It’s been said that of the more than one million passengers who travel to Lexington through its Blue Grass Airport each year, about 600 of those are horses. Though certainly an unusual stat, this mathematical indicator is illustrative of the region’s love affair with the magnificent mammals. Upon arrival, an oversized, gilded-gold and ornately-framed portrait of Big Lex (a Thoroughbred racehorse of the 1800s named Lexington, now the municipal mascot) serves as the unofficial greeter to this city situated “where the South begins.”
Traveling its roads deep into horse country, past acres of green grass and alongside rows of wooden post and rail fencing, a visit to a horse farm here is the equivalent of a tour of Buckingham Palace in London—it’s quintessential Lexington. Of the more than 400 farms, the choices are many. Our choice: Ashford Stud—now home to American Pharoah, the first horse to win the Triple Crown and Breeder’s Cup—is a spare-no-expense equine estate.
Described as a “serious, serious industry,” it’s necessary to prearrange a visit to a private horse farm. Though a bit of planning is a pre-requisite, these behind-the-scene tours are legendary—taking guests into the pampered world of these four-legged studs to see the horses in their lavish digs and learn the ABCs of breeding. Fun fact: American Pharoah, whose stud fee is $200,000, is sometimes paired with three mares each day.
Situated at the epicenter of horse country, Lexington is typically defined by a Thoroughbred theme, from its pristine horse farms to its renowned Keeneland Race Course (a National Historic Landmark). “My Old Kentucky Home” is the state song, sweet tea and Benedictine tea sandwiches (cucumber, onion and cream cheese) are considered standard afternoon fare and counted among its one-time sons and daughters are J. Peterman (of Seinfeld parody fame), George Clooney and Ashley Judd. Yet, as soothing and southern as these specifics seem, Lexington is much more.
Photo Credit: Cynthia Dial
A prime perch from which to explore Lexington is the city’s less-than-a-year-old 21c Museum Hotel. Situated in downtown’s iconic 1913 First National Bank Building (the city’s original skyscraper), showcasing a distinctive and ever-changing art gallery and named for the 21st century, this cutting-edge boutique property coddles those who cherish tradition and invigorates those who appreciate innovation. However, it’s likely the art best remembered will be its whimsical mascot—the four-foot-tall blue penguins (think University of Kentucky blue) scattered about the hotel.
A stroll through Lexington’s historic homes is a walk back in time. Perhaps most famous is Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate – a manor set on a 17-acre wooded plot that played host to such back-in-the-day guests as James Madison and Daniel Webster. The Headley-Whitney Museum—the former home of jewelry designer George Headley and heiress Barbara (Vanderbilt) Whitney—features a shell grotto, a selection of the jeweler’s noted bibelots (small decorative objects without purpose) and elaborate dollhouses. Called “the nation’s first shrine to a first lady,” the Mary Todd Lincoln House, which is walkable from most downtown locations, is the childhood home of the wife of President Abraham Lincoln.
Photo Credit: Cynthia Dial
Lexington’s food scene, from its rich bourbon heritage to its southern-rooted restaurants, is a compilation of everything local and organic. Table Three Ten features such addictive dishes on its blackboard-style menu as pecan cinnamon rolls and chicken with waffles, peach hot sauce and bacon powder. Cole’s 735 Main, known for its apple cider braised pork belly, bourbon-glazed Scottish salmon and more than 130 bourbons, whiskeys and moonshines, claims it is “where dining is elevated to art.” The signature dish of Portofino—an Italian eatery found in a renovated downtown edifice—is ravioli della casa. Thinking it presumptuous to name his restaurant “Portofino” without his chef visiting the Italian town, owner Wayne Masterman sent his chief cook to the Amalfi Coast.
Lexington offers a vibrant cultural scene, including an opera house, professional orchestra, two ballet companies and live theater options. The options range from the historic Lyric Theater (past performers have included B.B. King and Ray Charles) to productions performed in such atypical venues as a murder mystery staged in a funeral home and the play Love, Lost and What I Wore presented in a consignment store.
Photo Credit: Cynthia Dial
To take an art walk, begin at 21c Museum Hotel where staff members can conduct a tour and brochures are provided for a self-guided excursion. Exhibitions typically reflect current events and timely news, changing every six to eight months. Of its six permanent exhibits, don’t miss Tomorrow’s Weather, a colorful, ever-changing piece of art suspended from the dining room’s ceiling and designed to predict the next day’s climate. When popping into the Downtown Central Library Gallery for its invitational exhibition, be prepared to be mesmerized by the foyer’s Foucault pendulum and world’s largest ceiling clock suspended over artist Terri Pulley’s mosaic floor design, comprised of 45,000 to 50,000 tile pieces (note the quarter imbedded into the floor mosaic; it represents Lexington).
While additional stops might be Ann Tower Gallery, Arts Place and New Editions Gallery, for an in-person one-on-one with an artist, go to the Artists’ Attic, a collection of 21 studios of such professionals as equine artist Cissy Hamilton and Eric Johnson, creator of Norman Rockwell-like artwork. If your visit coincides with the third Friday of the months of January, March, May, July, September or November, participate in the LexArts Hop and sample a selection of approximately 50 city galleries between the hours of 5 and 8 p.m. alongside 600 to 700 fellow art lovers.
Photo Credit: L.V. Harness & Company
With shopping as varied as its eating, visitors should check out Artique, a store with more than 1,000 American craft artists or Glover’s Bookery, an antiquarian bookstore specializing in Kentuckiana, books on horses and military tomes. Savane Silver is known for its contemporary jewelry featuring such semi-precious stones as the Kentucky agate (found in the state’s east-central creek beds). Then there’s L.V. Harkness & Company owned by Southern belle Meg Jewett, known for her unassuming style and exquisite taste, this in-a-class-by-itself boutique offers such hard-to-find specialties as the Laura Bush Pickard China magnolia pattern she selected for the White House, traditional julep cups and equestrian-inspired everything.
However, Lexington’s calendar of events best illustrates the town’s legendary lures: High Hope Steeple Chase, a race at Kentucky Horse Park over brush and timber (May); Festival of the Bluegrass (June); Keeneland Yearling Sales, an annual auction attracting around-the-world horse buyers (September); Perryville Battlefield Reenactment (October) and Holidays at Ashland, Henry Clay’s home decked out in the grandest of styles with a different historical theme debuted each Christmas (December).