Lexington, Kentucky, is known as the Horse Capital of the World. But the city, which resides in the state’s inner Bluegrass region, is also home to a wealth of history and natural beauty. Whether you’re interested in watching a horse race at one of the city’s racetracks, making a stop along Kentucky’s historic Bourbon Trail or simply looking for a dose of Southern charm, you’ll find it in Lexington. This guide to some of the top things to do in Lexington can help you make the most of your trip. (Note: Some tours, events and attractions may be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
Kentucky Horse Park
The Kentucky Horse Park is an operating horse farm, a theme park and the venue for the annual High Hope Steeplechase, which takes place on the third Sunday in May. Visitors will learn about the history of horses and human’s relationship to them through the park’s four museums and numerous memorials and statues. The park also hosts shows, demonstrations and even presentations from the prize-winning horses that reside in the property’s Hall of Champions. Horseback trail rides and pony rides are among the activities available to visitors. The Kentucky Horse Park also shelters a campground, but for those who don’t want to rough it, there are a variety of hotels located nearby, such as the Lexington Griffin Gate Marriott Golf Resort & Spa, Embassy Suites by Hilton Lexington/UK Coldstream or even the upscale Kentucky Castle in nearby Versailles.
This museum was founded in 1968, initially as a private gallery to showcase the creations of its founders, jewelry designer George Headley III and his wife Barbara Whitney. The museum is home to various collections, including jewelry, bibelots and mounted semiprecious stones designed and collected by Headley, as well as dollhouses designed by craftsmen for Whitney’s daughter. It’s also home to the couple’s collection of fine and decorative arts from around the world. There are also workshops for children and adults who wish to develop skills like flower arranging and jewelry making. Keep in mind that the museum is not open year-round and is closed for winter. Visitors have called it a hidden gem and a truly unique experience in an area where horses and bourbon are often the main attractions.
Also known as Hopemont, the Hunt-Morgan House was built in 1814 by John Wesley Hunt, the first millionaire west of the Allegheny Mountains. The home is also named for Hunt’s great-grandson, Dr. Thomas Hunt Morgan, who is one of few Kentucky residents to win the Nobel Prize for his work in genetics. Visitors can admire the Federal-style architecture and craftsmanship of the home, along with period furniture that provides a glimpse into what life was like in the early 19th-century in what was then called the Athens of the West. Hopemont also provides a lecture series, where visitors can learn about things like historical mixology, the state’s involvement with slavery and hemp production, historical innovations and more. Past visitors have remarked on the rich history the museum provides of the family, the Civil War and hemp production at the time.
See the world’s largest ceiling clock at the Lexington Public Library
In 2001, construction began on the world’s largest ceiling clock, which features a massive, five-story-tall Foucault pendulum. The history of the Foucault pendulum dates back to 1851, when it was used to demonstrate the earth’s rotation without using astronomical observations. The ceiling clock at the Lexington Public Library uses a series of lit panels instead of hands to provide the current time. As you admire the clock (or simply check the time), you’ll also want to study the frieze that surrounds the pendulum. It depicts the history of the horse in the Bluegrass region. The frieze, along with the clock, shows that the concept of time can be viewed in seconds, minutes and hours, or by the collection of historical events.
Jacobson Park provides opportunities for the whole family to play and enjoy the outdoors. The 216-acre park, which is located in east Lexington, is home to a reservoir, the Lakeside Golf Course, basketball and volleyball courts, a dog park, playgrounds and more. What’s more, pedal boats or kayaks can be rented for those that want to spend time out on the water. There are also several fishing docks surrounding the reservoir. Both travelers and residents highlight the park as a great place to take children, potentially as a full-day excursion or as a midday break from other trip activities.
Browse at Joseph-Beth Booksellers
If you’re a bookworm, Joseph-Beth Booksellers might as well feel like home. The independent bookstore is located in the Lexington Green shopping center and offers a broad range of books that you can easily spend hours perusing. The bookstore also hosts a wide variety of activities, including author signings, wine tastings, customer appreciation days, book fairs and more. Before you visit, check the Joseph-Beth Booksellers website to learn about upcoming events. Visitors have described the privately-owned bookstore as a wonderland for readers, especially on a cold or rainy day.
Tour the Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company
The Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company was founded in 1999 and provides a long list of craft beers, malt beverages, spirits and whiskeys. A tour of the brewery and distillery takes you through the brewing and distilling processes and includes four tasting tokens that you can use to sample some of the products you see. It’s also the only location on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail where you can sample both beer and bourbon at the same time. After the tour is finished, you can spend some time in the beer garden relaxing with a pint. If you decide to take something home from the shop, be sure to check out some recipes on the company’s website.
The Lexington Cemetery
Visitors to the Lexington Cemetery can not only pay their respects to local and national historical figures, but enjoy the beautiful grounds that boast hundreds of species of trees and thousands of flowers.(Getty Images)
Just north of the city’s downtown area, the Lexington Cemetery isn’t just a favorite haunt of visitors who enjoy spooky surroundings. The cemetery grounds are a stunning sample of natural beauty, with more than 200 species of trees, 16,000 tulips and an avenue of dogwood trees, magnolia trees, pink weeping cherry trees and more. It can be especially worthwhile to visit the cemetery during the winter or spring months to experience a winter wonderland or watch the spring flowers and trees bloom. History buffs will be pleased to hear this 19th-century cemetery is home to a variety of Civil War statues, memorials and mausoleums. The cemetery is also the final resting place of many local and national historical figures, including former Secretary of State Henry Clay.
McConnell Springs Park
McConnell Springs Park was the site of the founding and naming of the city of Lexington in 1775. The park is home to two natural springs and historical structures that are still visible. Visitors can check out old stone fences, the foundation of a creamery, the remains of a dam, a small rock quarry and more. The 26-acre park also offers 2 miles of hiking trails for those in search of a leisurely stroll.
Take in a game or concert at Rupp Arena
Rupp Arena is primarily known as the home of the University of Kentucky Wildcats men’s and women’s basketball teams. But the arena also hosts an array of cultural events, including concerts, bull riding competitions, comedy tours, monster truck shows and more. There are many hotels within walking distance of the arena, including the Hyatt Regency Lexington, the Hilton Lexington Downtown and the 21c Museum Hotel Lexington.
Waveland State Historic Site
The Waveland State Historic Site provides a preserved look into the history of the city, particularly the plantation era of old Lexington. The site focuses on the everyday life of the property’s owner, Joseph Bryan, and his family, as well as the enslaved people who worked on the plantation. Visitors can tour the antebellum mansion, take a stroll on the grounds, admire the beauty of the flower and herb gardens, and learn about the hemp industry in the 1850s. The site also hosts events, such as Tuesday Tea and vintage baseball games.
Take a horse farm tour
With 450 horse farms in Lexington, you’re never far from visiting, riding and learning about Kentucky’s favorite animal.(Getty Images)
There are roughly 450 horse farms throughout the region surrounding Lexington, but you generally can’t visit without making prior arrangements. While some farms welcome visitors by appointment, others may require you to book a tour with a professional company. Most horse farms in Kentucky specialize in a specific breed, with some focused on racing and others on dressage, jumping, driving and other skills. If you’re a big fan of equestrian sports, you may even be able to visit some of the champion horses. Plan to contact the farm in advance to make sure that the horse you want to see will be available for viewing. If you’re looking for a tour of one or more farms, compare the different local touring operations to find the best fit for you, and make sure you book in advance because tours can sell out. Unique Horse Farm Tours and Thoroughbred Heritage Horse Farm Tours are both highly rated by fellow travelers.
Mary Todd Lincoln House
The first lady to the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, was born in what’s now the heart of downtown Lexington. Her childhood home has been converted to a museum that offers self-guided tours. Travelers can learn about the house’s history, which included a stint as an inn before the Todd family made it their home. The property was eventually sold at a public auction, after which it was used as a grocery store, a boarding house and even a brothel. You can also learn about the life of the first lady and her family, which includes their status as slaveowners, Mary’s life at the White House, and her life after the death of her husband, including her insanity trial. Keep in mind that the museum closes for the winter.
Henry Clay is one of the country’s most prominent historical figures. Clay was an attorney before he entered politics, where he was the speaker of the House of Representatives, a U.S. senator and the secretary of state to John Quincy Adams. Ashland is Clay’s estate, offering tours to visitors who want to explore the grounds, learn about the history of the property and the family that called it home, as well as the people who were enslaved at the estate. At its largest, the Henry Clay estate included 600 acres, but only 17 acres remain today. Note that tours may not be available during your planned visit. Check the Ashland estate website to find out what options are available during your trip.
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
Located roughly 25 miles southwest of Lexington, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill was home to the third-largest Shaker community in the U.S. for a span of 105 years. Shaker Village is Kentucky’s largest National Historic Landmark and boasts the largest private collection of original 19th-century buildings in the country – 34 of the original 260 structures are still standing. The 3,000-acre village features a hotel, a farm-to-table restaurant, a nature preserve, a farm, hiking trails, shops and more. You can also visit the Historic Centre to learn about the history of the village, take in the architecture and craftsmanship, and learn about the people that built and lived there.
Shop at the Summit at Fritz Farm
If you’re looking for a place to shop and dine, the Summit at Fritz Farm is the place to be. The mixed-use development is home to more than 60 shops and more than 20 restaurants. All of the shops and restaurants are at street level, and dining options include a mix of well-known brands like Starbucks, Apple and Pottery Barn, as well as local and regional flavors. Some of the more highly-rated options include 33 Staves and Honeywood.
Keeneland Race Course
Bet on your favorite racehorse, witness an auction and tour the grounds at the world-renowned Keeneland Race Course.(Getty Images)
Keeneland is not only a world-renowned racecourse, but also an auction house. If you’ve never witnessed a live horse race, it can be a great place to take in the experience and maybe even put in a bet on your favorite to win. You can also attend an auction to learn about the process of buying and selling racehorses. And if you want to find out more about the history of horse racing, consider a guided or self-guided tour of the grounds. You’ll enjoy an intimate view of morning workouts, visit the jockey quarters, browse the shops and more. If Keeneland is your reason for visiting Lexington, consider a hotel in the area, such as the Origin Hotel Lexington or the Eighth Pole Inn.
Woodford Reserve Distillery
The Woodford Reserve Distillery is located in Versailles, Kentucky, which sits about 20 miles west of Lexington. The Woodford Reserve brand was first introduced in 1996, but distilling first occurred on the site in 1812, making it one of the state’s oldest distilleries. During the 70-minute tour, visitors will learn about the historic distillery, understand what makes Woodford Reserve unique and get the chance to taste its craft bourbon at the tour’s conclusion. Those who don’t have time for a tour can sign up for a 30-minute tasting, which features five different samples. Note that according to the distillery, tours are booking out three months in advance.
Tour the James E. Pepper Distillery
James E. Pepper whiskey was first produced during the American Revolution – making it the oldest brand of whiskey made in Kentucky. Though the distillery closed in 1967 when the bourbon industry fell on hard times, the brand was revived in 2008. With an hourlong distillery tour, you can learn about the history of James E. Pepper whiskey and the process of researching and collecting the original recipes and other materials needed to bring it back to life. You’ll also learn about the distillery building, which was neglected for 50 years and has since been rebuilt and restored. At the end of the tour, you’ll receive a sample of some of the distillery’s award-winning whiskeys, as well as a complimentary tasting glass. Note, however, that hours are limited during the winter months. If you don’t have time for a tour, you can enjoy tasting flights and cocktails at the distillery’s bar or outside on the patio.
Bluegrass Farmers’ Market
If you like to get a taste of the local foods and goods when you travel, the Bluegrass Farmers’ Market – the largest, 100% homegrown market in Lexington – is an excellent place to satisfy your appetite. Plan a stop here to peruse seasonal fruits, vegetables, plants and flowers, baked goods, jams, honey, meats and cheeses, handmade soaps, woodworking pieces and more. The market is open from April to October.
Take the Lexington Mural Challenge
Lexington has more than 30 street murals. While some of the artists are known, others are anonymous. As you go about your day exploring the city, keep your eye out for some of these beautiful pieces of art. Some of the murals depict the city’s long history and love of horses, but others include a tribute to Louis Armstrong, the world’s largest mural of Abraham Lincoln and many more. The Lexington Mural Challenge, one of the more unique things to do in Lexington , involves snapping pictures of at least five of the murals you see around town. If you email your photos to [email protected] with the subject line “Mural Challenge,” you’ll get a free poster to commemorate your visit.
Arboretum, State Botanical Garden of Kentucky
Operated by the University of Kentucky, the arboretum is a must-see attraction year-round. The 100-acre public garden has three main features: the Walk Across Kentucky, the Horticultural Gardens and the Kentucky Children’s Garden. In the Walk Across Kentucky area, you’ll find a 2-mile paved loop that winds through a collection of native plants sourced from around the state. The Horticultural Gardens contain four gardens, each with a different theme, and the Kentucky Children’s Garden is a place where children and families can learn about plants and the environment. It’s free to visit the arboretum grounds, but donations are welcome. Note that the Kentucky Children’s Garden closes during the winter months. If you’re looking for accommodations near the college campus, which is located in the heart of Lexington, consider The Campbell House Lexington, Curio Collection by Hilton, among others.
Raven Run Nature Sanctuary
Escape to nature with Raven Run Nature Sanctuary’s many hiking trails and scenic points of interest.(Getty Images)
The Raven Run Nature Sanctuary is one of the best things to do in Lexington, especially for nature lovers. What’s more, it’s free to access. The 734-acre woodland preserve boasts seven hiking trails that span more than 10 miles, along with several points of interest, including an overlook of the Kentucky River, the site of a historic grist mill, the headstone of a 19th-century inhabitant of the area, and the Prather Homestead, where the family that owned much of the preserve in the early 1800s lived. The sanctuary is also home to a native plant garden, where visitors can learn about local flora and fauna. Plus, the sanctuary offers different programs throughout the year for children and families, such as the Owl Prowl, the Salamander Search and the Woodcock Walk.
The Aviation Museum of Kentucky
Located at the Blue Grass Airport, the Aviation Museum of Kentucky offers a glimpse into aviation history. You’ll be able to view various aircraft, including a Blue Angels A-4 Skyhawk and a Crosley “Moonbeam” biplane. The museum also includes artifacts and equipment, documents, interactive displays and flight simulators. The museum is also home to a library, an aircraft restoration and repair facility, and the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame. If you’re looking for accommodations near the airport, options include the Comfort Suites Keeneland and the Fairfield Inn and Suites Lexington Keeneland Airport, among others.
The Kentucky Theatre
If you’re a movie buff, the Kentucky Theatre is a must-see. The historic theater originally opened 100 years ago, in 1922. It received its first substantial renovations in the 1950s, including a new marquee and the addition of shag carpet, then was closed for five years after a fire in 1987. As of early 2022, the theater is currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but plans are underway to reopen as a nonprofit organization. While the theater will screen current films, it’ll also retain programs loved by the local community, such as midnight showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” summer classics movie series and additional events. Keep an eye on the progress toward reopening the theater if you’re interested in visiting.
Red Mile Racetrack
The iconic Red Mile Racetrack was established in 1875, making it the second-oldest harness racing track in the world. If you’re interested in witnessing this variation on horse racing, check out the dates for live races on the clay track during your stay in Lexington. The racetrack also occasionally hosts events, such as a family fun day featuring pony rides, a petting zoo and more. Live racing at the track only occurs between August and early October, but during other times of the year, you can view workouts and check out simulcasted races while you enjoy a drink or meal from the on-site bar and grill.
Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farms
Located 15 miles north of Lexington in Georgetown, Kentucky, Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farms is a place for thoroughbred horses to live out their days after their racing and breeding careers end. The farm was established in 2003 when the founder, Michael Blowen, came across the news that a former Kentucky Derby winner had died in a slaughterhouse. Dubbed as a “living-history museum of horse racing,” the farm has rescued and retired more than 200 horses. With a tour of the farm, you’ll be able to meet between 10 and 15 retirees, including Silver Charm, the horse that won the 1997 Kentucky Derby. Note that children ages 9 and younger are only allowed on private tours.
West Sixth Brewing
Founded in 2012, West Sixth Brewing produces more than 30 different beers throughout the year, making it a must-visit for beer enthusiasts. Plus, it occupies a historic setting: The brewery is located in a 100-year-old building that previously served as a bread factory. You can visit the brewery taproom, peruse the on-site shop to grab some beers to go or take an hourlong tour of the facility. If you choose a tour, you’ll enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at every step in the brewing process while sipping on some of the brewery’s exclusive beers. In all, you’ll enjoy four beer samples and a souvenir glass that you can take home.
Institute 193 is a modern art museum that aims to showcase the cultural landscape of the modern South. Founded in 2009, the mission of the museum is to highlight artists, musicians and writers that produce contemporary art outside of large metropolitan areas. The museum selects artists hailing from Kentucky and other southeastern states. In addition to displaying exhibits, Institute 193 also hosts musical performances, movie screenings, lectures and other events for the local community. If you’re interested in visiting, check out the museum’s website to view upcoming exhibits. Previous visitors have praised the museum for the overall experience and its focus on local artists.
Attend the Festival of the Bluegrass
Since the 1970s, the Festival of the Bluegrass has welcomed musicians from around the world and supported aspiring musicians through its music camps.(Getty Images)
If you’re planning a summer trip to Lexington, you’ll want to time your visit for the Festival of the Bluegrass, which is held the first full weekend in June. The festival, which started in 1974, takes place at the Kentucky Horse Park campground and features a variety of bluegrass musicians, including legends like Ricky Skaggs and Béla Fleck. In addition to the festival, there’s also a bluegrass music camp designed for kids ages 6 to 18 that’s held the week leading up to the festival. If you’re a fan of bluegrass music, this event should be on your radar, according to past attendees. Before you book your trip, though, check out the festival’s website. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Festival of the Bluegrass was canceled in 2020 and 2021.