Lexington, Kentucky may be considered Ground Zero for University of Kentucky Wildcat diehards or fans of the Transylvania University Pioneers. But, for visitors introduced to Lexington for the very first time, aspects that set it apart from most cities in the Bluegrass State are quickly visible. And, of course, there is your first taste of the iconic Kentucky Hot Browns
As you drive into town, your eyes will be drawn to over 400 horse farms with palatial horse barns, lush pasturelands and distinctive fences. Generally, the owners’ homes will also be breathtaking in their opulence. Horses represent a $4-billion business annually in Kentucky, with Lexington called The Horse Capital of the World.
The Kentucky Horse Park, a working farm, hosts nearly a million visitors every year with its outdoor exhibitions, museums and Hall of Champions. Keeneland Race Course presents month-long race meets in April and October each year. The meets attract thousands of eager observers hoping to make an extra buck or two by choosing winners out of hundreds of entries.
Lexington provides stellar equine care facilities. One thousand horses are being trained at The Thoroughbred Center at any given time. Man O’ War, one of the all-time legendary horses, heralds from Lexington. And Calumet Farm has produced a record number of Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown winners.
Famous jockeys make their home in Lexington, and stables teaching horseback riding are brimming with dedicated students. A fun fact from VisitLEX.com states: “There is one horse for every 12 people in Kentucky, and in 1789, there were more horses than people in Lexington.” Horse-themed merchandise is everywhere. Purses, apparel, jewelry, housewares and much more incorporate a horse, and the city of Lexington uses a blue stallion named Big Lex as its symbol.
Students of Early American and Civil War history will find a treasure trove in Lexington and its immediate surroundings. Chronologically speaking, it might be best to drive about twenty-five miles southwest and start in the town of Harrodsburg. It is Kentucky’s oldest town and began as a settlement in 1774. A few blocks from Main Street, you can see Old Fort Harrod State Park with its reconstruction of the early fort. Daniel Boone helped to settle that fort and Boonesborough. Costumed guides and interpreters are on hand to provide historical context and demonstrate techniques involved in the pioneer way of life.
Lexington itself was founded a year later in 1775, seventeen years before Kentucky became a state. Favorite son, Henry Clay, was born in 1777. His 18-room mansion called Ashland and surrounding estate grounds now sit in the middle of a beautiful residential district in Lexington. You will find it open for tours until 4:00 p.m. almost every day, except Mondays and major holidays.
The Mary Todd Lincoln House, at 578 West Main Street, welcomes visitors. Mary lived in the house with her family from 1832 until 1839, when she moved to Springfield, Illinois to live with her older sister.
That is where she met her future husband Abraham Lincoln. The Lincolns and their children spent three weeks in the house in 1847. Again, as at Ashland, well-trained guides offer highly informative tours.
Only a few miles from Harrodsburg, visitors can tour, eat a wonderful meal, hike trails, attend concerts or spend the night on the grounds of Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. A religious community of devout believers settled in Pleasant Hill about 1805 and stayed until 1910. First called “Shaking Quakers” because of their vigorous worship practices, eventually they were simply known as the Shakers.
Their beliefs centered on the tenets of celibacy and forgiveness of sins. Their ingenuity and innovations brought high respect from people who were outside of their close community. A guide will fill you in on their inventions such as the circular saw and the revolving oven, their helpful practices such as packaging seeds and broom-making, and if you have a meal at the Trustees’ Table, you can sample their amazing Shaker Lemon Pie.
For overnight accommodations in Lexington, I would suggest Gratz Park Inn at 120 West Second Street. It is in the historic district and has a well-deserved place on the list of Historic Hotels of America.
A small, boutique hotel with superior amenities within walking distance to shops, restaurants and attractions, Gratz Park Inn is the perfect launching point for your Lexington experience.
Kentucky Hot Browns and More
Lexington and its sister city Louisville have prominent positions on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Within only 35 miles of Lexington, visitors can enjoy tours and tastings at nine active distilleries: Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, Hartfield and Co., Town Branch, Barrel House, Bluegrass Distilling and Wilderness Trail. However, if you’re craving real food, then several menu items are distinct to Lexington and Louisville. Try Beer Cheese, fried banana peppers, Derby Pie and Kentucky hot browns.
The original version of a hot brown consists of an open-faced sandwich on white bread toast with slices of turkey and/or ham. Mornay sauce, poured on top and sprinkled with parmesan cheese, almost completes the process. Next, Kentucky Hot Browns go under the broiler until bubbly. The final step, toppings of bacon strips and pimentos or tomatoes. Occasionally, diners can find vegetarian versions, but purists prefer the kind with turkey, ham and bacon.
For a spread served with bread or raw vegetables, thy the unique beer cheese. Fried banana peppers speak for themselves. And, Derby pie is a heavenly confection similar to Chess pie with nuts and chocolate chips. Burgoo, also associated with Kentucky, is a cross between soup and stew.
You might begin your trip to Lexington expecting horses and history. However, you will stick around awhile longer when you sample some of their unique dishes.
Lexington is a place where you will likely be delightfully surprised. It truly is a destination all by itself. After you’ve visited once, you’ll be eager to return.