14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Kentucky
Kentucky, also known as the Bluegrass state, has a diverse geography and cultural history, offering a wide variety of attractions for couples, families, and everyone else. It is most widely known as the home of the Kentucky Derby, which is held in May near Louisville, the state's largest city, also famous as the birthplace of the Louisville Slugger. Another popular destination for equine enthusiasts is Lexington, home to the Kentucky Horse Park. If you are looking for free things to do in Kentucky, the state's many parks are home to countless natural springs, impressive caves, and other unique natural attractions thanks to the state's karst geology. Kentucky is also a wonderful place to take a weekend getaway, perhaps in a romantic cabin along the Appalachians or one of the state's other popular vacation spots. Discover some of the state's best sights and places to visit in our list of the top-rated tourist attractions in Kentucky.
1 Kentucky Derby
Kentucky's most famous event and one of horse racing's most prestigious races is the Kentucky Derby, held at Churchill Downs outside of Louisville. It takes place the first Sunday in May and draws a huge crowd to the city. Just next door to the racetrack, the Kentucky Derby Museum houses a variety of exhibits that explore the history of the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs since the first race in 1875. The museum also features a series of exhibits about thoroughbred horses and each stage of their lives and training. Among the museum's artifacts are belongings of famous trainers Bill Shoemaker and D. Wayne Lukas, as well as other significant historic items. The museum also conducts off-season tours of Churchill Downs, which allow visitors a behind-the-scenes look at the venue.
Address: 700 Central Ave, Louisville, Kentucky
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Louisville
2 Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory
The first thing visitors will see when approaching the factory and museum is the 120-foot-tall replica of Babe Ruth's Louisville Slugger, which sits at the entrance. Inside, tourists have the opportunity to tour the factory where the Louisville Slugger is made, watching as a simple piece of wood is turned into a tool that professional baseball players have been breaking records with since 1884. Attached to the factory is a museum filled with memorabilia and exhibits that look at the history of the Louisville Slugger and the careers of some of the most legendary players who wielded it. The museum's most prized items are the bat used to hit Hank Aaron's 700th home run, Joe DiMaggio's bat from his 56-game hitting streak, and the bat used by Babe Ruth for 21 of his 1927 home runs, complete with the notches that the Bambino carved around the logo for each of those runs. The museum also has batting cages, a pitching simulator, and a 17-ton limestone baseball glove, which is often climbed by kids and adults alike.
Address: 800 West Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky
3 Daniel Boone National Forest
The Daniel Boone National Forest occupies a stretch of land that runs through 21 counties in eastern Kentucky, covering more than 708,000 acres. The park's most distinguished feature is its varied terrain, which includes more than 3,400 miles of sandstone cliffs, gorges, and ravines cut by rivers and streams, and the Natural Bridge, which measures 65 feet high and 75 feet wide. Created by the erosive forces of wind and water, it is just one of the many bizarre rock formations found in the park. Among the park's many trails, the Sheltowee Trace trail is the largest, extending for 273 miles through Daniel Boone National Forest. The Barren Folk Accessible Heritage Trail is closest to Whitley City and has a 0.75-mile paved trail, which narrates the history of Barren Folk Mining and Coal and the hundreds of people who occupied the isolated mining town.
4 Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
Southeastern Kentucky extends into the Cumberland Mountains, and the most important passage through the hills is the Cumberland Gap. This 760-foot-deep cut through the range was used as a traffic route by Native Americans and was discovered by pioneers moving west in the mid-18th century. After the legendary Daniel Boone drove his Wilderness Trail into Kentucky in 1775, more than 200,000 white settlers made their way through the Cumberland Mountains to the west. The Visitor Center is located in Middleboro, offering a small interactive museum and rangers on duty to answer questions. Tourists can also take a tour to the Hensley Settlement, a well-preserved old country township, which departs by shuttle from the visitor center. The park also offers guided hiking tours of Gap Cave, and a popular hike is to Pinnacle Overview where, at an altitude of 2460 feet, there are magnificent views of the hills and the Gap.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
5 Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park
The Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park is located on the former site of Sinking Springs Farm, established by the 16th President's father, Thomas Lincoln. In 1911, construction was finished on the Memorial Building, which houses the Symbolic Birth Cabin, a replica of the one-room home where Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809. The Neoclassical Memorial Building is constructed of Tennessee marble and pink granite from Connecticut, and was designed by architect John Russell Pope. Its 56 steps represent Lincoln's age at his death, and other features represent his presidency. Also on the property is Sinking Spring, a natural water source named for the way in which the water disappears back into the earth below.
Address: 2995 Lincoln Farm Road, Hodgenville, Kentucky
6 Mammoth Cave National Park
The Mammoth Cave lies in the "Land of 10,000 Sinks" or the Caveland Corridor, an area in southwestern Kentucky approximately 80 miles south of Louisville. This region is strongly marked by karstic features of all kinds. With more than 400 miles of passages surveyed so far, the Mammoth Cave is one of the world's largest known cave systems and was already known to the original native inhabitants of the region by the 1st millennium BC. This is an incredibly popular attraction for families, and a variety of tours are available. Top attractions in the park include the Mammoth Dome, which is almost 200 feet high, and the Ruins of Karnak, named for its massive limestone columns, which give the impression of a ruined temple. Other highlights are the Snowball Dining Room, with its extraordinary rock formations; the imposing Frozen Niagara, with its magnificent stalactites and stalagmites; and the beautiful Crystal Lake. All cave tours are ticketed, and hikers should come prepared for the much cooler subterranean temperatures.
Additional things to do in Mammoth Cave National Park include camping, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, bicycling, hiking, horseback riding, and various ranger-led activities for kids.
Address: 1 Mammoth Cave Parkway, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Mammoth Cave National Park
7 Kentucky Horse Park
The Kentucky Horse Park, located a short drive north of Lexington, allows visitors a chance to see a working horse farm, learn about, and visit with horses. The park houses several attractions and activities, including the opportunity to take horse or pony rides. The farm's residents occupy a variety of themed barns, including a Kids Barn for meeting smaller animals; the Mounted Police Barn; the Breeds Barn, where a selection of rare breeds reside; the Hall of Champions; and the Big Barn. The Hall of Champions is home to retired champion racehorses, and the Big Barn houses the park's impressive draft horses. There are multiple shows each day featuring the various breeds and occupations of the horses, and the draft horses provide the power for an informational trolley tour.
The park is also home to four distinct museums, including the Smithsonian-affiliated International Museum of the Horse, which explores the history of the horse's role. Additional museums are the Al-Marah Arabian Horse Galleries; the American Saddlebred Museum; and the Wheeler Museum, which is dedicated to competition horses.
Address: 4089 Iron Works Parkway, Lexington, Kentucky
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Lexington
8 Muhammad Ali Center
The Muhammad Ali Center was founded to further the ideals and life work of this legendary humanitarian. Visitors are first introduced to Ali via an orientation film and accompanying timelines, which provide an overview of his life. Exhibits focus on various aspects of Ali's approach to living his life and helping make the world a better place, including interactive displays, artifacts, historic film, and multimedia presentations. Topics include his role as a symbol of strength during the Civil Rights era, the importance of his spiritual life, and charitable acts. Other exhibits include a replica of the boxing great's practice room, where you can learn some moves and take a shot at the speed bag. The museum also houses three galleries, which feature changing exhibits and installations.
Address: 144 N 6th St, Louisville, Kentucky
9 Lost River Cave
Lost River Cave offers several ways for families to enjoy the wonders of Kentucky's unique karst geology and get kids interested in the natural world. The biggest attraction here is a boat tour of a massive cave, the only one of its kind in the state. The Nature Center offers a wide range of activities and programs that encourage younger visitors (or simply the curious) to explore the world around them. While exploring the easy nature trails, kids can work on activities to become a Junior Tour Guide or collect their discoveries and trade them at the Nature Trading Post. Other family activities include "bird bingo," geocaching, and sifting for gems. Visitors are also free to simply explore the grounds to discover the natural spring, limestone bluffs, and the remnants of old mining buildings. For those seeking a little more excitement, there is also a zipline tour available.
Address: 2818 Nashville Road, Bowling Green, Kentucky
10 Louisville Mega Cavern
Louisville Mega Cavern is a unique attraction, which lies beneath the city of Louisville. Covering around 100 acres, the space started out as a limestone quarry in the 1930s and was actively mined until the 1970s. After spending years empty, it was eventually turned into a secure underground storage facility, as well as one of the most popular family attractions in Kentucky. The tram tour gives tourists an up-close look at the inner workings of the cavern and provides fascinating commentary on the cavern's history and engineering, and more active visitors can join a guided electric bike tour. The more adventurous can choose from a two-hour zipline tour or an aerial rope course, and kids of all ages will have fun on the unique underground dirt bike course.
Address: 1841 Taylor Avenue, Louisville, Kentucky
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Louisville Mega Cavern
11 Cumberland Falls State Resort Park
The Cumberland Falls State Resort Park is known as the "Niagara of the South." The 125-foot wide falls drops 68 feet into the Cumberland River, and under a full moon shows the only "moonbow" in the western hemisphere. There are several walking trails of short to medium length, and in addition to its 17 miles of hiking, visitors come for the camping, swimming, birding, and fishing. The park offers many other things to do as well, including guided horseback rides, rafting trips, and flume gem mining for families. There is also a full-service restaurant, as well as a gift shop with a wide variety of hand-made souvenirs.
Address: 7351 Hwy 90, Corbin, Kentucky
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Cumberland Falls State Resort Park
12 Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
Shaker Village is an open-air village that contains 34 of Pleasant Hill's original buildings, now used to show tourists the traditional lifestyle of Shakers. The Historic Centre, which includes these buildings that are filled with handmade furniture and everyday items from the 1800s, is also host to demonstrations on various crafts and daily activities, as well as special events throughout the year. Families will especially love visiting the farm, where you can meet the animals, learn about the sustainable farming methods of the Shakers, and take hay rides among other activities. The grounds also include a wildlife preserve, which has 40 miles of hiking trails, a bird blind, and offers naturalist-guided programs.
Address: 3501 Lexington Road, Harrodsburg, Kentucky
13 Newport Aquarium
The Newport Aquarium offers a variety of ways to view and learn about diverse aquatic life thanks to its extensive system of acrylic tunnels. In the Amazon Tunnel, visitors can literally walk through the habitat of the massive Arapaima as it swims in a river along a flooded Amazon forest floor. More tunnels explore the inner workings of a coral reef, alive with life like the unicorn fish, honeycomb moray eels, and cownose rays. In the Surrounded by Sharks exhibit, you will be face-to-face with these fascinating predators, and you can find equally formidable fish in the Dangerous and Deadly exhibit, which features infamous animals like the piranha and Gila monster, and jaw-dropping alligators in Gator Alley. Other exhibits include a frog habitat with rare species, the chance to watch seahorses and their colorful friends up-close, a stingray touch-tank, and the popular penguin habitat. The aquarium puts on various shows and presentations throughout the day.
Address: 1, Levee Way, Newport, Kentucky
14 Great American Dollhouse Museum, Danville
The Great American Dollhouse Museum in Danville has the biggest collection of little Kentucky. The galleries contain more than 200 examples of dollhouses, room boxes, and miniatures, which are organized into three areas. The largest section of the museum is home to a series of historic miniatures which depict eras, locations, and people from various times and places in American history, from the native populations to the present. Cooper Hollow is the name given to the museum's 1910-themed town, complete with shops and homes both humble and grand. The museum's third exhibit is dedicated to the whimsical - a land of the magical and fantasy with forests and caves inhabited by mischievous elves, plotting witches, and delicate fairies.
Address: 344 Swope Drive, Danville, Kentucky
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Exploring More of Kentucky: While Louisville and Lexington get much of the state's attention when it comes to tourism, you'll also find some smaller cities towns worth seeing. In the south of the state, just an hour from Nashville, is Bowling Green, home to the National Corvette Museum and other great attractions. In the southwest of Kentucky is Paducah, where the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers meet.