Thoroughbred horses might dominate the headlines in Kentucky, but the state packs more into its stables than high-speed horses. Straddling a geographic and cultural crossroads between two distinct and fiercely proud American heartlands, Kentucky is a place of bucolic landscapes and alluring national parks with a transforming culinary scene that beckons between the bourbon and bluegrass.

Here's a guide to the best things to see and do in Kentucky.

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See the "Greatest Two Minutes in Sports" at the Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby, which takes place on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, is not only the world's greatest horse race, it's the longest-running continuous sporting event in North America. A visit here is a bucket list bonanza of sport, style, bourbon and betting.

Join a who's who of upper-crust America – decked to the nines in seersucker suits and the most decadent hats you ever did see – for a mint julep-fueled race-day blowout. And after all the build-up, it culminates in a blink of an eye: the main event is over in just two minutes.

Even if you fail to wangle a ticket on race day, the Kentucky Derby Museum and its guided tours around the Churchill Downs racetrack remain some of Kentucky's most interesting cultural diversions.

Line up glasses on the bar on the Bourbon Trail

Bourbon is one of the world's most prized spirits, with the state of Kentucky distilling 95% of the world’s inventory. Embarking on a connoisseur's tasting journey through the postcard-perfect bourbon country around Bardstown and Frankfort is one of Kentucky's top highlights.

Once you've worked out the logistics of sampling bourbon on a tasting tour in bourbon country – designated drivers, ride-sharing apps and organized tours are your new best friends – Kentucky's best distilleries are at the ready to showcase the subtle differences of their bourbons, which you can sample surrounded by the horse farms of Central Kentucky.

New laws now allow 1¾-ounce sample pours and sales by the glass, so visits to our favorite distilleries ­­– Woodford Reserve, Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, and Maker's Mark, among others – just got a whole lot more gratifying.

Visitors walk past the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory in Louisville, Kentucky
One mighty big baseball bat at the Louisville Slugger Museum © Pgiam / Getty Images

Step into the batter's box at the Louisville Slugger Museum

The Louisville Slugger baseball bat is the most iconic 42 inches of hardwood in baseball. At the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, you can see how baseball's most famous bat is made, alongside displays on the great players who wielded it. Babe Ruth's 1926 record-setting Louisville Slugger is on display, complete with notches for every home run carved by the Bambino himself. Both museums are part of Louisville's cultural cradle, Museum Row on Main, which includes nine museums and distilleries spread across four historic downtown blocks.

Go caving – and more! – at Mammoth Cave National Park

Cave enthusiasts flock to Mammoth Cave National Park, which boasts the longest cave system on earth, with some 400 miles of surveyed passageways. Located 23 miles northeast of Bowling Green, this massive cavern is worth a detour not only for fascinating ranger-guided subterranean tours and serious day-long spelunking excursions (reservations recommended) but also for its lesser-known hiking trails. There are 85 miles of hiking tracks, 60 miles of horse-riding trails, and 25 miles of mountain biking routes. So yep, there's a little something for everyone at this central Kentucky outdoor adventure juggernaut.

Early evening light over paddocks in Kentucky's Bluegrass region
Kentucky's Bluegrass region is a bucolic vision of rural America © alexeys / iStockphoto / Getty Images

Soak up the country air in beautiful Bluegrass Country

There are few American landscapes as unexpectedly gorgeous as north-central Kentucky's Bluegrass Country. Like a painting brought to life, the brilliant-green hills are dotted with ponds, poplar trees and handsome estate houses and strewn with never-ending fences safeguarding prized thoroughbred horses – it's rural Americana at its finest.

Just driving around aimlessly during summer or winter is as fine a day as you can spend in America's heartland, but WinStar Farm makes an excellent destination. Founded in the 1700s, this prestigious horse farm has bred numerous champions (you can tour its stallion complex several days a week). Base yourself in hip Lexington, a hotbed of culture, craft beer and historic distractions.

Be awed by Ali at the Muhammad Ali Center, Louisville

The greatest and most charismatic boxer to ever grace the ring, Muhammad Ali is captivatingly chronicled at the riveting Muhammad Ali Center, one of a number of outstanding museums on Louisville's Museum Row on Main. Ali was born in Louisville in 1942, and the museum exploring his life makes for an outstanding afternoon at any time of year. It's at its liveliest during the newish Ali Festival, which commemorates the boxer's great achievements for a week in June.

Features - Homemade Baked Kentucky Hot Brown
Kentucky's famous Hot Brown sandwich is a cultural icon © bhofack2 / Getty Images

Feast on Kentucky culinary delights like the Hot Brown

No trip to Kentucky would be complete without a taste of the state's most famous contribution to American gastronomy, the Hot Brown – an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon, tomato and Mornay sauce, invented in 1926 at Louisville's Brown Hotel. But Kentucky's culinary landscape has evolved; some of middle America's most exciting bites and brews are being forged here, contributing to an ongoing redefinition of what America eats and drinks.

Dining at Modern American eateries such as Proof on Main or Decca in Louisville and Carson's Food & Drink in Lexington will quickly convince you this is not your grandma's Kentucky night out. Bookend a meal with a craft beer at Louisville's Holy Grale or Monnik Beer Company (with the best beer cheese dip in Kentucky), or Lexington's Country Boy Brewing.

Feel the need for speed at Bowling Green's National Corvette Museum

Ever since it was featured in the 1960s television show Route 66, the Chevrolet Corvette has captivated even the most casual car buff, building the legend of "America's Sports Car." Bowling Green's National Corvette Museum displays some 80 Corvette models – including one-off concept cars and prototypes – in an enthralling space that will leave the average Joe slackjawed (while bringing tears to the eyes of superfans).

Highlights include the world's only 1983 Corvette (production was halted that year due to a change in California emissions laws), wrecked vehicles crushed when a sinkhole opened under the museum in 2014 (kids will get a kick out of peering into the cave via a manhole in the floor) and loads of classic convertibles, guaranteed to instill a sense of they-don't-make-them-like-they-used-to nostalgia.

Features - Stone Arch At Natural Bridge State Park In Kentucky
The Natural Bridge stone archway in Daniel Boone National Forest © ehrlif / Getty Images

Hike and climb in Daniel Boone National Forest

Rock climbers from across the world are lured to Red River Gorge inside Daniel Boone National Forest some 70 miles southeast of Lexington. This expansive area of forest features 700,000 acres of rugged ravines and gravity-defying sandstone arches spread across the Appalachian foothills, but it's the gorge that stands out as one of the premier rock climbing destinations in the country.

At the adjacent Natural Bridge State Resort Park – famed for its stunning sandstone arch, with a 78ft span and 65ft opening – many more hiking and climbing routes beckon to adventurers. The whole area is just far enough off the beaten path to instill a real sense of discovery and adventure for those who visit.

You may also like:
How to visit Louisville on a budget
How to get around Louisville, Kentucky
The complete guide to Mammoth Cave National Park

This article was first published Feb 25, 2019 and updated May 9, 2022.

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