Like finding the prettiest girl at the dance that turns out to be sweet to boot, it’s almost impossible to meet Bardstown without falling in love. Maybe it’s the weathered brick and amicably broad sidewalks of its famously beautiful downtown, maybe it’s the good-natured attendance of its citizens—genuine, neighborly, and quick with a smile—or maybe it’s just the natural result of being happily ensconced in the Bourbon Capital of the World, a place where everything is tended with the patience, pace, and care given to small-batches of the honey-gold brew, but there’s just something about Bardstown that makes a body want to stay put. For those fortunate enough to be passing through, we’ve assembled a list of things not to miss:
- Step into the First Church West of the AllegheniesSt. Joseph’s Cathedral is a brick and mortar reminder of the grit and grace of Bardstown’s earliest residents (photo courtesy of Kip McGinnis, www.kentuckymediaart.com)When Bishop Flaget arrived in Bardstown, it was little more than an outpost; a spark of civilization on the edge of the known world. His journey had taken him from carriage to flatboat to wagon, deep into a land of scrabble and scrap, and yet the rough-hewn nature of his new diocese did little to discourage his vision: his people would have a cathedral. Though financial resources were scant this far in the backwoods, his flock—an assemblage of poor but earnest settlers—dedicated their time and skill, baking bricks on site and hand-hewing the massive trunks from the surrounding forest for columns, until slowly but surely, a cathedral rose from the raw Kentucky wilderness. Today, the Basilica of St. Joseph stands as a National Monument, filled with paintings and gifts from popes and kings, and is a true testament to the grit and grace of Bardstown’s earliest citizens.
- Get in the Kentucky SpiritWith an impressive number of local and national distilleries, museums, and heritage centers, Bardstown has earned its name as the Bourbon Capital of the World (photo courtesy of wpylnn)Bardstown isn’t called the Bourbon Capital of the World for nothing. It not only stands proud guard at the head of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail®, it’s home to an impressive roster of distilleries, giving visitors the chance to swill and sample half-a-dozen varieties of Kentucky gold—from big name bourbons like Makers Mark, Four Roses, and Jim Beam to boutique batches from local legends like Willet—all in a single afternoon. If you’re one of those who prefer their two fingers with a few tales, be sure to check out the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, home to a slew of antique whiskey ephemera—stills, bottles, and 200-year-old liquor licenses among them—and more than enough bourbon history to keep your whistle wet for a while.
- Experience the Beginning of American MusicFeaturing fantastic choreography and over fifty songs from America’s first composer, the Stephen Foster is a not-to-miss Bardstown tradition (photo courtesy of The Stephen Foster Story)If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Bardstown of a late-summer evening, be sure to take a trip down to My Old Kentucky Home State Park. Here you’ll not only have the opportunity to visit Federal Hill, the antebellum inspiration for the park’s musical namesake, but, if you cock an ear closely, you might just catch the song itself swimming through the night-softened Kentucky air. Follow the tune through the trees, and, nestled snugly in a corner of the park, you’ll find an outdoor amphitheater and a company of Bardstown’s best, a swirl of brilliantly colored hoop skirts and frock coats in full celebration of America’s first composer: Stephen Foster. Almost sixty years running, The Stephen Foster Story features finely tuned choreography and more than fifty of the songs that helped define the springing cadence of American music, including “Oh, Susannah,” “Camptown Races,” and, of course, “My Old Kentucky Home.”
- Stroll Through Museum RowThe Bardstown Civil War Museum is a carefully curated balance of Confederate and Union memorabilia (photo courtesy of Bardstown Civl War Museum)Though many a city requires its visitors to slog from one end to the other to take in all of its attractions, Bardsville—ever the gracious host—has politely assembled some of its best in a conveniently centralized compound of five museums—not the least of which is one of the top four Civil War museums in the nation. A careful balance of Confederate and Union sympathies, Bardsville’s Civil War Museum deeply plumbs the intricate roles of slavery, infantry, cavalry, and navy (both brown and saltwater), and brings their narratives to life with exhibits featuring authentic uniforms, weaponry, and medical instruments from the deadliest war in American history.
- B&B in a Slice of History Built in 1779, the Old Talbott Tavern once marked the place where the road west ended (photo courtesy of Kip McGinnis, www.kentuckymediaart.com)Exhausted from all the fun? Here in Bardstown, travelers can eschew the incessant beigery of chain hotels for a sleeping experience like no other. Sleep soundly behind the thirty-inch-thick walls of Jailer’s Inn, a nineteenth-century jail turned (surprisingly homey) Bed and Breakfast. Or, if you’d prefer to pass the evening in a space once occupied by more illustrious patrons, try the Talbott Tavern. Built in 1779—a year before Bardstown was even a town—its guest list runs deep and features both young Abraham Lincoln and Jessie James.
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