My cousin Jan always does the planning when we travel together. She takes pleasure in finding a good hotel, filling an itinerary with activities and researching places to eat about as much as I find it tedious and frustrating.
She hasn’t let me down yet, always suggesting offbeat places where we never fail to have a great time.
And that’s how we ended up in Bardstown, Ky. Located just 40 miles southeast of Louisville, it is an easy side trip for anyone visiting the city or can be a road-trip destination, as it was for us. It bills itself as “the most beautiful small town in America,” and we wanted to know why.
Bardstown is Kentucky’s second-oldest town, so there is a lot of history to absorb here, from the Old Nelson County Courthouse and jail to the first Catholic cathedral built west of the Alleghenies and many homes and buildings with rich stories of their own.
Take, for example, the Narcissa House, given to a beloved slave by her owner, or Spalding Hall, which now houses museums but has served as a boarding school and orphanage and was once a Civil War hospital that treated soldiers from both the North and the South.
Our day began here with a tour of the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, which turned out to be surprisingly lively and informative. We were able to see a still thought to have belonged to George Washington along with other whiskey memorabilia collected by the museum’s namesake founder.
Our guide kept up an entertaining narrative that explained Prohibition and the temperance movement, in part with a life-size figure of ax-carrying reformer Carrie Nation.
Lunch was in another historic building, Talbott Tavern, part of a hotel where several notable figures have stayed, including Abraham Lincoln and Jesse James.
Here we feasted on regional favorites such as a bourbon barbecue pork sandwich and a Kentucky Hot Brown with a side of fried green tomatoes. Then, intrigued by what we had learned and fortified with our meal, we set out to do some whiskey-tasting.
Bardstown is the bourbon capital of the world, so many possibilities tempted us. Not being heavyweight drinkers, we had to choose carefully, narrowing our choices to just a few that had been suggested by others who had sipped their way through the city. One of our favorites was the brand-new Lux Row Distillers, where guide Annabelle Beam (yes, from that family) walked us through the facility and explained how bourbon is made.
Another stop for learning and tasting was the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center, where we learned how Kentuckians figured out in the 1700s that distilling their grains kept them from rotting and made them easier to transport. Along the way they also discovered that the product provided a “diversion” for themselves and their friends.
The oldest company in town is Barton 1792, named for the year Kentucky became a state. Many of the distilleries here are part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, so if your capacity is greater than ours, download a souvenir “passport” and hit the road. We opted instead for a dinner of Southern comfort food at Mammy’s Kitchen.
Our search for history and culture led us the next day to Federal Hill and the home that inspired Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.” He didn’t actually live here but came often to visit relatives. Unlike many historic homes that outfit their rooms with pieces from the same period, here 75 percent of the furnishings are original.
One of the best parts of the experience was our talented guide, Richard Blanton, who sang our way through the mansion and then played multiple parts in “The Stephen Foster Story,” an outdoor musical that we saw that evening.
The story, professional musicians and clever backdrops against a forest behind the amphitheater made for an evening of pure fun. We had dinner beforehand at the Kurtz Restaurant just across the street, which made it easy to beat the crowd at show time.
Shopping in Bardstown can be great fun, too. It’s a small town (population just over 13,000) so there aren’t lots of stores, but the ones clustered around the courthouse square offer all kinds of unusual treasures. Not surprisingly, the bourbon truffles I brought home as gifts for friends were a huge success.
For more information, explore online at visitbardstown.com.
Winders is a freelance writer based in Indiana