If authenticity is the aim, think small. Kentucky’s best small towns blend a strong sense of place with people who aren’t into putting on airs.
In Maysville, that could mean talking to the baker who ships off transparent tarts to George Clooney, who grew up there. In Paducah, it might mean talking to a riverboat captain about what living on a boat is all about. In Berea, artists and crafters usher visitors into their studios, not to sell wares, but to talk about their work. And in Bardstown, a nationally noted downtown is more than a facade, it’s the heart of the area’s many layers of history and hospitality.
Charm, said Fowler Black, “comes through authenticity,” which is why Paducah has developed signature experiences that could happen only in the river town at Kentucky’s western corner.
“We want to see a place that is unlike our own,” said Black, sales director for the Paducah CVB.
Paducah’s riverfront location is the focus of one signature experience. Groups visit with a riverboat captain, which is fitting in a town where three rivers converge and boat traffic is a constant. Time spent with the captain “is a deep dive into river life,” said Black. “We know the river from the banks, but we don’t know it from the boat.”
Another tour explores Paducah’s Hotel Metropolitan, a stop for black musicians who were traveling between Chicago and New Orleans. A volunteer steps wholeheartedly into the role of Miss Maggie Steed, hotel operator, ushering visitors in with warnings about Jim Crow laws. As she shows them through the nine-room shotgun house, where guests shared one bath, she recounts the hotel’s struggles and talks about some of those who stayed there, including Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Billie Holiday and B.B. King. Afterward, everyone can gather round the small living room for a taste of soul food: fried catfish, greens, beans and, for toppers, chess pie.
In more recent times, Paducah has become known as Quilt City U.S.A., and experiences in that realm aren’t limited to tours of its International Quilt Museum. “We take groups into a classroom at the museum where there are 20 Janome sewing machines with two to three tables of fabric,” said Black.
Working by themselves or in pairs, depending on group size, participants make a quilt square, which is placed in a matted frame, so they take home a finished piece of art.
Bardstown’s charm is as complex as the flavor of the bourbon whiskeys made nearby.
At its heart is a downtown that draws national attention. In a poll several years ago by Rand McNally/USA Today, Bardstown was declared the Most Beautiful Small Town in America. Travel and Leisure has also praised its town square and named it one of America’s favorite towns.
Streets are lined with the requisite red-brick sidewalks and National Historic Register buildings, and popular local businesses thrive behind the handsome facades.
“We have a good diverse group of local shops. It is very active and vibrant,” said Dawn Przystal, vice president, tourism expansion and marketing at the Bardstown-Nelson County Tourist and Convention Commission. “I do a lot of shopping downtown.”
Its vitality makes downtown a favorite for wandering, informal shopping and dining. A diner serves biscuits with red-eye gravy, a soda fountain whips up icy treats, and near the courthouse square, the Old Talbott Tavern, built in 1779, serves drinks and Southern-style meals.
Another layer of attractions lies within a couple of blocks of the main business district. North of downtown, My Old Kentucky Dinner Train makes leisurely trips through the Kentucky countryside as passengers enjoy gourmet meals in 1940s dining cars. Other popular attractions include the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, the Stephen Foster Story and the Civil War Museum.
And even without a visit to the area’s five bourbon distilleries, there are ways to sample Kentucky’s best-known beverage. “The Kentucky Bourbon Market, in town, has tastings and bourbon-related gifts,” said Przystal. “The Kentucky Bourbon House will do dinners, tastings and cocktail-making classes.”