7 Essential Kentucky Experiences to Have in Your Lifetime

Come experience the most famous horse race in the world.
Come experience the most famous horse race in the world. Daren Whitaker
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With everything from world-class horse racing to world-class bourbon, the list of potential things to do on your next trip to Kentucky seems almost endless. Whether your ideal vacation is relaxing on an old steamboat on the Ohio River, hiking in a breathtaking gorge, or a little bit of both, the Bluegrass State has something for you to try. But with so many options, where do you even start? Here are a few experiences that stand above the rest.

1. Go to the Kentucky Derby

While some would argue the best view is from the infield, even if that’s not in your budget, a trip to the most famous horse race in the world is something you should add to your Kentucky bucket list.

But The Kentucky Derbyis more than just a race.

In Louisville, locals celebrate for two weeks before the race with the Kentucky Derby Festival, which includes dozens of events. It all kicks off with Thunder Over Louisville, an enormous air and fireworks show. The fun continues with balloon races, bed races, wine races, a marathon and half marathon, fashion shows, sports tournaments, the Pegasus Parade, the Great Steamboat Race, BeerFest, BourbonVille, WineFest, Fest-a-Ville, and much more. While many have tried, it’s impossible to do all the Derby events in Louisville in one shot, so you’ll probably want to plan a return visit.

While you’re here, visit the Kentucky Derby Museum and drink a mint julep in a giant fancy hat.

2. Spelunk in Mammoth Cave

Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world, with more than 400 miles of passageways and new discoveries added all the time. Book a tour in advance, and park rangers will guide you through such sites as Grand Avenue, Frozen Niagara, and Fat Man's Misery. No matter how hot it is outside, you should bring a jacket because the cave stays at a cool 54 degrees.

Whiskey was shipped in burned out oak barrels that were stamped “from Bourbon County.”
Whiskey was shipped in burned out oak barrels that were stamped “from Bourbon County.” Shannon Tompkins

3. Travel the Bourbon Trail

Kentucky is well-known for its most prolific product: Bourbon. In the 1700s, the first Kentucky settlers found that getting their crops to market through rough terrain was difficult. Converting corn and other grains into whiskey solved the problem—and gave them something to drink.

The whiskey was shipped down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans in burned-out oak barrels that were stamped "from Bourbon County," and the product soon became known as bourbon. In 1999, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association formed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® in an effort to give visitors an inside look into the distilling process. Get a Kentucky Bourbon Trail passport and have it stamped at each place you visit. If you get stamps from all of the distilleries, you’ll get a free Kentucky Bourbon Trail T-shirt.

The Belle cruises celebrate the history of steamboat travel along the river.
The Belle cruises celebrate the history of steamboat travel along the river. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

4. Ride the Belle of Louisville

Step back in time while enjoying the views of the Ohio River aboard the Belle of Louisville, built in 1914 and originally named the Idlewild. After many years up and down the Ohio and Mississippi, it was purchased and brought back to Louisville and restored. The Belle cruises celebrate the history of steamboat travel along the river, which was an important part of the founding of Louisville. If you can’t take a cruise, you can certainly visit the boat and just take a tour.

Also check out Louisville’s Waterfront Park and walk across the Big Four Bridge to Jeffersonville, Indiana.

5. See Stephen Foster the Musical

Stephen Foster was a young man from Pennsylvania, who visited his cousins in Bardstown, Kentucky, and wrote a song about it. "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" eventually became the state song, and every summer, the Stephen Foster Drama Association produces a musical tribute to Stephen Foster and his iconic songs at My Old Kentucky Home State Park.

Foster also wrote "Oh Susannah," “Camptown Races,” “Old Folks at Home (Swanee River),” “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” and “Beautiful Dreamer.”

The Red River Gorge has a lot to offer outdoor adventurers.
The Red River Gorge has a lot to offer outdoor adventurers. Boyd Shearer

6. Hike Red River Gorge

The Red River Gorge is a gorgeous canyon system with the Red River cutting through the middle. Most of it is in the Daniel Boone National Forest, which means the Gorge is home to a vast variety of flora and fauna, as well as caves, rock formations, and more. There are campgrounds as well as cabin rentals in the remote area if you want to stay a night or two (and we highly recommend it!).

A big highlight in the area is Natural Bridge, a sandstone arch that is an impressive 65 feet high and 78 feet long. Rock climbers also come from around the world to climb on the more than 1,600 routes at "The Red." Also be sure to stop and eat at Miguel’s Pizza in Slade - an icon among area hikers and climbers.

Visit the Man O’ War tribute at Kentucky Horse Park.
Visit the Man O’ War tribute at Kentucky Horse Park. Jean

7. Visit Kentucky Horse Park

Horse breeding and racing is a huge part of Kentucky’s history, and there’s nowhere that celebrates the tradition like the Kentucky Horse Park. This working farm houses the International Museum of the Horse, a Smithsonian affiliate. Champion horses reside at the park, including legends such as Da Hoss, Funny Cide, Go for Gin, and more. The park has several horse cemeteries that are the final resting places of Man O’War and dozens of others. While you’re there, check out Keeneland race track or the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington.

These are just seven of the many things you can do in Kentucky that will give you a taste of what the Bluegrass State has to offer. For a complete list of activities, attractions, and more, click here.

Originally written for Kentucky Tourism.

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