While situated smack dab in the middle of Bourbon Country, Lexington, Ky., is probably better known for horses — and perhaps University of Kentucky college basketball.
Nevertheless, it’s the second-largest city in the bluegrass, so there are plenty of things to do in Lexington, from music festivals to museums to history and breweries. Lots of breweries. And, of course, plenty of horse farms. In fact, while Lexington is the second largest city in Kentucky, by area it’s actually the 28th largest city in America. That leaves visitors plenty of room to roam for young and old alike.
Here’s your comprehensive guide to what’s in Lexington, Ky. and what you can do.
Horse Farm Tours in Lexington
If you love horses, Lexington is definitely a destination — they don’t call it “The Horse Capital of the World” for nothing. The landscape is dotted with roughly 450 horse farms, all located within a reasonably short drive from the city. In fact, Lexington horse farm tours are what bourbon tours are to most of the rest of Kentucky.
Hailing from Kentucky are famous thoroughbreds like the great Man o’ War, Triple Crown legend Secretariat, who has a statue erected in his honor near downtown Lexington, and possibly the most influential racehorse of all time, simply named Lexington. During his life, he was third-leading horse in race earnings of his time, but he truly made his hay as a stud, siring some 600 foals, which went on to earn a combined $1,159,321. Not every famous Kentucky thoroughbred went on to race in the world-famous Kentucky Derby though. Learn more about Man o’War, the greatest horse that never ran the Derby.
And it’s easy to get up close and personal with a horse when you’re in Lexington. Here are five Lexington horse farms to check out:
Kentucky Horse Park is an all-encompassing experience that is essentially an equine theme park, with exhibits, horse trails, pony rides, a Hall of Champions and plenty more.
Claiborne Farm is a famous horse farm that itself is sometimes referred to as “The Horse Capital of the World,” having bred more than 80 champions, including Secretariat, who is now interred there.
Jonabell Farm is a global thoroughbred stallion operation that dates to the 17th century. It’s home to several Kentucky Derby winners and other Triple Crown race winners and is the resting place of 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed.
Old Friends Farm is basically a thoroughbred retirement home. Billing itself as a “living history museum,” it offers multiple tour levels including an “Every Horse on the Farm” tour.
The Thoroughbred Center is a working training facility where you can get an up-close, behind-the-scenes look at a normal day in the lives of thoroughbreds and the people who train and care for them. There usually are more than 1,000 horses at the center.
Book tours in advance on your own, or use a tour service like Mint Julep Experiences – Lexington, a destination management company that specializes in custom itineraries and transportation throughout Kentucky. Visit horse farm destinations around Kentucky or tour Lexington horse farms specifically. Both the spring and fall are perfect times to visit a horse farm.
Once you’ve fallen in love with thoroughbred horses, you’ll naturally want to see a race, so make sure you book your Lexington visit when Keeneland, Lexington’s historic race track, which has spring and fall meets, is running. You can also take a tour of the track and its grounds.
Bourbon Distilleries in Lexington to Visit
While horses may dominate Lexington’s culture in many ways, there are things to do in Lexington that also involve Kentucky’s favorite spirit: Bourbon. What’s in Lexington for bourbon lovers? Plenty. First of all, there are four distilleries located in Lexington, and at least 10 more within a short drive away.
There’s also the Distillery District, a walkable stretch of downtown featuring two of Lexington’s distillery operations, plus a brewery, restaurants, art, an ice cream lounge, a tavern, music venues, an arcade and The Pepper Rickhouse, a historic former bourbon warehouse that is now home to everything from shops to offices to hatchet throwing.
Here’s a look at Lexington proper’s four distilleries:
Barrel House Distilling is located in the aforementioned Distillery District and is known for its RockCastle Bourbon and Barrel House Select, among other spirits. Barrel House offers tours and tastings, and the kids can even tag along for free (minus the tasting, of course). When your tour is finished, stop into the on-site Elkhorn Tavern for a drink and a meal.
Bluegrass Distillers, established in 2012, uses blue corn in its products and claims to be the first in Kentucky to do so, noting that the corn variant adds a nutty sweetness. Why not try it for yourself on a tour? Don’t just tour the facility and taste the spirit, have yourself a whiskey discussion to understand the origin, process and unique notes.
James E. Pepper Distillery, another Distillery District business, is a brand that dates to the Revolutionary War, named for a noted master distiller and horseman — hard to get more Lexington than that. While you’re in the district, take a tour of the distilling facility, do a tasting and take home a complimentary glass.
Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. is a two-fer — as the name suggests, housing both a distillery and a brewery. You’ve probably had the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, and its Town Branch spirits brand offers several expressions. Take a tour of the “brewstillery” (just go with it) and get four tokens redeemable for tastes of beer or whiskey.
The BrewGrass Trail in Lexington
Speaking of beer, when looking for things to do in Lexington, you’re bound to get thirsty. And if beer is what you’re thirsty for, you’re in luck, because you’ll find a lot to quench your thirst. Better yet, what you’ll find is a cluster of breweries within easy driving proximity that are all doing their own things, from experimental to traditional brews.
Here’s a look at five that you can start with — and when in Lexington, be sure to pace yourself, because there’s a LOT of beer from which to choose:
West Sixth Brewing is something of an OG in Lexington, fast becoming a big regional attraction thanks to good beer and a community-minded concept. Check out the main taproom downtown and have some delicious fried seafood at Smithtown Seafood, or check out West Sixth Farm in Frankfort.
Country Boy Brewing is another long-time Lexington favorite, having blended a good-old-boy charm with some experimental brewing styles. From Cougar Bait blonde to the exquisite Nate’s Coffee Stout, you’re unlikely to find a pour in the house that doesn’t turn on your taste buds. And there’s also a location in nearby Georgetown.
Ethereal Brewing opened more recently but quickly made a name for itself in the Distillery District and beyond. You never know what you’ll find amongst the taps, be it a high-octane rye brew or the Fadtastic hazy IPA. Worth a visit.
Blue Stallion Brewing takes a bit of a left turn in its heritage approach, focusing on traditional German styles and customs. Dunkels and lagers are the tap leaders, but you’ll also find American styles like porters and IPAs. Plus, there’s good food on the menu as well.
Mirror Twin Brewing features two different buildings (reflected in the name), one focusing on beer and the other on cocktails. There’s pizza and wings available, and you’ll find staples like IPAs and stouts, as well as rotators like witbier and cider.
The Food Scene in Lexington
When you’re out looking for things to do in Lexington, it stands to reason you’re going to get hungry along the way. And while an outsider might try to convince you that, being deep in the heart of Kentucky, you’ll be limited to options like fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, and, if you’re lucky, a steaming cup of burgoo.
Well, don’t believe it. Lexington offers a varied dining scene, ranging from upscale to farm-to-table to a wide range of other casual, fun offerings that offer plenty for an audience of hungry folks. And there doesn’t need to be a colonel involved.
Here’s a quick look at what’s in Lexington for when you’re feeling particularly peckish:
Tony’s of Lexington is an upscale yet comfortable dining destination that is a favorite for locals and visitors alike. Chef Tony Ricci’s steakhouse hits the mark with a raw bar, plenty of pasta, a variety of entrees, and a selection of top-notch steaks. And be sure to check out the bourbon menu.
Joe Bologna’s Restaurant and Pizzeria stands in contrast to the upscale feel at Tony’s, but in a unique way. Located in a former Jewish temple, the pizza place is a favorite spot that caters to the adult crowd but can also make hungry families happy. From Sicilian-style pizza to subs and pasta, Joe has what your belly is looking for.
Another restaurant set in an historic building, Dudley’s on Short brings an eclectic menu and an upscale approach to downtown. The late-1800s bank building now is home to a place where you can gather and enjoy menu items like “Dudley Eggs” (made with trout), halibut, steak frites or a good ol’ Kentucky Hot Brown.
Is it brunch you seek? Then check out Josie’s Restaurant, a quirky, fun restaurant that specializes in breakfast and lunch and everything in between. Get your pancakes and waffles, an omelet (try The Meathead), eggs benedict or build your own breakfast plate. For lunchtime, there’s a variety of sandwiches and salads, plus fun favorites like grouper fingers. Just look for the purple building.
The Sage Rabbit is a laid-back farm-to-table dinner spot that’s well worth a stop. Grab a signature burger, a noodle bowl, some shrimp fritters or a bowl of “Dreamy Mac and Cheese,” and your belly will be feeling fine. Dine on the patio and you can bring your canine friend as well.
Another fine stop in Lexington is the speakeasy-themed Carson’s Food and Drink. This award-winning eatery offers a bourbon-themed aura that, frankly, has to be seen to be believed. While you’re in the wood-clad spot, try a signature dish like Creole shrimp and grits or salmon bruschetta, and top it off with a house cocktail.
Historic Homes and Sites in Lexington
The Lexington area was the first part of Kentucky to be settled and is therefore a part of the original American West. With new life comes history, and when discovering things to do in Lexington, your quest isn’t complete unless you dig into the city’s rich history.
The middle-ground state during the Civil War divided its people in many ways, but also gave rise to homes and other locations that would endure to keep this rich history alive in what is now a more unified state. Stories of important Kentuckians blend with classic architecture to create a memorable experience for any and all who visit.
Here are a few of the must-see places to visit when in Lexington:
The Mary Todd Lincoln House is a great place to start when looking into Lexington history. The woman born to a political family would ultimately marry Abraham Lincoln; she and her husband would visit the home several times. Many of Mary’s personal possessions and artifacts are still on display in the house, which the family first inhabited in 1832.
Ashland – The Henry Clay Estate is another must-see when touring Lexington. Clay was a well-known statesman in the early 19th century and was a U.S. senator, speaker of the house, secretary of state and also a three-time presidential candidate. Tour an Italianate-style house that was built for Henry’s son, James, see the family artifacts and walk through the English-style garden.
Waveland, also known as the Joseph Bryan estate, is a fixture in the Kentucky State Parks system, a Greek Revival Antebellum mansion designed with columns and a portico, and open for tours and special events. Visitors can stroll the grounds and enjoy foot bridges and herb gardens or schedule a tea on Tuesdays.
Built in 1899, the Historic Lexington Courthouse, also known as the Old Fayette County Courthouse, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a gorgeous, Richardson Romanesque structure constructed with Kentucky limestone on its exterior. The old building is topped by a bell. There’s also an adjacent park perfect for enjoying a stroll or a picnic lunch.
Completed in 1814, The Hunt-Morgan House was built for the first millionaire west of the Alleghenies, Wesley Hunt. One of his offspring was none other than Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, leader of the guerrilla fighters known as “Morgan’s Raiders.” The Federal-style building is beloved for this history as much as its striking architecture.
Lexington’s Bluegrass Music
Kentucky is not called the Bluegrass State for nothing. Sure, it’s a nod to the strand of grass preferred by Kentucky, but it’s also a call-out to the traditional musical style that calls the state its birthplace.
Believed to originate in the 1940s with Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, who combined traditional mountain music elements into country, the musical style known as bluegrass is distinct in its leaning on string instruments such as the banjo, the mandolin, fiddle and upright bass fiddle. Another distinctive aspect of bluegrass is the preponderance of three-part vocal harmonies that help weave the songs together and add emotion to the many stories told through bluegrass songs.
While bluegrass music is now beloved internationally, it’s not a surprise that Lexington would embrace its native song — and it does so with plenty of options. When finding things to do in Lexington, you’d be remiss to not catch a bluegrass show.
Here is a list of venues where you can do just that when in Lexington:
You can not only hear live bluegrass but also be in a radio audience when you attend WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour on Monday nights. The show goes out to more than 500 radio markets worldwide, and performances are open to the public.
Red Barn Radio is another Lexington-based bluegrass radio show with a live audience. Based at Performance Hall at ArtsPlace, shows take place on Wednesday nights and are later broadcast over the airwaves.
For a fun outdoor summer experience, head to a Thursday evening performance as part of the Southland Jamboree series. It’s a free concert, and if you have the chops (and an instrument), you can sit in on a post-show bluegrass jam session.
Every fall, the Jacob Niles Center for American Music presents free lunchtime bluegrass concerts each Friday.
And if you’re still itching to sit in, try Akemon’s Barber Shop in nearby Paris. Every Tuesday from 3:30 to 6 or so, bluegrass musicians gather to trade chops, and guests are welcome to either play along or just tap a toe.
Louisville vs. Lexington
Given that Louisville and Lexington are located in the same state and are just 75 miles apart, it’s easy to think there shouldn’t be much of a difference between the two. Both are steeped in bourbon culture, and both are borderline Southern cities that hold many Southern traditions. But even though the two cities may be, if you will, siblings, they certainly aren’t identical twins.
Possibly the most recognizable difference in the two cities is size — Louisville’s population is about 600,000, with a metro area of just over 1 million, while Lexington’s latest population count was just over 320,000, with a metro count of a little over 500,000. This difference is one factor in Louisville having a more urban feel, versus Lexington’s more rural vibe (hey, you don’t see too many horse farms in Louisville).
And even with bourbon in common, Louisville has positioned itself as Bourbon City, a sort of gateway to the state’s booming bourbon culture — when tourists come looking for Kentucky’s brown spirit, they often start their journey in Louisville. This is another factor in Louisville’s more urban culture, which features numerous museums, a nationally recognized theater, more professional sports, and an urban downtown center with high-rises and big businesses standing out. In addition, the Ohio River offers opportunities unavailable in a land-locked city like Lexington.
But Lexington, for however it may trail Louisville in terms of urban amenities, carries more of a tight-knit, small-town vibe that is tailor made for entrepreneurs — it’s a place where boutique shops and mom-and-pop businesses can thrive without being swallowed up. And while it may not have quite the culinary or arts scene Louisville has, it holds its own for visitors and residents alike. There’s plenty to do — and beautiful scenery just on the outskirts of town.
In addition, Lexington has scored higher on livability lists in many cases, such as a U.S. News & World Report from 2019 that hailed Lexington as a Top 30 city in the U.S. — Louisville ranked in the 60s on that list. Cost of living is friendlier in Lexington, crime rates tend to be lower, and it offers a picturesque setting for family life.
Is one better than another? It all depends on what you’re looking for in a city. Both have strengths, both have weaknesses, and that may be why they coexist so well in such close proximity. It’s just a hop, skip and a jump from one to another, bonding them as sibling cities.
About The Author
Kevin Gibson has been a professional writer for more than three decades, having written about restaurants, beer, bourbon, sports, nightlife, music and plenty more. He is author of “This Used to Be Louisville,” “Louisville Beer” and six other published books. In addition, he has won numerous awards from The Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists and other organizations, but he can’t remember where he put most of them. When he’s not busy writing books or stories about Louisville, he’s likely hanging out at a brewery with his dog, Atticus.