Lebanon, the geographic center of the state, can accurately boast to be the true Heart of Kentucky. Yet after spending several days vacationing there and in nearby Springfield, I learned that there is more than just geography that makes this area special and unique. The two communities offer a variety of attractions that will appeal to all travelers who are looking to get away for a few days and relax. Whether it is enjoying the many bourbon distilleries in the area, listening to local bluegrass music or visiting a monastery and local historic churches, one can find something to keep you busy in the small towns that dot the two communities.
The first thing a visitor should appreciate once he or she has arrived in the Heart of Kentucky is the small town feel that pervades the area. People greet each other on the street by first name, local coffee shop owners know what customers will order without the customers having to request it and everyone seems to move at a slightly slower pace than people who live in big cities. One of my favorite memories of Lebanon, located in Marion County, was encountering a teenage boy in an ROTC uniform who politely, and with a welcoming smile on his face, held the door for me as I walked out of a restaurant. I realized at that moment that I honestly was in a place where small gestures such as that were the norm rather than the exception.
However, just because the small town feeling pervades this area does not mean that the Heart of Kentucky is in any way a backwoods or "hick" area. I was pleasantly surprised at the menu and selection at the various restaurants that I ate at while in the area. The Oak Barrel, a restaurant that recently opened in Lebanon, offered a little bit of everything. Their crab cakes were filling and tasty. The next morning, stopping in at "These Precious Things," an art gallery and coffee shop, for a latte was just the way to start the morning.
Mordecai's on Main in Springfield, located in Washington County, also offered a wide array of choices. Their stuffed mushroom appetizers were delicious and their soups hit the spot on a cold winter night. The local coffee shop in Springfield, Holy Grounds, also served a delicious, much-needed early morning drink.
Because Lebanon, the Heart of Bourbon Country, is steeped with bourbon heritage. There are many different places to find some good local entertainment and nightlife. Blues on Tap in downtown Lebanon is the kind of place I would go to regularly if I lived nearby. Friendly people, great live music, cleanliness and just the right lighting made it the kind of place to stop at nightly to have a drink and hang out with friends. Big Jim's Steakhouse & Buffet was also really fun. If you are interested in singing karaoke and mingling with locals, make sure to check this place out on a Friday night. It's hopping.
Because you are in Bourbon Country, you must stop at a minimum of one distillery. Even those who do not drink alcohol will be interested in the tour offered at Maker’s Mark Distillery just outside downtown Lebanon. It shows a step by step process of how Maker’s Mark is distilled. Visitors even have the option of dipping their finger into the bourbon mash and tasting a sample of what it is like before being distilled. If you go to Maker’s Mark, be sure to buy your own bottle of it and dip it in the red wax that is the distillery's trademark.
For those who are interested in history, Lebanon and Springfield are full of interesting sites to stop by and visit and are close to many others. My Old Kentucky Home in nearby Bardstown is a historic home built in the mid-19th Century. The tour given throughout the home is interesting and provides a lot of information about the area since the home was built. The courthouse in downtown Springfield is the oldest courthouse still in use west of the Alleghenies. The heavy Catholic influence in the area can also be seen throughout the area in the beautiful historic architecture. Bardstown is the home of St. Joseph's Cathedral and St. Catharine, just outside downtown Springfield, is home of St. Catharine's College, both founded by the Catholic Church. Also make sure to stop and tour the Abbey of Gethsemani, an abbey of Trappist monks who have been in the area for over 150 years. Attend a service if you can. The monks' chanting will awe and calm you. The abbey offers weekday and weekend retreats as well.
One great thing about this area is that there are a lot of fun and unusual events going on all year round. In Lebanon, one can go see the Kentucky Bluegrass Music Kickoff the second weekend of January, which features a variety of local and widely known talent. Just a short drive away, all visitors must stop in at Historic Penn’s Store in Gravel Switch, just outside Lebanon, to shop at the country's oldest continually operating family-owned store. If you go the first Saturday in September, you will experience the annual Great Outhouse Blowout & Country Cruise, which features a one of a kind 100-yard outhouse race with outhouses on wheels. You can also visit Lebanon the last full weekend in September to enjoy Marion County Country Ham Days, a weekend-long festival that now requires over 6,000 pounds of country ham to feed participants.
At Christmas time, it is worth the drive from Chattanooga to go visit the Ruley Family Holiday Light Show, a two-acre+ Christmas light show that has close to half a million lights. Mr. and Mrs. Ruley will be sure to invite you in for some coffee and a chat about the area and the light show.
There are different lodging options available while staying in the area. The locally owned Hampton Inn of Lebanon is new, clean, and serves a great continental breakfast for travelers. It is centrally located to offer travelers short trips to all local venues. For those looking for a romantic getaway, consider staying at Maple Hill Manor in Springfield. It has the appeal of an old-fashioned bed and breakfast but all of the amenities that today's traveler expects.
Lebanon and Springfield, just a short five-hour drive from Chattanooga through gorgeous Appalachia, is well worth a visit. You will leave the area feeling refreshed and will already be planning your next weekend getaway to get back up there and enjoy the slower pace of life in the gorgeous Kentucky countryside.