Cape Town, Cairo, Beijing, Montreal, and…Paducah? That’s right—UNESCO designated the small Western Kentucky town right beside those global heavyweights as a Creative City in 2013, a hub of innovation, where arts and culture drive thoughtful twenty-first-century development. If you’re surprised to find Paducah (population: 25,000) on that elite list, you simply haven’t recently visited the vibrant burg at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers.
“Paducah has all the cultural advantages of a bigger city without any of the disadvantages,” says Matt Collinsworth, CEO of Paducah’s acclaimed National Quilt Museum, the unlikely anchor of the town’s dynamic creative community. Neither folksy nor homespun, the sophisticated museum is a contemporary art gallery at its core, focusing on the cutting-edge work of the country’s current fiber artists. The museum is a revelation—much like Paducah. But it’s not the only attraction in town for quilting and fiber arts enthusiasts. Thousands descend here each spring for the Yeiser Art Center’s international Fantastic Fibers juried exhibition during QuiltWeek (April 27 to 30), hosted by the locally based American Quilter’s Society. Other cultural highlights include the hip, gallery-dotted Lower Town Arts District, the indie Maiden Alley Cinema, the long-standing Paducah Symphony Orchestra, and the Market House Theatre, the award-winning community playhouse at the heart of the historic downtown’s revitalization.
Today downtown Paducah is all small-town charm and retro Americana. An interesting mix of shops and galleries line its brick sidewalks and cobblestoned streets, as do a growing number of acclaimed restaurants, including chef Sara Bradley’s farm-to-table spot, Freight House. Main thoroughfares such as Jefferson and Broadway—parts of which lie in the city’s new Entertainment Destination Center, which allows to-go cocktails as incentive to support downtown businesses during the pandemic—dead-end at the Ohio River with unspoiled views of the Shawnee National Forest on the opposite bank. And when horrific tornadoes ripped through neighboring towns last December, residents and businesses put Paducah’s creativity to work, transforming their community into a temporary home base for everyone from displaced residents to power company employees to the Red Cross.
SEE & DO
Now functioning as an appointment-only African American heritage museum, this restored home opened in 1908 as the first hotel in Paducah operated by and for African Americans. The 1940 edition of The Green Book, an annual guide for Black travelers during segregation, listed it, and notable guests included Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Thurgood Marshall.
Lower Town Arts District
By the 1990s, this twenty-six-block, downtown-adjacent area in Paducah’s oldest neighborhood lay in disrepair. So a pair of innovative locals conceived the Artist Relocation Program, which offered working artists of all disciplines moving incentives, including historic homes for as low as one dollar, fueling a brilliant turnaround. Today the neighborhood supports a colorful blend of eclectic studios, galleries, and funky shops, including the crafts workshop center Ephemera Paducah.
The National Quilt Museum
The National Quilt Museum is nothing like your grandmother’s quilt collection. Founded in 1991, the 30,000-square-foot space attracts thousands of domestic and international visitors each year and highlights the creativity and skill of cutting-edge contemporary artists such as, this spring, Sheila Frampton Cooper. quiltmuseum.org
Paducah Wall to Wall Murals
Erected in the wake of the 1937 flood, Paducah’s floodwall remained an eyesore for decades before then mayor Gerry Biggs Montgomery invited the Louisiana muralist Robert Dafford and his team to paint the story of Paducah on its bare expanse. Today more than fifty panels are complete, and this spring, Dafford returns for a twelve-day workshop, where attendees will assist in the creation of the final ten murals. paducahwalltowall.com
EAT & DRINK
Paducah’s new whiskey walking tour, Forgotten Spirits, which explores the impact of African American, Jewish, and Italian immigrants on Paducah’s unique bourbon history, begins and ends at this downtown whiskey lounge, opened by Brian Shemwell, founder of the Paducah Bourbon Society, and Tom “Fish” Adams in 2019. Today, Barrel + Bond stocks more than 1,300 American bourbons and other whiskeys from around the world, many of which come from the owners’ personal collections, including Moonlite, a private short barrel from Wathen’s in nearby Owensboro. barrelandbond.com
The Coke Plant
This art deco gem in the heart of Paducah’s Midtown sat empty for nearly twenty years before Ed and Meagan Musselman rescued it from architectural obscurity in 2013. These days, locally owned small businesses such as Pipers Tea & Coffee and Dry Ground Brewing Company fill the revitalized Coca-Cola bottling plant. One of two recently opened craft breweries, Dry Ground focuses on Paducah-inspired collaborations, including the Kirchhoff Kölsch, a partnership with the city’s 150-year-old German bakery and deli.
Creativity is the only requirement for the specialty cocktail menus this speakeasy-style bar rolls out quarterly; a recent list showcased nine surprisingly sophisticated offerings inspired by the bartenders’ favorite childhood foods. If you’d rather skip the hard stuff, the FoxBriar also maintains a robust wine list, with an in-house sommelier to help you navigate its impressive range. thefoxbriarbar.square.site
Sara Bradley cooked under Michelin-starred chefs in New York and Chicago but returned home to Western Kentucky to make her culinary mark, opening Freight House downtown in an abandoned agricultural depot in 2015. Bradley’s seasonal menu offers globally influenced interpretations of her family’s Jewish and Southern Appalachian food traditions, but it’s her network of local farmers that form the backbone of this Paducah mainstay. freighthousefood.com
Kaiser rolls and hoagies. Plaited challah, whole-wheat Vollkornbrot, sourdough, and dimpled focaccia. For five generations, the Kirchhoff family has been rising early and turning out pillowy scratch-made breads, flaky pastries, fruit pies, and other old-world sweets. You can grab a loaf to go or join regulars for lunch at the deli on downtown’s Market House Square. Insider tip: Order the chicken salad on cranberry walnut. kirchhoffsbakery.net
Take full advantage of downtown’s walkable layout and make this centrally located boutique property your base camp. Situated a block off Broadway with views of the Ohio River, the haberdashery and tractor repair shop turned handsome in-town hotel houses just ten guest rooms, all unique with exposed brick walls, vaulted ceilings, local art, and modern industrial design elements that complement the building’s historic bones. the1857hotels.com