From Downton Abbey-worthy glamour to criminal feuds lasting for decades, Kentucky’s historic attractions have one thing in common: fascinating stories. Abraham Lincoln and other famous faces inspire visitors at some sites, and other unusual destinations spark curiosity, such as Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.
Groups can discover the state’s historic highlights with interactive guided tours. Singing guides enchant guests at My Old Kentucky Home State Park. Visitors scratch their heads at the problem-solving Escape Games at Historic RailPark and Train Museum.
Each of these historic sites embrace the state’s fascinating past with engaging exhibits and group-friendly experiences.
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park
Abraham Lincoln is not just a statewide hero, but also the president credited with holding the country together during the Civil War. Lincoln did not become an iconic figure in world history overnight. He began life in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky’s frontier.
Today, groups can visit the place where Lincoln took his first steps: the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park in Hodgenville. A memorial marks the birth site. Inside the granite and marble memorial sits a simple log cabin similar to the one in which Lincoln was born.
The memorial is historic itself, since President Theodore Roosevelt laid its cornerstone in 1909. Architect John Russell Pope used symbolism throughout his design, with 56 stairs representing Lincoln’s 56 years of life and 16 windows recalling his place as the 16th president.
Groups can first tour the Visitor Center to view Lincoln’s parents’ Bible, among other artifacts. A 15-minute orientation film describes Lincoln’s early Kentucky years.
Lincoln’s earliest memories originated from his time at the site now known as the Boyhood Home at Knob Creek. Groups can travel to this nearby site to learn about Lincoln’s life from ages 2 to 8. Rangers can lead guided tours on a short hiking trail starting at Lincoln’s re-created childhood home and passing by a stream where Lincoln almost drowned as a child.
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
In 1805, three Shaker missionaries set out to find new converts. After traveling more than a thousand miles, most of the way on foot, they eventually attracted enough members to start the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. The community stayed active until 1910, with 500 members at its height.
Groups can see 34 surviving buildings on 3,000 acres of preserved farmland at the largest National Historic Landmark in the state. With a guided tour at the Historic Center, groups can discover the fascinating culture of the unconventional religious community.
Shakers believed in the equality of the sexes and races before many other religions did. The group also prevented men and women from marrying, insisting the community should live together as brothers and sisters.
After a tour, groups can wander through the preserved buildings and farm to see various Shaker craft demonstrations and preserved agricultural practices. After over a year of renovations, the 21,000-square-foot Center Family Dwelling reopened to the public in 2019.
Solo music performances of Shaker songs at the 1820 Meeting House demonstrate the community’s strong music tradition. Other group experiences include a bonfire and hayride, bourbon tastings and horseback riding.
To immerse more fully in the experience, groups can book rooms at the 72-room inn, which offers Shaker reproduction furniture inside 13 restored Shaker buildings. Visitors can sample seasonal Kentucky dishes straight from the site’s garden at the Trustees’ Table restaurant.
My Old Kentucky Home State Park
Sipping on mint juleps and listening to tales of duels and horse racing, groups can imagine themselves as 1800s guests at My Old Kentucky Home State Park. Best known as the inspiration behind Stephen Foster’s song “My Old Kentucky Home,” the park offers several group experiences, including the Mint Julep Tour.
Tours end with a mint-julep-mixing demonstration and tastings. Groups can also opt for the Biscuit Tour, the Hot Apple Cider Tour and the Lemonade Tour to add a culinary element to their visit. The Biscuit Tour includes a cooking demonstration, so groups can bake their own Southern-style biscuit when they return home.
All tours begin at the Visitors Center; from there, guides in period dress lead groups through the historic mansions. The park’s guides are not only historically knowledgeable; they are also musically gifted — they treat each guest to an a cappella performance of “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Guides reveal the estate’s architectural significance, its historic antiques, its connection to Foster and the compelling character of its first owner, Judge John Rowan. Rowan stands out for dabbling in horse racing, experimenting with agriculture and serving in Congress. His famous duel with James Chambers resulted in Chambers’ death over what was believed to be a challenge over who could speak Latin and Greek most proficiently.
Historic RailPark and Train Museum
Participants locked in an Army railcar must break out before the train stops in one hour. Can they free themselves?
The answer lies in the group’s problem-solving abilities during the immersive and entertaining Escape Game at the Historic RailPark and Train Museum in Bowling Green. The escape experience can be combined with tours of the museum.
The railcars used for the games, including a rare World War II-era hospital car, also serve as pieces of history. The RailPark houses several other railcars that guests can tour, including a post office car, a dining car, a sleeping car and a private car of Milton Smith, a Louisville and Nashville Railroad president. Guides walk groups through each car to reveal different facets of train travel.
The site’s museum lies in an art deco-style train station built in the 1920s. After laying abandoned for many years, the museum restored the elegance of American railroading’s golden age in the early 20th century.
Inside, groups can learn details of railroad travel, such as what passengers ate and how staff lived. A private theater chronicles the daily lives of the Pullman porters who worked on passenger cars.
Over 10 years in the making, the RailPark’s model train sits inside the museum’s gift shop. The model re-creates Bowling Green between the 1920s and 1950s in one of the region’s largest model railroad displays.
Big Sandy Heritage Center Museum
A tale of two families taking the law into their own hands is one of the most engrossing stories told inside the Big Sandy Heritage Center Museum in Pikeville. The Hatfield and McCoy family feud lasted decades and is often retold in American folklore.
Guides enthusiastically recount stories from the Hatfield and McCoy families to accompany the experience. Life-size wax dummies of the two clan leaders, the rope bed that belonged to a McCoy family member and other artifacts help tell the infamous story. The Everlasting Friendship certificate signed and sealed by the Kentucky and West Virginia governors in 1924 supposedly gave an official ending to the feud with the opening of a highway between the two states.
The museum also explains the lawlessness of the time that helped contribute to the feud. The Civil War led to government authority breakdown in the remote mountain communities of eastern Kentucky, causing many families to protect themselves without the assistance of law enforcement.
Other exhibits show how the region divided loyalties during the war, with soldier artifacts such as a drinking cup and a deck of cards. The museum also reaches back into history with exhibits on local Native Americans, African-American history and the Pikeville Cut Through.
The museum sits on the fourth floor of the Judicial Annex in downtown Pikeville.
The glitzy lives of Kentucky’s wealthy residents in the early 1900s are on full display at the Adsmore Museum in Princeton. The 1857 home once bought by the Smith-Garrett family in 1900 quickly became a mansion ahead of its time with immediate and ongoing expansions. The Adsmore’s name is believed to have originated from its reputation of always “adding some more” home renovations.
Depending on when groups visit, they will see snapshots of the home from various moments in the family’s history. The museum rotates seven exhibits that range from Katherine’s Birthday to Selina’s Wedding, all of which are based on events and traditions from the time.
Guides lead guests through the home’s library, parlor, formal dining room, bedrooms and beyond. Outside, a garden, a carriage house and a log cabin that contains Ratliff’s Gun Shop also stay open to visitors. The functioning gunsmith shop dates to the 1840s.
The living-history museum was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Most of the Greek Revival-style home’s furnishings belonged to the Smith-Garrett family. Katherine Garrett, the granddaughter of the original owners, grew up in the Victorian home and lived there until she died in 1984. She donated the home to the library with the stipulation that it open to the public.
The museum is a cultural time capsule. After tours, groups can browse singular items in the Carriage House Gift Shop; they include crystal, hand fans, parasols and books by local authors.