Lexington, Kentucky is the “Horse Capital of the World”, which is especially apparent driving past well-manicured rolling horse farms with endless lines of wooden fences. It’s at once a rural, Horse-focused community as well as a bustling college town, complete with amazing places to eat, explore and shop. And with so many things to do in Lexington, Kentucky, you may find yourself falling in love with state’s second-largest city!
In Lexington, you can discover historic homes like the Henry Clay Estate or Mary Todd Lincoln’s house, visit the horse racing track, explore a secret garden with some of the best food in town, and even visit some of the distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. And since it’s only about an hour from Louisville, it makes a great day or weekend trip!
So here are some of our favorite things to do in Lexington, with help from our friend Marie McLamb from BackroadBluegrass.
Check out a few of these other posts:
- Kentucky Bourbon Trail: The Perfect 3 Day Itinerary
- 22 Best Things To Do In Bardstown, Kentucky
- Louisville Weekend Trip: The Perfect 3-Day Itinerary
Things to do in Lexington: Horse Racing
Horse racing is in the blood of Kentucky, and Lexington is full of farms for mares and foals, studs and retired horses. Visiting between April and October is going to be your best bet for races and seeing the most prominent horse action. So let’s check out the best places to see those famous Kentucky mammals!
Visit the Iconic Keeneland Race Track
Keeneland Race Track is Lexington’s premier racetrack and is world-renowned for its spring and fall meet, which include prep races for the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup. During April and October, Patrons can view races during track-side from reserved stadium seating or from “The Hill”, which is perfect for tailgating and viewing the events on the Jumbotron.
During the April and October racing meets you can generally view races Wednesday/Thursday-Saturday/Sunday, just be sure to check their schedule for details. If you want to gamble but are not sure what you should do, track down a roaming Betologist for pointers, which you can easily pick out from the crowd by the “Ask me about betting” button on their hat! Cheering on your horse is the ultimate thrill as they cross the finish line, and even if you only win $2, you’ll feel on top of the world (maybe)!
For a more intimate and less crowded view of the horses, arrive at the track before 9:30am in the morning to catch the horses and riders warming up (you may have to call to see if any horses are warming up the day you want to come). You will feel as if you practically have the track to yourself and you may even get the opportunity to pet a horse over the rail! You can even have breakfast at the Keeneland Track Kitchen which is where employees, jockeys and trainers often dine.
To get even more behind-the-scenes information, guests interested in learning the history of Keeneland and an overview of operations for both racing and sales can book a guided walking tour.
Meet some horses at the Kentucky Horse Park
Since 1978 the Kentucky Horse Park’s mission has been to celebrate our relationship with horses through education, exhibitions, engagement, and competition. Located on 1,129 acres of green pastures on the north side of Lexington, the Kentucky Horse Park is a great place for the horse lover to visit and connect with every aspect of horses including live shows, trail rides, museums and more. If “horse girl” were a place, this would be it!
The park is home to 4 museums in total, memorials and statues (including one for Kentucky’s most famous racehorse Man O’ War), a campground, and plenty of horse events and shows. Visitors may also book horseback trail rides for that close-up and personal experience or purchase a ticket inside the Visitor Center for a Barn Meet and Greet the day of the visit.
There are an endless number of events to attend, but I definitely recommend packing a picnic lunch and spending a Sunday afternoon watching polo. It’s the perfect way to be outside, relax and be entertained by an exciting live game of polo just yards away.
You can also bring the family (especially any horse girls) to the Southern Lights Holiday Festival display in the weeks leading up to Christmas where you can drive through the displays set to music. Light displays alternate to make scenes come alive including Santa’s sleigh, the 12 days of Christmas and horse-related scenes among others.
Take a Horse tour
One of the best ways to really experience a horse farm is to book a tour so that you can really see the inner workings of what it’s like to raise, train, and race horses! Some of the best tour options are:
- This Half-Day Thoroughbred Horse Farm Tour in Kentucky lasts three hours and gives you a behind-the-scenes look at Calumet Farm, which has been breeding and racing horses since the 1940s, and Keeneland Race Track. Oh, and you’ll discover where scenes from ‘Secretariat,’ ‘Seabiscuit’ and ‘Dreamer’ were filmed, so you’ll feel right in the Hollywood action!
- The Unique Horse Farm Tours with Insider Access to Private Farms is an almost 3-hour tour that allows you to see the horses up-close-and-personal, perhaps even getting to feed them their favorite peppermint treats! One of the best stops is at The Thoroughbred Center, where you can watch young yearlings swim for exercise. I mean, have you ever seen a horse swim?!
Things to do in Lexington: Historic Areas
Lexington was founded in 1775, seventeen years before Kentucky even became a state. And before then even, Native Americans like the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Shawnee lived and hunted in the Bluegrass Region for thousands of years. Today, much of the city’s rich history remains, and it’s easy to step back in time in one of the many historical areas!
Take a walk around Gratz Park Historic District
Gratz Park Historic District is a lovely small park and neighborhood nestled in downtown flanked by large, colorfully painted historic homes, and boasts a “Fountain of Youth” water feature. This gorgeous area is often the site of weddings, picnics and plein-air painting events.
The historic district consists of 16 buildings including the Hunt-Morgan House, the Bodley-Bullock House, the Carnegie Library, and several other private residences that give an air of “I just stepped back into 1814”. This area also includes the Gallery Hop hosted by Lexarts featuring artwork by local artists on the third Friday of every other month.
Listen to the Gratz Park walking tour podcast for a free self-guided walking tour to learn more as you explore the area.
Explore the Mary Todd Lincoln House
Lexington, Kentucky was home to Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of one of the most beloved presidents in United States history, Abraham Lincoln. Mary Todd Lincoln was born in Lexington to prominent Lexington native Robert Smith Todd, who was a businessman and politician who provided his children with a good education, a place in high society, and wealth, all things that Abraham Lincoln lacked as a child.
Here in the 14 rooms of the house, you can explore the tumultuous story of Mary Todd Lincoln, from her childhood to marriage and life in the White House to Lincoln’s death and her eventual breakdown. See where her family entertained Lincoln and learn about the enslaved people that worked for the Todd family.
You can book your ticket for your self-guided tour of the house here, they have plenty of special guided tours throughout the year you can also book.
Take a historic tour of the Ashland Estate
The Ashland Estate was home to Henry Clay, known as “The Great Compromiser” and served nearly half a century as a Representative, Senator, and Secretary of State. As a horseman and lover of racing, Henry Clay played a major role in Lexington, Kentucky becoming “The Horse Capital of the World.”
The estate is home to a generous, stately home, with historic outbuildings, gardens, trees, and walking paths on 17 acres dating back to 1806 and registered as a national landmark in 1960. It even has a super ornate library with a wooden snake sculpture slithering out of the ceiling (yes, it’s weird and wonderful!). At its largest, it included over 600 acres, and as a farming operation and producer of hemp, the plantation included up to 60 enslaved African Americans.
You can take a historic tour of the Ashland Estate including the Signature Henry Clay tour or the Traces: Slavery at Ashland tour to see inside and learn about the people who lived and worked here. Special events include the end-of-summer ritual Jazz on the Lawn during Labor Day weekend and the lighting of the Christmas tree in December. Ashland is now home to many art sculptures, a walking garden, and the Ginkgo Tree Café.
Visit the Historic Lexington Courthouse
The Historic Lexington Courthouse was constructed in 1899, and is a stunning example of the Richardson Romanesque architecture.
The Lexington courthouse fell into disrepair for years after the offices moved to a new building and there was even talk of demolition. But renovations completed in 2018 have turned this historic edifice into a magnificent structure and home to Visit Lex, Zim’s Café/Thirsty Fox and Limestone Hall, an event space on the upper level.
Today, Cheapside Park which was once the home of slave auctions outside of the courthouse, has been renamed to Tandy Centennial Park for an African-American stone mason, Henry A. Tandy. The pavilion is home to the Lexington Farmers Market on Saturday mornings, Thursday Night Live, the Latin Festival and other events.
Things to do in Lexington: Outdoors & Nature
Sometimes getting out into the lush Kentucky nature is what you need, and Lexington has plenty of gorgeous little spots to do some forest bathing and nature walking! Here are our favorite places to check out some outdoor time in Lexington:
Get outside at the Aroboretum
The Arboretum, State Botanical Garden of Kentucky is the place to go to see unique varieties of cultivars as well as an extensive collection of Kentucky native plants and trees. Enjoy 100 acres of green goodness including access to the horticultural and botanical gardens.
Take the Walk Across Kentucky paved path, showcasing the nine physiographic regions of Kentucky. You can also pay a small fee to experience the Kentucky Children’s Garden if the kids need to run off some excess energy!
The Ornamental Horticultural Gardens and Displays include a variety of ornamental plants in the home demonstration gardens, the Perennial Teaching garden, the Memorial Rose Garden, and the Fragrance garden. You’ll find The Arboretum a great place to walk, picnic, learn, and wander. Click on this map for a great overview to help you plan your visit.
Hike at Raven Run Nature Sanctuary
If you want to hike and spend time in nature, Raven Run Nature Sanctuary is the place to get in touch with those bluegrass roots. Located off of old Richmond Road in Lexington, KY, the sanctuary has 734 acres with 10 miles of hiking trails ranging from about a mile to 3 miles and borders the Kentucky River.
I would easily call it the best hiking area in Lexington with scenic overviews and opportunities to sit by the water to relax. Note that pets are not allowed as it is a nature sanctuary and hikers often spy deer, wild turkey and birds of every kind.
McConnell Springs Park
McConnell Springs Park is a little 26-acre oasis right in Lexington proper that includes three springs and plenty of interpretive signs to learn all about these gorgeous springs.
Of the natural springs, there is the “Blue Hole”, which is a picturesque super-blue spring that flows up from underlying limestone bedrock. The next spring is called “The Boils”, which is named so because after heavy rain water rushes up from underground making it look like the water is boiling, though it’s act actually cold! Sometimes the pressure is so strong it creates two-foot columns of water. The final spring is called, well, the “Final Sink”, which is a sinkhole.
There is also a historic farm site, a log cabin, and a 250-year-old Bur Oak on site. This is a great place to spend 15 minutes or two hours without leaving the city!
Explore Nature with rail explorers
Rail Explorers is like nothing you’ve ever experienced, where you can explore nature while riding down railroad tracks on pedal-powered ‘Rail Explorers’! These pedal powered cars (with electric assist, don’t worry) take you down through limestone walls, over little bridges, and past sweeping farms lands complete with horses!
Located in Versailles, about 25 minutes outside of Lexington, this location is the newest in the country. The railroad tracks are only reserved for scenic train rides and rail explorers, so don’t worry, there won’t be any surprise train visitors along the way! This stretch of tracks was built in 1888, and connected passengers between Lawrenceburg, Versailles, and Lexington.
This 10 mile out-and-back journey takes two hours and turns around at the cliffs above the Kentucky River gorge, which is the perfect place to take in some views. You can even pack some snacks and a drink to enjoy before you head back!
This experience is great for families and couples, and the rail explorers come in 2 or 4 person cars. Since there is only main “driver” (i.e. the person who actually needs to pedal for electric assist and brake), it’s also disability friendly if someone is unable to pedal. And guess what? This location is also dog friendly!
You can also book a daytime tour or a sunset tour!
Things to do in Lexington: Bourbon, Beer, & Booze
We can’t lie, Lexington is a great place to put you in the spirit! Get it?! This city offers a plethora of distilleries and craft beer. I’ll highlight a few of my favs but if you’re thirsty for more, just click these links for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and the Brewgrass Trail.
Visit distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
One of the best day trips from Lexington is to go bourbon tasting on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail! Although there are a couple of distilleries in Lexington, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a whole different experience.
As you drive out of Lexington and into the rolling hills of Kentucky horse country, you’ll see what I mean.
Hands down, our favorite distilleries to visit are Woodford Reserve, which is about a half hour from Lexington, and Maker’s Mark, which is about an hour away: if you have to limit yourself to just one single-day trip from Lexington, those are the bourbon distilleries we recommend. But if you can swing it, give yourself some time to pick up a passport and complete the whole trail!
We even have a 3-day Bourbon Trail Itinerary you can start from Lexington if you’re feeling up for the challenge! Just remember to drink responsibly, and remember you can only do one tour per distillery per day (for this reason!).
James E. Pepper Distilling Co.
The James E. Pepper distillery is located in right in the heart of Lexington, and historically, James E. Pepper might have been the most Kentucky man that has ever Kentucky’d.
Not only was he a Kentucky Colonel, but Col. Pepper also raced thoroughbreds in the Kentucky Derby, and has been described as flamboyantly promoting the whiskey industry. Did I mention, it’s been said that the Old Fashion was invented by a bartender in his honor?
To take a peek behind the curtain of this bourbon wiz, the Distillery Tour will take you on your own yellow brick road journey of the colorful history of the James E. Pepper Brand & Distillery. You’ll walk through the working distillery to see how the magic is made, and finish with an elixir tasting of their award-winning whiskeys.
You can even tap your whiskey glasses together for a souvenir to take home, because you know – there’s no place like home.
Good witches and bad witches can start their tours Tuesday through Sunday. Note that if you are visiting in either January or February, James E Pepper is only open on very specific days and times during the winter months, so check out the tour page first.
Tap into Mirror Twin Brewing
Mirror Twin Brewing makes my top list of Lexington breweries because I enjoy the creativity they put into creating specialty flavors. The brewery caters to customers from both sides of life: the tried-and-true beer purists and the anything-goes experimental adventure seekers.
I tend to order a flight to try a little of everything. My go-to is their You, Me and Mr. PB – PB stands for peanut butter y’all and I’m loving it. Fear not, they always have their Flagship Favorites on tap.
Bring your appetite because you can also get some of the best pizza in town in-house at Rolling Oven Pizza. They oven-fire their pizzas and amazing apps. I recommend the Fire-Roasted Prosciutto Wrapped Asparagus app followed by the Buffalo Chicken pizza topped with shredded chicken, buffalo sauce, banana peppers, and shredded mozzarella, and finished with a drizzle of ranch. What goes better with beer than pizza?
Get it all at Lexington Brewing Company
The Lexington Brewing Company is a great place to visit, especially since it has the prestige of being the only distillery and brewery in one on the bourbon trail! Enjoy a tour that includes 4 tickets for tastings of your choice of beers, bourbons and bourbon creme. The tour is packed with historical tidbits, fun facts and sipping samples.
Plan your trip for warmer weather and enjoy time outside on their new patio with a beer or hard tea. Top of my list is their Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale which spends some lazy days in a bourbon barrel soaking in the rich flavor. Be sure to hit their gift shop before you go to take home a bottle of bourbon, vodka, sherry, whiskey, gin or packs of their bottled beer and hard teas. Peruse their available selections here.
Things to do in Lexington: Food
Lexington is no doubt a fantastic food destination, with farm-to-table restaurants being the thing here long before it was cool. Currently, Lexington’s culinary scene is on fire, with new restaurants, cafés, pop-ups and food trucks all over the city. There are FAR too many to mention so I’ll stick with a couple of my favorites, in the meantime, check out Visit Lex for an extensive listing.
Doodles Breakfast & Lunch
For a brunch treat, check out Doodles Breakfast & Lunch in the NoLi district. What was once an old automobile garage is now an eco-friendly, New Orleans-inspired brunch spot sourcing ingredients from local farms. And boy, it’s delicious.
The biscuits and gravy are an excellent choice, smothered in gravy with two local eggs, and don’t forget a side of cheese grits. And speaking of grits, the dirty shrimp & grits topped with tomato gravy and green onion remoulade gives you that authentic Nola feel without having to visit. And you can’t forget some soft, pillowy beignets, deep-fried and covered in powdered sugar!
Doodles doesn’t take reservations and is an order-at-the-counter situation, so the earlier you arrive the earlier you get in!
Salt & Vinegar inside Ethereal Public Brewing House
Salt & Vinegar at Ethereal Public House is the classic German pub food experience, but elevated and refined in a way that still feels grounded, delicious, and of course a little greasy.
To start, you can’t miss out on the Pretzel & Obatzda, which includes a 10.5oz sourdough pretzel baked with Maldon sea salt and brie & camembert whipped with herbs, spices & Ethereal beer. Their Fish & Chips is also crispy and delicious, which comes with hush puppies, and that can never be bad.
Their beer is delicious, and I highly recommend their Cotton Candy IPA, one of the sweetest IPAs I’ve ever had. If you want something truly fruity, get the Muffinman Bluberry Muffin Sour – it’s literally like drinking a blubbery muffin!
Take a Food Tour
One of the best ways to discover not only the culinary scene of a city but also the history is to take a food tour like the Bites of the Bluegrass Walking Food Tour of Downtown Lexington!
On this three-hour tour, you’ll discover landmarks of downtown Lexington while stopping at five places to try some Kentucky eats, including Benedictine with bacon, macaroni beignet, hangar steak w/garlic mash & more! And at just under a mile you won’t have to work too hard for your food!
Tours max out at 12 travelers so it’s the perfect way to get the personal touch as you learn about Lexington, not to mention getting nice and full!
Kentucky Native Café
You’ll feel as if you’ve wandered into a hidden wonderland when you visit Kentucky Native Café and beer garden. As an extension to the Michler’s Nursery, the café is a gorgeous hideaway nestled among a canopy of trees, plants, bushes and flowers. The menu is small, ever-changing, fresh, local and delicious. They source local produce, herbs, bread and eggs to create tasty and healthy dishes. You won’t find meat from their selections, but they do offer some options with fish and eggs.
What to order? It’s so hard to choose but I recommend their beer cheese made with brie and served with a fresh baked pretzel, hummus with mushrooms, burrata with lavender drizzle and fresh berries and bread, or one of their fabulous soups and sandwiches. The menu is constantly rotating and each item is a shareable size, so order anything that appeals to you and share it with friends!
They also offer local beers on tap, wines or you can order a Bellini or spritzer with their house-made syrups. Finish your meal with a scoop of Sorella gelato, so creamy and delicious or they will happily pop a scoop of fruity sorbet in your sparkling wine!
Years past the café was for warm weather only and closed in the winter, however they recently took over part of their greenhouse to add a cover/heated area for dining year round.
I joke that Minton’s 760 seats 25… if you count the restroom. Minton’s 760 resides in a small former liquor store on the north side of town. Owner, Ashley Minton, was among the first graduating class of Sullivan College, a culinary school formerly in Lexington. Ashley creates all of her dishes from scratch and her breakfast and brunch are to die for! Patrons can find and/or request vegetarian and vegan options. Here you’ll have a meal you’ll want to write home about.
Whether you prefer sweet or savory, I have two menu items you must try! First off is the ooey gooey goodness of her Elvis Pancakes. You’d think these pancakes were a stack of library books and they’re definitely enough to share. Three ginormous fluffy pancakes with crunchy peanut butter in the batter are topped with a bananas foster sauce. I don’t know how they could be more delicious.
If you prefer savory, opt for the Brunch on a Bun consisting of country sausage, fried egg, pepperjack cheese, and their house made bacon jam on a toasted pretzel bun. Ask about their jams in jars to go. Be sure to get a side of their mac & cheese with over-the-top flavor options of Sriracha, goat cheese, pesto, bacon jam or buffalo chicken. Take home a slice of Nick’s Birthday Cake, named after her brother and a fan favorite, home to enjoy later.
Things to do in Lexington: Browse Local Shops
Lexington is full of wonderful shopping experiences that are sure to bring a smile to your face and enable you to put a big check mark in your “Retail Therapy” box!
Kentucky for Kentucky
Imagine a store that was super kooky, eclectic and weird and showed the beauty of what it means to be a Kentuckian… Well that store exists, and it’s called Kentucky for Kentucky!
The Kentucky for Kentucky store, called the “Fun Mall”, is filled with all kinds of cool Kentucky merchandise, from cool t-shirts or hats that say “ya’ll or “Kentucky Kicks Ass” to preserved KFC chicken or horse dung in a mason jar, to a wide assortment of queer gear.
One of the most remarkable parts of the store is they have the cocaine bear. Yes, the real cocaine bear that inspired the movie by the same name! In the back of the store, you can visit the taxidermied bear and learn all about the true story of “Pablo Eskobear” that ate a bunch of cocaine and went on a rampage. His final resting place is now the Fun Mall, where he is surrounded by a bunch of gifts and offerings like a patron saint.
So if you’re a Kentuckian, or Kentucky lover, come check out this colorful store for some awesome swag you cannot miss!
sQecia Media has a very sQecial place in my heart – it’s basically a bookstore, occult store, and awesome-finds-store in one!
sQecial is like walking into your favorite aunt’s house (you know, the witchy one), with a huge case of tarot decks, crystals, stunning jewelry, incense, and books. Soooo many books! The books range from the occult to religious studies to literature to art and so on. If you’re looking for some obscure and weird kind of books, this is the place to be.
Throughout the colorful explosion that is sQecial you can also find candles, home goods, statues (mostly of various deities), beautiful journals, and honestly more gorgeous things than I could ever list. Basically, if you are looking for a unique gift for someone (or let’s be honest, yourself), definitely check this place out!
Get Your Vintage On
If you’re into some great vintage finds, never fear, Lexington has some super cool stuff that will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time! Some of the coolest vintage stores in Lexington are:
- Street Scene – Connected to the fabulous Coffee Times Coffee House, Street Scene is the place to find some amazing vintage clothing for men and women from the 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond! They also have accessories, jewelry, barware, kitchenware, furniture, and housewares as well, so you can make your whole life vintage!
- Pops Resale – Pops is like stepping into a 50s record store (they sell new and used records) that unfolds into a wild journey that includes vintage clothing, old-school video games and plenty of really cool and weird retro stuff for the house. It’s a little rough around the edges and you never know what you’ll find, which to me, is the best kind of vintage store!
- The Domestic and Wearhouse – These two fabulous vintage stores are right across from one another, so check out both! The Domestic focuses more on vintage and modern items for the homes, with different booths that adds to the diversity. Wearhouse has some seriously awesome vintage clothing finds (some as old as the turn of the century), and some truly curated furniture and housewares!
Do Some One Stop Shopping at Julietta Market
The Julietta Market at the Greyline Station is packed full of every kind of local shop and eatery you can imagine and is in a former bus station transformed into a unique and fun shopping space.
Greyline is more than shopping, it is an experience. The center area consists of local “booth style” businesses flanked by local brick and mortar businesses, many of which are minority owned. Shoppers can spend the day pursuing a variety of retail stores, dining, drinking and even sampling.
Here are just a few of my favorites you might like to check out while there:
- Inebriated Baker bakes up boozy cupcakes, her motto is, “Eat your cocktail” topped with a moonshine cherry! You can even sample before you buy.
- Poppy and Pomelo carries unique gift and home items including quirky and edgy items like earrings, candles, cutting boards, and even some Harry Potter-themed merch!
- Natalia’s Pastry Shop makes lovely pastries and empanadas inspired by the Dominican Republic (where the owner is from). With empanada flavors like Philly cheesesteak and chorizo and cheese, they just might just change your life!
About the Author: Marie McLamb is the author of BackroadBluegrass blog. Her writings are designed to encourage not only visitors to discover Kentucky, but also inspire native Kentuckians to explore their own backyard and shop locally owned businesses. McLamb is the owner of the Bluegrass Creative Market, a quarterly pop up, Kentucky-made market partnering with the venue at the Summit at Fritz Farm in Lexington, Kentucky and creator of Influencer events promoting small towns and locally owned businesses.
What did you think of these things to do in Lexington, Kentucky? What questions can we answer? Drop us a comment below!
Before you go, be sure to check out these other posts:
- Kentucky Bourbon Trail: The Perfect 3 Day Itinerary
- 22 Best Things To Do In Bardstown, Kentucky
- Louisville Weekend Trip: The Perfect 3-Day Itinerary
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