This small town in western Kentucky was originally named by William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition—no biggie. 

By Kaitlyn Yarborough
March 10, 2020
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When you first hear about Paducah, Kentucky, your initial thoughts wouldn’t be that this small town in the far western corner of Kentucky is a total creative mecca of artists, performers, craftsmen, writers, and world-class quilters—you can thank the local National Quilt Museum for that—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 downtown and its 19th-century architecture and walkable artisan shops, 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 one of those places you never knew needed to be on your weekend getaway bucket list—but to put it simply, you’d be dumb if you didn’t. 

Visit this historic yet wildly creative town—originally named by William Clark, famed leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition—at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers, and you’ll be off to a great start with these 12 things to do and reasons to go to Paducah, Kentucky, this year. 

Visit the renowned 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 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 600 different quilting works of art—receives over 100,000 visitors.

Find unique gifts in the LowerTown Arts District 

Also Paducah’s oldest neighborhood, this lively 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, and Dixie Leather Works, where you’ll find expertly handcrafted leather goods. 

Walk along the creative 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. 

Shop ‘til you drop in the walkable 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.

See how Kentucky moonshine is made at Paducah Distilled Spirits

It’s legal now, we promise! Also known as “The Moonshine Company,” this distillery operates out of a 100-plus year-old building and makes Kentucky moonshine the traditional way. Take a tour, have a taste, and maybe go on to purchase a bottle of your own. Moonshine shouldn’t be shied away from, but make sure to keep your wits about you, you hear? 

Get a table at a Top Chef restaurant—plus many more 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 Sarah Bradley, a native Paduchan and contestant on season 16 of Bravo’s Top Chef. Standout dishes include spicy beer cheese (a Kentucky classic!), parsnip stroganoff, and maple chess 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), Kirchoff’s Bakery for fifth-generation pastries, and one of the South's Best Barbecue Joints 2020, Starnes Bar-B-Q.

Pick up a batch of old-school hard candies from Troutt Old Time General Store

This old-fashioned 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, handmade baskets, goat milk soaps, Kentucky-based coffee products, local honey, and Amish Country popcorn to bring home. 

Have a brew in an old, now-revitalized Coca-Cola bottling plant

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. 

Catch the town’s 57th Dogwood Trail Celebration during the spring

A tradition going back to the 1960s, the celebration of the dogwoods 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. Walk along the 11-mile lighted path of dogwoods traversing Historic Downtown, LowerTown Arts District, and other residential neighborhoods.

Consider making it home base for a road trip 

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. 

Attend the annual Barbecue on the River 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. This BBQ-focused community event raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity—which is only right, considering you’ll witness over 80,000 pounds of chicken and pork grilled, smoked, cooked, and eaten, with one team voted Grand Champion. It’s like a big family reunion, only way, way better.

Drink at a bourbon bar like a real Kentuckian

Recently 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 new bourbon-centric bar lives in the shell of an over-150 year-old building and hopes to feature over 1,600 bourbons and whiskeys. (Now that’s our kind of goal.) Afterwards, 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.