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I peered down at what seemed like ordinary sod to me. “Er, where is the blue grass?” I queried the Lexington desk clerk. Kentucky is, after all, called the Bluegrass State.
“Ah,” she replied, “You look in the distance and there is a bluish tint to it.” Seems kind of iffy to name a state after such scant evidence, I thought to myself.
“It withers and dries up during hot weather” she continued, “It’s important because it puts minerals into the ground that the horses thrive on.”
Ok, so this made more sense to me. After all, Lexington is known as, the horse capital of the world.
One of the first things my husband Kent and I discovered is that the city is easy to navigate and experience all the things to do in Lexington. It is set up like a wheel with spokes, with main arterial roads running from downtown out into horse country.
Ringing New Circle Road is the aptly named Man-O-War Blvd after one of the greatest racehorses in history.
Top Things to Do in Lexington
Almost all of America’s bourbon, 95% according to the Kentucky Distillers Association, is produced in Kentucky. Kentucky bourbon is the largest export category of all U.S. spirits. They ship millions of gallons all over the world.
We decided to check out the Four Roses Distillery located within a 30-minute drive of Lexington. A $5.00 fee included a comprehensive tour of how corn, rye, water and yeast become bourbon and a sampling of three different types. Oh, and you are invited to keep the whiskey glass.
The humidity was oppressive as we climbed the stairs to the fermenting vats. We stuck a finger into the bubbling brew and licked the mixture. It was rather sweet at this point.
The typical grain mixture for bourbon, known as the mash, is a minimum of 51% corn, with the remainder being rye, wheat, malt and barley.
A wee bit of history: the anti-alcohol temperance movement, led by Kentuckian Carrie A. Nation, took hold about 1890. By 1914 only 14 of the 120 counties remained wet, leaving Lexington a veritable oasis surrounded by a desert of dry counties.
Enjoy some Down-Home Kentucky Cooking
Lexington is also home to a whole new way of eating as we discovered. The word, hardy, doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
We wanted “down-home” with unpretentious Kentucky flavor and we found it. Paper towels used as napkins, bottle cap bar stools, refreshing iced tea and the indomitable Kentucky Hot Brown all added to the experience.
Tip: Iced tea is offered in two forms: sweetened or plain. With the sweetened iced tea they have already added the sugar for you.
We began our culinary adventure with the Hot Kentucky Brown. This Kentucky classic features slices of ham and turkey covered with a variety of broiled cheeses. Then, the whole thing is finished off with slices of bacon and a little sprinkling of parmesan.
The Hot Brown started in the Roaring ’20s when the Brown Hotel in Louisville came up with something to fuel all that dancing. This gooey, stick-to-your-ribs treat has thrived ever since.
Explore Horse Country
Just minutes after we left the city center we were amid the rolling hills of horse country. This is Bourbon County, one of the leading producers of thoroughbred horses in the world. We passed farm after farm with gated entrances sporting names such as Normandy Farm and Shalimar.
We even saw Taylor-Made Farms, ten minutes from Lexington center, where the Triple Crown winner, American Pharaoh spent part of his training.
There are more than fifty horse farms in the county and at least 10 hospitals devoted to horses in Lexington alone.
If you didn’t know this was horse country before arriving, signs stating “Horses Have Right of Way” and miniature stone jockeys decorating doorsteps would definitely give you a clue. Not to mention all the horse portraits adorning the walls of most hotels and restaurants.
Kent and I also visited the Kentucky Horse Park where our daughter Suzanne is one of 182 volunteers. She is a side walker for the Central Kentucky Riding for Hope program.
The program promotes equine therapy to improve the lives of those with physical and mental disabilities.
Four horses were trotting slowly around the track. Each had a lead walker controlling the horse and two side walkers assisting the participant. The walkers supply the rider with ankle holds, thigh holds, or just being by their side
“Riding builds up core muscles. This helps children to walk again. The movement of the horse is crucial to this.” Deborah, one of the trainers told us. “The children are taught to put their feet in the stirrups, hold the reins and turn right and left.”
Deborah pointed out a wheelchair lift to help those who cannot get up on the horse on their own. If a child is unable to ride atop a horse, they are taught to drive the horse while sitting in a cart.
You can explore all the most exciting places in the Lexington horse country on the Horse Farm Tour & Keeneland Race Track Visit. Enjoy the countryside and the renowned Calmut Farms as you get a firsthand experience with the horses. Book your dates here.
Learn About the History of Lexington, Kentucky
Historic downtown Lexington is filled with 21st-century galleries, restaurants, boutiques and period architecture. Two of our favorite Period Homes are the Mary Todd Lincoln House and the Hunt Morgan House. Both exhibit pre-1840 architecture and furnishings.
The Mary Todd Lincoln House is located at 578 West Main Street. This was Mary’s childhood home and a place Lincoln visited. I was fascinated by her mourning dress laid out on her bed.
The nearby Hunt-Morgan House at 210 West Broadway, also houses a wonderful collection of pre-1840 artifacts.
You can also tour the Ashland Henry Clay Estate to see how the famous Kentucky Political elite lived at the time. Find more information and book here.
Lexington’s Civil War Battlefields gave us a real feel for the soldiers, equipment and medical advances of the day. Camp Nelson, located at 6614 Danville Rd, was especially interesting.
Nicholasville provided the Union Army with over 10,000 African American soldiers. Many of the soldiers brought their families with them to Camp Nelson and eventually, the army established a refugee camp for them. Thousands of African Americans gained their freedom at Camp Nelson.
Also extremely informative are the Battle of Richmond Site (101 Battlefield Memorial Hwy) and the Battle of Perryville site (1825 Battlefield Rd.)
When it was time to leave, we crossed the Kentucky River. Not by a bridge, but via the Valley View three-car ferry that has been in existence since 1780. Its glistening red paddlewheel churned water as overhanging cables guided it along for the two-minute free journey.
It is the oldest year-round ferry service in the United States.
If You Go
Lodging: There are many places to stay in all price ranges. We especially enjoyed the La Quinta Inn and Suites 1920 Stanton Way, Lexington.
Restaurants: Here are three choices that are typical of Lexington cuisine. We liked them all.
- Saul Good’s (3 locations) A favorite: Crab Rangoon Flatbread Appetizer plus the Szechwan Steak Sandwich
- Doodles 262 North Limestone. A favorite: Dirty Shrimp and Grits
- Windy Corner (out in horse country 4595 Bryan Station Road) Favorites: Bluegrass Burrito, and Southern-style meatloaf
- A grass-covered cave used as a fire station. 3700 Man-Of-War Boulevard
- Joseph-Beth Bookstore 161 Lexington Green Circle. A bookstore like no other. Two floors of books with a play area for the kids and a whole section on Kentucky bourbon cookbooks.
- Check out the Aviation Museum of Kentucky and see the historic crafts of the South.
- See the iconic Boone Creek Gorge from above on the Fully Guided Zipline Canopy Tour.
Learn more about other hotel and VRBO options, tips on how to get around, local shops and more on TripAdvisor and Travelocity. Get all your transportation needs reserved together, from the best flights to car rentals, on Kiwi.
Author Bio: Wynne has a master’s degree in Adult Education. Her work has appeared in: Travel and Leisure, Go World Travel, Alaskan Airline Magazine, Get Lost (Au) Yours (UK) Air Force Times, Catholic Digest, Dallas Morning News, Birds and Blooms, Senior Living