By Patty Ranft

Paducah easily could be referred to as the Commonwealth’s City of the Arts. Not to take anything away from other Kentucky towns, but the diversity, scope and concentration (Paducah’s population is a mere 25,000-plus) of artists, artisans and musicians make this western Kentucky city a mecca of creativity. Visitors are treated to art throughout Paducah—from museums and galleries to outdoor public art to performance venues. This abundance of art and culture officially was recognized when Paducah was designated a UNESCO Creative City in November 2013. It is among 116 cities in the Creative Cities Network in 54 countries around the world. 

Paducah’s Beginnings

Situated at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, the site was a prime spot for settlement and establishing port facilities at the beginning of the 19th century. Founded in 1827 by William Clark of Lewis & Clark Expedition fame, the city was named for the local Padouca Indians, contrary to popular legend that its name honors American Indian leader Chief Paduke, although a statue of the mythical chief is one of the city’s landmarks. 

While the river has been instrumental in Paducah’s economy, it was responsible for what’s arguably the city’s most catastrophic natural disaster: the 1937 flood. In January that year, earthen levees were breached by a deluge that forced 27,000 residents to be evacuated. In the downtown area, floodwaters swelled to reach the second story of buildings. As a result of the disaster, a floodwall was constructed between August 1939 and July 1949 by the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

Aside from becoming an important port city for steamboats, towboats and barges, Paducah grew to be a prominent railway hub for the Illinois Central Railroad. Visitors can view the now-retired IC 1518 steam locomotive on display at Kentucky Avenue and Water Street. 

Sweet Start

In a city where art reigns, it makes sense to “Eat Art” for breakfast. That’s the catchphrase of Kirchhoff’s Bakery and Deli, where you’ll find pastries, cookies and bars that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are delicious. But if your taste buds are craving something more savory, you can satisfy them with an individual-sized quiche, a ham and Swiss croissant, or a biscuit with ham or bacon.

Kirchhoff’s, which has been owned by the same German family for five generations, also offers a sizable selection of artisan breads, and if you’re in the area around lunchtime, you can choose from delectable sandwiches, fresh salads and pizza—and pick up a T-shirt emblazoned with the “Eat Art” motto while you’re there.

To accompany your bakery selection, stroll through to the adjoining Etcetera2 Coffeehouse, which offers an almost overwhelming assortment of coffees and teas, as well as hot chocolate, juices, apple cider, sodas and smoothies. 

Morning Museum Time

Now that you’re well-fueled, it’s time to discover Paducah, and a perfect starting point is the nearby River Discovery Center. Housed in a beautifully restored antebellum building, the Center offers interactive exhibits designed to entertain as well as educate. Its focus is the river’s culture, economic impact and natural environment. You can view the river on screen from a roof-mounted camera that streams the action live. Turn a pilot wheel counterclockwise to see the traffic on the river over the past 24 hours. The Center’s Hidden Highways exhibit features an interactive map of the U.S. river system—a fascinating way to learn about the country’s network of waterways.

Another captivating experience is the boat simulator, which enables visitors to take the wheel of a speedboat, towboat or Coast Guard vessel in a high-tech simulator created by the same firm that builds simulators for U.S. Navy training. You’ll enjoy the sights, sounds and feel of    piloting a vessel up the river. But take care: the experience is so realistic, you may get queasy if you’re prone to motion sickness.

Exhibits also include a historical timeline of river vessels, detailed models of riverboats, a film about the river, listening stations that play examples of river music, details and photos of the ’37 flood, models of locks and dams, the impact of the Civil War, a Corps of Engineers diving suit, and river habitats. Who knew the freshwater mussel was so integral to the purity of the water?

Stepping out of the River Discovery Center, you’ll travel just across the street to view Paducah’s Wall to Wall floodwall murals. More than 50 panels, designed and painted by renowned mural artist Robert Dafford and his team, depict the history and culture of the city. The murals, which celebrate their 20th anniversary this year, are more than just intricately detailed works of art; they provide a great way to learn about the city. Privately sponsored by individuals or local businesses, each panel features a bronze plaque describing the scene. Between the groups of panels, you can nab an excellent view of the river. On most days, the deep blue waters of the Tennessee River can easily be distinguished from the murky, brown flow of the Ohio.

Near the northwest end of the river wall is the attraction for which Paducah is probably best known: the National Quilt Museum. The museum draws visitors from 50 states and 45 countries, a whopping 110,000 visitors per year—to view its distinctive collection. These are not the type of coverlets one would throw on a bed, but exquisitely detailed, uniquely designed works of art. In truth, words are not adequate to describe the intricacy and beauty of these quilts, nor do photos do them justice.

While some of the quilt designs harken to traditional patterns, many of those in the museum’s permanent collection of 530 quilts are anything but traditional. Some are representational—such as one of two brilliant blue parrots—others are composed of interlocking patterns or swirling designs, like “Corona II: Solar Eclipse” by Caryl Bryer Fallert. All are gorgeous.

The museum has three galleries—a center space for the permanent collection, which is rotated periodically, and two galleries flanking it that feature traveling exhibits. There also is a special exhibit space dedicated to miniature quilts. These petite treasures, which are 24 inches or fewer per side, elicit as many “oos and ahs” as their larger counterparts.

Lunchtime in Lower Town

Located downstream from the downtown area (hence the name), the Lower Town Arts District historic neighborhood is home to many of the city’s artists, the result of the Artist Relocation Program. Initiated by the city in 2000 to improve the deteriorating neighborhood and entice artists to the area, the program successfully lured more than 20 artists, who purchased houses where they live and create art. A few have regular gallery hours and others can be visited by appointment. 

The latest addition to Lower Town is the Paducah School of Art and Design’s 2D and Graphic Design Building. 

Opened in March, the historic structure, which housed a saddle and bridle manufacturing plant more than 100 years ago, has been impressively restored to maintain the building’s integrity, while providing well-designed instruction and studio spaces. It houses the drawing, painting, visual communications and multimedia programs, featuring state-of-the-art equipment and classrooms. Visitors can drop by to peruse the exhibit in the building’s gallery space and grab a bite at Kitchens Café, a terrific lunch spot serving salads, soups, sandwiches and more. The sampled BLT salad proved delish.

Afternoon Activities

Since you’re away from the downtown area at this point, it’s the perfect opportunity to cruise out to The Coke Plant. Luther Carson, who hailed from Kirksey in Calloway County, began bottling and selling Coca-Cola in Paducah in 1903. By 1937, Carson’s business had expanded tremendously with the popularity of the iconic soft drink, but his primary bottling facility at 6th and Jackson streets was inundated by the big flood. Local lore has it that after Carson was rescued by boat from the floodwaters, he announced he would build his new bottling plant when he “reached dry ground.” That spot ended up being 3121 Broadway.

Opened in the 1939, the striking art deco structure housed the Coca-Cola bottling facility until 1987, when it became a distribution center for the drink, operating in that capacity until 2005. In 2013, Ed and Meagan Musselman purchased the building, the first floor of which is home to Pipers Tea & Coffee and Dry Ground Brewing Co., whose name gives a nod to the building’s origins. Dry Ground is a full-production craft brewery producing and serving a variety of beers, with names that pay tribute to their local roots, such as Uncle Luther, ’37 Flood and Under Tow.

Upstairs, you’ll find True North Yoga and music instructor and guitar/violin/mandolin player Josh Coffey’s studio, Time on a String. These two studios—along with Carson’s old office, which retains the original molded wood paneling covering the walls and ceiling—are accessed from the lobby by a sweeping staircase. Above the lobby and staircase hangs the original art deco chandelier and beyond that, the building’s gorgeously restored rotunda, which features still-functioning multicolored neon lights that are lit each evening. This is fascinating place to visit just for its architectural features, but it’s also a great spot for an after-lunch coffee or tea, or some beer tasting at Paducah’s first craft brewery. 

The Coke Plant is slated to be a multiuse facility that will include a community meeting space. Coming soon are the second location of the downtown Ice Cream Factory and Mellow Mushroom pizza, which Musselman hopes will be decorated with locally created art. 

While visiting this city with art at its core, you may become inspired to create something yourself. MAKE Paducah, owned by artist Kijsa Housman, is a brilliant mix of public art workshop and art gallery. On one side of the space, which is naturally lit by huge windows, is an “art bar,” where visitors can make their own unique piece of art to take home—free! The opposite side is a retail shop that sells primarily Housman’s fun, unique and inspirational creations. MAKE Paducah offers painting, lettering and fiber workshops, and loads of art classes for kids. It includes a space for kids birthday parties, girls nights out, and bridal and baby showers, where guests can enjoy a hands-on creative experience.

After your artwork has dried, you may want to venture to the Yeiser Art Center on the northern end of the historic Market House, the original structure of the city’s outdoor market. The Center maintains a permanent collection of more than 300 works and holds seven diverse exhibitions annually. It also provides an assortment of educational opportunities, including workshops for adults and summer art camps for kids. An adjoining gift shop tempts visitors with paintings and prints, pottery, sculpture, handcrafted jewelry, lamps and more.

A half-block from the Yeiser Art Center are the Bricolage Art Collective and Art Guild of Paducah. These galleries offer locally crafted art of all types and for a variety of budgets. If you’re looking for a special souvenir to commemorate your visit to Paducah and bring some wonderful art into your home, these are the places to visit.

You may be in the mood for a treat, and since you’re in the area of the art galleries above, you’re in luck. Tucked between Bricolage and the Art Guild is The Chocolate Factory, offering a wide selection of handmade confections—milk, dark or white chocolate combined with marshmallow, cherries, nuts and much more. There’s also a variety of fudge flavors, and if chocolate isn’t your sweet of choice, there are a slew of other options. If you’re more in the mood for ice cream, the Ice Cream Factory at RiverPlace is an easy stroll away. True to the establishment’s name, the ice cream is made on site. With names like Four Rivers Fudge, ’37 Flood, Patchwork and the Chief Paduke Parfait, the shop’s deluxe sundaes pay homage to Paducah’s culture and heritage.

Fresh Air Alternatives

For a brisk afternoon walk, you may want to check out the Greenway Trail. This 4.6-mile scenic trail, most of which is paved, connects downtown with Noble Park and Stuart Nelson Park. Open to both hikers and cyclists, the scenic trail features some architecturally interesting bridges.

For more outdoor adventures, Kentucky Lake, Lake Barkley and the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area are within an easy driving distance from Paducah.

Evening Falls

Nighttime activities in Paducah are plentiful, but first, you’ll want a satisfying dinner. The city boasts quite a few dining choices—from Italian to Mexican and from barbecue to brick-oven pizza and classic American cuisine. 

Housed in a historic railroad freight depot, the Freight House serves farm-to-table fare with an upscale flair. The décor is warehouse chic, with exposed brick walls, open ductwork, contemporary seating and intriguing circular chandeliers. It’s an appealing setting, but Chef Sara Bradley’s cuisine is the star of the show. Bradley partners with local farms, bakeries and fisheries to bring diners the freshest possible ingredients, with delicious results. 

For starters, try the heirloom tomatoes with flake salt and olive oil, thunder & lightning (cucumbers, spring onion and dill), or pickled shrimp, a luscious and unique combination of shrimp and watermelon, with eggplant chips and summer savory. Each of these appetizers will get your taste buds humming and won’t weigh you down so that you’re too full for the main course. 

If you’re a seafood lover, consider the “Ky Blue Snapper” for an entrée. This moist, flaky white fish is complemented by perfectly seasoned chimichurri, walnuts and zucchini fritters. The fish, which actually is Asian carp, had been caught on Kentucky Lake earlier in the day, hence its freshness. Not only is it a scrumptious dish, but the fishing of Asian carp helps control the growing population of this invasive species in Kentucky’s waterways.

Depending on the time of year, Paducah offers a variety of evening entertainment. Summer brings music to the water’s edge with the RIVERfront Concert Series, which runs June through August. These free events open with local artists from 6-7 p.m. and then present nationally known musicians from 7-8:30 p.m. The backdrop of the river makes for a pleasant ambience for taking in some tunes. The charming Maiden Alley Cinema features music as well as independent and classic movies, and you may want to time your visit to coincide with a concert there. 

Now that the performing arts season is heating up, you could easily catch a performance at the cozy Market House Theatre, which—as its name implies—is located in the Market House on the opposite end of the Yeiser Art Center. Or take in a show at the city’s grand Carson Center, named for the famed Coca-Cola bottler. This venue hosts traveling and local productions, including drama, musicals and dance, and is home to the Paducah Symphony Orchestra.

Once you’re ready to call it a day, the comfort and unique appeal of The 1857 Hotel beckons. The historic building, like the Freight House, boasts warehouse chic décor—the original exposed brick walls and beams perfectly juxtaposed with contemporary furniture and fixtures. An adjustable rain showerhead and crisp white bed linens provide a heavenly experience after a day of taking in the sights and experiences of the city. 

The hotel acts an art gallery as well, with varied artwork hanging throughout the lobby, along the upstairs hallways and in the rooms. All of these pieces are created by local artists and are available for purchase. Located within a few of blocks of most of the locations visited above, The 1857 Hotel provides a convenient, inviting space to settle in and relax for the evening. A sublime finale to a sublime day.