City with a storied past, now known for college students, horses, bourbon & good food
Story By Edward Thomas
Lexington, Kentucky has a storied past and today is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination best known for horses, bourbon and basketball. Vogue Magazine recently named it one of the “Top Nine” U.S. travel destinations for 2018. Zagats Guide lauds its “up and coming food scene.”
Newlyweds have been discovering it as a reasonably priced romantic getaway with its variety of restaurants, night spots, lodging choices and youthful vibe. One of my daughters and her husband honeymooned there and loved it.
According to the 2014 U.S. Census, Lexington benefits from its favorable mix of college students and educated seniors, ranking #13 in the USA for percentage of adults with a college degree.
Large and Small Universities
The University of Kentucky has 24,000 undergraduate students and naturally holds a prominent place in the city. Its acclaimed men’s basketball program and competitive SEC football team draw a steady flow of weekend alumni and other visitors from September through March, keeping restaurants, entertainment venues and hotels humming.
The city is also home to Transylvania University – a small, but picturesque campus with an impressive historic resume that adds a key component to Lexington’s proud heritage.
Founded in 1780 as the first American college west of the Allegheny Mountains, Transylvania University boasts a legacy of two U.S. Supreme Court Justices, two U.S. Vice Presidents, as well as Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy and Stephen F. Austin (known as “the father of Texas”), among its alumni. Moreover, the legendary Henry Clay, who ran for president five times unsuccessfully, was a law professor and Trustee at Transylvania as well as being Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives three different times, a U.S. Senator and Secretary of State.
As leader of the Whig Party in the early 1800s, Clay held sway over the U.S. Congress for more than 40 years. Two of his notable assertions are still widely quoted and ring especially true today: “I would rather be right than be President,” and “Statistics are no substitute for judgment.” Abraham Lincoln once called Henry Clay: “My ideal of a great man.”
Transylvania’s Old Morrison Building, a Registered National Historic Landmark, serves as the University’s Administration Building. It was constructed in the early 1830’s under the supervision of Clay, and during the Civil War served as a hospital for Union Troops. Transylvania campus is adjacent to The Gratz Park Historic District which features a dozen stylish early 19th century townhomes built for Lexington’s most prominent citizens of that era. The Visit Lexington Center offers walking maps of this historic neighborhood. Semi-weekly tours of some of the grandest homes are available from April through October.
America’s Mecca for Horse Lovers
There is no better place in the USA to learn more about horses or experience the up-close thrill of real thoroughbred racing than Lexington and its surrounding countryside. As a parent with four daughters, I can attest to their excitement on our initial visit as we toured Kentucky Horse Park, Keeneland Race Course and other nearby stables where gorgeous thoroughbreds are raised and trained.
This region of northern Kentucky (the Iroquois word for meadowlands) is known worldwide as “Bluegrass Country.” This is because early pioneers discovered in the 1700s that the high concentration of calcium in the soil of local pastures created conditions ideal for the breeding of hardy horses – and then horse breeders in the 1900s found it perfect for swift thoroughbreds as well. The grass itself has a darker shade of green.
Kentucky Horse Park, just north of downtown, is the place to visit first if you are traveling with youngsters. And, if they are anything like my four daughters, then between the ages of 9 and 13, let them get their fix here at what is essentially an equine theme park dedicated to “man’s relationship to the horse.”
The 1,200 acre park is a true gem. Be sure to catch the parade of breeds called “Horses of the World” which occurs twice daily. It showcases a splendid assemblage of rare breeds including the frisky Akhal-Teke from the highlands of Turkmenistan in Central Asia, giant Percherons, sleek Appaloosas, the American Miniature Horse and many others.
There are several performance show rings plus the International Museum of the Horse, which offers both a permanent collection of horse history and rotating exhibits. Youngsters especially enjoy the horseback and pony riding tours. The horseback tour lasts approximately a half hour and takes riders throughout the expansive manicured pastures.
Vacationers seeking an even more authentic horse experience can look into visiting a genuine horse breeding farm in the countryside surrounding Lexington. More than 100 such farms are located in nearby counties. Several allow guests but only via reservations with either a local tour company, private guides or by calling the farm direct. The VisitLex.com website has an entire section devoted to visiting these farms. The website is complete with phone numbers and behavior tips while visiting a working farm.
One of the most notable farms today is Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky, a 25-minute drive from downtown Lexington. More than 300 champions have been sired by Claiborne stallions, including Secretariat and Seattle Slew. Unfortunately, the legendary Calumet Farm – home of Triple Crown winners Citation and Whirlaway – once a major attraction – is no longer open for public tours or visits.
Keeneland for the Ultimate Experience
For adults visiting Lexington the Keeneland Racecourse is the best overall experience for understanding and appreciating the sport of horseracing. The beautiful grounds here are even more striking in the Spring with its array of flowering dogwood and cherry trees. You can arrive as early as dawn on your own and watch trackside as the training jockeys put the thoroughbreds through their workouts. It is truly breathtaking to watch the stallions thundering past as you stand by the rail.
Experienced travelers recommend you take the official Keeneland Tour on your first trip to Lexington. It is offered by the track and available for bookings through the website.
It’s best to visit during race seasons in the spring and fall. This fall’s race season is October 5-27. Races are held Wednesday through Sunday each week. The nearby Red Mile Race Track for harness racing has a season which started in July and continues through October 7.
Lexington got its sterling reputation as a hub for the bourbon industry in the 1800s, and it continues today. Kentucky bourbon is America’s only native spirit, and it is claimed that 90 to 95 percent of the world’s bourbon is distilled in Kentucky. Lexington is considered the “Holy Land” for bourbon connoisseurs. The exceptional quality of bourbon here is due to the limestone rich and iron-free local water used by local distillers.
There are nine distilleries within 35 miles of Lexington where you can enjoy tours and tastings. The website KentuckyBarrels.com provides in depth info about bourbon-making around Lexington. Wild Turkey Distillery, 23 miles west of downtown, gives tours on the hour ($10/person) Monday through Saturday each week except national holidays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Suggestions from a Local…
Roxanne and John Joseph, originally from Lexington, now live in the Palmetto Dunes community of Hilton Head Island. They love sharing tips about their hometown where they return regularly for visits and hopefully catch a University of Kentucky basketball game. John is a UK alumnus and the Josephs retired here in 2000. They have two grown children. One lives on the Island and the other in Minneapolis.
The Josephs offered these tips about Lexington which is an easy one-stop flight from The Savannah/Hilton Head Airport for a weekend getaway. American Airlines and Delta have one-stop service several times daily while Allegiant Airlines currently has seasonal non-stop flights once daily.
3 Things to Do
Woodford Reserve Distillery A special experience with its historic stone buildings and classy tasting room facing an oblong fireplace. Home of Woodford Reserve, the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.
Keenland Race Course This is the one “must stop” if you are visiting Lexington. It is a horse-lovers fantasy with its pristine stables and grounds. You can not only see thoroughbreds up close at trackside, but also take a walk down the apron by the grandstand to the winner’s circle.
Lane’s End Farm Our personal favorite horse farm in the Lexington area. It is also located in Versailles and is known for its magnificent grounds. It was the farm that hosted Queen Elizabeth II, who is a thoroughbred aficionado.
3 Places to Eat
Spalding’s Bakery We must share a local secret: Spalding’s Bakery has the absolute best donuts you will ever taste. They have been making doughnuts since 1929 and are also known for their apple fritters.
The Distillery District Right near the heart of downtown, this walking urban neighborhood features excellent pizza and ice cream parlors along with cafes, taverns and live music venues. Middle Fort Kitchen Bar is a new hot spot here, having graduated from being a popular food truck.
Graze Market and Café One of our favorite restaurants is located a half hour’s drive east of downtown in Winchester, KY – out in the country in a renovated farmhouse. It’s a true farm-to-table restaurant with a menu that varies daily.
3 Places to Stay
The Castle Yes, Lexington has a real castle and you can take a tour through it, dine at the exclusive restaurant, stay at the hotel inside the castle, or book and attend an event here. In disrepair for many years, new owners have now put some big money into it and made it quite special. Cited by Architectural Digest as the “most beautiful hotel in Kentucky.”
The Sire Hotel Formally the Gratz Park Inn, this hotel is located in historic downtown and also has the Gratz Park Inn Restaurant attached, which is one of the city’s top rated dining spots. The Sire is one of the Tapestry Collection of Hilton Hotels.
21C Museum Hotel Opened in 2016 this 88-room, downtown boutique hotel is not only beautiful, but extremely convenient to local night spots, shopping and restaurants.