One of the smallest state capitals in the U.S., Frankfort wows visitors with big charm, lots of history, and Southern hospitality. Straddling the Kentucky River and nestled amid bucolic horse farms, soaring rock faces and rolling swathes of Kentucky Bluegrass, family-friendly Frankfort offers plenty of recreational opportunities and picturesque natural scenery. The Old State Capitol building anchors a thriving downtown district populated with inviting shops and restaurants, and the Commonwealth capital never lets guests forget they’re in Bourbon Country, featuring the native spirit front and center in cocktails and on menus all across the region. Here are 10 things you’ll want to put on your Frankfort, Kentucky, itinerary.
Learn About America's Native Spirit
Bourbon is big business in Kentucky; in fact, there are more barrels of bourbon aging right now within the state lines than there are residents. On the banks of the Kentucky River, where the mighty bison once passed through the region on their westward migration, Buffalo Trace claims to be the oldest continuously operating distillery in America. The storied property dates back to the late 1700s, surviving floods, tornados, and Prohibition. These days, free themed tours of the weathered red brick campus reveal intriguing glimpses into the booming operation, from ghost stories to behind-the-scenes looks at the production process. And what trip would be complete without a complimentary tasting of some of the distillery’s many award-winning products? (Teetotalers and visitors under 21 can sip root beer instead of bourbon.)
Get a Lesson in Kentucky Civics
See history in action at the handsome domed Kentucky State Capitol. Dedicated in 1910, the striking Beaux-Arts building was constructed to replace the Old State Capitol built in 1830 that still stands proudly in the downtown district. Visitors can arrange to take a guided walking tour or explore on their own to admire the stunning marble dome and the hand-painted murals, 70 Ionic columns, skylights, and sculptures that grace the property. Don’t miss the chance to explore the gardens and landscaped grounds designed by step-brothers John Charles Olmsted and Fredrick Law Olmsted Jr., too. If you’re lucky enough to visit during the spring or summer, snap a selfie in front of the 34-foot floral clock in full bloom on the West Lawn.
Walk on the Wild Side
Follow your animal instincts to Salato Wildlife Education Center, where visitors can mix and mingle with some of the wilder Kentucky fauna. Outdoor exhibits allow the chance to observe white-tailed deer, wild turkey, bobcats, black bear and bald eagles in their native habitats. Inside, guests can (safely) get up close to live snakes, turtles, frogs, and a “bee tree.” The 262-acre spread also includes fishing lakes, shaded picnic shelters, gardens, some surprisingly challenging hiking trails, and a small amphitheater. The facility’s a popular destination for families with young kids, but it does close seasonally for the winter. Make sure to time your visit accordingly.
Taste Kentucky's Signature Candy
The home of the original bourbon ball (a round dark chocolate with a creamy bourbon-flavored center topped with a pecan), the Rebecca Ruth Candy company was founded in 1919 by Rebecca Gooch and Ruth Hanly Booe, two schoolteacher friends who were looking for a way to support themselves and be self-sufficient. Rebecca sold her stake in the business to Ruth in 1929. When a devastating fire occurred at the factory, devoted customers pitched in to help keep the business afloat, even going so far as to contribute their own sugar rations to the candy-making cause during World War II. Tours now lead visitors through the humble production facility and a small museum exhibit of vintage equipment and memorabilia, concluding with a delicious sample at the end.
Take a Photo with Daniel Boone
Make your way to Frankfort Cemetery and pay your respects to one of America’s foremost pioneering statesmen. Among other notable permanent residents, the Daniel Boone gravesite is the best photo op in town, revealing a picture-perfect panoramic view of Frankfort and the Kentucky River beneath. Initially buried in Missouri, Boone’s grave was relocated to its present site in 1845; he and his wife Rebecca were the first souls to be interred at the then-newly established memorial park. The beautiful cemetery is now included on the National Register of Historic Places.
Appreciate Art in a Big Way
Open daily from dawn to dusk and free to access, Josephine Sculpture Park invites visitors to explore and interact with dozens of large-scale works created by a roster of international artists and stationed across 30 acres of trails and meadows. No need to tell the kids to keep their hands to themselves—touching the art is not only allowed; it’s encouraged. Bring a picnic and make a day of it, or check the online calendar for guided hikes, nature tours, workshops, classes, a Fall Art Festival, and other fun programming.
Caffeinate with Local Flavor
Kentucky Knows owner and proud U.S. Marine, Tony Davis has found a way to successfully infuse Arabica coffee with local flavor by toasting his beans in a German roaster before letting them rest in bourbon barrels sourced from nearby Buffalo Trace Distillery. The result is smooth-drinking brews in rich Bourbon Ball, Butterscotch Cream, Praline, Bourbon Mint, Chocolate Chipotle and Cowboy Barrel variations. After sipping a mug of fresh-brewed coffee in the cozy on-site café, browse an appealing selection of hand-crafted wood products and pick up a bag or two of beans to take home.
Tour an Historic Home
A National Historic Landmark, the Liberty Hall Historic Site was home to John Brown, one of Kentucky’s earliest senators, and later, his son Orlando Brown. Daily guided tours usher visitors through the two bespoke furnished houses and around four acres of gardens to see how the senator and his family lived during the early 19th century. Keep an eye peeled for the Gray Lady, a famous ghost that’s been repeatedly spotted in one of the upstairs bedrooms.
Shop in Downtown Frankfort
Lined with local storefronts, art galleries and a diverse range of restaurants, Frankfort’s historic downtown buzzes with an appealing energy. It’s easy to while away a pleasant morning or afternoon browsing Frankfort mainstays like Poor Richard’s Books, Old Capitol Antiques, and Kentucky Gentlemen Cigars. For sustenance, pop into Serafini for a Pimento cheeseburger, Mi Fiesta for delicious Mexican fare, or Mai Saigon for authentic Vietnamese cuisine. If you get tired of walking, hop a free ride April through October on the Frankfort Trolley.
Get Your Feet Wet
The Kentucky River tempts visitors to get outside during the summer months for canoeing, kayaking, and boating through a series of historic operational locks. Based in Madison, Indiana, Rockin’ Thunder River Tours hosts leisurely two-day roundtrip journeys down the Kentucky River to Frankfort aboard a New Zealand jet boat. Frankfort’s also home to two water-based bourbon tours—both part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and the only excursions of their kind in the state. Kentucky River Tours pilot guests along a one-hour journey that addresses six regional distilleries, while Bourbon Paddle Tours partner with Buffalo Trace for a guided group canoe or kayak trip on the river through Lock and Dam Four, culminating with a tour of the distillery.