Known as the ‘Bluegrass State,’ the Commonwealth of Kentucky (as it is officially known) is set in the Southern region of the United States. While it’s home to the large and lively cities of Louisville and Lexington, most of the state is made up of small towns, with bourbon distilleries dotting its rolling hills and rural areas.
The scenic countryside is home to some beautiful parks and forests, while its Caves and Lakes region boasts the largest known cave system in the world. With horse racing among the most popular things to do in Kentucky, this state certainly has plenty of different and equally delightful tourist attractions for visitors to explore.
In this post, we'll cover:
25. Mary Todd Lincoln House
Set right in the center of Lexington is the lovely little Mary Todd Lincoln House which offers an unparalleled look into the life and times of the famous First Lady. At her girlhood home, guests can amble around rooms full of old photographs, artifacts and exhibits and learn all about her marriage to President Abraham Lincoln.
Built back in the early 1800s to be an inn and tavern, it was later purchased by the Todd family with Mary herself having lived in the simple brick building between 1832 and 1839. Now preserved as a historic house museum, it is packed with period pieces and portraits while interesting displays shine a light on subjects such as Mary’s childhood, her life in the White House and Abe’s assassination.
24. Dinosaur World (Cave City)
A fun day out for all the family, the delightful Dinosaur World can be found on the outskirts of Cave City, not too far from both the popular Crystal Onyx Cave and Mammoth Cave National Park. As it is home to hundreds of life-sized dinos with slides, swings and snack stands dotted about; the large outdoor theme park is definitely well worth visiting when in the area.
While wandering about its gorgeous grounds, you’ll come across life-like statues of towering T-rexes and humongous brontosauruses hidden away amidst all of the lush vegetation. Aside from informative plaques, there is also an excellent prehistoric museum on-site, full of fascinating fossils and educational exhibits. For young ones, the main appeal is the park’s fun fossil dig and bone yard where you can unearth everything from dinosaur skeletons and gems to arrowheads and shark teeth.
23. Ark Encounter (Williamstown)
Another utterly unique and unforgettable attraction in Kentucky is the incredible Ark Encounter in Williamstown. The centerpiece of the Christian creationist theme park is a massive model of Noah’s Ark which contains a huge collection of fun and informative exhibits with a zoo, zip line and theater also set on-site.
Although it has courted controversy and come in for some criticism at times, the park has proven to be a massively popular draw since opening in 2016. As well as ogling at the amazing architecture of the ark, visitors can pass bays full of model animals and displays describing the Earth’s creation and the biblical flood that struck it. After having explored its three decks, you can shoot down exciting zip lines, see kangaroos and camels at the zoo or enjoy a delicious meal at its restaurant.
22. Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area
Sure to delight both nature lovers and outdoor aficionados alike, the lovely Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area has a staggering array of scenic landscapes for people to explore. Located in the southwest corner of the state between the long and narrow Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, the enormous inland peninsula now has all kinds of awesome outdoor activities to enjoy.
Protected as part of a nature reserve since 1963, its sprawling confines encompass everything from rugged hills and vast forests to picturesque prairies and sweeping limestone valleys. Besides boating and kayaking about its reflective lakes, visitors can hike, bike and horseback ride along its 200 or so miles of trails with fantastic fishing and camping also on offer. On top of all of this, you can also visit its various nature stations and see elk and bison roaming about their large enclosure.
21. Floodwall Murals (Paducah)
Just a short drive from the national recreation area is another superb site that is well worth checking out when in the Western Waterlands. Set in the center of the small city, the colorful and creative Floodwall Murals depict and document the rich history of Paducah and its people in beautiful detail.
Overlooking the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, the marvelous mural now has dozens of evocative images for you to explore that cover thousands of years of the city’s history. While some scenes focus on Native Americans and early settlers, others look at influential figures, impressive landmarks and important historical events. Since the visionary project started in 1996, countless artists have contributed their considerable talents to the phenomenal Floodwall Murals.
20. Kentucky Horse Park
On the northern outskirts of Lexington you can find one of the city and state’s top tourist attractions: the educational and entertaining Kentucky Horse Park. Dotted about the sprawling sports center and theme park are lots of pristine paddocks and important equestrian institutions with interesting live demonstrations, thrilling horse shows and special sporting events all regularly taking place.
The only park of its kind in the world, it was founded in 1978 and is dedicated to ‘man’s relationship with the horse’. As well as a working horse farm and a couple of large arenas, its campus includes numerous statues and the super International Museum of the Horse. After having seen a live harness maker and blacksmith demonstration, you can always go for a peaceful carriage ride about the park or watch its incredible Horses of the World show.
19. National Quilt Museum (Paducah)
Full of colorful textiles, imaginative designs and intricate embroidery, the National Quilt Museum is definitely not to be missed when visiting the southwest of the state. Located just a block from the Floodwall Murals, its captivating collection of quilts is one of the city of Paducah’s standout attractions.
Established in 1991, it is one of the biggest and best museums of its kind with over 600 quilts from all around the US and even further afield now on display. Aside from perusing its extensive exhibits and enjoying its fantastic fiber art installations, guests can also take part in workshops and classes or shop for gifts in its store. The exquisite museum also regularly hosts themed traveling exhibits on everything from abstract art and wildlife to contemporary creations and historic heirlooms.
18. Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
Another interesting historic site to visit in Kentucky is the centuries-old Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. Also located just outside of Lexington, the humongous living history museum shines a light on the religious community’s lifestyle with traditional architecture, crafts and clothing all on show and fun activities and live demonstrations taking place daily.
One of the largest communities of its kind, Pleasant Hill was occupied by the Shakers between 1805 and 1910 with its numerous farms, buildings and artifacts now being preserved as part of a National Historic Landmark. While ambling about the expansive site, visitors can learn about rural life in the Bluegrass region, see old tools and farming techniques and explore well-preserved houses full of handmade furniture and period pieces. Afterwards, you can always hike around its nature reserve or take buggy rides about its gorgeous grounds with riverboat rides and overnight stays also on offer.
17. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Spanning the border between Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, the Cumberland Gap is known just as much for its sublime scenery as its age-old historic sites. A major natural break amidst the rugged Appalachians, the important passage has been used by everyone from Native Americans and early pioneers to modern-day tourists with buffalo also having once roamed about the range.
Now protected as a national historical park, it covers a huge area with its pristine forests only being punctuated here and there by steep cliffs, bubbling streams and the winding Wilderness Road that passes through the gap. Besides hiking and biking about its wonderful woods or enjoying its lovely nature and views, you can also stop by its informative visitors centre to learn more about the region and the atmospheric Hensley Settlement that was once an old mining village.
16. Kentucky Derby Museum
As the state is almost synonymous with horse racing, the excellent Kentucky Derby Museum is not to be missed when passing through Louisville. Located at the hallowed Churchill Downs race track, it offers an in-depth look at the history of the famous sporting spectacle with innumerable artifacts, exhibits and artworks coating its walls.
At the museum, visitors embark on an exciting journey as they learn about the years-long process of breeding and training thoroughbreds to win the coveted Kentucky Derby. As well as seeing glinting trophies, old harnesses and colorful jockey outfits, there are plenty of photos and short film clips that show last-gasp triumphs by legendary champions. After having explored its collection, you can also take a tour around the complex or even catch an exhilarating race if it is the right time of year,
15. Daniel Boone National Forest
Home to some of the wildest and most rugged terrain in the state, the Daniel Boone National Forest sprawls across a massive part of eastern Kentucky. As well as steep forested slopes and stupendous sandstone cliffs, it encompasses narrow ravines, lakes and streams with all kinds of exciting outdoor activities on offer.
Dotted about the almost endless forest are about a hundred developed recreation areas for people to make use of with 600 miles of trails meandering their way here and there. Besides hiking and biking amidst all its stunning scenery, visitors can camp overnight at cozy campsites, climb up sheer rocky cliffs and boat on its reflective rivers and lakes. Particularly popular and picturesque spots to stop by are Red River Gorge for its epic rock formations and Cumberland Falls for its twinkling waterfall while the large Laurel River Lake also attracts a lot of people thanks to its scenic shoreline.
14. Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory
As it is towered over by a giant replica of Babe Ruth’s baseball bat, the Louisville Slugger Museum couldn’t be easier to find. Set right in the center of the city of the same name, it is filled with prized memorabilia and interesting exhibitions that tell the story of the famous baseball bat brand and its impact on the hugely popular sport.
While wandering about the beautiful brick building, visitors can see autographs of all the contracted players scrawled across its Signature Wall and explore the vast Bat Vault which remarkably contains over 3,000 models of the Louisville Slugger. After having learnt about its origins in the 1880s and all the legendary players that have wielded them since, you can then take a tour around its factory to see how the iconic bats are produced before facing some fast balls yourself in its batting cages.
13. Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Aside from horse racing, bluegrass music and KFC, Kentucky is also known for all the delightful distilleries that are dotted about the state. As such, no trip can ever be complete without hitting up at least one of two of the award-winning whiskey producers that make up the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
In total, there are now eighteen distilleries to visit with most of them lying between both Louisville and Lexington. At each of them, you can take tours around their state-of-the-art production facilities to see how the stiff drinks are made before sampling some brilliant bourbons in atmospheric tasting rooms. Among the most popular are those of Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey with there being plenty of charming little towns and gorgeous countryside scenes for you to enjoy as you make your way from one to the other.
12. Conrad-Caldwell House Museum
Located in the heart of Old Louisville, in Kentucky’s largest city, is the captivating Conrad-Caldwell House Museum. An important and impressive landmark, it displays exquisite architecture and antiques, which visitors can check out on any one of the fascinating tours.
Built in 1895 for a local tanning magnate, ‘Conrad’s Castle’ (as it was once known) boasts an exquisite Richardsonian-Romanesque style. Alongside its towers and turrets, you can spy finely carved animals and gargoyles etched into the imposing limestone walls.
The interior is equally attractive: incredible woodwork and stained glass windows are on show, while age-old antiques and period pieces dot its halls, apartments, and parlors. After having visited the marvelous museum, it is well worth wandering around the nearby neighborhood that is full of beautiful old buildings.
11. Crystal Onyx Cave
Set on the outskirts of Cave City is Crystal Onyx Cave – one of the most magical of the many caverns dotting the state. Full of fascinating formations and spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, it is a very popular and photogenic tourist attraction.
Discovered by Cleon Turner in 1960, the cave is now owned by Scott and Sara Sendtko who restored it and turned into the awe-inspiring attraction it is today. Visitors can take tours along its scenic subterranean trails, all of which are superbly lit up and take you past lots of fabulous features.
Home to charming chambers and caverns – such as the delightfully named Enchanted Forest, Imagination Room, and Crystal Falls – the Crystal Onyx Cave really is a treat to explore.
10. Louisville Mega Cavern
Another of Kentucky’s alluring underground attractions is the lovely Louisville Mega Cavern, which runs beneath parts of the city of the same name. Once a limestone quarry, the human-made tunnels and caves stretch for more than 25 kilometers and include business, storage, and tourism facilities.
Besides boasting the world’s only underground mountain bike park and ropes course, it also has the only fully underground zipline course for visitors to try out. In addition to these exciting adventure activities, there are also terrific tram and hiking tours to take of the captivating cavern.
While the Louisville Mega Cavern is great to visit thanks to its wealth of family-friendly activities, Christmas is a particularly memorable time of year to stop by and see the special holiday show lighting up the enormous cave.
9. Maker’s Mark Distillery
Lying not far from Loretto is the magnificent Maker’s Mark Distillery, which opened all the way back in 1953. Since then, it has been producing brilliant bourbons. Visitors can learn all about it at one of its outstanding whiskey workshops or delightful distillery tours.
Set in some gorgeous grounds and gardens, it was the first distillery in the states to be designated a National Historic Landmark in 1980 due to its historic nature and well-preserved buildings. On a tour of the premises, visitors learn about its fabled past while stopping off to see its stillhouse, warehouse, and dipping and production lines.
Besides seeing how whiskey is produced, there is an excellent restaurant to check out and a gift shop and classy cellar where you can try some delicious drinks and buy souvenirs.
8. Lost River Cave
Home to the only underground boat tour in Kentucky, Lost River Cave can be found in the city of Bowling Green. Taking a tour of the cave system is an amazing experience: you’ll learn fascinating facts and folklore about what Ripley’s Believe It or Not once billed as the ‘shortest, deepest river in the world.’
Besides having been an ancient Native American hunting ground, the cave was also a campground in the Civil War for both sides – as well as a hideout for the outlaw Jesse James and a nightclub in the 1930s. In addition to all the stories swirling around the cave, guests can enjoy the stunning scenery and formations as they float along the river.
Surrounding the cave are some picturesque nature trails for visitors to explore, as well as a couple of exhilarating ziplines to try out.
7. Cumberland Falls State Resort Park
Centered around the beautiful waterfall of the same name, Cumberland Falls State Resort Park is a lovely place to visit that will delight nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Located in the south of the state, it is set within the sprawling Daniel Boone National Forest.
The park boasts beautiful landscapes and scenery, with verdant forests, dramatic gorges, and sparkling waterfalls all on show; however, the undoubted highlight is Cumberland Falls. Often called the ‘Niagara of the South,’ it reaches an impressive 21 meters in height and spans almost 40 meters. Around the time of the full moon, visitors can often spy a magical moonbow formed out of the mist of the waterfall.
Besides its outstanding beauty and nature, the park has a plethora of excellent outdoor activities on offer, with hiking, rafting and horseback riding particularly popular. In addition, there are cosy lodges and campsites for guests to stay at.
6. Muhammad Ali Center
Lying right in the heart of the city on the banks of the Ohio River are a marvelous museum and cultural center dedicated to the Louisville legend Muhammad Ali. Opened in 2005, the six-story site has lots of interesting exhibits and displays on the famous fighter for visitors to peruse.
Many of these interactive installations are on the brilliant boxer’s six core principles of confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality. Other exhibits look at the life and times of Muhammad Ali, with memorabilia, interviews and videos on display.
As well as being home to an amphitheater and plaza, the cultural center has two art galleries to check out that feature rotating exhibits. For anyone even slightly interested in The Greatest, visiting the Muhammad Ali Center is simply a must.
5. National Corvette Museum
Full of shiny, sleek sports cars, the National Corvette Museum lies on the outskirts of Bowling Green – the city in which the classic car has been produced since 1981. Home to over 80 models and countless more convertibles, it is very easy to spot due to the huge, bright-yellow, cone-shaped Skydome that looms over its surroundings.
Both inside and outside the museum you’ll find magnificent models and one-of-a-kind cars, while exhibits and videos highlight their exquisite engineering and delightful design. Synonymous with freedom and adventure, the Corvette is widely known as ‘America’s Sports Car.’
As well as preserving the past, present, and future of the classy car, the museum has an adjoining racetrack where you can get behind the wheel and drive a classic Corvette.
Second only in the state to Churchill Downs, Keeneland is one of Kentucky’s most important and impressive race tracks. Founded way back in 1936, it lies on the outskirts of the city of Lexington, which is known as the ‘Horse Capital of the World.’
A National Historic Landmark, it exhibits lovely old architecture, with a gorgeous grandstand looking out over its race track. It is here where champion horses and thoroughbreds compete neck and neck against each other, with races taking place in April and October.
Besides placing bets on who will win and taking in the exhilarating ambience, visitors can attend some of Keeneland’s frequent horse auctions. These see everyone from local farmers to wealthy bidders from around the world buy horses and yearlings from the famed breeding facility.
3. Jim Beam’s American Outpost
Set some 40 kilometers to the south of Louisville in Clermont is Jim Beam’s American Outpost, where visitors can learn everything there is to know about the nation’s best-selling bourbon. Located in a pretty and picturesque rural setting, the delightful distillery is a treat to explore, with a terrific tour for visitors to take of its fantastic facilities.
Besides boasting a factory, warehouses, and production line, the American Outpost also offers a film on the Beam family and their brilliant bourbon. Remarkably, seven generations of the family produced and sold the superb whiskey from 1795 until the company was sold off in 2014.
As well as taking a tour of Jim Beam’s American Outpost, visitors can stop by the historic family home and sample some delicious drinks in its onsite bourbon bar.
2. Mammoth Cave National Park
An absolutely incredible place to visit, Mammoth Cave National Park boasts the longest known cave system in the world. Appropriately set in Kentucky’s Caves and Lakes region, it is home to loads of spectacular scenery and nature, with countless caves, chasms, and caverns on show.
Stretching for a staggering 640 kilometers, the mesmerizing Mammoth Cave is a delight to explore, with tours taking you on subterranean strolls past fabulous formations, dramatic domes, and stunning stalactites and stalagmites. Protected as a national park since 1941, the cave has long been a very popular place to visit due to its size, scale and splendor.
Above ground, the park has lovely trails and paths for visitors to hike along, while some great canoeing and kayaking can be enjoyed along the Green River. In addition to this, many people camp overnight and go fishing or wildlife watching in its incredible wilderness.
1. Churchill Downs
One of the most famous, fun, and festive horse-racing tracks in the world, the Kentucky Derby, takes place at Churchill Downs. Held every May in Louisville, the popular and prestigious race is an exciting event to attend, with thousands of people packing into its stands to watch the spectacle.
While cheering on champions and betting on thoroughbreds at the renowned race is the pinnacle of the racing year, many other warm-ups and competitions take place at the landmark venue. From April to June and again in September and November, visitors can watch horses and jockeys compete beneath the hallowed twin spires of its gorgeous grandstands.
In addition, you can also take tours of the grounds and visit the Kentucky Derby Museum, which will tell you all about the epic event and the charming Churchill Downs itself. Not to be missed for their awe-inspiring atmosphere, the race and racetrack are certainly one of the best things to do in the whole of Kentucky.