Top 5 Cultural Heritage Destinations in Kentucky
By Nneya Richards
Most prominently known for horses, bourbon and, yes, chicken, Kentucky, the first U.S. state west of the Appalachian Mountains, has deep cultural ties to American history. From American sports heroes to Black history and natural wonders, the state of Kentucky is brimming with cultural heritage destinations that will leave you coming back for more. Trust that one trip to Kentucky will have you hooked. Here are our top five cultural heritage destinations in Kentucky that will give you a taste of what the Bluegrass State is all about!
Muhammad Ali Center
Float like a butterfly and get inspired by “The Greatest” at the Muhammad Ali Center. One of the most famous Kentuckians, Muhammad Ali was born and raised in Louisville. With an airport named after him and the state-of-the-art Muhammad Ali Center, it’s safe to say that the city of Louisville is wildly proud of its native son. In fact, before the nickname “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali was named “the Louisville Lip!” This nickname was an homage to him being a smooth talker from Louisville.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see!” That remark, before his heavyweight fight with Sonny Liston in 1964, wasn’t out of nowhere. Here’s something you might not know: Muhammad Ali enjoyed poetry and artwork. This work is on display at the Muhammad Ali Center.
A must on any cultural heritage tour of Kentucky is the non-profit museum and cultural center founded by the champ and his wife, Lonnie Ali. In 2020, the center was added to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.
Featuring two stories of exhibition space, an amphitheater, a film room, an event space and a retail store, the center is unlike any other. In fact, it’s the only place in the world where you can shadowbox with the legendary Ali. You will leave inspired by this larger-than-life man and his love of humanity. There are interactive speed bag boxing exhibits, memorabilia from his long career and videos and audio of his civil rights speeches. Everything ties into Muhammad Ali’s guiding six core principles: dedication, confidence, giving, spirituality, respect and conviction.
In Russellville, another stop on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, the SEEK Museum, details the struggle for emancipation and equality in Kentucky and features exhibits about famous Kentuckians like Ray Charles’ muse, Kentucky native and “Songbird of the South” Mary Ann Fisher.
Explore often overlooked parts of American history in the Kentucky cultural destination of the SEEK Museum. Spread throughout seven historical building sites in two National Register districts, this multi-building campus explores an urban plantation in the Bibb House and what was once a bustling area of town for newly freed Black people, The Bottom. The SEEK Museum beautifully explores the deep cultural heritage and success stories of this Black community, as well as the counterpart of this Black success after Emancipation – racially based mob violence and terrorism. Brilliant and proud Kentucky native Michael Morrow adeptly guides you through everything from the Liberia movement to the first Black woman to be White House correspondent, Alice Allison Dunnigan.
Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory
Good thing Bud Hillerich didn’t listen to his father, who saw no future in baseball or baseball bats. Explore this and more at the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory.
Have you heard of a swinging butter churn? Probably not. But you’ve no doubt heard of the Louisville slugger! Despite his father’s skepticism when Bud Hillerich proposed they make bats in the 1880s from their thriving woodworking shop, Bud continued to push, and they became famous for their beautifully crafted “Louisville Slugger.” The slugger was patented by 1894, and Bud became a partner in the company by 1897. The rest is baseball history. Cemented in American history, the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory is one of the most popular destinations in the region. Step into the batting cages with replica bats of baseball legends like Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Derek Jeter. Or visit the “Best Black Baseball Team You’ve Never Heard of Exhibit” to learn about the lives of Black baseball greats, from Jackie Robinson to Derek Jeter, and see a permanent display about the Louisville Unions, a Louisville team that preceded the Negro League.
Camp Nelson National Monument
A morning spent exploring Camp Nelson’s rolling pastoral hills, a strategic point in the Civil War, offers insight into Kentucky’s part in our nation’s history.
After trying to remain neutral, in 1861, Kentucky officially decided to side with the Union during the Civil War. Camp Nelson National Monument, located about eighteen miles south of Lexington, is an excellent destination to learn about Kentucky’s pivotal role in the Union Army and the U.S. Colored Troops. Founded in 1863 as a supply depot, hospital and Union Army encampment site, Camp Nelson soon became Kentucky’s largest and the nation’s third-largest recruitment site for African American soldiers. Camp Nelson produced over 10,000 Black soldiers with eight USCT regiments. As enslaved men were able to self-emancipate by joining the Union, Camp Nelson holds the history of the steps enslaved people took to freedom. Their wives and children often joined them, and a refugee camp sprung up in Camp Nelson. The camp freed 23,500 enslaved people by 1865. Camp Nelson was not only a beacon of hope for enslaved Kentuckians, but its 800 acres also offered safe haven to white Unionists fleeing Confederate-occupied east Tennessee.
With five miles of walking trails, a Visitor Center and museum, the Oliver Perry House built in the 1850s, reconstructed U.S. Army Barracks and a National Cemetery, Camp Nelson features a wide scope of Kentucky’s cultural heritage in the Civil War.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Home to the longest cave system in the world, Mammoth Cave National Park is a beautiful cultural visit for everyone from families to professional spelunkers.
Mammoth Cave National Park is a 52,830-acre park featuring Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the world. One of the best parts about Mammoth Cave is that you’re in living history: As of 2022, 426 miles of the cave have been surveyed, and they’re still discovering more! Mammoth Cave is not only a local cultural destination, but also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Evidence of human history in Mammoth Cave dates back 5,000 years. There have been pre-Columbian mummies discovered, Native American artifacts and more recently, strong ties to the African American story and slavery. Stephen Bishop, an enslaved African American and a Mammoth Cave guide in the 1840s and 1850s, is one of Mammoth Cave’s most revered figures. Bishop was one of the first people to chart maps of the cave and name its sites. There are underground river tours, full-on spelunking or smaller jaunts to the cave entrance. You’ll find something for everyone here. Be sure to book your tour in advance.
It’s hard to pick just five cultural destinations in Kentucky, but this list is the perfect start for your visit to Kentucky. Whether you’re heading to north or south, take some time to explore these iconic destinations. They are well worth a visit!