Cape Town, Cairo, Beijing, Montreal and… Paducah? That’s right – UNESCO named the small western Kentucky town right next to these global heavyweights a Creative City in 2013, a hub of innovation, where arts and culture drive innovation. thoughtful development in the 21st century. If you’re surprised to find Paducah (population: 25,000) on this elite list, you simply haven’t visited the bustling market town at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers recently.
“Paducah has all the cultural benefits of a big city without any of the drawbacks,” says Matt Collinsworth, CEO of Paducah’s famed National Quilt Museum, an unlikely anchor for the city’s vibrant creative community. Neither folksy nor homemade, 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 city’s only attraction for quilting and textile arts enthusiasts. Thousands descend here each spring for the Yeiser Art Center International Fantastic Fibers juried exhibition during QuiltWeek (April 27-30), organized by the locally based American Quilter’s Society. Other cultural attractions include the trendy, gallery-studded Lowertown arts district, independent cinema Maiden Alley, the long-running Paducah Symphony Orchestra, and the Market House Theatre, the award-winning community performance venue in the heart of the revitalization of the historic city center.
Today, downtown Paducah is all about small-town charm and retro Americana. An interesting mix of boutiques and galleries line its brick sidewalks and cobblestone streets, as do a growing number of acclaimed restaurants, including chef Sara Bradley’s farm-to-table restaurant, Freight House. Major thoroughfares such as Jefferson and Broadway — parts of which are within the city’s new entertainment destination center, which allows take-out cocktails as an incentive to support downtown businesses during the pandemic — dead-end on the river Ohio with stunning views of the Shawnee National Forest on the opposite shore. And when horrific tornadoes tore through nearby 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 employees of the electricity company through the Red Cross.
SEE & DO
Now operating as a museum of African American heritage by appointment, this restored home opened in 1908 as Paducah’s first hotel operated by and for African Americans. The 1940 edition of The green bookan annual guide for black travelers during segregation, listed it, and notable guests included Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Thurgood Marshall.
Lowertown Arts District
In the 1990s, this twenty-six-block area adjacent to downtown in Paducah’s oldest neighborhood was in poor condition. So a pair of innovative locals devised the Artist Relocation Program, which offered active artists of all disciplines incentives to move, including historic homes for as little as a dollar, fueling a brilliant turnaround. Today, the neighborhood is home to a colorful mix of eclectic studios, galleries and trendy boutiques, including the craft studio center Ephemera Paducah.
The National Quilt Museum
The National Quilt Museum has nothing to do with your grandmother’s collection of quilts. Founded in 1991, the 30,000 square foot space attracts thousands of national and international visitors each year and showcases the creativity and talent of cutting-edge contemporary artists such as, this spring, Sheila Frampton Cooper. quiltmuseum.org
Paducah Wall to Wall Wallpapers
Erected in the wake of the 1937 flood, Paducah’s flood wall remained an eyesore for decades before then-mayor Gerry Biggs Montgomery invited Louisiana muralist Robert Dafford and his team to paint the story of Paducah on its bare expanse. Today, more than fifty panels have been completed, and this spring Dafford returns for a twelve-day workshop, where participants will help create the final ten murals. paducahwalltowall.com
Barrel + Leap
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 from the personal collections of the owners, including Moonlite, a private short barrel from Wathen’s in nearby Owensboro. . barrelandbond.com
The coking plant
This art deco gem in the heart of downtown Paducah sat empty for nearly twenty years before Ed and Meagan Musselman rescued it from architectural obscurity in 2013. Today, small local 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 town’s 150-year-old German bakery and deli.
The Fox Briar Cocktail Bar
Creativity is the only requirement for the specialty cocktail menus this speakeasy-style bar rolls out quarterly; a recent list featured nine surprisingly sophisticated offerings inspired by bartenders’ favorite childhood foods. If you prefer to avoid the picky stuff, the FoxBriar also offers a robust wine list, with an in-house sommelier to help you navigate its impressive range. thefoxbriarbar.square.site
Sara Bradley has 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 farm depot in 2015. Traditions culinary traditions of Appalachia, but it’s his network of local farmers that forms the backbone of this Paducah mainstay. freighthousefood.com
Kirchhoff bakery and charcuterie
Kaiser rolls and hoagies. Braided challah, whole wheat Vollkornbrot, sourdough and honeycomb focaccia. For five generations, the Kirchhoff family has been rising early and making soft homemade breads, flaky pastries, fruit pies and other old-world treats. You can grab a loaf of bread to take away or join the regulars for lunch at the deli in Market House Square downtown. Insider tip: Order the chicken salad on cranberry nuts. kirchhoffsbakery.net
The 1857 hotel
Take full advantage of the downtown pedestrian setting and make this charming centrally located property your base camp. Located one block from Broadway with views of the Ohio River, the haberdashery and tractor repair shop-turned-beautiful city hotel is home to just ten rooms, all unique with exposed brick walls, vaulted ceilings , local art and modern industrial design elements that complement the historic bones of the building. the1857hotels.com