When you first hear about Paducah, Kentucky, your initial thoughts wouldn’t be that this small town in western Kentucky is a total creative mecca of artists, performers, craftsmen, writers, and world-class quilters, but that’s exactly what this historic river town is at the core. And to further hammer home the point, it was named a UNESCO Creative City by the United Nations in 2013. Take that, Telluride.
Between the historic walkable downtown and its 19th-century architecture, as well as the ultra-hip LowerTown district that’s home to art galleries, craftsmen studios, and the Paducah School of Art & Design campus, Paducah is a place you never knew needed to be on your weekend getaway bucket list.
Visit this historic yet wildly creative town, originally named by William Clark, famed leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and you’ll be off to a great start with some of our favorite things to do in Paducah, Kentucky.
Visit the National Quilt Museum
Before you hit the snooze button on this attraction, know that it’s way cooler than it sounds, even if you’ve never been interested in quilting before. Known as Quilt City USA, Paducah celebrates its quilting repute with the renowned National Quilt Museum, which aims to showcase the work of today’s quilters and advance the art of quilting by bringing it to audiences that had previously not experienced the art form. Annually, the museum—which houses over 650 different quilting works of art—receives over 35,000 visitors.
Shop the Arts District
Also Paducah’s oldest neighborhood, the lively LowerTown Arts District was the center of an artist relocation program (with a goal to revive and restore the forgotten area) and is home to the Paducah School of Art & Design campus, making it quite the hip part of town. Start by perusing artist studios and galleries before bopping into novelty shops like Raven & Moth, a local crafts boutique.
See the Floodwall Murals
Back in the day, Paducah was settled on the banks of the Ohio River for industry purposes, but modern city planners felt the town needed a concrete floodwall to ensure the streets wouldn’t be at risk of flooding. Instead of leaving the eyesore of a tall, blah-gray concrete wall, the city commissioned well-known muralist Robert Dafford to complete the Paducah Wall to Wall project, which features 50 painted panels of colorful murals that tell the story of Paducah’s history and heritage.
Explore Historic Downtown
Take your shopping day from LowerTown to the historic downtown district to discover even more unique artisans and boutiques. In addition, you’ll run into plenty of 19th-century architecture, locally owned shops and restaurants, and the 1927 Columbia Theatre.
Learn About Kentucky Spirits
It’s legal now, we promise! The Silent Brigade Distillery designed and built copper pot stills to make their hand-crafted Kentucky bourbon. Take a tour, have a taste, listen to live music, and maybe purchase a bottle of moonshine of your own. Moonshine shouldn’t be shied away from, but make sure to keep your wits about you, you hear?
Get Some Tasty Eats
Experience the simple, rustic delicacy that is western Kentucky cuisine by snagging a table at Freight House, a farm-to-table restaurant owned by chef Sara Bradley, a native Paduchan and contestant on seasons 16 and 20 of Bravo’s Top Chef. Standout dishes include spicy beer cheese (a Kentucky classic!), chicken n’ dumplins, and pecan pie.
Other spots to hit: Flamingo Row for colorful Caribbean flair, Doe’s Eat Place for a darn good steak (it’s an old-school place), Kirchhoff’s Bakery for fifth-generation pastries, and one of the South’s Best Barbecue Joints 2020, Starnes Bar-B-Q.
Go Back in Time
The old-fashioned Troutt Old Time General Store started as a booth at the local farmers’ market, gradually moving from heirloom vegetables to homemade products, until the small family-run operation took it to a brick-and-mortar. Expect to find plenty of jams, jellies, old-school hard candies, handmade baskets, goat milk soaps, Kentucky-based coffee products, local honey, and Amish Country popcorn to bring home.
Grab a Brew
In tandem with the creative makeover the city experienced in the 2010s, the old Coca-Cola bottling plant went from sitting vacant for nearly 20 years to thriving as a hip new brewing company, Dry Ground Brewing Company, that names its brews after local facts and lore—ask about the Uncle Luther or ’37 Flood!—and occasionally features a fun pop-up putt-putt. As the city’s first local craft brewery, it kicked off the historic bottling site as a community hangout space, with other tenants now including Pipers Tea and Coffee House, a yoga spot, and Mellow Mushroom.
Stroll the Dogwood Trail
A tradition going back to the 1960s, the Dogwood Trail Celebration is one of Paducah’s most beloved annual festivals. Starting in mid-April, the dogwood trees come out in full bloom, along with other flowering garden trees, to create spring’s most beautiful show. Drive along the eight-mile lighted path of dogwoods traversing Historic Downtown, LowerTown Arts District, and other residential neighborhoods.
Take a Tour
There’s plenty to see in Paducah on foot, but take a load off and nestle into a horse-drawn carriage at John’s Pass Carriages for some history (and maybe a spooky ghost story) of the city. Hop aboard the area’s trolley for a free ride through the historic downtown and the arts district, and get on and off anywhere along the route.
Make It Home Base
Luckily for any rambling travelers, Paducah makes a great base to see all that Kentucky (and even Tennessee) has to offer. Head to Bowling Green, Owensboro, or the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to catch all of Kentucky’s signature rolling hills, distilleries, and robust horse culture. You can even head down to Nashville or Memphis—each about 2 ½ to 3 hours away—to get your fill of country music and barbecue.
Go to the Barbecue Festival
Speaking of barbecue, every fall you can expect to smell the savory aromas of smoked chicken and pork on the streets of historic downtown Paducah. The Barbecue on the River Festival is a community event that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity—which is only right, considering you’ll witness over 80,000 pounds of grilled, smoked, and cooked chicken and pork, with one team voted Grand Champion. It’s like a big family reunion, only way, way better.
Drink at a Bourbon Bar
While here, do as Kentuckians do. Opened by the founder of the Paducah Bourbon Society, Barrel & Bond is just the thing to introduce yourself—or say hello again, old friend—to Kentucky bourbon. This bourbon-centric bar lives in the shell of an over-150-year-old building and features bourbons and whiskeys. Afterward, you might just extend your trip into a big Bourbon Country expedition.
So no, Paducah isn’t made just for passing through. It’s the whole dang show.