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Ever since I was a horse-obsessed middle-schooler, I’ve wanted to visit Lexington, Kentucky.
Often referred to as the Horse Capital of the World thanks to its large number of Thoroughbred breeding farms, Lexington is also known for being home to the University of Kentucky, as well as being in close proximity to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Middle-school-me of course only wanted to visit because of the horses. But adult-me wanted to find out about all the other things on offer in Lexington, too. So off I went to Lexington for a long weekend.
If you, too, are curious about visiting Kentucky’s second-largest city, then this is the guide for you!
(And yes, this itinerary is quite horse-forward, but also includes plenty of non-horse things to do in and around Lexington!)
The best things to do in Lexington in 3 days
This short itinerary will hit up all the Lexington area highlights like:
- Visiting Kentucky Horse Park
- Touring the historic Keeneland Race Course
- Exploring art and history downtown
- Tasting at a distillery on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail
- Visiting a nearby Thoroughbred farm
- Staying in a plant-friendly hotel
- And more!
Note: This post is brought to you as part of a partnership with VisitLex and the Elwood Hotel & Suites. But, as always, all my recommendations are based on my own personal experiences!
Day 1 in Lexington
Morning: Explore downtown Lexington
Start your morning off right with breakfast at doodles breakfast and lunch, a tasty spot serving up locally-sourced comfort food in what used to be an old gas station. Across the street, Third Street Stuff is a funky cafe/shop also worth visiting.
From there, you can head into downtown Lexington for a stroll. Maybe pop into The Square for some shopping, or grab a coffee from Nate’s Coffee Shop and enjoy it at a shady table in Triangle Park.
Also keep your eyes peeled for all the great street art around Lexington – Visit Lex even has a mural challenge you can try.
Late morning: Visit a historic home
Lexington was founded way back in 1775, more than a decade before Kentucky even became a state. So you can bet there’s a lot of history to be found here. If you want to delve into that history at all, there are some historic homes you can visit and tour.
If you don’t want to leave downtown, the Mary Todd Lincoln House is right on Main Street. This is the house where Mary Todd spent many of her girlhood years, before she moved to Illinois and met Abraham Lincoln. (Abe and Mary came back to visit family and stayed in the house, too.)
Today the house is a museum, set up to look like it would have when the Todds lived here with period furniture, portraits, and more – some of which actually belonged to the Todds or Lincolns. Tours are self-guided.
The other popular historic home to visit is Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, which is the 19th century home of politician Henry Clay. Tours here take a bit longer, but are well worth it. A guided tour of the house is offered several times per day, while the new “Traces: Slavery at Ashland Tour” is offered once daily at 1 p.m.
Lunch: Choose your own adventure
There are lots of great lunch options around Lexington, depending on where the late morning takes you. Some recommended options include:
- Goodfellas Pizzeria – The Mill St. spot serves up slices of NY-style pizza, subs, and more.
- Zim’s Cafe – Southern staples in a diner-like space.
- Ghost Chicken Lexington – Chicken joint inside the Sire Hotel.
- Greyline Station – Inside you’ll find a market/small business incubator, as well as several food options like The Social Vegan and North Lime Coffee & Donuts.
- Fiddletree Kitchen & Bar – This restaurant is inside the Elwood Hotel, and has a great lunch menu!
Afternoon: Keeneland Race Course
As a horse lover AND history nerd, I really wanted to visit Keeneland Race Course, which dates back to 1936 and is a National Historic Landmark. The race course hosts two race meets per year (in April and October), along with some of the most famous Thoroughbred horse auctions.
I went on the Backstretch Tour of Keeneland, which includes a tour of the track and grandstands, as well as a glimpse into the stable area where racehorses live year-round.
These tours are not offered all the time, though, and do usually sell out since they are limited to 10 people. But if you can grab a spot, they are super interesting! More tour info here.
If tours aren’t running when you’re in town, you can still visit the race track. Keeneland is very park-like, and the grounds are open to the public every day of the week.
For any seriously big horse nerds like me, you can even come to Keeneland to watch horses during their morning track workouts (for free!) between 5:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. They also offer shorter Morning Works Tours more frequently than the Backstretch Tours.
(Not into horse racing? You could visit the Aviation Museum of Kentucky instead, which is located at the Bluegrass Airport really close to Keeneland.)
Evening: Drinks/dinner downtown
Tonight, head back to downtown Lexington for perhaps some drinks and then dinner.
For drinks, the Infinity rooftop bar atop the atop Residence Inn is popular, or you can go for the more chilled vibe on the outdoor patio (called The Grove) at Harvey’s Bar.
Some dinner options include:
- Lockbox – An upscale spot inside the 21c Hotel (which also always has cool art exhibits on display for free).
- Corto Lima – A trendy spot serving up Latin-inspired dishes.
- Carson’s Food & Drink – If you’re looking for a more relaxed, pub-style meal.
- Pies & Pints – This chain is known for its pizza and craft beer.
- Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken – The original is in Memphis, but they serve up the same tasty chicken here.
Day 2 in Lexington
Morning: Breakfast at DV8 Kitchen
Start out your day with breakfast at DV8 Kitchen, a cool restaurant concept that offers second-chance employment to people recovering from addiction. They offer fresh baked goods (get a cinnamon roll!), plus all kinds of delicious breakfast dishes from biscuits and gravy to tacos.
Late morning/early afternoon: Kentucky Horse Park
Next, it’s time to visit one of Lexington’s top attractions: Kentucky Horse Park. Housed on more than 1200 acres just north of downtown, I promise you’ll enjoy this place even if you don’t love horses as much as I do.
Kentucky Horse Park is largely an educational place, where you can learn all about horses, as well as get up close and personal to a lot of different breeds.
There are daily shows and demonstrations here, including the “Parade of Breeds Show” (where you’ll learn about 6 different horses of different breeds) and the “Hall of Champions Show” (where you can meet horses who have won prestigious races and competitions).
The park is also home to the International Museum of the Horse, which is a fantastic look at the evolution of the horse + human relationship. You could easily spend an hour or so just inside the museum (and note that it is nice and air conditioned in case you need a break from the heat!).
My favorite exhibit was called “Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf,” which gives some insight into how the early days of horse racing in America was made possible by the hard work of enslaved Africans, who were the ones training, caring for, and even riding the top race horses. (Did you know that in the very first Kentucky Derby in 1875, 13 out of the 15 jockeys were Black?)
Kentucky Horse Park also offers horse-drawn trolley tours by the park’s draft horses, and even horseback rides you can book for an additional charge. The park also hosts outside horse shows and competitions that visitors can often attend.
It’s very easy to spend 3-4 hours here, especially if you want to catch all the different demonstrations.
Late lunch: Kentucky Native Cafe
There is a restaurant (the Iron Works Cafe) at Kentucky Horse Park, but you’re probably better off having a big breakfast and going somewhere to grab a bite after your time at the park. I recommend making that somewhere the Kentucky Native Cafe, which is an adorable outdoor spot connected to a garden shop called Michler’s Florist.
Kentucky Native Cafe serves up things like fresh salads, craft beer, and homemade sodas in a forest-like outdoor setting. It’s a great spot to relax outdoors in Lexington.
Afternoon/evening: Local brews
Day 3 is going to be your day to hit up the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, but if you want to try out some of the brews and spirits created right in Lexington, this would be the perfect time for it.
Some local distilleries and breweries you can check out include:
- Bluegrass Distillers – A craft distillery that runs tours and offers tastings. In the summer, they offer tours up until 5 p.m. Book in advance.
- Barrel House Distilling Co. – Another craft distillery offering tours and tastings. Book in advance; tours run on the hour up until 4 p.m.
- Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co. – This spot is both a brewery AND distillery, and offers tours where you get to sample both beer and bourbon.
- Blue Stallion Brewing Co. – Blue Stallion brews traditional German ales & lagers and also has a restaurant called Salt & Vinegar. This would be a good dinner option!
- Fusion Brewery – They’re less about tours and more about their taproom, which offers tastings and a small menus of sliders and snacks.
- Ethereal Brewing – A local micro brewery with a taproom.
- Wise Bird Cider Co. – They serve up lots of cider options (including tasting flights), and also offer tasty food at a permanent food truck called Little Fork.
Many of these are located in an area called the Lexington Distillery District on Manchester Street, which is an up-and-coming area.
Optional: Ice cream and/or live music
Since you’re likely to be in the Distillery District anyway, after dinner you can head to Crank & Boom Craft Ice Cream on Manchester, and then perhaps go across the street to The Burl to catch a live show. Tickets generally cost $15-35, and there are both indoor and outdoor stages.
If there’s not live music when you’re visiting, The Burl also has an indoor arcade with vintage games.
Day 3 in Lexington
Morning: Horse farm tour
Today will take you out of Lexington proper, but you won’t be going that far away. I recommend having breakfast today at your hotel (or elsewhere in Lexington) before heading out.
The Kentucky Bluegrass country surrounding Lexington is home to some of the most famous horse farms in the world, and many are open for tours. Some popular farms to visit include Sun Valley Farm, Claiborne Farm, and Three Chimneys, but there are SO many options.
I opted to visit Lane’s End Farm, a breeding farm that has ties to British royalty and many stakes-winning Thoroughbreds. On the way, I was able to drive through the adorable historic downtown of Versailles, and stop for coffee at The Amsden (highly recommended!).
The tour I did at Lane’s End was the “Lane’s End Shuttle Experience,” which includes walking through all the farm’s stallion barns, then riding a shuttle around some of the farm’s 2,000+ acres. We stopped by a foaling barn and yearling barn, and got to get up close to a few horses – we even got to give some pets to a 2-month-old foal!
Lane’s End is absolutely stunning, and has produced some pretty famous race horses. The Queen of England even used to board some of her horses here, and has stayed on the farm a few times.
For me, this was perhaps my favorite thing I did in Lexington. It was really cool to get behind the scenes of this part of the horse industry. (Want to take this tour yourself? You can book it here.)
Not interested in touring a horse farm? You could easily spend your whole day on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Or, another option would be to swap this day with Day 2, and visit the Bluegrass Scenic Railroad and Museum in Versailles. They operate an antique train at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. every Saturday from May-October.
Lunch at The Stave
After the farm tour, you can head through the rolling farmland to have lunch at a rather unassuming spot called The Stave. If you weren’t looking for it, it’s a spot you’d miss entirely. But this little roadside spot serves up tasty Southern food alongside a fun bourbon menu.
Book a table ahead if you can! If you can’t and it’s full, The Stave also has an outdoor eatery called The Treehouse, which serves up a more pared down food menu – but still plenty of drink options.
Afternoon: Distillery tour
The Stave is in the heart of Kentucky bourbon country, so you’re within a 10-15 minute drive of several iconic bourbon distilleries, including Woodford Reserve and Glenns Creek. I opted to visit Castle & Key, which first opened in 1887 as Old Taylor Distillery, and re-opened again as Castle & Key in 2016.
Castle & Key’s draw for me was its history (it was built by Colonel Edmund Hayes Taylor Jr. as a *destination* distillery, and was the first bourbon distillery to offer tours), and the fact that the distilling is done inside an old castle. Yes, an actual castle.
Taylor built his original distillery to be very European in appearance, with a stone castle, a classical springhouse, and even a sunken garden. All of these things have been lovingly restored by new owners (the old distillery fell into ruin after being abandoned in the 1970s), and you’ll see all of them on a tour.
If you don’t want to go on a tour, you can still come to Castle & Key for tastings and to enjoy many of the outdoor areas. But taking a tour here is pretty cool simply for the setting.
Not really into distilleries either? One last non-horse, non-boozy spot I can recommend near Lexington is Raven Run Nature Sanctuary, which is a 734-acre protected nature area with hiking trails, a nature center, and remnants of early settler homesteads.
The rest of this evening is to fill with anything else you may have missed in Lexington!
Lexington tours and tickets
Here are some guided tour options in Lexington, as well as some ticket links in case you want to pre-book anything before your trip:
- Half-Day Thoroughbred Horse Farm Tour in Kentucky – Not into horses quite as much as I am? Then this half-day tour that includes a horse farm and Keeneland might be just the right amount for you!
- Walking Food and Drink Tour in Lexington – Food tours are always a great way to get to know a new city.
- Mary Todd Lincoln House Self Guided Tour Ticket – In case you want to book this ticket in advance.
- Ashland Henry Clay Estate Ticket with Guided Tour – Entry and your choice of one timed tour.
- Zipline Canopy Tour through Kentucky River Palisades – In case you’re up for something more adventurous while you’re in Lexington!
Where to stay in Lexington
There are a number of hotel options in downtown Lexington, but I really recommend checking out the Elwood Hotel & Suites, which is a cheerful, plant-filled (and plant-friendly!) boutique hotel less than 2 miles from downtown. The hotel supports local women-owned businesses, and is covered (literally) in colorful artwork, both inside and out.
I stayed in one of the hotel’s Gardener’s Premier Rooms, which has huge windows with tons of natural light, and live plants throughout.
The Elwood has a great on-site restaurant (Fiddletree Kitchen & Bar), a beautiful outdoor patio area, and live music on weekends. AND, it’s pet-friendly, too.
This location worked out to be perfect. A quick drive to downtown, but very quiet (which was good, because I was in town when there were big outdoor events with music and lots of people on both Friday and Saturday nights in downtown Lexington!).
When to visit Lexington
Lexington is a year-round destination, and you could really visit in any season!
- Winter in Lexington can be chilly, but is usually fairly mild. You may find some attractions closed or operating fewer hours, though.
- Spring is a nice season, with comfortable temperatures and usually lots of baby horses! But it can often be a bit rainy.
- Summer in Lexington is warmer (sometimes downright hot and humid!), but it’s when lots of events happen around the city.
- Fall is another nice season temperature-wise in Kentucky, and also when you can see live racing at Keeneland.
I personally visited Lexington in June, and while it was pretty toasty, I thought it was a great time to visit in terms of there being lots to do.