Visiting the United States? There are 50 states in all. Kentucky is synonymous with horse racing, with racetracks that host thrilling equine contests like the world-famous Kentucky Derby.

Wondering about Kentucky’s nickname, “the Bluegrass State”? It comes from a type of grass that’s commonly found in Kentucky’s pastures and farms. In the spring, this so-called “bluegrass” produces bluish-purple buds.

The bluegrass region is known for producing some of the world’s best thoroughbred racehorses. It also gives its name to bluegrass music, which was born in Kentucky and strongly influenced by the music of Appalachia.

If you crave urban excitement, head for Lexington — Kentucky’s largest city — where you’ll find top-notch museums and plenty of live theater and music, plus great shopping, dining and more. Louisville has plenty of cultural amenities, too.

Seeking adventure? Visit Mammoth Cave, an underground wonderland, or go fishing, boating and water-skiing at Kentucky and Barkley lakes, two of the largest man-made lakes in the United States. You can also hike along the trails through the Daniel Boone National Forest, or saddle up and wander the forest’s trails on horseback.

Read more about Kentucky and check out the other 49 states. If you need a visa to visit, here’s how to get one.

(State Dept.)
(State Dept.)

Off to the races!

Every year on the first Saturday in May, Louisville’s Churchill Downs racetrack hosts the Kentucky Derby, a prestigious race for 3-year-old thoroughbred horses. Established in 1875, the Derby is the first leg of the American Triple Crown, which includes the Preakness Stakes (in Maryland) and the Belmont Stakes (in New York). Derby traditions include attention-getting hats and mint juleps (a bourbon-based cocktail). And everyone sings “My Old Kentucky Home” before the race begins.

The Kentucky Derby is a premier sporting event, but it’s also an excuse for women to wear extravagant hats. (© AP Images)

The race itself caps Louisville’s two-week Kentucky Derby Festival, where you can see Thunder Over Louisville (the largest annual fireworks display in North America), and watch hot-air balloon pilots compete in The Great Balloon Race.

Fireworks flash across the sky during the Thunder Over Louisville show, one of the highlights of the Kentucky Derby Festival. (Shawn Skriver/Creative Commons)

Even if you’re visiting Kentucky when it’s not in the grip of Derby fever, it’s easy to appreciate the state’s horse-centric culture. Just stop by the Kentucky Derby Museum, the Kentucky Horse Park or one of the manicured horse farms in the bluegrass region, where you might glimpse former Derby winners living in pampered retirement.

Mellow spirits

Bourbon whiskey, produced in Kentucky since the 18th century, is the state’s most iconic export (after thoroughbreds). Kentucky’s finest restaurants often pair different types of bourbon with specific dishes, so the flavors of each are enhanced. Want to learn more about Kentucky bourbon? Tour a local distillery and enjoy a tasting; best of all, many tours are free.

During the maturing process, bourbon whiskey is stored in wooden barrels, as seen at a Clermont, Kentucky, distillery. (Bbadgett/Creative Commons)

Going underground

Mammoth Cave National Park, in central Kentucky, encompasses portions of Mammoth Cave — the world’s longest (known) cave system, with 640 kilometers of surveyed passageways.

Visitors, left, tour Mammoth Cave, which is illuminated to dramatic effect. (Beatrice M/Creative Commons)

Treat yourself

You can’t visit Kentucky without trying its signature sandwich, the Hot Brown. Created at the Brown Hotel in Louisville in 1926, it’s an open-faced sandwich of turkey and bacon covered in Mornay sauce (a white sauce with cheese added), and baked or broiled until the bread is crisp. Some versions use cheddar or American cheese in place of the sauce.

Kentucky’s popular Hot Brown sandwich is a tasty and satisfying dish. (Shadle/Creative Commons)