I live a couple of hours away from Bowling Green in the small town of Murray, Kentucky. I grew up visiting my aunt and uncle who lived in various areas of Bowling Green, yet I have never done any of the touristy stuff. Nowadays, family trips are spent visiting on the screened-in porch of their tiny house in the nearby town of Auburn. It honestly never occurred to me to explore the third-largest city in the state. That is, until I was invited on a press trip!
Disclaimer: Yes, I was compensated for visiting Bowling Green, but all the opinions expressed below are genuinely held by yours truly.
Bowling Green has been rebuilding since it was hit by the deadly tornado outbreak that ravaged the area before the holidays last year. Luckily, several of its attractions, including the National Corvette Museum, remain intact.
Located about an hour north of Nashville, just over an hour from Clarksville, and two hours south of Louisville off Interstate 65, Bowling Green makes for a great day trip, weekend getaway, or longer stay.
Fields, horses and cows, and smoking tobacco barns made the drive over on 68/80 East bucolic. Bowling Green looks familiar — not because I’ve been coming here my whole life, but because it is reminiscent of many other towns in the South as well as the Midwest. A vape shop shaped like a barn reminds me of the Liquor Barn in Lexington. A CVS on a hill looks just like the one in downtown Columbia, Missouri. The Speedway could’ve easily been the one I grew up down the street from.
Bowling Green has several things you’d find in a big city, such as a mall and a college. Western Kentucky University (WKU) sits atop a 232-foot hill, which is why they’re called the Hilltoppers. Bowling Green is named after New York City’s oldest park, which is fitting since the downtown is centered around a lovely green space called Fountain Square Park. Roland Bland Park is home to the city’s skatepark, which lies directly across from Bowling Green Ballpark, where the Tampa Bay Rays’ High-A minor league baseball team, the Hot Rods, play.
Speaking of parks, Bowling Green is just 30 miles south of Mammoth Cave National Park. The world’s longest-known cave system is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Let’s explore what else this southcentral Kentucky town has to offer. Here are seven fun things to do in ‘Vette City.
1. Gasper Brewing Co.
Bowling Green is home to several breweries and wineries, so my first stop was to get my West Kentucky Brewery Hop Hop Stop Guide stamped at Gasper Brewing Co. I don’t drink, but I was glad to see they carried my favorite brand of non-alcoholic beer, Athletic Brewing. My husband enjoyed a flight of Sally’s Rock Hazy IPA, Big Bend Oatmeal Stout, Brewton Choc/Coffee Imperial Stout, and the Barabbas – Oud Bruin, which we learned is German for Old Brown. It came out on a tasting board that was handmade by the owner. Hubs really liked both of the stouts and reported that the Hazy IPA was standard.
We returned the next night to get a bottle of the sour beer to go, and the place was packed thanks to a local band. They also host trivia nights. The bartender was nice enough to take us on a mini-tour of the brewery, which is named after Gasper River Tributary. In the ’40s, the building was a Nash Autoparts. A homebrewer opened it as a brewery in 2020 and decorated it with kayaks. Now the brewery is very involved with the community and collaborates with businesses around the city, such as local coffeehouses. Its beers can be found around town, including at the local Mellow Mushroom.
2. Bowling Green Festivals
We were lucky enough to be in town for the Bowling Green International Festival at Circus Square Park on State Street. The annual fest celebrates the city’s melting pot of Southern roots combined with international influences, which stems from its lesser-known status as a major refugee resettlement city. Tents cooking up everything from dumplings to kebabs smelled amazing. Several vendors toted international wares, while other booths shared information about different countries. Three stages featured live performances, including flamenco, Aztec, and belly dancers. Before we left, we caught a cool band called Tuatha Dea, which describes itself as “Celtic, tribal, gypsy rock, with an Appalachian steampunk edge.”
Bowling Green hosts all sorts of events throughout the year. Annual fall festivals include the Pumpkin Festival and the Harvest Festival.
3. National Corvette Museum
Our next stop was a visit to the National Corvette Museum. I’m not a “car person” but my husband is, so he was pleased as punch. We grabbed a bite at the museum’s Stingray Grill before our self-guided tour. The grilled cheese with mozzarella, jalapeño, bacon, and blackberry jam with the avocado ranch pasta salad I had was very good. Hubs got the A1 Burger and liked it as well, so if your tummy starts growling when you walk in the door, you’re in luck.
I was busy Instagramming the entire tour, so I didn’t learn much, but I do know that my husband is now obsessed with the idea of ordering a Corvette, watching it be built in the GM Corvette Assembly Plant, and picking it up from the museum’s lobby. According to him, you can get a Corvette at MSRP in Bowling Green since it is the Corvette Capital of the world. There were exhibits dedicated to nostalgia, design, and performance. I think the coolest part was learning about the sinkhole. That’s something you won’t find at any other car museum!
Pro Tip: If you are a “car person,” may I suggest a visit to NCM Motorsports Park and Beech Bend Raceway? One of America’s oldest continuously operating drag strips can be found at Beech Bend Park And Splash Lagoon, which is an amusement park/campground hybrid that’s situated on the Barren River.
4. Riverview At Hobson Grove
Celebrating 50 years as a museum in 2022, Riverview at Hobson Grove is the sole historic house museum in Warren County. Tours are given every hour on the hour, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday (closed Mondays, holidays, and mid-December through February). We arrived just in time to miss the last tour of the day, but it was alright because I was already tuckered out, as we say in Kentucky, and ready for a little nap before dinner. We did, however, explore the lovely grounds, and the volunteer docents did let me in to peruse the gift shop and pepper them with questions about what was so great about the historic 1872 mansion.
Construction on the classic Italianate home began in the 1850s and was interrupted by the Civil War. Today, the home serves as a snapshot of Civil War-era Kentucky. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and is part of the Discovery Trail Audio Tour. I would’ve liked to have seen the inside, but the beautiful surroundings of Hobson Grove Park sufficed. This year, the museum is having a special holiday event on December 10, when costumed docents will share Victorian Christmas traditions and the Hobson House will be lit by candles and lamps.
Pro Tip: If museums and beautiful gardens are your thing, swing by the Baker Arboretum & Downing Museum. I didn’t get to go, but it’s on my list for next time!
5. Lost River Cave Boat Tour
Speaking of the Civil War, Lost River Cave served as a camp for thousands of Union and Confederate troops. The 72-acre park and cave system has also been a sawmill, a nightclub, and a dumping ground until the ’90s when it was restored by locals and opened for tours. Now it is one of the only caverns in the country that can be toured by boat.
We learned about all of this on our tour while walking down to the cave. It is gorgeous — so much so that people often get married there. In fact, it was set up for a wedding on the day we visited. Our tour group was split into two boats. Our boat had about 12 people on it, sitting on the sides facing each other. It looked like a johnboat, but longer and was made of aluminum.
Right off the bat, we had to duck really low so as not to bump our heads on the ceiling of the cave. This is why there aren’t kayak tours — the ceiling would be too low to use your paddle in one piece. The cave was neat and the boat tour just took us to the back of the cave and back, which didn’t take very long. It was a little chilly, so I was glad I brought a sweatshirt.
Afterward, we hit the gift shop, which sold 100 percent cotton t-shirts, cute accessories, amethyst and other crystals, Kentucky-themed gifts, and more. We had some time to kill before lunch, so we decided to hit the trails. It was a beautiful day for it, and the scenery was gorgeous. The trail passes several blue holes. I kept thinking how lovely it would be in a few weeks when fall foliage would start to peak. We stopped in the Charlie Miller Butterfly Habitat because it is always a treat to say hello to butterflies.
Pro Tip: If you plan on hiking the 2-mile trail (which I recommend), wear comfy shoes and long pants and bring bug spray.
6. Restaurants In Bowling Green
I totally recommend starting your day with a latte from Spencer’s Coffee. It is 1,000 percent better than hotel coffee. The original location is on College Street, which is one of the main drags, across from scenic Fountain Square Park. I was glad we got there at 9 a.m. on a Saturday because by the time we left around 10 a.m. there was a line to the door.
Also located on College Street, just down the road from Spencer’s, The Bistro is one of Bowling Green’s best restaurants. There is plenty of parking across the street from the restored Victorian house. Inside, several paintings and fireplaces line the exposed brick walls of this quaint, upscale eatery. Both my basil chicken dish and my husband’s Voodoo Rice were delicious. Mine had pickled grapes, which were both unusual and delightful.
Gerard’s 1907 Tavern
Guess where Gerard’s 1907 Tavern is located? That’s right: College Street. It’s the place to be! I was glad we had reservations on a Saturday night because it was pretty packed. It also had exposed brick walls, as well as a drop ceiling that was attempting to be camouflaged by faux-wood beams.
It has a pub menu that matched the pub atmosphere. I had a Cubano sandwich, which was just as good as the hand-cut fries and housemade ketchup it was served with. We treated ourselves to a brownie a la mode and I am not sorry. We had awesome service, and the manager came by to check on us more than once.
Pro Tip: If you’re in the mood for ice cream, check out Chaney’s Dairy Barn, a working dairy farm that makes unique flavors with milk and cream from their very own Jersey cows.
For Sunday brunch, we headed to Wild Eggs, a locally owned chain based out of Louisville. I was excited to see a faux mimosa and Virgin Mary on the menu. All of the delicious-sounding options were overwhelming. I had been craving hashbrown casserole, so I went with the Potato Head Casserole, which did not disappoint. Hubs got the Wild Western omelet, and just a heads up, they do leave the seeds in the jalapeño slices, so it is quite spicy! I wanted all the carbs: biscuits and gravy and the cinnamon roll, so I settled for a side pancake, which was an excellent choice if I do say so myself.
Speaking of carbs, the street corn fritters at Toro are fire, as the kids say. You can’t beat fried corn fritters served with aioli, tajin, lime, and cojita cheese. We had lunch at this tapas spot after our hike, and the Faux-Jito (non-alcoholic mojito) was quite refreshing. Our server was super friendly and helpful. He was the one who suggested the fritters, along with the buttery, garlicky, lemony garlic shrimp and meat pie. We didn’t know what to expect, but we rolled the dice on the meat pie and were impressed. Philo dough was topped with brisket barbacoa and queso in a delightful stack that was more like a pile than a pie. We also tried a couple of tacos and enjoyed the brisket taco more than the shrimp, which was quite juicy.
Toro is open for brunch, happy hour, and dinner, but is closed on Mondays. Tuesday through Thursday, Toro offers $5 margaritas, sangria, wine by the glass, and High Noons, plus a dollar off of beer from 4 to 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to close.
Pro Tip: Speaking of happy hour, The Derby Piano and Dessert Bar at Kentucky Grand Hotel is a speakeasy-style bar where you can enjoy an adult beverage with live piano music in the background.
7. Shopping In Bowling Green
Other than the Lost River Cave gift shop, the only shopping I got to do while I was in town was a stop at Sam’s Club, which was a happening place on Sunday morning. There was a long line outside the door waiting for the big box store to open, just like an actual nightclub! However, Bowling Green is the home of The Fruit of the Loom Brand Shop Outlet, which I would’ve liked to have checked out. There’s also the Greenwood Mall and plenty of consignment shops.
Bonus: Other Points Of Interest
I’m going to have to go back to visit soon because one weekend wasn’t enough time to fit in all of the sights. We didn’t get to go to the Historic RailPark & Train Museum or the Kentucky Museum to take a self-guided tour (available Wednesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and learn about Bowling Green’s refugee roots.
Fall is the perfect time of year to pick your own apples at Jackson’s Orchard and visit the pumpkin patch and corn maze at Just Piddlin Farm. Open Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese sounds like a great place for a turophile like me. The 200-plus acre farm makes 25 different kinds of artisan cheese, from white cheddar to gouda, using farm-fresh milk. Plus, they have fresh cheese curds! I’d also love to meet the real live reindeer at The Reindeer Farm.