Kentucky is a lush land filled with rolling hills, rivers, forests, cave systems, and the Appalachian Mountains. It’s also a vibrant scene for the arts, culture, and artisan foods. There’s something for everyone in the Bluegrass State, and planning a trip to visit will be well worth your time.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Kentucky Bucket List Destinations
- Spring and Summer Kentucky Bucket List Activities
- Fall and Winter Kentucky Bucket List Activities
- Kentucky Bucket List Food and Restaurants
- Kentucky Derby Bucket List Items
Coming to you as a Kentuckian, I know firsthand just how much history, culture, and natural beauty awaits your visit! Here are some of the best things to do from one end of this amazing state to the other.
Kentucky Bucket List Destinations
Here are some must-visit bucket list destinations that you can plan your entire trip around.
1. Mammoth Cave National Park
If there were new entries for the Seven Wonders of the World, this would be Kentucky’s submission. Mammoth Caves is a huge underground wonderland that makes up the world’s longest cave system and features unique cave formations and underground pools. There are eight different tours with varying difficulty levels, so there’s a tour for everyone.
The national park also offers camping, hiking, and wildlife watching options, as well.
Pro tip: The park and cave is open for tours year-round, but summer and early fall is especially popular. Tickets sell out quickly during the high season, so be sure to purchase your tickets well in advance of your arrival.
2. Red River Gorge
The Red River Gorge is a favorite for out-of-state visitors and vacationing locals alike. The area is part of the Daniel Boone Forest and is, hands down, one of the most beautiful areas in all of Kentucky.
Pro tip: Camp in the area to stay awhile and enjoy as much hiking, climbing, horseback riding, rafting, and kayaking as you can take.
3. Cumberland Falls State Park
Cumberland Falls is often referred to as the Niagra Falls of Kentucky. The falls are stunning year-round and provide a perfect backdrop for picture taking, bird watching, hiking, exploring, fishing, horseback riding, and kayaking.
Pro tip: Some activities such as guided horseback rides are only seasonally available. Be sure to call ahead and find out what is available when you’re planning your visit.
Spring and Summer Kentucky Bucket List Activities
If you’re working on making a travel bucket list, a good way to break down activity options is by the season they’re available. Here are some of the best things to do during the warmer months in Kentucky.
4. Catch sight of a moonbow at Cumberland Falls
If you love rainbows, you’ll love getting to catch a glimpse of the elusive moonbow. Cumberland Falls has all the proper conditions for this unique natural phenomenon to occur. Just be sure to plan your trip to Cumberland Falls during the nights when moonlight is at its brightest.
5. Witness the most exciting two minutes in sports
What would this be? Why, the Kentucky Derby, of course! The yearly race consists of horses flying around the track at Churchill Downs just one time. If you blink twice you might miss it, so keep your eyes peeled as you cheer on your favorite horse and rider.
Fun fact: The Kentucky Derby began in 1875 and attracts around 170,000 attendees for race day!
6. Ride a horse through the bluegrass
Kentucky is a horse state, and no visit would be complete without getting to ride one! Visit the Kentucky Horse Park to view thoroughbreds as they graze and train. While you’re there, take the opportunity to go on a ride.
7. Take a riverboat ride along the Ohio River
This is the very same Ohio River that inspired Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, to write his wonderful stories! Take a trip back in time on a real working riverboat, learn about the area’s history, and enjoy the sights and sounds of the Ohio.
The Belle of Louisville is one of the most popular riverboats, and it offers cruises for couples, families, sightseeing, and dining.
Pro tip: Purchase your tickets well ahead to guarantee passage for you and your traveling companions.
Fall and Winter Kentucky Bucket List Activities
The fall and winter months have a charm all their own, and there are plenty of activities that merit a visit during the colder season in the Bluegrass.
Pro tip: Start your trip during the middle of or late October for stunning views of fall foliage no matter where you go!
8. Catch a UK game
The University of Kentucky, that is! UK games are a favorite of sports fans and loyal Kentuckians alike. The college games are always well attended, and you’ll enjoy getting a sense of the pride of Kentuckians as they cheer on their favorite team.
Pro tip: Can’t make it to a game? Head over to any Buffalo Wild Wings, where they stream all the UK games and cheer with the locals while you enjoy a meal.
9. Overnight in a castle
If you’ve ever wanted to stay in a historic Medieval castle, your wait is over. You don’t even have to go to another country. Simply visit Versailles, Kentucky. Pronounced ver-sal-eez or ver-sails by the locals (we know, we know), this historically rich town features one of Kentucky’s most unique features: a castle!
The Kentucky Castle is a traditional bed and breakfast that opens its doors for events and brunch. The food is to die for, and it all comes from their in-house farm-to-table restaurant.
Pro tip: No time for an overnight stay or sit-down meal? The castle gives tours, as well!
10. Visit the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory
Visit the factory that produces the #1 baseball bat in Major League Baseball and take a peek into the work it takes to go from block of wood to finished bat. While there, hold bats used by baseball greats such as Mickey Mantel and Derek Jeter. Try to hit a 90mph fastball, take a few swings in the batting cages with a replica of your favorite ball player’s bat, and take home a miniature bat of your own!
11. Catch Illuminated Evenings at Shaker Village
For a good dose of holiday fun, stop by Shaker Village, a 3,000 acre original Kentucky Shaker village. There are 34 original structures, a museum, a working farm, a restaurant, trails, and plenty of activities for kids of all ages.
Come Christmastime, the village transforms and welcomes visitors to share in holiday fun by gathering around roaring fires, sipping hot chocolate and spiced cider, singing carols, visiting with Mrs. Claus, and much more.
Kentucky Bucket List Food and Restaurants
12. Chow down on authentic Kentucky Fried Chicken
You might have had KFC where you live, but there’s nothing quite like visiting the original Sanders Cafe where the chicken was first served up piping hot. Chow down on the original recipe just like Colonel Harland Sanders made, take a tour of the museum, and learn about the history of KFC.
13. Sip on Southern sweet tea
No trip to the South would be complete without sipping on sweet tea. This refreshing drink is available anywhere you dine including fast food spots all over the state.
14. Take a drive along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
You can’t have bourbon without Kentucky, and you’d be hard-pressed to visit without trying the famous brew.
Pro tip: If you want to sample the best Kentucky has to offer, tour the famous distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, including Four Roses, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, and Woodford Reserve.
15. Order a Kentucky Hot Brown
The first Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich was crafted at the Brown Hotel in the early 1900s. Since then, this open-faced sandwich has become a Kentucky staple.
The sandwich consists of toast, piled high with turkey and bacon, then smothered in tomatoes and a creamy cheese sauce that is to die for.
Kentucky Derby Bucket List Items
The Kentucky Derby draws thousands of visitors to the state each year while hundreds of thousands more watch the derby remotely. You’ll be glad you didn’t miss this exciting event.
16. Watch the Derby!
It might sound obvious, but you can’t enjoy the full Kentucky Derby experience without being in the stands. If you feel like being especially fancy, get yourself some box seats where you can watch the race and enjoy the best view in the stands.
Pro tip: Tickets sell out incredibly fast, so be sure to purchase yours well in advance of the derby.
17. Dress up and don a fancy hat
This is a time-honored tradition that goes back to the very first derby days. Men put on their best outfits and women dress up with a fancy hat capping off their ensemble.
Pro tip: Need some Derby Day dress ideas? Just do a quick internet search for “Kentucky Derby styles” and you’ll have an entire stylebook at your fingertips.
18. Watch the world’s biggest firework display
Since the derby itself has been proclaimed “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” it only makes sense that activities surrounding the main event would be just as spectacular. The world’s biggest firework display occurs yearly to kick off derby events. Want a preview? Just look up Thunder Over Louisville and you’ll see some incredible pyrotechnic displays.
19. Sip a mint julep
Mint juleps are the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. Be sure to get one of these refreshing drinks while you’re there to get the full Derby Day experience.
20. Enjoy a slice of Derby Pie
The Kentucky Derby has an official pie, and it might just be the best slice of heaven you’ve ever tasted. Derby Pie is a pecan pie that has dark chocolate added to the pecan mixture. It’s served toasty warm with a dollop of whipped cream. If you want to go extra fancy, ask for a scoop of vanilla bean or butter pecan ice cream instead of whipped cream!
Explore All the Bluegrass Has to Offer
From west to east, Kentucky has so much to explore you may need to go back for a second trip! No matter what you choose to do, which direction you decide to drive, and which activities you pick, you’ll be glad you spent some time in the beautiful Bluegrass State.