This week I’m in my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky for Christmas. While I never used to think of Kentucky as much of a travel destination, I’ve recently been hearing of an increasing number of travelers frequenting the area, be it as a full vacation or as part of a Southern road trip. So, for once, I can speak as a true local and tell you what’s best to do and see in Kentucky because really there’s A LOT.
Here’s my top 10 for Kentucky (and as a local, I obviously know everything):
1. A Day at the Races — Every April and October, Keeneland Racetrack opens for the horse races, and it really represents Kentucky at its finest. From the clubhouse to the grounds, Keeneland is absolutely beautiful and worth a trip if you’re around in either month.
Churchill Downs has a different feel than Keeneland because it’s a much larger track. Also, it’s right in the heart of Kentucky’s largest city as opposed to being outside of a town like Keeneland. However, Churchill Downs always hosts the Oaks and the Derby which represent an iconic experience in Kentucky. If you’re lucky enough to attend these races, don’t forget to bring your best hat and try a mint julep!
2. Take a Tour of the Famous Horse Farms — By far the best tour you can take is the Unbridled Horse Tour. My cousin, Martha Martin, started this tour company having been in the horse business her entire life. Now, she plans custom tours to the most exclusive horse farms around Kentucky. With her knowledge of the industry and horses, her tours will not disappoint!
3. The Bourbon Trail — With bourbon being one of the largest exports out of Kentucky, what better way to spend an afternoon than visiting the distilleries of many internationally-known bourbons? Along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, you’ll find the distilleries of Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark and Evan Williams – and convenient buses and cars can be hired to take you between each on the Bourbon Trail website.
4. The National Corvette Museum — OK so I’m not super in to cars, but this is pretty cool. In Bowling Green, Kentucky is the only place that Corvettes are manufactured in the entire world. The National Corvette Museum is next door and offers tours of all past models of the car. So, this museum is a must for any car enthusiasts!
5. Shopping in Lexington — When I was younger, Lexington was not exactly a shopping mecca. However, in the past few years so many cute little shops have opened in what is now being referred to as Lexington’s Designer District. Stores such as Bella Rose, Calypso, Monkee’s, AJ’s Casuals, World’s Apart, The Black Market, House, Fig Leaf and Peggy’s have brought many designers like Tory Burch to Lexington for the first time and offer a low key but upscale shopping experience.
Also, after a long day of shopping, stop into Magee’s Bakery for one of their famous iced cookies or a cupcake.
6. Hit up a University of Kentucky basketball game — Throughout the Fall and Spring, Lexington comes to a halt every time a UK basketball game occurs. We don’t have any professional sports in our state so college sports are a BIG deal, especially because UK is (usually) pretty awesome at basketball. The games are also such a spectacle with indoor fireworks at every game and the million time national championship winning cheerleading team performing. Even if you’re not really into basketball, these games are so much fun to attend. I hear there’s another team that might be worth seeing up in Louisville, but since I’m from Lexington, I don’t plan on going to those games any time soon (rivalry, much?).
7. Go Spelunking in Mammoth Cave — Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world. That’s pretty cool right? It’s also pretty easy to go and see without being a hardcore caver (…spelunker?). Check out the tour schedule here or stop by the visitor’s center. The tours take an hour or so and are easy for all to join. I did it when I was seven if that tells you anything.
8. Hike up the Red River Gorge — Nothing beats the great outdoors, and Kentucky is home to some fantastic hiking at the Red River Gorge. I’m not like mega outdoorsy or anything, but living in the concrete jungle has made me appreciate a tree or two (or 1000). The gorge offers trails, cabins, camping grounds, climbing and a natural bridge. Worth a trip, even for us city folk!
9. Take a Pony Ride at Kentucky Horse Park — What is Kentucky best known for? Horses of course! So a trip to the Kentucky Horse Park feels almost obligatory. See nearly 50 breeds of horses, take a trail ride on a trusty steed and maybe catch a horse show. Many international horse shows happen at this park such as the Rolex 3-day Event each Spring.
10. Restaurants — There are so many great restaurants to choose from in and around Lexington, some brand new and some that have been around for as long as I can remember. Here are my top recommendations:
- Malone’s Steakhouse: A prime, upscale steakhouse in Lexington (J’s favorite)
- Joe Bologna’s: My favorite pizza place on the planet. Laidback, cool atmosphere
- Alfalfa: My family has been going to this restaurant since my feet couldn’t touch the floor. Growing up, we knew all the waiters and waitresses, and I always had the spinach noodles. Now, their brunch is the best, but you can’t go wrong any time of day.
- Jack Fry’s: My favorite in Louisville’s trendy Bardstown Road neighborhood.
- Darlin’ Jean’s: In the cutest little town, Midway. Go for the cobbler.
- Shakespeare and Company: With its sister restaurant located in Dubai, this restaurant’s opulent decor won’t disappoint. The food is good but by no means compares to the over-the-top ambiance. Worth a visit.
- Ramsey’s Diner: Nothing beats a milkshake or a slice of pie from Ramsey’s!
- Graeter’s: The most sought after ice cream in America! So delicious. Don’t believe me until you try it. Come for a visit or they’ll ship it to you if you order online!
- The Tulip: A relatively new restaurant in Lexington’s Chevy Chase neighborhood. Delicious new American cuisine with a great wine and bourbon list.
- Atomic Cafe: I worked at this Caribbean inspired downtown summer hotspot for four summers through high school and college, and the food never got old. Their fish dishes, mac and cheese and cornbread are my highlights. Plus they have the best patio and live music in the summers.
If you don’t want to listen to my recommendations (I cannot imagine why this would be true though), here’s a Kentucky Bucket List from the real experts at Kentucky.com. Disregard number 42 — I promise you’ll thank me.