Bardstown, Ky., rests among the “best” in a number of different lists. Expedia selected Bardstown as one of the “18 Most Interesting U.S. Destinations”; Fodor picked it as one of “America’s Best Small Towns”; and AARP named it one of its “10 best small towns.” It led Th eCultureTrip. com’s list of the “10 Most Beautiful Towns in Kentucky” and was named the “Most Beautiful Small Town in America” in the Rand McNally/USA Today 2012 “Best of the Road” contest. Bardstown also landed in the top 20 of “America’s Favorite Towns” by Travel + Leisure, which also recognized it as having one of “America’s Most Beautiful Town Squares.”
Much of Bardstown’s charm lies in its historic setting. Settled in 1780, Bardstown is Kentucky’s second-oldest city. My Old Kentucky State Home Park features Federal Hill, which was made famous by Stephen Foster, the composer of “Camptown Races” and “Oh! Susanna.” One of America’s fi rst great composers, Foster’s life is the subject of a summertime musical, “The Stephen Foster Story” — the largest summer attraction — held at an amphitheater at the park. Federal Hill was a farm with a mansion owned by a United States senator related to Foster. The farm is well known for its association with Foster’s anti-slavery ballad “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night,” and the park runs tours of the mansion.
Bardstown is called the “Bourbon Capital of the World.” In 1789, Baptist minister Elijah Craig developed the first bourbon, and it was first commercially distilled in the 1800s. According to Dawn Ballard Przystal, executive director of the Bardstown-Nelson County
Tourist & Convention Commission, there are six distilleries currently in operation “with another three set to open in 2017.” The annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, a six-day affair taking place in September, is held there with over 50,000 people from more than 40 states and 12 countries attending. Given the place of bourbon in the city’s history, Bardstown offers “Bourbon entertainment, Bourboninspired dining, Bourbon history, and Bourbon shopping,” according to its website.
Przystal cited the Civil War Museum of the Western Theatre as one of the four most significant such museums in the country. The website reports it is the “repository of such treasures as cannons, ‘drummer boy’ drums, soldiers’ Bibles and pipes and an Eagle Head match safe.” Other attractions include My Old Kentucky Dinner Train; the Kentucky Railway Museum; four 18-hole golf courses, one of which is at the My Old Kentucky State Home Park along with a campground; three wineries; three Bardstown self-guided tours; two Bardstown haunted tours; and Whisky Magazine’s Visitor Attraction of the Year — the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History. Yearround carriage rides are also available to the public for viewing the city’s sites.
Another historical site is the Basilica of St. Joseph’s Proto-Cathedral. Przystal said, “It is the first Catholic cathedral west of the Allegheny Mountains, dating from 1816. Bardstown is the site of the first ‘Diocese of the West,’ from 1808.” The Abbey of Gethsemani is another religious historic site.
Lodging and restaurants derive from the history of Bardstown. The city boasts “a profusion of locally owned eateries and bed and breakfast inns, including no less than a dozen restaurants in its historic downtown district and nearly 20 inns, including cottages, stage coach stop, log home, antebellum homes and a former jail. The stage coach stop that was built in 1779 still stands today as a tavern, restaurant and bed and breakfast.”
Besides the unique historic sites in Bardstown, it is the location for numerous other annual festivals. These include Cocktail Week in the spring; the summertime Bardstown Bluegrass Festival and Bourbon City Street Concert; Bardstown Arts, Crafts, Antiques Fair in the fall; and, closing out the year, 20 events that are part of Christmas ‘Round Bardstown.
Given Bourbon’s population of roughly 13,000 in 2013, here are some ideas about what you could do with your town to enhance its attractiveness to tourists. Przystal said, “My advice to any community looking to develop or enhance its tourism product is to focus on authenticity and experiences. Determine what makes your community special and build on that authentic experience. Small towns in particular are often filled with a wonderful cast of characters whom locals may not fully appreciate, but who bring your community to life for visitors. Travel above anything else is about creating memories. It’s not about visiting a distillery; it’s about the look on your mother’s face when she has her first sample, or learning how to create a signature cocktail. What can you do to bring your guests unforgettable experiences? If you can answer that and make it happen, you are already miles ahead of a lot of places.”