State’s far western hub is intentional spot for food, art and fun
Visitors come to Paducah with a purpose. Unlike crossroads cities where travelers wander and linger, Paducah’s location in far western Kentucky ensures they have a reason for stopping by. Whether for the renowned arts scene, restaurants or shopping in its historic downtown, this charming city of 30,000 provides all the motivation visitors need to venture to its corner of the state.
Established in 1830, Paducah became a bustling port city where the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers flow north into the Ohio River. This crucial confluence also was the point at which Union commander Ulysses S. Grant’s troops amassed and steamed south into Tennessee to engage the Confederate army during the Civil War.
Paducah also was a significant site for river barge manufacturing, and later, factories for making train engines and railcars. Tobacco, whiskey, iron, timber and produce were major exports. But as the nation turned to automobiles for transportation, its “river and rail” economy declined. The opening of a uranium enrichment plant in 1952 boosted the town’s economy until the Cold War’s end eliminated its need.
Decades would pass before the city’s artists and entrepreneurs kick-started an unexpected turnaround.
Those fond of fiber, needle and thread worked to open The National Quilt Museum here in 1991. If you imagine a quilt museum as humdrum, then make this your first stop. The works of art on display here are jaw-dropping and painstakingly detailed—but not for cuddling beneath on a chilly evening. Set aside hours for your visit. Forty-thousand people come annually, but many more should.
Over the decades, a wide range of artists have migrated to Paducah to join a booming community of their own, including as part of an artist relocation program that revitalized what’s now called the LowerTown Arts District. In addition to art galleries and collectives are workshops where pros, enthusiasts and amateurs of all ages can create their own works and take classes. Kijsa Housman, artist and founder of MAKE, opened the creative hub for beginners and pros in the city’s downtown.
“To visitors … we’re going to meet you at your level of creativity and you’re going to have fun,” says Housman.
Painting, leather work and weaving are big at MAKE. “If you want to take a blank canvas and use mixed media, we’ve got that,” she says. “You see a watercolor class on our website that you want to take, reserve a spot and spend the night in Paducah.”
So vibrant is the town’s arts scene that the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Paducah a Creative City in November 2013. Only nine United States cities bear this designation, and only 180 globally.
Paducah’s arts community extends to the stage as well. The city’s Carson Center is home to the Paducah Symphony Orchestra. This thoroughly modern building also is a regular destination for off-Broadway musical companies prior to launching national tours.
“Those companies have their tech rehearsals here, which is the first time the technical crews and acting teams come together,” says Laura Oswald, director of marketing for Paducah’s Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Then, at the end of the rehearsal period, the show launches from Paducah.”
Paducah is known for hickory-smoked barbecue served in diminutive shops like Harned’s Drive-In on the east side, Starnes Barbecue at city center and Leigh’s Barbecue on the far west side. But over the past decade, some of the town’s chefs have gained national prominence, including Sara Bradley, owner-chef at Freight House. The 2019 Top Chef runner-up is a Paducah native who worked at restaurants in New York City and Chicago before opening her farm-to-table spot downtown. Her belief that her hometown “needed a big city restaurant” has been confirmed by constantly crowded tables since it opened three years ago.
Two blocks away is Confleur Cafe & Sweet Treats, a newcomer brunch spot with whimsical specialty baked goods (get the “pop tarts” no matter what variety) and ultra-rich ice cream made from milk containing 15% butterfat. The vanilla extract used in Confleur’s ice cream is made from Madagascar vanilla pods soaked in Jim Beam bourbon.
Confleur’s owners recently opened The Fox Briar cocktail bar next door, and just a few steps from that is another new bar that was slated to open November 14: Barrel & Bond, an American whiskey-centric bar “with at least 1,200 unique labels on the shelves,” says Brian Shemwell, one of four partners in the venture. As a co-founder of the 475-member of the Paducah Bourbon Society, Shemwell says he saw the need for “a serious whiskey bar. There will be nothing else like it in Kentucky, and it’ll be right here in Paducah.”
Steve Coomes, a lifelong Kentuckian, is a former chef turned restaurant and spirits writer. For 28 years, he’s written and spoken about America’s food and drink scene and the people behind both.