Kentucky, located somewhere between the American cultures of the East Coast, southeast, and Midwest, conjures a range of images for the in-the-know traveler. The state's traditions in horses, bourbon, and bluegrass music are celebrated the world over. Paradoxically, neither of the state's two largest towns, Louisville and Lexington, serve as its capital; that title goes to Frankfort, featured below. In the same contrasting way, some of Kentucky's best towns are also its smallest, coziest destinations. The selections below show that the state's essential spirit lives in small towns like these.
The town of Frankfort, population 28,400, sits in northern Kentucky, between Louisville and Lexington, and straddles the Kentucky River. Even before incorporation in 1835, Frankfort took its name not from the similar-sounding Frankfurt, Germany, but a mutation of the term "Frank's Ford," where an early European settler was killed. Visitors today can visit the regal-looking state house or opt for some pioneer history with a visit to Daniel Boone's Grave, which honors the Kentucky favorite and frontiersman of legend. Fans of alcoholic spirits should take a tour of any (or all) of the town's three major distilleries: Buffalo Trace, Castle & Key, and Three Boys Farm. For some fresh air, head to Capitol View Park downtown or the Salato Wildlife Education Center just southwest of town.
Sited at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers, Paducah, with 26,800 people, sits just across the Ohio from the southern border of Illinois. Settled by Europeans in 1821, Paducah is a town with a history that saw steamboats, railroads, and the US Civil War pass its way. Following World War II, Paducah became home to a uranium enrichment plant, part of the United States' growing industry around nuclear technology.
For some local culture, visitors may enjoy the National Quilt Museum, which helps explain the traditions that have made the town part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network since 2013.
Called the "Bourbon capital of America," Bardstown, population 13,700, some 20 miles south of Louisville, celebrates its history of spirits with pride. First incorporated in 1790, the town today focuses its energies on producing bourbon whiskey. Bardstown's Old Talbott Tavern, operating continuously since 1779, has hosted the likes of Daniel Boone and US President Abraham Lincoln. (Some say the place is haunted.) Visitors can gain a broader understanding of the US Civil War and Kentucky's role between North and South at the town's Civil War Museum — one of the largest in the United States. Bardstown puts its distilling heritage on proud display during its annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival that it hosts every year.
Cave City, population 2,400, is home to the renowned Mammoth Caves, an underground formation of stalactites and stalagmites that draws thousands of visitors annually. The town, in the state's center since incorporated in 1866, sits near the banks of Green River, which runs through Mammoth Cave National Park. Visitors can hop on the Green River Ferry for a peaceful float or can rent a canoe or kayak for more fun on the water. In a reflection of Kentucky's traditions with alcohol, Cave City in 2005 voted to allow by-the-drink liquor sales in town restaurants, reversing a fifty-year ban. In 2014 the town voted to legalize retail alcohol sales. Not every place in Kentucky enjoys its spirits, as Cave City's part in the anti-drinking temperance movement shows.
Across the Ohio River from Cincinnati's city center is the city of Covington, which has a population of 41,000. Essentially a suburb of the Ohio city, Covington offers the visitor a wide range of things to see and do, especially concerning historic and Catholic churches. These churches came about through the presence of German and other Roman Catholic immigrant communities. The Licking River, which forms the town's eastern boundary, makes for a scenic point of interest, as does the Twin Oaks gold course overlooking the same river. For culture, head to the brick Carneal House, thought to be Covington's oldest building, which is an Italianate-Federalist home built by Thomas Carneal, a town founder, in 1815.
Elizabethtown, with 31,900 residents, lies south of Louisville, not far from Bardstown. Since its establishment in 1793, the town has seen the ups and downs of major American periods of history, especially the Civil War. Seized by Confederate troops in 1862, the town was later controlled by Union General George Custer, who would later die in his famous military blunder at Little Big Horn, Montana, in 1876. Today, Elizabethtown remembers less dramatic histories, such as at the town's Swope's Cars of Yesteryear Museum, a place to see and learn about old hotrods. For some outdoor fun, head to the Freeman Lake, Elizabethtown Sports Park, or Elizabethtown Country Club.
Kentucky's small towns are the state's coziest places
From its pioneer traditions to its love-hate relationship with alcohol, Kentucky is a state of convictions, strong feelings, and tourist attractions galore. Some of the state's best features lie in its small towns, as this list shows. Historically, these have taken forms as diverse as internationally-recognized quilting (and what is cozier than quilts?), to industries from coal and rail to river trade. The state's role in Civil War developments make it a must-see for war buffs and peaceniks alike. Today, Kentucky's small-town charms continue as vibrantly as ever. A satisfying trip awaits the traveler hoping to find history, culture, the great outdoors, or some combination of Kentucky's small-town best.