The Bluegrass State is known for its bourbon and country vibes, but its metropolitan areas are bustling cultural centers full of innovative food, local art, and handmade artisanal goods. Visit Louisville to get your fix of funky, head over to Lexington for a creative twist on American cuisine, and check out the metropolitan area south of Cincinnati to find international restaurants and breweries around every corner.
It would take weeks to fully explore each city, and while we highly recommend you spend the time doing that, we put together this insider’s guide of the top things to do and places to eat in each one to save you some time on your next visit to the Bluegrass State.
Where to Explore
Louisville’s neighborhoods are as crafty and unique as the local cuisine, and it won’t take you long to find one of the many hotspots of locally-made products and art. "NuLu," or New Louisville, is especially artsy with several local boutiques, like Revelry Boutique Gallery or Scout.
It’s easy to while away an afternoon at the Butchertown Market in Butchertown, sampling artisanal products and shopping. It’s on Bardstown Road, running through the center of Louisville, with plenty of vintage shops, eccentric bakeries, and handmade goods to take home.
The Speed Art Museum, near the University of Louisville, is the oldest and largest art museum in Kentucky. You’ll find a broad collection of ancient art and pieces from around the world, as well as contemporary and modern displays.
You won’t need to travel too far to spend some time in nature - with more than 120 parks, Louisville has an urban oasis in every neighborhood. Stroll along the edge of the Ohio River in Shawnee Park, or hike to the top of the scenic Iroquois Park for a view of the surrounding area. If you’re visiting in the summer, go to a concert at the large, open-air amphitheater in Central Park. Hike woodland trails through meadows and across streams in the Jefferson Memorial Forest. It’s the largest park in Louisville and will give you a feel for the natural heritage of Kentucky.
Where to Eat & Drink
Foodies will be in heaven in Louisville, where farm-to-table restaurants are a dime a dozen and craft breweries lurk around every corner. Check out the Butchertown Grocery, a simple brick building with a refined interior where you’ll find European and American dishes combined in thoughtful and classic ways. The adjoining late-night cocktail bar, Lola, has unique drinks that range from light and effervescent to boozy and adventurous.
Harvest combines local ingredients with traditional dishes to create farm-to-table Southern meals, like blue corn encrusted silver carp or wild-caught Kentucky catfish with succotash grits. If local food combined with local beer is your jam, head to Holy Grale. It’s literally the church of beer, housed in what was once a small Unitarian Church, where you’ll find upscale pub food and an array of craft beers hand-selected from around the country.
If you’re looking for something a little more international, try the empanadas or chilaquile with cooked cactus at the Mayan Cafe.
The Vietnam Kitchen is an out-of-the-way venue in an unassuming place (a strip mall!) but locals will happily make the trip for those tasty noodle bowls.
Explore the growing craft brewery scene and you are sure to find a drink that speaks to you. Great Flood Brewing Company in the Highlands neighborhood features house-made brews as well as a rotating guest tap. Cumberland Brewery is nearby and has great pub food (try the bison burger!). Try an urban distillery tour at Angel’s Envy Distillery, or at Copper & Kings American Brandy Company, where you can taste brandy on the rooftop while watching the sun go down against the Louisville skyline.
Where to Explore
Just outside of downtown Lexington lies the Raven Run Nature Sanctuary, a green space with 10 miles of hiking trails. Hike or run through a forest with babbling streams and open meadows, listen for native birds while taking in the scenic wilderness landscape.
Hop in a pedal boat or go fishing at the reservoir in Jacobson Park, or take an evening stroll through the gardens of the State Botanical Garden of Kentucky to see plants cultivated from around the world.
Kentucky is perhaps best known for the famous Kentucky Derby, so no visit is complete without learning about this world-class event. Tour a real horse farm at the Kentucky Horse Park and meet retired Thoroughbred legends at the Hall of Champions. Be sure to visit the largest horse museum in the world, the International Museum of the Horse, to find out about the history of mankind’s relationship with horses throughout the world.
Where to Eat & Drink
For a fresh spin on American-style cuisine, check out Lexington’s inventive restaurant scene. Saul Good Restaurant and Pub features deliciously innovative pizzas like their Thai pizza or Kentucky Hot Brown pizza, along with a selection of local craft beer and cocktails. Pizza lovers looking for some of that famous Kentucky Bourbon should check out Azur Restaurant and Patio for fresh pizzas made to order and a long bourbon list.
The Country Club Restaurant features classic Kentucky barbeque and classic dishes jazzed up with smoked meats. For an international flavor, try Sav’s Grill & West African Cuisine for a mixture of fresh meats and veggies with peanut sauce and African spices. Head to The Local Taco for flavorful tacos and enchiladas (try their Southern-fried tacos or buffalo chicken tacos!). The tacos won’t break the bank, and they of course pair well with a house-made margarita.
Many of the best restaurants in Lexington serve both brunch and lunch, which is the perfect way to sample several places. Alfalfa has great wraps and sandwiches and Limestone Blue is a local favorite, dishing up fried green tomato eggs Benedict and Nutella-filled pancakes.
Lexington’s craft brewing scene is unrivaled in Kentucky, and there are several breweries you won’t want to miss. Stop by West Sixth Brewing for a free tour and taste a few pints. If you’re lucky there will also be a food truck on site that day! Spend an afternoon playing darts and sipping house-made American ales at Ethereal Brewing, or mix it up and try the Blue Stallion Company for a European lager.
South Cincinnati (Covington & Newport)
Where to Explore
Start your visit with a panoramic view of the Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati skyline against the Ohio River at the Devou Park Memorial Overlook. Take a picnic and go for a walk on the wooded trails, then visit the Behringer-Crawford Museum to learn about life in Northern Kentucky and its legacy of travel via rivers, railways, and roads.
The Newport Aquarium is a must-see. Walk through an underwater tunnel with the Amazon River around you, touch sharks in the touch tank, and visit coral reefs and penguins.
Where to Eat & Drink
Venture across the Ohio River to explore a concentration of restaurants dishing up creative cuisine inspired by local and international flavors, along with an array of craft beer and cocktails. Munch on Latin street food and sip tequila while surrounded by Frida Kahlo decor and artwork at Frida 602. Wunderbar! and Hofbrauhaus Newport are both German-style nooks with craft beers, German bites, and outdoor seating.
If you’ve been to New Orleans, you’ll feel right back in the French Quarter at the Dee Felice Café. Try their classic Creole and Cajun dishes like crawfish etouffee or blackened Cajun chicken. If you’re in need of a quick bite, grab a Cubano or Dirty South pressed panini from Press on Monmouth.
There is certainly no shortage of pizza in Covington and Newport, and you can rely on Strong’s Brick Oven Pizzeria for the best pie in Northern Kentucky. Wooden Cask Brewing Company brews an array of craft beer flavors, and often various food trucks park outside, catering to hungry beer drinkers.
After getting a taste of what these cities have to offer, you’ll surely start thinking about coming back. If you need a little help planning your next trip, let us help you out.
Originally written for Kentucky Tourism.