Known as The Heart of Kentucky, Lebanon is a cozy little city located about an hour from Louisville. From history to recreation to the Bourbon Trail, there’s a little something for everyone in Lebanon. Ready to start your tour? Use this Travel Guide to Lebanon, Kentucky to plan your getaway.
History of Lebanon, Kentucky
Centrally located in Marion County, the area has a long history dating back to the first settlement in 1789. The city of Lebanon was incorporated in 1815 and quickly became a hub of activity for the region. A crucial site for the L&N railroad during the Civil War, much of the downtown area was burnt by Confederate General John Morgan, in retribution for his brother’s death in a nearby battle. The area was rebuilt and many of the buildings are now on the historic register. Much later, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Lebanon became an entertainment hub. Today, they host fun annual activities like Jets Over Kentucky and the Kentucky Bluegrass Music Kickoff.
For the Bourbon Lover:
1. Maker’s Mark- When Bill Samuels, Sr. bought the Burks Springs Distillery just outside of Lebanon, Kentucky, he believed family history should go up in smoke. Literally. He burned the only copy of the family’s 170-year-old whiskey recipe. He was determined to create a new recipe with a smoother taste. He experimented for six years, using winter wheat and water from a nearby limestone spring, until he found a formula he liked. He christened his new formula “Maker’s Mark.” Today the bourbon goes through a complicated aging process until a tasting panel of master distillers agree the bourbon is ready to be distributed. Fun Fact: The bourbon is tasted no less than five times during the aging process.
Today, you can experience Maker’s Mark for yourself during one of their daily tours. The guided tour includes a comprehensive tour of the buildings. You’ll visit the Still House, the Barrel Warehouse, the Distillery and more. Be sure to glance up at the ceiling as your enter the path to the gift shop to see the fabulous Chihuly exhibit. If you are hungry, save room for lunch at Star Hill Provisions, located in the renovated distiller’s house. They serve farm-to-table goodies from 11:30 AM until 4:30 PM Wednesday through Sunday. Stop by the gift shop before leaving for a bourbon tasting and a chance to purchase a bottle of your own. Tours last approximately an hour and tickets for the tour are $12 for adults, while under 21 is free.
Love artwork? Don’t miss Chihuly Nights, happening July 22nd until October 7th from 6 PM until 10 PM each evening. This exhibit consists of seven dramatic pieces of sculpture, five outside on the grounds and two inside the buildings. You can speak with master distillers and enjoy the included bourbon or bourbon cocktail tastings.
2. Can’t get enough of the Bourbon Trail? Don’t miss the free tour of the Kentucky Cooperage to see how those bourbon barrels are made. Tours are available at 9:00 AM, 10:30 AM and 1:00 PM. You’ll need to wear close toed shoes to participate in the tour.
3. Finish your day with a (free!) tour of Limestone Branch Distillery, a small batch distillery featuring daily tours of their facility. You’ll experience “Sugar Shine,” “Sugar Shine Balls,” (think a variation of bourbon balls) and their special MoonPie Moonshine.
For the History Lover
1. Loretto Community– Founded by three women, Mary Rhodes, Ann Havern and Christina Stuart, their original goal was to teach the children on the Kentucky frontier. Later, in 1812, the women, with the help of Father Charles Nerinckx, formed a religious community known as Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross. Later the name was changed to Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross. Today, the 788 acre Loretto community is a working farm, a licensed long term care facility, home to around 100 sisters and two non-denominational retreat centers. Day visitors can tour the Heritage Center, explaining the history of the Sisters, and the grounds. Overnight guests can stay at the Cedars of Peace or Knob Haven Retreat centers. Admission to the Heritage Center and grounds are free, but donations are accepted.
2. Marion County Quilt Trail- Part of the “Clothesline of Quilts” trail that runs through Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, this is a driving tour of decorated quilt squares found on the sides of buildings, barns, and fences. Marion County has the largest quilt trail in the state with around 66 squares located throughout the county. Pick up a map of the trail at the Lebanon Tourism and Convention Commission and locate the quilts around the area. Note: Some of these quilts can be a little difficult to spot from the road. This is definitely a two (or more!) person activity. You’ll need someone to look for the quilts while someone else drives. Cost is free, except for gas.
3. Penn’s Store– the oldest general store in the country owned by the same family. Originally built in 1845, it was purchased by Gabriel Jackson Penn in 1850. Today the store is owned by the 5th generation of Penns’ and is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays and Sundays. Note: Call ahead for hours to make sure the store will be open when you arrive. Admission is free.
For the Nature Lover
Fagan Branch Reservoir- Spend a day in the great outdoors at the Fagan Branch Reservoir. Enjoy hiking? Take a relaxing jaunt along the 3.2 mile Cecil L. Gorley Naturalist Walking Trail. Love the lake? Bring your canoes or kayaks or cast a line in the lake to try your luck at fishing. In need of a stress-free day? Bring a picnic and blanket and relax by the side of the lake. Note: The reservoir is located in a secluded area 10 minutes outside of downtown Lebanon. You might not have cell phone reception, depending on your carrier. Admission is free.
Where to Eat
County Seat Kitchen and Bar – Think you can’t get gourmet offerings in a small town? County Seat will prove you wrong! Using fresh vegetables and meats from local farms along with locally produced bourbon, this farm to table restaurant features regional dishes based on what is in season. The meals are prepared fresh by chef and owner, Gwyn Artz. Located in historic downtown, the restaurant has an open layout with relaxing decor.
We tried the Leb-Nun Lamb Burger with a side of sweet potato fries and the Chicken N’ Waffles and a side of cole slaw. Ordering a lamb burger is risky as it seems to be either hit or miss. This time it was a definite hit! Although my son ordered the burger, I took a (huge) bite and exclaimed over how good it was. It was served with garlic aoili and a cucumber sauce that reminded me of tzaziki sauce. The sweet potato fries were prepared in a steak cut and had a tender inside.
I tried the Chicken N’ Waffles, which included a crisp cornmeal waffle topped with a slightly spicy, but incredibly tender, piece of chicken. It was served with maple butter and Poorhouse Sorghum Syrup. The slaw was prepared kimchi style and uses different seasonal varieties of cabbage. It was tangy, crispy and had a slight crunch. If you are a slaw fan, do not miss this. Note: You can park on the street in front of the restaurant or in the lot directly behind the restaurant.
Hennings Restaurant- Want a touch of history with delicious homemade goodies? Hennings is the place to be! Hennings, located in the Shuck Building downtown, is the former headquarters of Union General George H. Thomas, where he planned his strategies to defend the Cumberland Valley. Now it’s home to a restaurant with friendly staff and a menu that caters to “homestyle favorites.” You’ll have to wait a few minutes for your food to be prepared, but it is worth the time! Check out their case of fresh homemade desserts. You won’t regret the splurge! Note: The restaurant is only open from 9:00 AM- 5 PM Monday through Friday.
Ragetti’s Italian Restaurant– Looking for a quick lunch or dinner while in Lebanon Kentucky? Stop by Ragetti’s Italian Restaurant. The fare is classic Italian food and the portions are huge. If you have a smaller appetite, you’ll easily have leftovers or enough to share.
Where to Stay
Hampton Inn of Lebanon– Located on Loretto Road on the outskirts of town, the Hampton Inn offers free wi-fi, a free continental breakfast, a fitness center and an indoor pool. The rooms are clean, quiet, and comfortable. The Hampton Inn is located with five minutes to downtown and is a short drive from Limestone Branch, Maker’s Mark and The Loretto Community.
Myrtledean Bed and Breakfast- Prefer sometime unique and cozy? Myrtledean is an antebellum mansion turned B&B. Once a site of the headquarters of General John Hunt Morgan, who is said to have attempted to ride his horse up the stairs, the B&B now has two guest rooms and encourages guests to help themselves to the whole house. Note: The house is entirely furnished in antiques.