Flying into Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport, one gets a preview of its world class landscape. The grandstand at Keeneland Race Course and the famous red and white barns of Calumet Thoroughbred Farm prove that you are indeed in the “Horse Capital of the World.”
That alone would be enough to entice visitors to the area, but when you factor in more than 200 years of history and a distinct culture combining the graciousness of the Old South, the legends and lore of the nearby mountains and the lasting legacy left by those who called it home, it’s no wonder that Lexington’s mantra is “Horses, history and heritage.”
Some 450 Thoroughbred and Standardbred farms surround Lexington in all directions, and while most of them are not open to the public, several offer an opportunity to get up close and personal with racing’s greatest stars who have retired here to stand at stud.
Among the farms that allow tours are Coolmore’s Ashford Stud, one of the world’s largest Thoroughbred breeding operations (in addition to its 2,000 acres in Central Kentucky, Coolmore has farms in County Tipperary, Ireland and Australia’s Hunter Valley); Darley at Jonabell, owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai; Darby Dan, whose proud history has included four Kentucky Derby winners, and Three Chimneys, home for 17 years to the late Seattle Slew, the only undefeated Triple Crown winner.
For families, the best place to have a true equine experience is the Kentucky Horse Park, the only park in the world dedicated exclusively to the horse. A statue of the gallant Thoroughbred, Man O’ War, welcomes visitors to the 1,200-acre park, which showcases 53 different breeds of horses.
The Kentucky Horse Park is home to two world-class museums – the Smithsonian-affiliated International Museum of the Horse (be sure to check out the Calumet Farm Collection, showcasing that farm’s impressive array of racing trophies, including eight Kentucky Derby trophies) and the American Saddlebred Museum, honoring America’s only native breed and home to the largest collection of Saddlebred artifacts in the world.
Founded in 1775 on the site of present-day McConnell Springs and named in honor of the Revolutionary War Battle of Lexington and Concord, Lexington has an illustrious history that many other cities might well envy.
Once known as the “Athens of the West,” for its cultured citizenry, Lexington was home to the first university west of the Allegheny Mountains (Transylvania University); the first performance of a Beethoven symphony in the United States (Symphony No. 7), and a bevy of distinguished citizens – statesman Henry Clay; Confederate General John Hunt Morgan; abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay; portrait painter Matthew Jouett, and Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the 16th president. Many of their homes can still be visited today.
Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate is perhaps the most imposing of the city’s historic homes. Clay built the 18-room Italianate mansion in 1806 and lived there with his family until 1852, often entertaining dignitaries such as Daniel Webster, William Henry Harrison, the Marquis de Lafayette and Jefferson Davis, his classmate at Transylvania University.
The same year that Clay started building his house, a modest two-story brick building on West Main Street was completed which would be home to the Todd family, whose daughter Mary would go on to marry Abraham Lincoln. Today, the Mary Todd Lincoln House has the distinction of being the first house museum in America to honor a First Lady.
John Wesley Hunt, Kentucky’s first millionaire and a business associate of John Jacob Astor, chose Gratz Park, Lexington’s first historic neighborhood for his mansion Hopemont. It was his grandson, however, who brought the house its greatest fame. John Hunt Morgan, dubbed the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy” by Southerners and “King of the Horse Thieves” by Northerners, was a figure of epic proportion. While living in the house, he waged guerilla raids throughout Kentucky and Tennessee. You can learn about Morgan’s exploits in the Civil War Museum which occupies the ground floor of the house.
Waveland State Historic Site, a 10-room mansion located just south of town, is now the Kentucky Life Museum. Built in 1847 by Joseph Bryan, a great-nephew of Daniel Boone, it is an example of the Greek-Revival style of architecture.
Other historic sites: McConnell Springs, the birthplace of Lexington, is now a 26-acre nature preserve on the outskirts of downtown.
Gratz Park Historic District, tucked between downtown and Transylvania University, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and with its colorful Federal-style row houses, is the Bluegrass equivalent of Charleston’s Catfish Row.
Within an easy driving distance of Lexington are some historic sites that should not be missed. Camp Nelson Heritage Park, 400 acres of sprawling countryside above the palisades of the Kentucky River 20 miles south of Lexington, was the location of an important Union quartermaster depot during the Civil War, as well as the site for Kentucky’s largest recruitment and training camp for African-American troops.
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, a half-hour from Lexington in the town of Harrodsburg, is the largest restored Shaker community in the United States and the first site in the country to be designated in its entirety as a National Historic Landmark. Harrodsburg is also home to Old Fort Harrod State Park, the first permanent settlement in Kentucky. It was founded by pioneer James Harrod in 1774, a year before Daniel Boone founded his namesake settlement Fort Boonesborough.
If Lexington can claim a heritage other than that of “Horse Capital of the World,” it would be as a focal point in the region which produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon. With the opening of Alltech’s Town Branch Distillery last year in the Distillery District, the city has become the newest stop on the internationally acclaimed Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
The Lexington Distillery District is but one part of an ambitious downtown revitalization effort which also includes the Town Branch (Lexington’s original water source) and the Arena District (the area surrounding Rupp Arena, home of the eight-time National Champion University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball team.)
Town Branch Distillery joins several other distilleries on the Bourbon Trail which are within an easy 30-minute drive of Lexington.
We’re not just about bourbon
While nearly everyone knows that Kentucky produces the world’s best bourbon, they may not know that the first commercial vineyard in the United States was planted in Jessamine County just south of Lexington in the 18th century.
Today, the wineries in and around Lexington are gaining national and international attention, taking home medals in various competitions. Among the area wineries well worth a visit are Equus Run Vineyards, Talon Winery and Vineyards, Chrisman Mill Winery and Jean Ferris Winery & Bistro.
Let there be music
While the Appalachian region of Eastern Kentucky is noted as the birthplace of Bluegrass Music, visitors to Lexington won’t find any shortage of places to hear it. Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour broadcasts live from the historic Lyric Theater every Monday night, and is carried on NPR and PBS stations around the world. With a format similar to Nashville’s Grand Old Opry, host Michael Jonathan brings the best in bluegrass and blues, folk and country, rhythm and blues and Rockabilly to his audiences.
Red Barn Radio is another live program broadcast every Wednesday night from ArtsPlace in downtown Lexington, while the Holler Poets Series is a popular feature of Al’s Bar in one of the city’s most colorful neighborhoods.
Yes, Lexington has horses, but it has so much else to offer that it will take more than one visit to see it all.
For more information on Lexington area attractions, stop by the Visitors Center in The Square on the corner of Main Street and North Broadway across from Triangle Park. Call them at (859) 233-1221 or visit their website at www.visitlex.com.