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  • A rolling horse pasture in Lexington, Kentucky
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    Lexington: Bluegrass and Barbecue

  • The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory in Kentucky
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    Louisville: Sports, Horses and Home-cooked Meals

  • Freshly fried chicken from Brown Bag Burgers in Henderson, Kentucky
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    Henderson: Meat-lovers’ Heaven

  • A plate of barbecue ribs in Owensboro, Kentucky
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    Owensboro: Barbecue Central

  • The Maker’s Mark barrel warehouse at the distillery in Loretto, Kentucky
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    Loretto: Tour Maker’s Mark Distillery

  • Cold beers and comfort food at the Cock & Bull Public House in Mainstrasse Village in Covington, Kentucky
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    Covington: European History and Flavors

Barrel tasting bourbon at the James E. Pepper distillery in Lexington, Kentucky
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Culinary Kentucky: In Search of Down-home Dining and Drinks

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  • Route distance:
    851.00
  • Suggested Time:
    1-2 weeks

With its rolling pastures, warm Southern hospitality and appreciation for all things bluegrass music, bourbon and horses, Kentucky is pure Americana.

If there’s one thing people here love more than bluegrass, bourbon and equestrian culture, it’s good food. A typical day could include anything from a distillery tour and bourbon tasting to a platter piled high with barbecue meats and sides. Buckle up for this hunger-busting, food-loving road trip of Kentucky’s tasty culinary scene.

01
A rolling horse pasture in Lexington, Kentucky
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Lexington: Bluegrass and Barbecue

Rent a car at Blue Grass Airport (LEX) and head directly to Lexington. This city is known as the Horse Capital of the World, home to more than 500 horse farms and attractions that celebrate all things equestrian: Kentucky Horse Park, Thoroughbred Park, the racetrack at Keeneland and a multitude of guided horse farm tours.

Of course, you’re here for the food, so make your way to the Blue Door Smokehouse. This wildly popular eatery serves smoked meats that are so tender and so tasty that the no-frills counter often sells out. Arrive early to not miss out on beef brisket, pulled pork, pulled chicken, smoked sausage and ribs. Can’t decide which to try? Order the Blue Door Special that piles on a bit of every type.

Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon. Within an hour’s drive or less are some of the state’s finest distilleries including Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve and James E. Pepper. Town Branch, located in the heart of downtown Lexington, is the first distillery to be built in the city in nearly a century.

Before moving on to your next stop, go for a hike across the naturally formed stone bridge at Natural Bridge State Resort Park to experience Kentucky’s remarkable natural beauty.

127 km
1.67 hours by car
02
The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory in Kentucky
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Louisville: Sports, Horses and Home-cooked Meals

Opt to take two-lane Route 60 for tranquil views of sprawling ranches on your drive to Louisville, a sports-loving city. Tour the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory to see how baseball bats are made, learn about Louisville-born boxing champion Muhammad Ali at the Muhammed Ali Center, and take a behind-the-scenes tour of Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.

Louisville’s culinary scene is vibrant, varied and oh-so tempting – with more than 2,500 restaurants. Sip your way through 44 bars and distilleries along the Urban Bourbon Trail. At J. Graham’s Café, order a classic Hot Brown, an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and French Mornay sauce. Finish up with a slice of Derby-Pie®, featuring walnuts and chocolate chips, or head to Homemade Ice Cream and Pie Kitchen for a scoop of hand-churned ice cream or freshly baked pie.

Up next in Henderson, you can counter all the sweets with savory proteins: more barbecued meats and crispy, fried chicken.

206 km
2 hours by car
03
Freshly fried chicken from Brown Bag Burgers in Henderson, Kentucky
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Henderson: Meat-lovers’ Heaven

Interstate 64 to Henderson cuts across southern Indiana, but you can stay in Kentucky if you follow backcountry roads south of the Ohio River. Henderson counts among its former residents the world-famous naturalist John James Audubon, memorialized in a trail of bronze sculptures along the downtown Audubon Sculpture Walking Tour (the visitors’ center has free maps) and Audubon’s original artwork at the Audubon State Park and Museum.

On the culinary side of Henderson is meat – and plenty of it. Thomason’s Barbecue is beloved for its home-style pork, mutton, beef and ribs, and their baked beans have earned legions of devoted fans. Brown Bag Burgers serves a great burger and fries, but it’s most famous for its fried chicken. The ultra-crispy, deliciously salty recipe is too good to pass up. Take a scenic walk at Atkinson Riverwalk fronting the Ohio River to make room for more barbecue, coming up next in Owensboro.

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50 km
0.58 hours by car
04
A plate of barbecue ribs in Owensboro, Kentucky
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Owensboro: Barbecue Central

Just 35 minutes away, Owensboro is close enough for you to arrive in time for dinner. This riverfront city calls itself the Barbecue Capital of the World. The place to try it? Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn. Moonlite has been in the same family for nearly 70 years and was named Best Barbecue in Kentucky by Southern Living. Order the mutton – it’s a local favorite.

After a satisfying meal, visit the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum to see musical relics of Kentucky’s signature musical genre, then walk over to Smothers Park by the river. There are relaxing porch swings with waterfront views and a mega playground that was named the Top Playground in the World in 2015 by Landscape Architects Network. If you’re visiting during the summer months, enjoy live music, food trucks, shopping and family events at Friday After 5. As the sun goes down, everyone collectively toasts to the sunset. Rest up before the drive to Loretto.

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203 km
2 hours by car
05
The Maker’s Mark barrel warehouse at the distillery in Loretto, Kentucky
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Loretto: Tour Maker’s Mark Distillery

Between Owensboro and Loretto is Mammoth Cave National Park. Considered one of the state’s finest natural treasures, Mammoth Cave is the longest-known cave system in the world at approximately 663 kilometers of explored caverns. A tour is simply a must-do (reservations are recommended).

The town of Loretto itself is small (population: 709), but the star attraction is known worldwide: Maker’s Mark Distillery, a National Historic Landmark. This bourbon, famous for its wax-dipped bottlenecks, has a fascinating backstory that involves a 170-year-old recipe, an accidental fire and an unexpected revolution in bourbon distilling. Sign up for one of the daily tours. Star Hill Provisions, the distillery’s farm-to-table restaurant, serves sandwiches, soups and, of course, bourbon cocktails. Maker’s Mark is one stop along the Loretto County Trail marking 16 historic spots in Loretto.

Look up the Kentucky Bourbon Trail as you leave Loretto; there are a number of distilleries along the route that you can add as side trips.

237 km
2.25 hours by car
06
Cold beers and comfort food at the Cock & Bull Public House in Mainstrasse Village in Covington, Kentucky
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Covington: European History and Flavors

In case you weren’t quite done exploring Lexington or Louisville, the last leg of this road trip offers a chance to pass through either one. Pick your route and enjoy the pastoral views on the way to Covington, a destination positively bursting with history and charm.

German, Irish and Mediterranean immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries left their mark in Covington’s MainStrasse historic district. Seek out distinctive culinary flavors such as goette, a German breakfast sausage, and Cincinnati chili, a meat stew seasoned with Mediterranean spices. Start your foodie adventure with a three-hour walking food tour of MainStrasse Village to nosh on Bavarian pretzels, beer cheese, goetta, desserts, beer, bourbon and wine. Later, stop by Herb & Thelma’s Tavern for a mouth-watering burger and ice-cold beer.

Neighboring Newport rounds out your road trip, with several distilleries and breweries, attractions and events at Newport on the Levee and sightseeing cruises on the river. What a great way to end your Kentucky culinary trip! Catch a return flight out of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG), just 15 minutes from the city.

 

 

 

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