which are national juried shows.
11. Playhouse in the Park
The Murray-Calloway County Community Theatre has a remarkable home, inside the old Murray Freight Depot.
This building, previously owned by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, was in a state of disrepair until 1979 when it was relocated to Central Park to become somewhere for Murray’s creative talent to take center stage.
February through October there’s a jam-packed season of musicals, comedies, dramas and children’s shows, with production values and performances that will catch you off guard.
A few picks from the season we wrote this list were Elf, Sister Act and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
12. Cheri Theatres
At a shopping center close to Central Park and the MSU campus there’s a locally-owned movie theater that has been an entertainment go-to in Murray since 1967.
The sign by the road recalls those mid-century days, while the cinema has evolved through the years. Now there are seven auditoriums with comfortable stadium seating and the latest Dolby surround sound and screen technology.
As well as being praised for its maintenance and facilities, Cheri Theatres is inexpensive, with well-priced concessions and discounts on matinees (shows before 5:30pm).
13. Miller Memorial Golf Course
This public course just east of Murray is rated as one of the best in the Kentucky Lake region. Miller Memorial Golf Course is an 18-hole par 71, measuring 6,592 yards from the tips.
The greens and fairways are perfectly manicured Bermuda grass, and there’s an interesting difference between the front nine’s hilly terrain and the back nine’s longer holes, requiring accurate iron play.
There’s also a diversity of hazards, including some 50 bunkers and three lakes, that create a scenic backdrop for several holes. Additional facilities include a pro shop, snack bar and a 7,500-square-foot putting and chipping green.
14. Calloway County Quilt Trail
Murray sits in a charming agricultural landscape, with scores of quaint farms, many of which have been in the same families for generations.
A great way to recharge your batteries and see more of this gentle rolling scenery is via The Calloway County Quilt Trail.
With more than 60 stops, this is one of the longest of its kind in the region, with more than 60 quilt squares painted on barns and houses around Murray and the wider Calloway County.
Often adorning historic tobacco barns, these quilts are a joy to behold, but also come with interesting backstories that give you a rare insight into the community.
A complete downloadable guide is available via the Murray Convention and Visitors Bureau, and you’re welcome to pull into driveways to find out a little more about each quilt.
15. Murray Peddlers Mall
Well-regarded in antiques and collectibles circles, the Murray Peddlers Mall belongs to a chain with locations in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. Waiting for you in this giant space are numerous vendors, with booths loaded with exciting finds.
These might be furniture, toys, home appliances, vintage sports equipment, tools, military surplus, tableware, art, vinyl, books, clothing, seasonal decorations, musical instruments, games or comic books.
You never know what you’re going to find here, and there’s a big turnover of stock, so no two visits will ever be the same.