If you're visiting the Bluegrass State, don't miss these!
By Patti Nickell | Contributing Travel Writer
- Keeneland Race Course
- Tour a horse farm
- Bourbon distilleries
- Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site
- Mary Todd Lincoln House
- Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm
- Kentucky Capitol
- The Thoroughbred Center
- Irish Acres Antiques
David Letterman easily comes up with a top 10 list every night, but trying to arrive at a list of the top 10 sites in a region with as much to offer as the Bluegrass is anything but easy.
What’s more important: horses, history or heritage? Are bourbon and basketball of equal significance? Is the home of Henry Clay (Ashland) a bigger draw than the home of Cassius Marcellus Clay (White Hall?)
If you have time for only one, do you pick Camp Nelson, Cane Ridge, the Capitol complex or Constitution Square?
See what we mean? Still, after much consideration, we’ve arrived at a top 10 list that we hope will help define any visitor’s Bluegrass experience.
Visitors can’t say they have truly experienced Lexington’s timeless elegance unless they have been to Keeneland.
Ideally, you’ll visit during one of the track’s two three-week race meets — the spring meet in April (which has a Kentucky Derby prep race, the Bluegrass Stakes) and the fall meet in October (with its Breeders’ Cup preps.) Either season is an ideal time to be at the track.
Another special occasion is Keeneland’s September Yearling Sale, the largest auction of its kind in the world. You don’t have to be in the market for a high-priced Thoroughbred to attend; Visitors are always welcome.
If you can’t make it to the races or the sales, you can watch early-morning workouts or take the self-guided walking tour of the grounds. Follow that with a meal at the track kitchen, where you can hobnob with owners, trainers and grooms.
Picture Florida without its beaches or New York without its skyscrapers. Then try to imagine Kentucky’s Bluegrass region without its horse farms. Impossible, you might think, and you would be right.
With roughly 450 horse farms in the Lexington area, from small boutique operations with a few stallions or mares to legendary farms, including Calumet and its record eight Kentucky Derby winners, the Bluegrass is indeed the “Horse Capital of the World.” The majority are not open to the public, but some of the most famous — Three Chimneys, Darley at Jonabell and Ashford Stud among them — welcome visitors.
The Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau has a list of the companies offering farm tours, and the bureau itself has two audio tours — the Thoroughbred Trail East and Thoroughbred Trail West — that offer narration as you drive.
Kentucky is almost as famous for its bourbon as for its horses. Visitors to the Bluegrass can sample America’s only native spirit at various distilleries in the region, including six on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Three of those six are within about a 30-minute drive of Lexington.
At Woodford Reserve Distillery, a National Historic Landmark on Glenn's Creek, visitors can tour the only distillery still using the traditional copper pot still method of producing bourbon.
Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort has been producing fine bourbon for more than 200 years, making it the oldest distilling site in the United States. In Lawrenceburg, just south of Frankfort, are two of the commonwealth's premier bourbon distilleries: Four Roses, with its distinctive Spanish colonial-style architecture, and Wild Turkey-Austin Nichols Distillery, which has a 40-foot-high column still.
As you drive around the hills and valleys outside Danville today, it is hard to imagine that on Oct. 7 and 8, 1862, one of the most crucial battles of the Civil War took place at what is now the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site.
By the time the battle ended, more than 7,600 men were dead, wounded or missing, and the Confederate Army ultimately abandoned its efforts to occupy Kentucky.
Every October, re-enactors gather to commemorate the commonwealth’s most important Civil War battle. The rest of the year, visitors can tour the battlefield and visit the museum.
A modest two-story brick building on Lexington’s West Main Street might go unnoticed except that it is the first house museum in the country to honor a first lady.
The Mary Todd Lincoln House is the girlhood home of the wife of the nation’s 16th president. The Todd family lived in the 14-room Georgian-style house from 1832 to 1849.
Visitors will see period furniture, paintings and furnishings, and memorabilia ranging from a chocolate pot that Mary bought at Tiffany’s to the original Ford’s Theater playbill from the evening of her husband’s assassination.
This is a retirement home similar to many others. Some of the senior citizens can get a little grumpy and out of sorts on occasion. Still, like most of those living in retirement communities, these old-timers welcome visitors; unlike most, they’re less interested in conversation than in the carrots the visitor might offer.
Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm occupies 52 acres of farmland just outside Georgetown. As the nation’s first retirement community for Thoroughbreds, it offers a safe haven where they can live out their lives once their racing and breeding careers end. About 25 to 30 horses are in residence at any time.
The Capitol complex at the end of flower-lined Capitol Avenue is well worth a visit. The Beaux Arts-style Capitol building has a dome modeled after the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, a state reception room inspired by Marie Antoinette’s drawing room at Versailles, and a grand staircase modeled after the one at the Paris Opera House.
Inside, though, it’s all Kentucky. There are bronze statues of Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Henry Clay and other notable native sons, and colorful murals. One depicts Daniel Boone getting his first look at Kentucky, and another shows the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, which led to the purchase of land from the Cherokees.
There’s also a crowd-pleasing exhibit: First Ladies in Miniature, a collection of dolls showing every first lady in her inaugural ball gown. The House and Senate chambers are open to the public when the General Assembly is not in session.
Other sites include the Governor’s Mansion, across from the Capitol, and the nearby Floral Clock, which has a face 34 feet in diameter that is planted with seasonal flowers.
Just a 45-minute drive from Lexington, in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, Berea has earned its reputation as Kentucky’s folk arts and crafts capital, and it’s the headquarters for the state’s celebrated handicraft tradition. The best place to begin is the 25,000-square-foot Kentucky Artisan Center , just off I-75. The center features the work of 650 Kentucky artisans.
In town, check out College Square, where the shops are known for traditional Appalachian handicrafts, and Old Town Artisans Village, where metalworkers, jewelry makers and glass blowers take a more contemporary approach.
Those who want to learn more about the Utopian experiment of the Rev. John Fee may take a self-guided walking tour of Berea College, founded by Fee in 1855 to bring equality of the races and sexes to higher education.
Students at the college pay no tuition; instead, they work in the town’s various enterprises, including the Boone Tavern, more than 100 years old. It’s an excellent place to stay overnight or dine on traditional Kentucky fare, such as spoon bread.
If you are looking for a real behind-the-scenes tour that will show you Thoroughbreds at work and at rest, the Thoroughbred Center is just the place.
Located amid scenic horse farms on Paris Pike, the center, owned by Keeneland Race Course, is home to 1,000 horses.
Guided tours allow visitors to see horses during their morning workouts on one of the two tracks, observe trainers as they work with potential future Derby winners, and tour the barns and paddocks where the horses spend their off-duty time.
Just 20 minutes from Lexington, in the tiny hamlet of Nonesuch in Woodford County, is a place that is fast becoming known to discriminating collectors from around the country.
Irish Acres Antiques is a treasure trove of high-quality merchandise, selectively chosen for every taste and pocketbook. You can find Christmas ornaments for $10 or a 200-year-old mahogany cupboard for $38,000.
There are displays throughout two floors of a converted schoolhouse, and the basement holds a delicious secret — The Glitz Restaurant.
The lavish décor of silver balls and butterflies, smoky mirrors and twinkling lights provides a unique backdrop for mouth-watering homemade soups, quiches, entrees and desserts.