In the same spot where thousands of slaves were once auctioned, you can rock out to local bands on Thursday evenings and return on Saturday mornings to buy handcrafted sourdough bread and butterleaf lettuce from local organic farms. Next to this community commons rises the regal county courthouse where one can lose hours in fascination at the surprising local lore, artifacts and photographs on view in the three museums housed in this gem of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture.
Welcome to Cheapside Park, the public square of Lexington, Kentucky, the kind of authentic “third space” that today’s urban planners cite as essential for any city that hopes to thrive. It’s certainly a good place to sense the collective character of a townspeople, and in Lexington, that character is enough to make one want to visit again, and even live here. These folks embody the state credo of Kentucky Proud and suggest a spin-off, Lexington Happy.
Cheapside Park is happily jam-packed for the farmers market (one of several local-focused in the city; there’s one nearly every day of the week), Thursday Night Live, and occasional events such as the Bluegrass Pride decorated rain barrel exhibition. The museums in the courthouse include the Lexington History Museum, Kentucky Renaissance Pharmacy Museum, and just past the skeleton of a prized race horse, the Public Safety Museum.
A stand-out at the farmers market: pure flora sourdough bread that looks as divine as it tastes. Liam+Valentina craft slow-fermented elaborately decorated bread from stone-ground whole wheat and herbs, plus bits of carrots, asparagus, raisins, black walnuts, rosemary and peppers. Liam explained that the process is not just about beautiful presentation but more importantly about nutrition; it enables the body to absorb more nutrients. The vegan couple perfected their bread when living in Sicily, then biked to the Ukraine, and had planned just a short visit in the United States – but then “clicked with” the folks at Lazy Eight, a Lexington area farm co-op with a community-supported agriculture program. There they cultivate heirloom vegetables and naturally raised bedding plants.
Here’s a sampling of other market tastes: Pumpkin, apple and peanut butter vegan treats from Paw Prints Bakery, “I Can’t Feel My Face” and other Sadistic Mistress Sauces made from peppers from Lexington’s Cleary Hill Farms, glistening greens from Meadowbloom Farm, Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale made close-by, Sorbet Cafe’s decadent vegan chocolate noir. Music ranged from real bluegrass from “Just Old Troubadours” Roger and Clay, a flute player who was asked to play “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (60′s rock still reigns here) and Henry Clay High School scat trio, raising awareness of (and coin for) environmental projects.
Between its location near Bluegrass area farms and University of Kentucky, downtown Lexington offers plenty of friendly eateries with plant-based selections. A short walk east from Cheapside Park, next to Downtown Arts Center, Alfalfa Restaurant serves crunchy, healthy salads with an addictive vegan miso dressing and a zippy veganized Hoppin’ John. Opened in 1973, Alfalfa demonstrates a deep commitment to local growers and organic practices. It’s crowded for good reason, but the friendly staff keep the food moving while chatting about local events, which are promoted by bunches of cool posters filling some of the windows. Some of the posters are designed by former Alfalfa employees such as John Lackey, who now runs Homegrown Press a few blocks north. His clients range from eco nonprofits to bands like Wilco.
For cerebral, visual and sonic thrills, there’s the cool indie stage at Natasha’s Bistro and Bar, also near the square. Also entertaining is the charred cauliflower-squash casserole and other plant-based entrees in daily lunch buffet.
From Cheapside Park, you can embark on Lexington’s well-mapped walking or biking tours packed with history, heritage and architecture designated by “BGT” Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation plaques. The maps are free from the visitors bureau downtown and online. Beautiful unique churches near Cheapside Park include St. Paul Roman Catholic Church, a 1868 Gothic Revival work with a striking 218-foot spire. Its white trim reflects sun all day. I bike through the fragrance of blossoms, fine old trees and…what is that smell? I asked some locals sitting on a porch. Peanut butter – wafting from a peanut butter factory northeast of town. Hungry, I found some vegan snacks by Cheapside at Shorty’s urban market.
A free LexArts Hop self-guided tour brochure lists several dozen galleries, museums, studios, businesses and churches displaying art. These include Artists’ Attic in Victorian Square (another grand example of preservation and adaptive reuse), near Cheapside Park. At that studio co-op, I met Marianna McDonald, whose pastel works include lush local landscapes and animal portraits. Also close-by: ArtsPlace, visual and performing arts venues housed in a 1904 Beaux Arts structure. At the Living Arts and Science Center, the exhibit “Animal Facts, Fairy Tales, and Fictions” captivated me for an hour.
Free trolleys and Sprocket Jockeys pedicabs provide other ways to cruise around town. Bluegrass Airport is just a few miles away and served by LexTran bus. Just a block from Cheapside Park is a friendly, comfortable downtown Hilton. For countryside lodging, there’s Snug Hollow Farm Bed and Breakfast, a veg-friendly designated Green Hotel on a beautiful organic farm 50 miles from downtown Lexington. If you’ve stayed there, let me know.
Lexington was founded in 1775 by explorers traveling west of the Allegheny Mountains who spotted abundant springs and the area’s signature bluegrass (Poa Pratensis), which thrives on the limestone undergirding the soil.
During my visit, I pedaled incredible renaissance neighborhoods and Bluegrass countryside trails, which I’ll cover in the future. Before visiting, get sightseeing and event details at Visit Lexington and bike event updates at Bike Lexington and Bluegrass Cycling. The Bike Lexington Downtown Festival took place yesterday, June 2.
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