This study explores the degree to which cultural engagement contributes to older people’s lives using qualitative interview data with 40 participants aged 64–98 years. It makes an original contribution to the fields of cultural class analysis and policy-related literature on participation and ageing by unravelling how class – especially cultural capital acquired throughout the life course – shapes the meanings and contexts of cultural participation in later life. This article shows how ageing creates material, physical and relational barriers to cultural participation, particularly for older-old participants, and how these interact with inequalities of cultural capital and taste. Findings highlight how cultural participation both reflects and creates inequality of opportunity in older age, by revealing the influence of class, gender and ethnicity on the contexts and subsequent outcomes of engagement. The article examines the intellectual dimension of engagement in order to understand the experience of the aesthetic encounter specific to older populations. The patterns of participation and social contexts in which engagement occurs reinforce social hierarchies and define identities in older age.