Skip to site content
Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader

Kentucky’s Foodie Festivals

Pull into a small Kentucky town during festival weekend, and you’re in for a tasty culinary experience.

Communities large and small throughout the Bluegrass State hold festivals to celebrate various aspects of their heritage. But some of the most popular are the events that shine a spotlight on the foods, spirits and flavors that make mealtime in Kentucky unique. And though the state’s larger destinations have the wide-ranging food festivals that you would expect to find in any big city, the smaller towns tend to throw fetes that highlight one particular aspect of their culinary culture.

In Bardstown, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is a celebration of all things whiskey. Owensboro plays host to serious competitive teams at the International Bar-B-Q festival, and Newport puts on a series of different culinary festivals throughout the warmer months of the year.

In London, the World Chicken Festival honors the fried chicken tradition immortalized by Col. Harlan Sanders. And in the eastern reaches of the state, the Kentucky Apple Festival features both fruit and the small-town charm of Paintsville.

Bourbon Central

Since 1776, locals in and around Bardstown have been distilling bourbon, a distinctive whiskey that has become a culinary and cultural calling card of the Bluegrass State. Today, 69 percent of the world’s bourbon is created in the area immediately surrounding Bardstown, a charming small town located between Louisville and Lexington. That makes the town’s annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival a desirable destination for any bourbon aficionado.

Scheduled this year for September 11-17, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival is a weeklong celebration that highlights the history and pedigree of the state’s signature beverage. Visitors can enjoy distillery tours, tasting sessions, educational presentations and museum displays, as well as a wealth of music and entertainment.

During the evenings, groups that attend the festival can choose from a variety of events, ranging from laid-back mixers to upscale, bourbon-infused galas. Other options include bourbon-style cooking schools, scenic train rides and shopping with hundreds of arts-and-crafts vendors.

Barbecue Competition

In the western part of the state, Owensboro has developed a reputation as a hotbed of barbecue. It is consistently ranked among the top barbecue destinations in the country and has restaurants that have been visited by numerous U.S. presidents and other celebrities. This makes the town an ideal setting for the International Bar-B-Q Festival, which takes place this year May 12-13.

Competition is a big part of the barbecue culture nationwide, and the International Bar-B-Q Festival is no exception. Teams come from far and wide to compete for the Governor’s Cup, and festivalgoers are the beneficiaries of that competitive spirit. Visitors can taste dozens of varieties of traditional pork and chicken barbecue, along with accompanying rubs and sauces. But this festival also puts a spotlight on some barbecue dishes that are specialties of western Kentucky, such as mutton (smoked lamb) and burgoo, a smoked stew.

In addition to barbecue, this festival features free entertainment, a pie-eating competition, arts-and-crafts vendors and various other activities.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.