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Eight can’t-miss experiences in Kentucky

The world of Thoroughbred horses might dominate the headlines, but Kentucky, which straddles a geographic and cultural crossroads between two distinct and fiercely proud American heartlands, packs a lot more into its stables than high-speed horses. Bucolic landscapes, alluring national parks and a transforming culinary scene beckon between the bourbon and the bluegrass.

The Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs

The Kentucky Derby, which takes place on the first Saturday in May, is not only the world's greatest horse race, but 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 display of hats you ever did see – for a mint julep-fueled race-day blowout that culminates in a blink-of-an-eye: The main event over in just two minutes. But even if you cannot finagle a ticket on race day, the Kentucky Derby Museum and its guided tours inside Churchill Downs (the landmark racetrack that hosts the race) remain one of Kentucky's most interesting cultural attractions.

Features - Bottles of single barrel bourbon are filled on the bottling line at a distillery
Bottles of bourbon being filled in a distillery in Kentucky ©️ Bloomberg Creative Photos / Getty Images

Bourbon country

Bourbon is one of the world's most prized spirits, with the state distilling 95% of the world’s inventory. Embarking on a connoisseur's journey through postcard-perfect bourbon country around Bardstown and Frankfort is one of Kentucky's top highlights. The logistics of sampling bourbon on a tasting tour in bourbon country aside (designated drivers, ride-sharing apps or organized tours are your new best friends!), Kentucky's best distilleries are at the ready to showcase the subtle differences of their bourbons surrounded by the idyllic horse farms of Central Kentucky. New laws now allow 1 ¾-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.

Louisville's Museum Row on Main

Two American sport legends were battle born in Louisville: The greatest and most dynamic boxer to ever grace a ring (Muhammed Ali) and the most iconic 42 inches of hardwood in baseball (the Louisville Slugger baseball bat). At the riveting Muhammad Ali Center, his life is captivatingly chronicled. At the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, you can see how baseball's most famous bat is made. 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 eight museums and distilleries within four historic downtown blocks.

Features - Mandolin Bluegrass
A man playing a mandolin, which is an instrument typically found in Bluegrass music ©️ dlewis33 / Getty Images

Bluegrass Country

There are few American landscapes as unexpectedly gorgeous as north central Kentucky's Bluegrass Country. Like a painting sprung to life, the brilliant-green hills dotted with ponds, poplar trees and handsome estate houses strewn with never-ending fences safeguarding prized thoroughbred horses is bucolic Americana at its finest. Just driving around aimlessly during summer or winter is as fine a day as one can spend in America's heartland, but WinStar Farm, among others, is an excellent destination, a 1700s horse farm that 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 distraction.

Mammoth Cave National Park

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

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

Food and drink

A trip to Kentucky wouldn’t be complete without a sampling 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 suffice to say, the culinary landscape (and accompanying beverages) has evolved. Dining at Modern American staples like Proof on Main or Decca in Louisville and Middle Fork Kitchen Bar in Lexington bookended with craft beer at Holy Grale and Monnick Beer Company in the former and Country Boy Brewing in the latter will quickly convince you this is not your grandma's Kentucky night out. Some of middle America's most exciting bites and brews are forged here, contributing to an ongoing redefinition of what the USA eats and drinks.

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

Daniel Boone National Forest

Rock climbers the world over are lured to Red River Gorge inside Daniel Boone National Forest some 70 miles southeast of Lexington. While the expansive forest itself features 700,000 acres of rugged ravines and gravity-defying sandstone arches across the Appalachian foothills, it's the Gorge that counts 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 (a 65ft-high, 78ft-long natural bridge), numerous hiking and climbing routes beckon as well. The whole area is just enough off the beaten path to instill a sense of discovery and adventure for those that visit. 

National Corvette Museum

Since the days it was featured in the 1960s television show Route 66, the Chevrolet Corvette has fascinated even the most casual car buff on its way to becoming known as ‘America's Sports Car.’ At Bowling Green's National Corvette Museum, some 80 Corvette models, including one-off concept cars and prototypes, fill an enthralling space that leaves the average Joe slackjawed (while bringing tears to the eyes of superfans). Highlights include the world's only 1983 Corvette (no Corvettes were manufactured that year due to a change in California emissions laws), the wrecked vehicles crushed in the museum's 2014 sinkhole incident (kids get a kick out of peering into the cave via a manhole in the floor) and loads of classic convertibles, which instill a sense of they-don't-make-'em-like-they-used-to nostalgia.

Lonely Planet has produced this article for Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.