Itinerary: Kentucky's Holy Land
The pastoral countryside which stretches across the Bluegrass, Horses, Bourbon & Boone region is known for its beauty, bourbon distilleries and horse farms. But this region is also home to a diverse number of religious communities, including many of the first Catholic settlements in America.
Catholics began coming into Kentucky in 1775, settling primarily on the farmland frontier in Nelson, Marion and Washington counties. These spiritual pioneers were later joined by Shakers, whom you can learn about at the beautiful Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill – one of the largest settlements of its kind in the U.S.
Now known as Kentucky’s Holy Land, the area’s spiritual foundation is as strong today as it was then. This four-day itinerary allows for ample time to immerse yourself in the beautiful sights and sacred places tucked all throughout the region.
Day 1: Louisville
Cathedral of the Assumption
You’ll start this spiritual journey in Louisville, visiting one of the oldest inland cathedrals in the United States and the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville. The church has stood at its current location since 1830, and is an instantly recognizable Louisville landmark. Extensively renovated in the 1990s, the cathedral has retained many notable features including the stained glass coronation window, ceiling fresco and spire. In addition to daily Mass schedules, appointments can be made to tour the cathedral, and an online audio tour is available on the cathedral's website.
Experiencing Derby City
Cathedral of the Assumption is located in the heart of downtown Louisville, walking distance from scores of great restaurants, hotels and attractions. Try the original Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich at The Brown Hotel, which is also one of the city’s finest places to stay. Go for a scenic river cruise on the Belle of Louisville. Choose from 10 exciting museums and attractions on Museum Row, including the Muhammad Ali Center and the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, where you can see the iconic baseball bats being made. Or, venture outside of downtown to take a tour of historic Churchill Downs, home to the annual running of the Kentucky Derby.
Day 2 & 3: Kentucky’s Holy Land (Bardstown & Surrounding Areas)
From Louisville, you’ll drive about 45 minutes to Bardstown, which is famous for being the Bourbon Capital of the World. But Bardstown is also one of the most hallowed places in America for members of the Catholic faith. Because there are many spiritual attractions in this area – as well as much to see and do in Bardstown – we recommend breaking this portion of your journey into two days.
Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral
A centerpiece of Kentucky’s Holy Land is Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral. In 1808, the Diocese of Bardstown became America’s first inland diocese. Benedict Joseph Flaget, a French-born priest who traveled by flatboat to serve as bishop of the diocese, took on the monumental challenge of building a cathedral in the middle of the Kentucky frontier; after years of work and the contributions of many, it was sufficiently completed and consecrated in 1819. Pope Leo XII, King Louis Phillippe of France and others donated fine paintings and other gifts, which can still be seen in the church today.
Though the Episcopal See was moved to Louisville in 1841, St. Joseph’s is regarded as an important religious and cultural landmark. The Vatican named Bardstown a Titular See for its contributions to Catholic heritage in America, and the U.S. Library of Congress lists St. Joseph’s as a national landmark.
Abbey of Gethsemani
A short drive south of Bardstown will bring you to Abbey of Gethsemani, one of America’s oldest Trappist monasteries. Monks have lived devout lives of faith and work at this beautiful site since it was established in 1848 – tending the land and producing goods such as bourbon fudge and fruitcake, which can be purchased in the Abbey store. This is also the final resting place of noted theologian and writer Thomas Merton, who lived here from 1941 until his death in 1969.
There is a Welcome Center, where you can learn about the monks’ daily lives (open Monday through Saturday, with the exception of public holidays and holy days of obligation), as well as nature trails that are open to day visitors. For those seeking a longer stay, the Abbey welcomes visitors from around the world for spiritual retreats – a tradition since the Abbey opened its doors more than 150 years ago.
Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse
In the neighboring town of Nerinx you’ll find the Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse, one of the oldest religious communities of women in the nation. Father Stephen Badin, the first priest to be ordained in America, obtained the property in 1796, and it has been home to the Sisters of Loretta since 1824.
This working farm is surrounded by tranquil and beautiful landscapes, historic buildings and an art gallery. The Motherhouse hosts free concerts, film screenings and other performing arts programs throughout the year that are open to the public. Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse also offers two ecumenical retreat ministries, open for stays ranging from a weekend to a year.
Located a few miles from Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse is Maker’s Mark Bourbon Distillery, where you can learn all about the Kentucky tradition of bourbon making.
Named “The Most Beautiful Town in America” by Rand McNally and officially known as the Bourbon Capital of the World, Bardstown has scores of wonderful restaurants, shops and accommodations in its historic downtown, which you can tour by horse and carriage. If you’d like to continue your spiritual learnings, be sure to visit the Bardstown Art Gallery and Thomas Merton Books, which houses a collection of religious books and art.
Stop by My Old Kentucky Home State Park to tour the beautiful Federal Hill mansion, the inspiration for Stephen Foster’s famous tune; if you're visiting in the summer, catch a performance of The Stephen Foster Story, Kentucky's official outdoor musical. Immerse yourself in the Kentucky tradition of bourbon-making at one of many distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail®. Also nearby is Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park and other sites on the Kentucky Lincoln Heritage Trail.
Day 4: Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
From Bardstown, a scenic one-hour drive brings you to the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, Kentucky’s oldest city. Here you will find a beautiful and tranquil setting to learn the spiritual history of this religious order.
The village boasts 3,000 acres and 34 original Shaker structures that house museums, craft workshops, gift shops, overnight accommodations and a fantastic farm-to-table restaurant, the Trustees’ Table at Shaker Village. Interpreters and exhibits tell the story of the daily life of the Shakers, including their worship, work and family life. Live musical performances and other talks happen throughout the day. Visit the working farm to meet the many animals that live and work at the village, and enjoy guided and self-guided hikes on 40 miles of trails through the beautiful prairies, streams and wide-open spaces that drew the Shakers to Central Kentucky.
Shaker Village hosts special events throughout the year, from paddling trips on the Kentucky River to night hikes to field-to-table dinners with opportunities to eat with a chef. The Inn at Shaker Village provides guest rooms and cottages with distinctive charm and history. Guests at the inn receive complimentary admission to the village for the length of their stay.
More Things to Do
The Harrodsburg area boasts fantastic historical attractions, including Old Fort Harrod State Park and the Beaumont Inn, a 100-year-old bed-and-breakfast. Visitors are also encouraged to extend their trip to the nearby city of Lexington, the Horse Capital of the World, home to dozens of farm tours, a buzzing dining scene and iconic attractions such as Keeneland and the Kentucky Horse Park.
You can end your journey here, or continue on to explore more Kentucky spiritual sites on the Northern Kentucky Biblical Wonders tour, which visits attractions such as the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter.