By Kathy Witt
Rand McNally and USA Today call it the “Most Beautiful Small Town in America.” Travel + Leisure says you’ll find “America’s Most Beautiful Town Square” here, too. But Bardstown, Ky., is much more than just a pretty face.
This “Bourbon Capital of the World” is home to six notable distilleries. Kentucky’s “Official Outdoor Drama,” one of the country’s most highly regarded Civil War museums and one of the most recognized structures in the world is here at Federal Hill, better known as My Old Kentucky Home.
For those treasures and more, Travel + Leisure named Bardstown as one of “America’s Favorite Towns,” Fodor deems it one of “America’s Best Small Towns” and Kentucky has designated it as one of its six certified Cultural Districts.
Picturesque? Yes. But the county seat of Nelson County, known for its bustling Courthouse Square, pulsates with personality, too.
Tours, Tastings & Theater
You can visit the distilleries of your choice for tours and tastings, including Barton 1792 and Willett. Begin or end your Kentucky Bourbon Trail® journey here. Bardstown is an official trailhead and home to four distilleries along the trail: Heaven Hill, Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam and Four Roses Cox's Creek. It’s also where you can claim your souvenir Trail t-shirt.
After sampling America’s native spirit, you’ll be wowed by professional outdoor theater at “The Stephen Foster Story,” a high-stepping musical with all the splash and dash of a Broadway production – not to mention 75 colorful costumes twirling across the stage. And you’ll be wooed by the romance of rail travel with an elegant four-course meal – from amuse-bouche to dessert – aboard the vintage My Old Kentucky Dinner Train as it rolls through Bourbon Country.
At the Civil War Museum of the Western Theatre, you’ll be humbled by letters written by soldiers in the field to their sweethearts back home. You’ll be charmed by themed railroad excursions, including train robberies and Thomas the Tank Engine, at Kentucky Railway Museum. And at Whisky Magazine’s “Visitor Attraction of the Year” – the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History – you’ll be amused by such curiosities as a whiskey container shaped like King Tut, a whiskey bottle with combination lock to keep servants from swigging on the sly, and whiskey advertisements like one noting it “blots out all your troubles.”
Expect the Unexpected
The unexpected is something you can definitely count on finding in Bardstown. As part of Kentucky’s original Holy Land, it is home to the Abbey of Gethsemani, where America’s oldest and largest order of Trappist monks helps create an array of Gethsemani Farms products, including fudge and fruitcake laced with fine Kentucky bourbon – all available in the gift shop.
A Bardstown Holy Land pilgrimage can also include visits to the Bardstown Art Gallery and Thomas Merton Bookstore; the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral, the first Catholic diocese west of the Allegheny Mountains; Bishop Flaget Log House and St. Thomas Church; the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Motherhouse; and Spalding Hall, formerly the home of the first Catholic college in Kentucky and now housing the Oscar Getz Museum, Bardstown Historical Museum and Rickhouse Restaurant, where there are 120 bourbons on the menu.
More to See & Do
If you like dining and shopping locally, there’s no better place than Bardstown.
Courthouse Square is chock-full of locally owned, one-of-a-kind restaurants – like the Harrison-Smith House, plus boutiques, galleries and shops, including the Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace. And when you drop from all that shopping, Bourbon Manor – the world’s first bourbon-themed bed and breakfast – is ready to tuck you into bed in style.
Want to see for yourself why Bardstown is the “best,” according to so many? Plan a trip to the “Most Beautiful Small Town in America,” stroll its downtown and visit its many unique shops and distinctive distilleries.
For more information about everything there is to see and do in Bardstown and Nelson County, visit www.VisitBardstown.com.
If You Go
Abbey of Gethsemani, 502-549-3117, website
Bardstown Art Gallery and Thomas Merton Bookstore, 502-348-6488, website
Bardstown Bourbon Company, firstname.lastname@example.org, website
, 502-331-4879, website
Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral, 502-348-3126, website
Bishop Flaget Log House and St. Thomas Church, 502-348-3717, website
Bourbon Manor, 502-350-1010, website
Four Roses Bourbon Warehouse & Bottling, 502-543-2264, website
Civil War Museum of the Western Theatre, 502-349-0291, website
Harrison-Smith House, info@HarrisonSmithHouse.com, website
Heaven Hill Distilleries, 502-348-3921, website
Jim Beam American Stillhouse, website
Kentucky Bourbon Marketplace, 502-348-8611, website
Kentucky Railway Museum, 502-549-5470, website
Maker’s Mark, website
My Old Kentucky Dinner Train, 502-348-7300, website
My Old Kentucky Home, 502-348-3502, website
Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, 502-348-2999, website
Rickhouse Restaurant, 502-348-2832, website
Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Motherhouse, 502-348-1500, website
Spalding Hall, 502-348-2999, website
The Stephen Foster Story, 502-348-5971, website
Willett Distillery, 502-348-0899, website