The first words I hear when I deplane in Lexington are: “The bourbon store is open if you’re thirsty.” It’s 11:28 a.m., and indeed, the airport liquor shop is open. I’m then greeted by several statues of horses stately planted in the grass outside the baggage claim. As a Southerner — New Orleans-born with stints living throughout the South — I’m particularly sensitive to the ways our towns are often stereotyped. But as more than one person, in varying dialects, points out to me, if you do something well, celebrate it. By the Kentucky locals’ estimation, no one does bourbon and horse racing better than Lexington.

The city, founded in 1775, includes many of the staples of the new American South I’ve encountered during my years crisscrossing it: the artisanal goods (in particular, ice cream), the mixture of boutiques and newly installed high-end shopping, the intense homegrown pride, the hipster bars and outdoor music festivals. Its pleasures, though, stretch far beyond the beltway that encircles the city. You’ll want a car. Because out there, beyond the circular interstate, lay the area’s gifts: miles and miles of pastoral hills, dotted with horses, some running, others resting, many more waiting for you to park and wander over with the gift of a red apple they’ll eat out of your hand. The beasts only begin to recede when you hit the distilleries, with their pungent aromas and old-world charms. So raise a glass to the limestone that filters iron from the city’s spring waters which, according to locals, results in richer bourbon and stronger horses.

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Local Faves

A man was in love with a woman, so he built her a castle. Inspired by their European honeymoon, Rex and Caroline Martin purchased 55 acres of land just outside Lexington in 1968 and began work on the 1Kentucky Castle 1Kentucky Castle Google Map: 230 Pisgah Pike, Versailles, Ky. Website: thekentuckycastle.com/ 859-256-0322 , a seven-bedroom, 15-bathroom castle complete with 12 turrets. But they divorced in 1968, and Rex split for Georgia, abandoning the castle on a hilltop for 30 years until it was eventually purchased, renovated, damaged in a fire and rebuilt. (Rumor has it that celebrities such as Lee Majors and Sylvester Stallone tried buying it, though neither’s representatives could confirm this.) Nowadays, five friends own the space, which is an ever-evolving destination complete with 10 rooms and four two-story corner wall chalets for guests to stay in, a farm-to-table restaurant that derives most of its ingredients from the land, and various events spaces throughout the ornately decorated halls. “We felt the world didn’t need another hotel,” Matt Dawson said as we walked the grounds from chicken coop to ballroom. “We wanted to create an experience that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.” Keep an eye out for events, as visitors can catch bands playing on the lawn, practice yoga between the roof’s turrets with pygmy goats or settle into the bourbon hall and receive a guided tasting from Tim Knittel, the castle’s own bourbon steward.

All 734 breathtaking acres of the 2Raven Run Nature Sanctuary 2Raven Run Nature Sanctuary Google Map: 3885 Raven Run Way, Lexington, Ky. Website: ravenrun.org/ 859-272-6105 sit about a half-hour drive from Lexington’s city center, but the trip’s scenery — mainly horse farms hugging a two-lane road shaded by colorful Appalachian foliage — would be reward enough for making the trek. Until, that is, you tackle the 10 minutes of mild-to-difficult hiking trails packed with more than 200 species of birds and 600 species of plants. Here, nature doesn’t hide. On my visit, a sizable buck leaped from the towering fields of yellow goldenrod that flanked my sides. A closer look revealed 12 deer and two additional bucks standing around me, staring and wondering who was this stranger in their world. Walk through the fields or opt for one of the denser trails — but be sure to visit some of the sanctuary’s historical structures, such as a house built in 1790 and its accompanying cemetery, the ancient limekiln or the remains of the Evans Gist Mill, which was used in the 1800s. Finally, try to make it to the overlook — a bluff towering 50 feet over the Kentucky River — for sunset.

Kevin Paul Gilbert and his granddaughter Vera play at the Kentucky Castle in Versailles, Ky. A walk through the fields of Raven Run Nature Sanctuary in Lexington, Ky., is rewarded with delicate shades of color. Shot glasses are lined up to deliver a sample nip of bourbon for visitors at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky.

Guidebook Musts

Anyone tracing the 3Kentucky Bourbon Trail 3Kentucky Bourbon Trail Google Map: 614 Shelby Street, Frankfort, Ky. Website: kybourbontrail.com 502-753-1699 could spend days visiting all the distilleries in and around Lexington, including classics like Woodford Reserve and Wild Turkey, and craft newcomers like Bluegrass Distilling. The crown jewel of bourbon distilleries, though, is Buffalo Trace. The aroma of bourbon permeates every inch of the sprawling campus. A free tour, leaving each hour from the visitor’s center, brings you throughout the grounds, from the barrel-lined aging warehouses to the room where dedicated workers bottle single-barrel Blanton’s by hand. The remarkably informative (and funny) guide-led tour lasts about an hour, ending with a small tasting of the distillery’s flagship brand — all well worth the drive. To see the actual process from grain-roasting to fermentation, sign up for the extensive Hard Hat tour, though you’ll need to reserve a space in advance. If you’re more interested in the new guard, opt for the area’s newest distillery, Castle & Key, which opened in September in a European-style castle built in 1887 to house the former Old Taylor Distillery.

When in horse country, you hang out with horses. If competition delights you, visit Keeneland and catch a race or tour the grounds. For everything else, there’s the 4 Kentucky Horse Park 4Kentucky Horse Park Google Map: 4089 Iron Works Pkwy., Lexington, Ky. Website: kyhorsepark.com 859-233-4303 . Equines, from furry mini-horses to sleek former Derby champs, dot the living museum’s rolling green hills. Attractions include a working blacksmith’s shop; a Smithsonian affiliate museum examining the 50-million-year history of the animal; and barns full of police horses, thoroughbreds and show ponies, some you can ride and some you can pet. The park also routinely hosts events such as parades and shows, so be sure to check its website while planning your visit.


Local Faves

Jeff Newman and Jon Rigsby never planned to open a barbecue restaurant. But Newman was tired of working in fine dining and Rigsby, fresh out of college and staring down the job market, realized what he really wanted to do was open his own shop. So the longtime friends bought out the tiny Mary Lou’s BBQ in 2014, with plans to convert it into a high-concept restaurant. When that didn’t prove viable, they decided to keep the equipment and give smoking meat a go: thus was the 5Blue Door Smokehouse 5Blue Door Smokehouse Google Map: 226 Walton Ave, Lexington, Ky. Website: bluedoorsmokehouse.com 859-252-4227 born. “Most people assume we have a long history of barbecue, and that’s really not the case,” Newman said.” We understand how to manipulate food, so we just went for it.” The result is 12-hour smoked pulled pork, brisket so tender it renders knives unnecessary and ribs in which the meat doesn’t seem to have a relationship with the bone. And no fine-dining frills here: just seven or so tables scattered about and walls adorned with a University of Kentucky pennant, handwritten menu and a few articles espousing the eatery’s greatness. Insider’s tip: On weekends, get there early — since the restaurant only serves freshly smoked meats, once it’s gone, it’s gone.

The Michler family opened their namesake florist and nursery in 1901, and it quickly became Lexington’s go-to for flora. Robin Michler, who runs the shop with his sister and parents, long thought the century-old business could double as a “community space.” He lived in Germany for a few years and grew fond of its beer gardens. “I felt something like this was missing in Lexington,” he said, so he transformed the back of the property into a serene oasis the family dubbed the 6Kentucky Native Cafe 6Kentucky Native Cafe Google Map: 417 E. Maxwell St., Lexington, Ky. Website: www.michlers.com/pages/cafe 859-254-0383 . Tables and benches are strewn under trees in a curated garden, and a small kitchen whips up seasonal salads and cheese plates along with beer and wine. Musicians often grace the space with soft tunes, so wander the greenhouses then grab a plate and enjoy a place out of time.

Mexican cuisine might not be the first to come to mind when thinking of Lexington — but Eater named 7Tortilleria Y Taqueria Ramirez 7Tortilleria Y Taqueria Ramirez Google Map: 1425 Alexandria Dr., Lexington, Ky. Website: facebook.com/pages/Tortilleria-y-Taqueria-RAMIREZ/129622913779004 859-455-9237 one of the South’s 38 essential restaurants and FiveThirtyEight asserted that it dishes out one of the country’s best burritos. And when Brynne Bowden, the assistant general manager at Honeywood, one of Lexington’s hottest new restaurants, told me it would be her last meal, I knew I had to check it out. The small shop, nestled in an unassuming strip mall, cooks tortillas for much of the area’s Latino restaurants, all dotting a community affectionately called Mexington. The carne asada burrito, the star here, is simple — just a thick, well-crisped tortilla wrapped around a generous portion of the usual (rice, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, onion, jalapeños, cheese and sour cream) — and it was the best I ever had, especially after heaping salsa onto it from the repurposed ketchup and mustard containers decorating the table.

Erika Salazar makes fresh tortillas at Tortilleria Y Taqueria Ramirez in Lexington, Ky. The brisket sandwich, with collard greens and potato salad, at Blue Door Smokehouse in Lexington, Ky. Allison Maggard, left, and Colleen Maggard, both of Lexington, Ky., have a chat at their hometown’s Kentucky Native Cafe.

Guidebook Musts

Six-time James Beard award semifinalist chef Ouita Michel is known for Holly Hill Inn, the elegant brick manor where guests receive a personal greeting on the white-columned front porch, soon followed by a multicourse meal. But the hours are tricky, and the restaurant is about 15 miles outside Lexington. For a more accessible sampling of Michel’s cuisine, try 8Honeywood 8Honeywood Google Map: 110 Summit at Fritz Farm, Suite 140, Lexington, Ky. Website: honeywoodrestaurant.com/ 859-469-8234 , her newest offering in Lexington’s industrial-commercial complex, the Summit at Fritz Farm. Michel said she wanted to create a “Kentucky version of a bistro” with the motto “Let’s use Kentucky agriculture; let’s make everything from scratch” in an area that would normally be packed with corporate eateries such as P.F. Chang’s and Applebee’s. The restaurant, tucked among dozens of high-end retailers, offers an eclectic menu ranging from carrot croquettes to two griddled locally sourced beef patties crammed between hoecakes, or crispy corn bread, a Kentucky specialty.

Lexington boasts a peculiar number of beloved restaurants bearing masculine forenames: Tony’s (steak); Coles 735 Main (Southern fine dining); Carson’s Food & Drink (new American). But the one mentioned by every person I spoke with as a “staple” was 9 Dudley’s on Short 9Dudley's on Short Google Map: 259 W. Short St., Lexington, Ky. Website: dudleysonshort.com/ 859-252-1010 . A cornerstone of the community, the bustling two-story, 150-seat restaurant, capped with a rooftop terrace decorated by garden designer Jon Carloftis, is a house of hobnobbing for the city’s elite. This became clear as I sat at the bar and listened to the manager rush to the bartender, clad like the servers in white shirt sleeves and black vest and tie, to remind him of various regular customers’ drink preferences. (“Remember, the judge likes Stoli in his martini.”) The menu is a mixture of classic and modern Southern fare. Try the delightfully crispy fried chicken skins, drizzled in honey, hot sauce and a zesty mixture of lemon and thyme.


Local Faves

10Justins’ House of Bourbon 10Justins' House of Bourbon Google Map: 601 W. Main St., Lexington, Ky. Website: thehouseofbourbon.com/ 859-317-8609 — owned by friends and Bourbon Review magazine co-publishers Justin Sloan and Justin Thompson — is a promised land for bourbon lovers. The two spent decades amassing impressive personal collections of rare and vintage bourbon, which they decided to sell in a specialty store soon after the state passed a law in May 2017 allowing the resale of distilled spirits. The result is what Sloan called “a museum of American whiskey.” Bottles of the brown stuff range from under $10 up to upward of $25,000. Teetotalers, meanwhile, might enjoy listening to the affable and (incredibly) garrulous manager Brian Booth sling facts about the bourbons while playing tour guide. (In the shop, I overheard him recommending restaurants to four different groups of tourists. He’s partial to the city’s first gastropub, the Village Idiot, highlighting their smoked tomato ketchup). Insider tip: The back display case is a secret door to a private tasting room that — with its wood-paneled walls, low-lighting and oversized leather chairs — is the quintessential “man cave.”

Discreetly hidden in a strip mall on the main drag, 11Pops Resale 11Pops Resale Google Map: 1423 Leestown Rd., Lexington, Ky. Website: popsresale.com/ 859-254-7677 is the definition of eclectic. Dan Shorr, a.k.a. “Pop,” describes it on the website as “a clearinghouse for vinyl records, vintage and quirky clothing, old-school game systems, and a million other things you ain’t never heard of.” He’s not wrong. You don’t need to make a purchase to enjoy the shops strange delights that stretch on for 6,000 square feet — and he doesn’t care if you do. “I just want people to enjoy themselves. If someone doesn’t buy anything, so what? The next guy will,” Shorr said. Wander around and see what you find. Maybe it’s the entire wall covered in Herb Alpert record sleeves. Maybe it’s the display of gas masks with the sign announcing they have “overstock on them.” Maybe it’s the vintage clothing, arranged by decade — or maybe it’s the eerie mannequin body parts that are strewn in bins around the shop. Whatever it is, something here will make you stop and say to yourself, “What the . . . ?” As Shorr said, “For a first-timer, the shop is sort of sensory overload.”

Some of the quirky wares and novelty items at Peggy's Gifts & Accessories in the Clay Avenue Shops of Lexington, Ky. An array of salsas at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, Ky. The establishment also offers handmade jams and Shaker replica furniture. Junior helps owner Dan Shorr keep an eye on Pops Resale’s records, clothes and “million other things you ain’t never heard of” in Lexington, Ky.

Guidebook Musts

A group of Shakers — the colloquial name for members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance, a Christian group formed in England in 1747 — reached central Kentucky in 1805 and founded the 12Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill 12Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill Google Map: 3501 Lexington Rd., Harrodsburg, Ky. Website: shakervillageky.org/ 800-734-5611 . They lived peaceful, celibate lives and became known for the furniture they made, prized for its “minimalist design and unstinting quality,” according to a description from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sister Mary Settles, the last Shaker to call Pleasant Hill home, died in 1923, but a nonprofit organization restored the settlement in the 1960s. Activities abound in the village — visit the on-site working farm, take a hay ride or join a staff-led tour through the historical site — but anyone looking for souvenirs should visit its shops for Shaker replica furniture or handmade jams, soap or pickled veggies.

The Summit at Fritz Farm might be stacked with high-end chains such as Lululemon and Brooks Brothers, but the 13Clay Avenue Shops 13Clay Avenue Shops Google Map: Clay Avenue and East Main Street, Lexington, Ky. Website: visitlex.com/listing/clay-avenue-shops/6151/ 800-845-3959 is where local charm lives. The structures on the short street were built as homes in the early 1900s but have been converted into a handful of cozy locally owned boutiques. The folks at the aptly named Lamp Place will transform anything you own, from a wine bottle to a guitar, into a lamp. Peggy’s Gifts & Accessories, meanwhile, is a 3,000-square-foot (but still homey) boutique selling quirky novelty gifts and homemade jewelry. The street also includes a custom stationary store, a bake shop and an upscale menswear boutique, among many others. Fuel up for a day of shopping with a hot coffee and enormous, freshly baked honey bun from the town’s favorite coffee shop, Magee’s Bakery, just around the corner.


Local Fave

What makes the 14 21c Museum Hotel 1421c Museum Hotel Google Map: 167 W. Main St, Lexington, Ky. Website: 21cmuseumhotels.com/lexington/ 859-899-6800 brand one of hospitality’s most exciting new regional chains is how effortlessly each location mirrors the city it calls home. Housed downtown in the Fayette National Bank Building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, the Lexington location is no different. The hotel retains the bank’s marble walls and flooring, and diners can eat in the old vault in the attached restaurant, Lockbox, which features delicate new Southern cuisine from chef Jonathan Searle, such as catfish in a light heirloom tomato broth. The highlight, though, is the museum, which doesn’t shy away from difficult art. Yes, there is a stunning weather balloon exhibit that changes color and position with the conditions, but there’s also a dollhouse that, upon closer inspection, is filled with murdered bodies. (It’s a depiction of the Clutter family murders from Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”)

The 21c Suite at 21c Museum Hotel in Lexington, Ky., features some of the area’s notable residents on the wall. Artwork from the SoftLab design studio in Manhattan greets visitors to 21c Museum Hotel in Lexington, Ky. Patrons may dine in this former bank vault at Lockbox, the restaurant inside 21c Museum Hotel in Lexington, Ky.

Guidebook Must

The moment I pulled up to the 15Campbell House Lexington 15Campbell House Lexington Google Map: 1375 S. Broadway, Lexington, Ky. Website: curiocollection3.hilton.com/en/hotels/kentucky/the-campbell-house-lexington-curio-collection-by-hilton-LEXQQQQ/index.html 859-255-4281 and eyed its white columns and antebellum sprawl, I kicked myself for not donning a pale linen suit, brimmed hat and a bolo tie because this place is as classically Southern as they come. High-backed chairs surround a low-slung coffee table and a huge fireplace in the paneled lobby. The hallways stretch on forever. (Picture a non-scary version of “The Shining.”) And the spacious rooms include large armchairs made for curling into with a good book. Built in 1951, it’s the oldest continuously operated hotel in central Kentucky, but it’s undergoing a multimillion-dollar redesign that will add a new bar — with 150 different bourbons — and restaurant, a small market for grabbing coffee and a bagel in the morning, and a 7,000-square-foot-events venue that, I read, will have “unique decor that is reflective of the Local Horse Country.” Natch.


Local Fave

To work off some of that Southern cooking, take a stroll around the 16Gratz Park Historic District 16Gratz Park Historic District Google Map: The area surrounding Gratz Park, at N. Mill and New streets, Lexington, Ky. Website: nps.gov/nr/travel/lexington/gra.htm 859-288-2900 . The grassy neighborhood, which borders Transylvania University, was established in 1781. Old mansions surround a park that the late Kentucky architectural historian Clay Lancaster said “has charm, atmosphere, a sense of tranquility and of history, and it provides an oasis of planting tucked into the cityscape.” Take in the stunning architecture and read informative plaques about the historic buildings, such as the Carnegie Library, built from limestone in 1906, or one of the storied homes in the area. Plus, you’re a 10-minute walk from the Mary Todd Lincoln house, the girlhood home of the first lady, which offers extensive 60-minute tours every hour.

A player celebrates a bocce outcome at the Pepper Distillery District in Lexington, Ky. Gratz Park Historic District is a grassy neighborhood in Lexington, Ky., with old mansions surrounding a park. The Mary Todd Lincoln House — girlhood home of the first lady in the Gratz Park Historic District — offers extensive, hour-long tours every hour.

Guidebook Must

Many Southern cities are revitalizing their former industrial centers. Naturally, in Lexington, that center is a distillery. The James E. Pepper Distillery was the area’s pride when it was constructed in 1879 and survived prohibition. But by 1958, its doors were closed and the property sat sorrowfully empty for five decades. That changed in 2014, when portions of the old distillery were sold and repurposed into a 25-acre entertainment area. Now, the 17Pepper Distillery District 17Pepper Distillery District Google Map: Around 1228 Manchester St., No. 100, Lexington, Ky. Website: jamesepepper.com/distillery-district/ 859-309-3230 houses restaurants such as Middle Fork, which offers a divine plate of cheesy grits with rich goetta and a poached egg, and Crank & Boom Ice Cream Lounge. (Order the decadent bourbon ball sundae; thank me later.) The distillery’s old staff break room is now a dive bar called Break Room at Pepper, where a very calm cat lives. Best of all, the Pepper Distillery reopened and is pumping out bottles of its signature “1776” rye whisky.