Picturesque and well-to-do, Kentucky’s most richly adorned town still rarely makes it onto the mainstream traveler’s itinerary through the Bluegrass State. Why is something of a mystery.
There’s plenty to do and see here, whether it’s wondering at the elegant Victorian and Greek Revival homes of plantation owners from centuries gone by, tasting hearty country fare from Kentuckian farms, or gawping at old fighter jets in aviation museums.
And that’s not even mentioning the deep tradition of whiskey brewing and beer making that’s on show courtesy of the craft joints and distilleries of the town, or the legendary array of horses and horse racers that coalesce here – Lexington is hailed as the home of the horse for a reason!
And once you’ve ticked off all the top things on this list, there’s oodles more to see in the gorgeous countryside all around, which rolls eastward to Appalachia and westward into the meadowlands and banjo-plucking towns of Outer Bluegrass.
Here are the best things to do in Lexington:
1. Get in the saddle at the Kentucky Horse Park
In the bona fide home of American horse breeding, the Kentucky Horse Park prides itself on celebrating and raising awareness for humanity’s relationship to everything equine.
Hosting the Smithsonian International Museum of the Horse, the site chronicles the evolution of horse rearing and the various uses of horses in society, going from the earliest years of the Arabic caliphates to the regal horse and carts of Victorian England.
People can also flock to see the grave of the iconic Man o’ War thoroughbred and the grand statue that marks its resting place, not to mention regular shows of horses from right across the globe – from the rare steeds of Bactria to the workhorses of the US.
2. Get up-close-and-personal with Union history at the Mary Todd Lincoln House
This pretty Georgian brick build on the heart of West Main Street was first raised in the early years of the 19th century.
First it was a tavern for the early settlers of Lexington, and then it was the home of one Mary Todd – soon to be Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of the president and First Lady of the United States.
More recently, the site was transformed into a protected historical site, and the interior rooms were preserved with all their period furnishings and photographs intact.
Today, travelers can come and wander the pretty gardens and see a piece of American history as it was more than a century ago.
3. Dance your way to the Festival of the Bluegrass
Every year in early June, in the home of bluegrass, where the banjo and honkytonk and Irish folk violin reign supreme, the people of Lexington host one of the best parties the genre has on its calendar.
Run by local Kentucky families, it’s a wholesome and intimate affair with a single-stage setup. For travelers with kids in tow, there are on-site banjo and music workshops, teaching plucking and strumming and rhythm techniques.
A line-up of international and American bluegrass acts graces the stage, while magic shows, hand-made arts and crafts and horse processions courtesy of the venue (the aforementioned Kentucky Horse Park) just add to the mix.
4. Get your wings at the Aviation Museum of Kentucky
Spread over more than 20,000 square feet of exhibition space on the edge of the Blue Grass Airport, and loaded with everything from awesome F-4 Phantoms to Bell Cobra copters (the type used widely in the Vietnam War), the Aviation Museum of Kentucky is the perfect place for budding petrol heads and lovers of all things with wings (except maybe birds!).
The institution also hosts the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame, which pays homage to all the local greats in the industry.
And then there are the regular traveling exhibits, ranging from historic photograph collections to models and aircraft-related artifacts.
5. Wander the graves of Lexington Cemetery
Now with more than 60,000 internments and a history of more than 150 years, the Lexington Cemetery makes its home on the northern fringes of the city’s downtown.
Covered in pretty groves of crab-apple trees, magnolias and blooms of tulips, not to mention the occasional babbling water feature, the area is not only a resting place for some of Kentucky’s greatest VIPs, but also a pleasant spot to stroll and wander away from the town.
There are some striking effigies to see, like the National Register of Historical Places Confederate Soldier Monument, along with the graves of notable people like Gay Brewer the golfer, Adolph Rupp the basketball coach, and even Levi Todd, one of the frontiersmen and founders of Lexington itself!
6. Tour the endless rooms of the Henry Clay estate
The dual-winged Italianate majesty of the Henry Clay estate has adorned the streets of south-eastern Lexington since the first decades of the 1800s.
Rumbled by the New Madrid Earthquake in 1811, the historic plantation was entirely rebuilt in the middle of the century, complete with gorgeous Greek Revivalist decorations and touches of European grandeur.
Today, the whole home, surrounded by swathes of green ash and fir forests, is a great way to get a feel for the heritage of Lexington and Kentucky as a whole.
Groups can tour the opulent interior rooms, see exhibits relating the ancestry of the Clays themselves, and spot Civil War monuments in the grounds.
Book online: Ashland Henry Clay Estate Ticket with Guided Tour
7. Have a cool brew at Third Street Stuff & Coffee
Colourful, quirky and fun Third Street Stuff & Coffee is something of a ramshackle hodgepodge of hippy art and psychedelia circa 1969.
Laden to the brim with paintings and murals, it’s a community-focused drinkery with a difference.
Folk can settle down on the crooked tables and between the graffiti-clad walls to sip the house brews, all roasted from fair trade, hand-picked beans.
Occasionally, the interior gives way to ad hoc stand-up and live music shows, while the staff seem to have a perpetual smile on standby.
There are Guatemalan, Peruvian and Ethiopian blends to enjoy on the menu, along with hot chocolates and some curious iced mochas with fruit!
8. Sample the south in the Blue Door Smokehouse
No trip this close to the erstwhile Mason-Dixon Line could possibly be complete without at least a sampling of the smoky flavors of the Deep South, which make an occasional appearance on the streets of Lexington.
Nowhere are the barbeque smells and smokes better than at Blue Door; a highly-rated, stripped-down American BBQ diner on Walton Ave.
Here, the menu offers up platters of pulled pork and smoked sausage, combo dishes of brisket and authentic smoked racks of ribs – the list of southern staples goes on and on!
Service is simple, while the chocolate fudge brownies are to-die-for!
9. Get away from it all at the Raven Run Nature Sanctuary
On the far southern fringes of Lexington city, where the meanders of the Kentucky River weave through the land, the Raven Run Nature Sanctuary is a vast expanse of American wilds that beckons travelers with the promise of hiking paths and woodlands, babbling streams and conserved forestry.
Set over a space of more than 700 acres and complete with its own all-new visitor’s center, the spot is also great for those who want to encounter the state’s array of wildlife.
There are oodles of different species of fern and flower, bird and woodland creature to see, not to mention backcountry paths along the Kentucky River Palisades.
10. See the elegant Waveland State Historic Site
Grand and historic with its Doric columns and red-brick walls, the Waveland State Historic Site is one of the best-preserved examples of the American plantation era still standing in Kentucky.
It’s set in its very own square of greenery on the south-western edge of the city, offering a glimpse at the regal lifestyles lived by the area’s 19th-century landowners.
A grand example of an antebellum mansion from the era, guests here can tour the opulent interior rooms (once the home of the local Bryan clan) and the sweeping grounds, where an old ice house, some slave quarters and a classic southern smokehouse still stand.
11. See the city’s finest art collection at the University of Kentucky Art Museum
Coupling the contemporary and the classic, the subversive and the thought-provoking (and with a healthy dash of the downright curious for good measure), the University of Kentucky Art Museum is widely considered to be the home of the finest art collection in the city.
It’s got the likes of Albrecht Dürer and Lichtenstein, along with a calendar of touring shows and workshops that go from children’s drawing schools to lectures from leading Lexington artists.
The best part? Entry to the rich permanent collection is totally free!
12. Drink your way through Alltech’s Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co.
Sat just a stone’s throw from the railroad tracks between the Speigle Heights and Davis Bottom neighborhoods of central Lexington, Alltech’s Brewing & Distilling Co. is the place to go for beer in what’s widely considered to be the land of malts and bourbon.
Perfect for those a little tired of potent tipples of whiskey, the brew house churns out oodles of Kentucky Kolsch and IPAs.
The trademark brew is the flagship Kentucky Ale, complete with a glowing amber hue and a smooth finish.
Of course, Kentucky whiskey is never too far away either, and visitors who opt to take the on-site tours can sample the much-loved Bluegrass Sundown bourbon and Town Branch ryes. Nice.
13. Enjoy local company and crafts at West Sixth Brewing
From one local brew house to another, cool and hipster West Sixth Brewing makes its home on the opposite side of town from the Distilling Co.
Here, it offers up an industrial-chic tap room and oodles of homemade tipples. There’s the popular West Sixth IPA; a canned fizz of a beer with a quad of interesting hops.
There’s the Pay It Forward Porter, loaded with undertones of cocoa and chocolate. And then there’s the appropriately-named DankeChain, brewed in homage to the ancient bubbly beers of Oktoberfest and Bavaria.
Sixth are a community brewery at heart too, so expect plenty of events attended by locals, from yoga classes to running groups!
14. Start the day at Windy Corner Market
Nestled in the heart of Bluegrass country on the far north-eastern outskirts of Lexington, Windy Corner Market is just about as homey and local as it’s possible to be.
Serving up a medley of Po-Boy subs and bakery goods, buttermilk chicken fingers and fresh American salads, the joint is loved by Kentuckians right throughout the day.
However, the piece de resistance has to be the breakfast selection, which ranges from cushiony Belgian-style waffles to BLT baguettes and colossal plates of hearty country morning fare.
The real pull? Virtually everything you’ll be eating is sourced from Kentucky itself!
15. See where the city began at McConnell Springs
It was between the brooks and swaying ash trees of McConnell Springs, a pretty chunk of greenery and wilderness on the northern fringes of the city, that the frontiersman William McConnell and his compadres first set up camp in the summer of 1775.
While there, the group learned of the start of the American Revolution and decided to name their settlement in honour of the town in Massachusetts where the first outbreaks of anti-colonial skirmishes had been. Lexington was born.
Today, visitors come here to see the very spot where this historic founding took place, and to wander the hiking trails between the springs that supported the town’s first inhabitants.