Modern adventurers have ample opportunities to explore the rich history of the Bluegrass State at the top 15 historical sites in Kentucky. Kentucky has been home to some of the nation’s most beloved and influential presidents, held an important place as a neutral state during the Civil War, and has been the location of discovery of many ancient Native American artifacts. To learn more about the state’s rich history, make time for a trip to these top 15 Kentucky historical sites.
Our nation’s 16th president spent the early years of his life in Kentucky’s LaRue County. He was born on the Sinking Spring Farm and then moved to the Knob Creek Farm where he lived from ages 2-7. Today, both farms have been preserved as the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park. Visitors can visit the locations of Lincoln’s birth and early years, explore a replica of the log cabin he was born in, visit a memorial building, and view the Sinking Spring that served as the Lincoln family’s water source.
Still taking passengers on cruises down the Ohio River today, the Belle of Louisville is the oldest operating steamboat in the world. The Belle sits on the Ohio River in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, taking passengers on cruises and participating in the annual Great Steamboat Race—a competition between the Belle of Louisville and the Belle of Cincinnati that is part of the Kentucky Derby Festival. Visitors can learn more about the steamboat’s history on a cruise while dining, dancing, and relaxing.
Though Maker’s Mark has only been producing its small-batch bourbon in Loretto, Kentucky, since the 1950s, their distillery is the oldest operational distillery in the world and a National Historic Landmark. Originally known as Burks Distillery, liquor has been brewed there since the early 1800s. Visitors today can tour the distillery and learn about its history—as well as the bourbon making process—while sampling bourbon. You can also dip your own bottle in the Maker’s Mark wax and take it home.
In Madison County, Kentucky, visitors can explore the state’s earliest history at the Fort Boonesborough State Park. Fort Boonesborough was Kentucky’s second settlement, founded by Daniel Boone. Today, Fort Boonesborough serves as a recreation of a working fort in the days of the pioneer, and visitors can explore the fort, cabins, and bunkhouses that the founders of the state stayed in before and during the Revolutionary War.
Ashland is the plantation estate of Henry Clay. Henry Clay was a powerful politician in America’s early days and was known as “The Great Compromiser” for his negotiating skills in delaying the Civil War and ending the War of 1812. Clay moved to Lexington, Kentucky, in the early 1800s and began building his mansion. Today, visitors can explore the 18-room mansion and wander the grounds of the plantation to view the outbuildings, gardens, walking trails, and a Civil War monument.
Though the Chicago Water Tower is more famous, the Louisville Water Tower is actually the oldest ornamental water tower in the world. The tower and pumping station in Louisville, Kentucky, were designed by architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux to look like a Greek temple to make the water filtering project more appealing to city residents. Visitors today can view the intricate designs of the tower and pumping station and explore the history of water filtration in the WaterWorks Museum.
Kentucky is best known for horse racing, and no trip to the state is complete without a visit to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky—the home of the Kentucky Derby. Churchill Downs was opened in 1875, and the first Kentucky Derby race was held there the same year. Visitors to Churchill Downs today can explore the history of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby at the Kentucky Derby Museum, and during open season, visitors can also bet on horse races and watch races live.
Located just east of Louisville, Kentucky, Springfield was the childhood home of Zachary Taylor, the 12th president of the U.S. Taylor lived on the Springfield farm from 1790 to 1808, and returned there many times during his life. While today the Zachary Taylor home is designated as a National Historic Landmark, it is a private home and not available for public viewing. However, visitors can tour the nearby cemetery where Taylor was buried and visit the monument erected there to honor Taylor’s life and contributions.
Kentucky’s Harrodsburg was home to one of the largest Shaker communities in the country during the 19th century. Today, the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill celebrates the Shakers that made Kentucky their home with a 3,000-acre historical site that serves as a monument to their lifestyle and accomplishments. Visitors can explore restored buildings that were built by the Shakers themselves and even stay the night in a room filled with Shaker furniture.
The Perryville Battlefield was the site of the largest battle held in Kentucky during the Civil War. Today, the battle is memorialized as part of the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site near Perryville, Kentucky. The historic site features a museum, monuments, and descriptive signs that all tell the story of the battle between the Union Army of the Ohio and the Confederate Army of Mississippi. The park also hosts an annual battle reenactment as a fundraiser for the park’s preservation.
Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world and one of the country’s oldest natural attractions. More than 400 miles of cave have been explored in the Mammoth Cave systems, and visitors flock to the cave throughout the year to take tours of the cave system. But before Mammoth Cave became an attraction, it was used as a shelter for Native Americans, and over the years, remains, mummies, and artifacts representing thousands of years of cave use have been discovered.
Locust Grove is a Georgian Mansion in Louisville, Kentucky, that was built in 1792 by William and Lucy Clark Croghan. Lucy Clark Croghan was the sister of General George Rogers Clark who was one of the original founders of Louisville, and the home served as a shelter to many famous names over the years, including James Monroe and Andrew Jackson. Today, the 55-acre estate serves as a reminder of frontier America, and visitors can tour the house and its grounds to learn more about life in the 1800s.
The Old State Capital building in Frankfort, Kentucky, was the third building to serve as Kentucky’s government seat between 1830 and 1910. The gorgeous building was built in Greek Revival style by architect Gideon Shryock who was born in Kentucky. Today, the building is owned by the Kentucky Historical Society and is home to the society’s “Great Revivals: Kentucky Decorative Arts Treasures” exhibit that explores how art tastes changed throughout the 19th century.
Within the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site in Fairview, Kentucky, you’ll find the Jefferson Davis Monument. The monument is a breathtaking 351-foot tall obelisk, and visitors can ride an elevator to the top in order to view the beautiful landscape surrounding the monument. Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and visitors can learn more about this historical political and military figure in the museum that’s also found on the grounds of the historic park.
The Constitution Square Historic Site in Danville, Kentucky, is a park that celebrates the earliest history of Kentucky. Visitors to the park will find many buildings that were built as replicas of the buildings that existed there during the late 1700s where constitution meetings led to Kentucky separating from Virginia. Visitors to the park can learn about the earliest history of the state, and the park is also home to the annual Kentucky State Barbecue Festival.