No tickets required. No coupons needed. Just walk right in—and enjoy. Kentucky is proof that the best things in life are free.
Yes, you read that right. Rocking down the Kentucky River on a boat tour. Rolling through acres of woodland and wildflowers on a bicycle. Sipping spirits. Saluting statuary. Oohing and aahing at the works of the Great Masters—then and now. Applauding Shakespeare. Hanging with Mr. Lincoln. Scads of nature preserves, museums, historic sites, theaters, distilleries, parks, and other attractions routinely invite visitors in for free. Check out some of these nifty freebies for your next day trip or weekend getaway.
Head to Hodgenville and the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park to learn how the 16th president spent his boyhood years at Knob Creek Farm and Sinking Spring. www.NPS.gov/abli, (270) 358-3137.
Step farther back in time at Elizabethtown’s Freeman Lake Park and the Lincoln Heritage House, comprising two replica log houses built by Abe’s father, Thomas Lincoln, for his friend Hardin Thomas. The Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln Memorial Cabin, also in Elizabethtown, is a hand-hewn replica of the home Abe’s future stepmother lived in at the time she married Thomas in 1819. www.TourETown.com, (800) 437-0092.
Pick up the legendary Kentucky Bourbon Trail in central Kentucky and enter Bourbon Country for behind-the-scenes tours and slow sips in chummy tasting rooms at Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Four Roses, Wild Turkey, and Heaven Hill, where you can also explore the Bourbon Heritage Center. Download a passport from the Web site. www.KyBourbonTrail.com.
Other distilleries not on the Trail but offering tours and tastings include Buffalo Trace and Tom Moore. www.KentuckyTourism.com, (800) 225-8747.
Admission to and parking at Kentucky State Parks are always free. This presents 51 opportunities to explore 17 resort parks, so designated because they have full-service lodges; 23 recreation parks; and 11 historic sites, including Perryville Battlefield, the site of Kentucky’s most destructive Civil War battle. www.Parks.ky.gov, (800) 255-PARK (7275).
Finger-lickin’ good got its start at the Harland Sanders Café and Museum in Corbin. Since the tour is free, splurge on lunch or dinner, featuring Original Recipe chicken and all the fixin’s. Order up! www.CorbinKyTourism.com/sandersKFC.htm, (606) 528-2163.
Mark your calendar to go spelunking for free on a Mammoth Passage or Discovery tour at Mammoth Cave National Park: April 21-29, National Park Week; June 21, first day of summer; September 22, Public Lands Day; and November 9-11, Veterans Day Weekend.
www.NPS.gov/maca/index.htm, (270) 758-2180.
Explore the Appalachian way of life at BitterSweet Cabin Village on the grounds of Renfro Valley Entertainment Center. You’ll traverse 150 years of Kentucky history on a self-guided tour of the authentic cabins, furnishings, tools, and artifacts dating back to the 1700s. During the first weekend in June and October, working artisans demonstrate their crafts. www.BittersweetCabinVillage.com, (606) 256-0715.
Red River Meeting House and Cemetery in Logan County is the site of the Second Great Awakening or, as some refer to it, the Revival of 1800. According to Darlynn Moore, whose husband, Richard, is president of the Red River Meeting House and Cemetery Association, Barton Stone got word about a revival and headed to Red River, experienced it, and “took the religious fire back to Cane Ridge in 1801.” Take the self-guided cemetery tour and see where the preacher caught the fever. www.RedRiverRevival.com, (270) 586-7632.
Besides pioneer, Lincoln, Trappist monk, and Stephen Foster memorabilia, see a new sterling silver exhibit at the Bardstown Historical Museum. Located in Spalding Hall—once a Civil War hospital for both North and South—the museum sits on the same floor as the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. Highlights here include an homage to ax-wielding prohibitionist Carrie Nation and a copper still from President George Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate. www.WhiskeyMuseum.com, (502) 348-2999.
The Aviation Heritage Park is currently home to three restored planes, including the Phantom 550, an F-4D Phantom II flown in combat missions in 1972 during the Vietnam War. From inside the park, tune into a routinely updated 89.3 FM broadcast from your car to learn about the aircraft on display and the south-central Kentucky native pilots they honor, like Bowling Green native Dan Cherry, a retired brigadier general who flew 285 combat missions and also commanded the Air Force Thunderbirds. www.AviationHeritagePark.com, (270) 791-1312.
At Lost River Cave, after checking in at the Visitors Center, take part in Nature Center activities or hit the trails. Three miles of blue hole trails meander their way to the Butterfly Habitat and Kentucky’s native butterflies. Trails are set amidst one of the largest karst valleys in the United States, with wildlife habitats including three blue holes, limestone bluffs, and the Lost River Spring. Bird watchers take note: more than 130 different species have been spotted here. www.LostRiverCave.com,
Land Between The Lakes, Janice Mason Art Museum, lots of unique and antiques shops—and a Pig Passport Program that lets visitors browse the shops (no purchase necessary) and receive a free pig ornament—a nod to Cadiz’s cured ham history—to paint at the art museum. www.GoCadiz.com, (888) 446-6402.
Once the finest school in Hardin County, the renovated Summit One-Room Schoolhouse, built in 1892, is located today in Freeman Lake Park. The Emma Reno Connor Black History Gallery recalls the struggles and achievements of African-Americans through biographies, articles, photographs—even calendars. See an original picture of General Custer at the Brown-Pusey House and Museum, tucked into an 1825 Georgian mansion, also site of the Cunningham Garden with its covered pagoda and flourishing with blossoming trees and terraced flower beds. www.TourETown.com, (270) 765-2175.
Pioneer log structure, general store, railroading exhibits, famous residents like George Armstrong Custer and Carrie Nation—the Hardin County History Museum traces life back to the area’s earliest Native American inhabitants. www.HardinKyHistory.org, (270) 763-8339.
And those sweet rides from 1910-1970? They’re at Swope’s Cars of Yesteryear Museum. www.SwopeMuseum.com, (270) 763-6175.
Take a guided or self-guided tour of Kentucky’s State Capitol, truly a sight to behold from its terra cotta dome to delicate art glass skylights, hand-painted murals, and extraordinary statuary.
Aquariums, native gardens, dragonfly marsh, Eastern Forest diorama—they’re at the Salato Wildlife Education Center, along with fishing lakes and accessible trails to see bison, bears, and bald eagles.
Take a picnic and a camera—the view of downtown Frankfort is breathtaking—to Leslie W. Morris Park high atop Fort Hill, where two Civil War earthwork forts are preserved. Here, the Sullivan House Interpretive Center offers tours Memorial Day to October 31. During this same time frame, you can snag a boat tour on the Kentucky River. Advance reservations required. www.VisitFrankfort.com, (502) 229-1887 or (800) 960-7200.
Photographers, hikers, bikers, birders, and horseback riding enthusiasts will revel in unexpected finds along 13 multi-use trails within the 3,000-acre Nature Preserve surrounding Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill: capering wildlife, colorful tangles of wildflowers, spring waterfalls, and remnants of Shaker mills and bridges. You are free to wander the preserve, but there is an admission charge for the Village itself. www.ShakerVillageKY.org, (800) 734-5611.
Check out the oak barrel charring process on a Kentucky Cooperage tour with the Independent Stave Company. You’ll learn why bourbon loves it and also see how staves are shaped and hoops put in place. And tour the new Limestone Branch Distillery, newly opened this past February, where they specialize in “legal moonshine.” Get an eyeful atop Scotts Ridge Lookout, offering a sweeping vista across 100 square miles. www.VisitLebanonKY.com, (270) 692-0021.
Romp over 100 acres at The Arboretum, State Botanical Garden of Kentucky, but do stop and smell the roses—all 1,500 of them. Also at the arboretum: Walk Across Kentucky, a two-mile walking path with native plants, Demonstration Garden, classes, tours, and exhibits throughout the year. Visit on Arbor Day, April 28,
and score a free seedling. The new Kentucky Children’s Garden, opened in 2011, is also free that day (admission is normally $3 per person).
www.ca.uky.edu/Arboretum, (859) 257-6955.
Feast your eyes on Monet, Picasso, Brancusi, and other masters at the Speed Art Museum—but hurry! The museum closes in October for three years for expansion and renovation. Meanwhile, admission to the permanent collection and Art Sparks Interactive Family Gallery (where children can touch all they want) is free, 5-9 p.m., on the first Friday of the month. www.SpeedMuseum.org, (502) 634-2700.
Peruse the works of 200 or so artists working in all media, from folk art to furniture, at The Gallery Shop at Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft. www.KentuckyArts.org, (800) 446-0102.
Meet glass artists, watch blown glass demos, and marvel at the breadth of glass artistry at Flame Run, the largest hot glass studio and gallery in the region. www.FlameRun.com, (502) 584-5353.
Showcasing the works of established and emerging artists and regional and national artists through changing exhibits is the purview of the Yeiser Art Center, an intimate gallery that also sports a permanent collection featuring 19th- and 20th- century American and European art. www.TheYeiser.org, (270) 442-2453.