Kentucky's Urban Centers: Reasons To Visit

A masterful blend of tradition, culture, outdoor activities, charm, and southern hospitality, Kentucky should already be on the top of everyone’s travel wish list. But, if you needed another reason to head to the Bluegrass State, Kentucky’s urban centers serve up a vast array of culinary options, libations, live music, entertainment, museums, art, and shopping to wholly satisfy even the most discerning of visitors. Between the bigger and more well-known cities you’d expect big thrills from and some of the lesser-known cities that pack a surprising punch of fun, Kentucky offers a feast for the senses that will leave you with a full belly and a very happy heart. 

man holding toddler in the tunnel at newport aquarium

Newport is a major urban center located in Northern Kentucky. You will find tourist attractions, such as the Newport Aquarium, Newport on the Levee, and the World Peace Bell in the riverfront area. Newport is also home to a growing number of shops, cafes, and small businesses. The riverfront community in particular is brimming with colorful dining options, events, and a vibrant nightlife. Newport is a hotbed of renewal and new development and the pride the community puts into caring for both its history and its future is evident on every corner. One area within Newport that is providing a fine example of what community development can be when the community itself is empowered and inspired is West Newport, also known as Westside or West End. There has been a surge of residents rolling up their sleeves (literally and figuratively) to transform their vision for the city into a brilliant reality, exploding with beauty, excitement, and economic vitality. The result is Bernadette Watkins Park, which provides a new playground, large open greenspace, a bike station, and beautiful landscaping with a stunning view of downtown Cincinnati, as well as many new businesses popping up. Some of those businesses include Galaxie Skateshop and Flow Koffee & Kombucha, which share a beautiful corner historic building, as well as Wooden Cask Brewery, Karmaic Beauty, and locally-owned shops and eateries. The energy in Newport is palpable.

Two ladies walking away from outside Museum of Art

Known as the industrial, retail, and cultural hub in the western part of the Bluegrass state, Owensboro is another Kentucky urban center. Since the city is located on the magnificent southern banks of the Ohio River, projects such as the Downtown Revitalization and the Riverfront Master Plan have had a dreamy setting to work with. Owensboro features a large convention center, the world-renowned Smothers Park, the International Bluegrass Music Center, Edge Ice Center for hockey and figure skating, Owensboro Museum of Fine Art, Owensboro Museum of Science and History, and a plethora of additional parks and event venues. It is also a festival city with festivals designed with the whole family in mind, packed with delicious food, music, dance, and arts. Friday After 5 is a weekly summer-long series of free outdoor concerts that take place at the RiverPark Center in Owensboro. 

John A. Roebling Bridge photographed by Eli Locardi

Yet another Kentucky urban center featuring annual festivals and a wide variety of fun year-round is Covington in Northern Kentucky. Covington is best described as a city with small town flavor and big city conveniences. Located at the confluence of the Ohio and Licking Rivers, Covington is known for its historic neighborhoods and its downtown commercial district, as well as a diverse assortment of eateries, shops, art galleries, and pubs. It is also home to attractions like the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, the Railway Museum, the Carnegie Visual & Performing Arts Center, and much more. Yearly festivals in Covington include Fresh Art, Mardi Gras, and Mainstrasse Oktoberfest. Covington is located directly across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati, so you can walk across the Roebling Suspension Bridge to attend a ballgame at the Great American Ballpark and then head back to Covington for your choice of food and entertainment to make for a fantastic, full day of fun. 

Newport, Owensboro, and Covington are three of the lesser-known, but unique and fantastic urban centers you should visit in the state, while the two largest cities in Kentucky – Louisville and Lexington – are the most well-known for cool sights and copious amounts of fun things to do. 

African American kid using a baseball bat at the Louisville Slugger museum

Louisville is seriously sensational. Ranked as the most diverse city in Kentucky, the city offers a rich combination of culture, arts, entertainment and urban recreation. Home of the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Center for the Arts, Louisville also features a revitalized riverfront where you can enjoy a river cruise, charter a sailboat, dine at your choice of over 2,500 restaurants, explore a wide variety of museums, shop ‘til you drop, enjoy bourbon or craft beer bars, release a barrel of laughs at a comedy show, or delight in a live music event. The contemporary KMAC Museum, Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, and the Kentucky Science Center are three of the best museums in Louisville, bursting with visual and mental stimulation for visitors of all ages. With iconic attractions, world-class hotels, and a variety of entertainment venues, Louisville offers an experience like no other city. Also, fun fact: Just a few years ago, Louisville was the only city in the U.S. to make Zagat’s roundup of Awesome Foodie Getaways Around the World. Bring your appetite for food and adventure! 

vintage airplane at Bluegrass Airport Aviation Museum

Lexington, the second of Kentucky’s two largest cities, is also known for activities, games, food, drink, and entertainment. Though it is most widely known as the “Horse Capital of the World” with over 500 horse farms and the Kentucky Horse Park, Lexington offers cultural verve like no other city in Kentucky. A rare feat, this city has mastered the art of combining fine dining, museums, historic landmarks, music, and nightlife with the great outdoors, making it easy for visitors to enjoy all of the above throughout the year without going far. Live music performances are aplenty throughout the city, but one of the best ways to thoroughly enjoy the music and culture of Lexington is to attend the annual Festival of the Bluegrass, which takes place in June. For shopping and food, The Summit at Fritz is a one-stop-shop center with over 60 retail stores, dozens of dining options, a beautiful outdoor space with giant murals, and even a hotel. The aforementioned murals can be found across the city, often several stories high for everyone to enjoy. A must see, the Aviation Museum located in Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport offers 20,000 square feet of space devoted to sharing the history and wonder of flight. For a bit of a pause from city life, a visit to Raven Run Nature Sanctuary on the southern edge of the city makes for a fantastic adventure. A span of 734 acres of lush greenery, streams, and woodland, as well as 10 miles of hiking trails present the perfect opportunity to bask in what is at the heart of Kentucky – providing entertainment while highlighting the importance of preserving natural lands. 

Lively, thriving, and exciting are the first words to come to mind when thinking about Kentucky’s urban centers. And with an impeccable amalgamation of urban and rural, the state is brimming with options to feed, entertain, and fully satisfy everyone in the whole family. If you love great food and music, history, culture, a vibrant arts scene, shopping, sports, and the outdoors, head to Kentucky for an inimitable blend of all of it. 

Written by Magaly Fuentes
January 17, 2022