For church travel groups, there may be no better place to visit in 2019 than Kentucky.
Home to two of the country’s most significant faith-based attractions — the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum — as well as a significant Catholic heritage and one of the country’s largest Shaker communities, Kentucky has become a bucket-list destination for many Christian travelers. And the state’s appeal extends beyond its faith bona fides: Groups that tour Kentucky will enjoy equestrian heritage, exciting performing arts and genuine Southern charm.
This itinerary starts in northern Kentucky and then heads south to Lexington, Harrodsburg and Bardstown. It ends in Louisville. From there, groups can then easily return to their starting point or continue on west toward destinations in Indiana.
You should plan at least five days and four nights to experience the best of these Kentucky communities. Adding a couple of extra days will give you time to enjoy the best of Kentucky with plenty of leisure time along the way.
The Incredible Ark in Northern Kentucky
Northern Kentucky, which comprises the cities and the surrounding countryside along the Ohio River, has been a darling of the faith-based travel world for some time. In 2007, the Creation Museum opened in the town of Petersburg, giving visitors a thorough, scientific and engaging look at the origins of the universe as described in the Bible. Then in 2016, the organization behind the Creation Museum, Answers in Genesis, opened a massive new attraction — the Ark Encounter.
Designed as a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark, the Ark Encounter is huge: 510 feet long, 85 feet wide and 51 feet high. Inside, exhibits detail the way the ark would have been built to accommodate humans and thousands of animals. They also give a look into the way that Noah and his family would have lived and worked on board the ark.
Many groups spending time in northern Kentucky visit both the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter. Since each museum has a number of extra experiences and attractions on-site, planners should allow plenty of time for each and not try to package both visits in one day.
While you’re there: The city of Newport sits on the banks of the Ohio River overlooking the Cincinnati skyline and offers an array of activities for groups. Newport on the Levee is a popular destination with an aquarium and numerous shopping and dining spots. Many groups also enjoy sightseeing cruises with BB Riverboats.
Lexington, the Horse Capital
About 35 miles south of the Ark Encounter is Lexington, a midsize city that sits in the heart of Kentucky’s Bluegrass region. It’s also in the middle of Kentucky’s famed horse country and bills itself as the Horse Capital of the World.
Visitors can experience Kentucky’s equestrian heritage at numerous attractions around Lexington. Most groups start at the Kentucky Horse Park, a 1,200-acre facility that includes numerous museums and interactive experiences. Visitors can meet retired racehorses that live at the park, learn about the history of horses around the world at the Parade of Breeds and take horse-drawn wagon rides throughout the property. A series of special events also take place at the Horse Park throughout the year.
In addition to visiting the Horse Park, groups can also tour horse farms in the region, where they’ll learn about horse breeding, or take behind-the-scenes tours at Keeneland Race Course, one of the most elegant and historic horse-racing tracks in the country.
While you’re there: In the middle of Lexington’s horse country is the Kentucky Castle, a full-scale, European-style castle with a fascinating backstory. After sitting unfinished and empty for decades, the castle now serves as a boutique hotel, restaurant and event venue. Tours of the castle showcase the opulent architecture and tell the unique origin story.
Harrodsburg, A Shaker Settlement
Another half-hour drive south from Lexington will bring groups to Harrodsburg, a picturesque, historic example of a small Kentucky town. But it’s not just Main Street that people come to visit: Harrodsburg is famous throughout the country as the home to Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.
Established in the early 1800s, Shaker Village is America’s largest restored Shaker community. This distinctive religious group thrived at Pleasant Hill for decades, practicing a form of Christianity that forbade romantic relationships and emphasized enthusiastic, physical worship. Groups visiting Shaker Village can see some of the 34 restored buildings on the site and experience Shaker music with performances from interpreters. The village has on-site lodging in historic buildings, as well as a restaurant that serves farm-fresh Kentucky cuisine.
Many groups pair their visit to Shaker Village with a sightseeing cruise on the Kentucky River aboard the stern-wheeler Dixie Belle.
While you’re there: Experience history of another kind at the Beaumont Inn, which was built in 1845 as a girls’ school. Today, the fifth generation of the original family operates the inn and restaurant, which offers traditional Kentucky fare such as “yellow-legged” fried chicken, corn pudding and country ham.
My Old Kentucky Home in Bardstown
About an hour’s drive west of Harrodsburg, groups will find Bardstown, one of the jewels of Kentucky.
Among Bardstown’s chief attractions is My Old Kentucky Home State Park. This park preserves Federal Hill, a farm owned by a prominent local family that was immortalized by American songwriter Stephen Foster in his classic “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night.” Groups can tour the mansion with expert costumed guides to see the large collection of original family furnishings on display and hear stories of life at the farm.
The park is also home to “The Stephen Foster Story,” one of the country’s most famous outdoor dramas. This classic summer musical, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, commemorates the life and career of Foster and deals with the issues of slavery and race that he saw firsthand at Federal Hill. Performances take place in an on-site amphitheater and feature a cast of 50 professional actors and singers.
While you’re there: The Bardstown area has several notable Catholic heritage sites that are featured on the Kentucky Holy Land Trail. Sites include the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral, which was the first Catholic church west of the Alleghany Mountains, and the Abbey of Gethsemani, where groups can visit an active Trappist monastery.
Louisville’s Museum Row
About 40 miles northwest of Bardstown, Louisville is the largest city in Kentucky and is home to many of its finest cultural institutions. In addition to taking in the city’s historic neighborhoods, groups should take some time to peruse Louisville’s Main Street, which has taken on the name Museum Row.
There are seven museums and cultural institutions on Museum Row, each showcasing different aspects of the city’s history. The Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum is an icon of the city; it features a 120-foot-tall baseball bat leaning against the side of the historic building. And groups can learn about another sports legend and local hero, Muhammad Ali, at the Muhammad Ali Center, an interactive museum that showcases media, artifacts and stories from Ali’s inspiring life.
Groups visiting Museum Row can easily split up for each member to visit the attractions they find most interesting. The Frazier History Museum features a fascinating historical collection of arms, armor and other artifacts, and the KMAC Museum is the state’s premier modern art museum. Travelers looking to learn more about the area’s bourbon heritage will find an immersive multimedia tour at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.
While you’re there: Louisville is perhaps best known as the home of the Kentucky Derby, and groups can learn all about the storied horse race at Churchill Downs and the accompanying Kentucky Derby Museum. The museum showcases the history and pageantry of the famous race, and tours of the grandstands and track at Churchill Downs give visitors an up-close look at the legendary racecourse.