For about 30 years, the Fayette National Bank Building—Lexington’s first skyscraper and the tallest historic structure downtown—stood vacant. Then, in 2012, 21c Museum Hotel stepped in, purchasing the whole tower to remake as its fifth location. When they opened in February, they filled a somewhat conspicuous void in the city’s art scene, while also adding some of the most chic hotel rooms around. (The characteristic penguins come in Kentucky-proud blue, naturally.) It’s entirely possible to visit the hotel and never leave—the two-floor gallery and site-specific installations alone deserve a full afternoon of exploration, and the shower is a transcendent experience. But why do that when Lexington’s bustling downtown is right outside your door? Besides, that bluegrass isn’t going to enjoy itself.
Which leads us to one part of Kentucky culture of which there is no shortage: All things equine. There is, in fact, a whole museum dedicated to horses: the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park. Keeneland’s fall race meet runs October 7–29, but you can meet stallions behind the stalls at WinStar Horse Farm (and several others) on regular tours. Ever wanted to learn intimate details about the sex lives of four-legged champions while strolling around some beautiful grounds? This is your chance. And at $20 per ticket, it’s way less than the breeding fee mare owners pay for the privileges.
Bourbon: It’s the area’s most beloved export. You’d be remiss to be this close and not hit up a distillery. Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve are both National Historic Landmarks within a half-hour’s drive of town. Woodford has the tour choreography down pat, including a candlelit tasting amid rows of barrels. Just buy tickets in advance—their game has been perfected by a lot of practice. Buffalo Trace’s grounds are more rustic-industrial than Woodford’s quaint Old South vibe, making for a nice juxtaposition if you visit both. Buffalo Trace was one of only four distilleries in the nation to operate during Prohibition—no joke, they filled more than six million prescriptions for “medicinal purposes” during the era, one original copy of which is now on display—and they make 17 bourbons on site, including Blanton’s, Old Stagg, and the elusive Pappy Van Winkle.
Lest the hoppy stuff be passed over for all that mash, a Brewgrass Trail has formed as well. Our top stops: West Sixth Brewing, which is walkable from downtown (along a street lined with historic homes, too) and pours a long list of excellent experimental suds only available in the taproom; and Country Boy Brewing, a nondescript spot that brews a killer wild ale.
The Food Chain
It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is no better late-night food than the pimento cheese fries served by Lockbox (at 21c) with crawfish, creole gravy, and hot sauce in a cast iron skillet. They pair nicely with the cocktail menu, too. (Might we suggest the rye whiskey–based Even Keel?) Should it be a burger you seek, be not its namesake and get to the Village Idiot just up the street. Or grab a coveted seat at Table Three Ten for superb locally sourced seasonal grub like carrot ginger risotto and grilled rabbit.
If you supported the, um, local beverage culture, brunch will be essential. For that, again, we must suggest Lockbox, because there’s no classier way to eat off a hangover than their egg sandwich or Skuna Bay salmon. We also love longstanding Alfalfa Restaurant down the street, connected to a community art center. You will wait, but the cheese grits will be worth it.
Also worth checking out: the redeveloping Distillery District, where all of life’s essentials—farm-to-table food (Middle Fork Kitchen Bar), local beer (Ethereal Brewing), and handmade ice cream (Crank & Boom Ice Cream Lounge)—can be found side by side by side.