Prior to spending a recent weekend in Paducah, KY, I didn’t know much about this Western Kentucky town. I had heard of Paducah, but that’s about it. As we drove into town on South Third Street, though, it was like we had arrived in this fantastic little gem of a town that had much to be explored. We spent a couple of days learning about and perusing Paducah and determined that it’s definitely a fabulous Southern city more folks should visit.

Known as the City of Craft and Folk Art, Paducah is a river city, located right where the Tennessee and Ohio rivers merge. Founded in 1827 by William Clark (remember Lewis & Clark? That Clark.), Paducah was a key location during the Civil War because of its spot on the river … transportation and resources at the ready. It was that same riverfront location that betrayed the city when the waters rose beyond the 50-foot flood stage back in 1937, causing the worst natural disaster in Paducah’s history. Today, a mural-covered flood wall, built to prevent future flooding, ushers visitors into town while simultaneously illustrating the rich history that contributed to making Paducah the beautiful city of 25,000 residents that it is today.

During our weekend there, the overarching theme that we kept coming back to as we uncovered nugget after intriguing nugget of history, art, architecture and culinary delight, was Who knew Paducah was so cool? Well, now that we know, we’re letting you in on it, too. Here are just a few reasons you should add Paducah to your Southern travel bucket list.

The Food & Drink Scene

Breweries and distilleries are popping up all over the South, and Paducah is no exception. Dry Ground Brewing Company, located in the historic Coca-Cola bottling plant, was the city’s first craft brewery. As the story goes, after the 1937 flood submerged the Coke plant, which was located a few blocks from the river, owner Luther Carson vowed to rebuild his plant if he ever reached dry ground. He found that dry location 31 blocks from the river on Broadway Street, and in 1939, re-opened his bottling plant. The facility no longer operates, but the notion — reaching dry ground — stuck, and Dry Ground Brewing Company opened in 2014. Guests can choose from 24 craft brews on tap, 10 of which are brewed in-house, and all have fabulous and meaningful names. Example? The Uncle Luther, named after Luther Carson. (Check out the full list here.) The historic building, which is actively being converted into a mixed-use space, is also home to Pipers Tea and CoffeeTrue North Yoga, Time on the String music store and, soon, Mellow Mushroom.

In addition to Dry Ground, beer and spirits aficionados should also check out Paducah Beer Werks, located closer to the river, and Silent Brigade Distillery, both of which offer top-notch pours and fabulous atmosphere.

In the heart of downtown Paducah is Kirchhoff’s, a deli and bakery that has been serving up delicious food since 1873. Currently run by fifth-generation Kirchhoffs, the eatery is located in a beautiful historic building on a cobblestone street. The menu boasts always-fresh breads, pastries, gourmet cheeses and a variety of deli sandwiches, salads and soups. And when your order’s ready, you’ll always know it — the workers holler your number at the top of their lungs — a Kirchhoff’s trademark — so there’s no way to miss it.

Kirchhoff’s has been serving up fresh baked goods since 1873. We were told by a night-shift Kirchhoff’s employee that the building is haunted. As the story goes, there was an old man working there in the late 1800s who died in the flour chute. Apparently he still hangs around today, but we weren’t able to verify this claim for ourselves.

The current darling of Paducah’s food scene, though, is Chef Sara Bradley, owner of Freight House, the city’s first and only farm-to-table restaurant serving up fresh fare sourced from the tri-state area. Bradley, a Kentucky native, spent time honing her skills under the tutelage of top chefs in New York City and Chicago before returning to her old Kentucky home to bring the freshest, most flavorful and unique dishes to Paducah.

When we arrived at Freight House, we were greeted by Bebe, short for Bev Bradley, who happens to be Sara’s mom. She shared a bit about the restaurant before we were pointed to the bar, which is headed up by bar manager Lindsey Corn, where we grabbed a seat and a cocktail … and met Sara’s dad, who works as a barback during the weekends. He enjoys telling patrons that you have to have a law degree to work as a barback at Freight House, a nod to his day job and evidence that both he and Bebe are Sara’s biggest fans, as both enjoy working there with her.

Given the freshness of the ingredients used in the dishes, the Freight House menu changes quite frequently, based on what’s in peak season. During our visit, we were treated to starters that included crispy house-fried pork rinds doused in spicy maple syrup and accompanied by roasted garlic aioli for dipping; beets served atop hummus with fresh garbanzo beans and sesame seeds; fried chicken livers served with French toast, pickled blueberries and maple port sauce; and a soft boiled Scotch egg, which was served atop fresh asparagus and topped with a ginger lemon poppyseed dressing.

For the main course, we indulged in shrimp and pimento cheese grits, which included pork shank and button mushrooms and was surrounded by a New Orleans BBQ sauce. We also enjoyed the butcher’s steak, which came with beef cheek lasagna and oyster mushrooms. For dessert, we indulged in homemade (by Bebe, no less) sweet pea cake, as well as peanut butter panna cotta and strawberry rhubarb pie, all amazing! Freight House is a must when visiting Paducah. It may just be the reason you visit Paducah to begin with. It’s THAT good.

The Arts

Back in 2013, Paducah was named the Seventh City of Crafts and Folk Art in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and Paducah’s induction into that network puts it on a global scale in terms of sharing creative artist partnerships on an international level. A prime example? The current exhibit at Paducah’s Yeiser Art Center, which currently is hosting “Fantastic Fibers,” an international juried fiber art exhibition comprised of pieces by artists from all over the world.

Paducah is also known as Quilt City U.S.A., and is home to The National Quilt Museum, which is celebrating 25 years in business, showcases award-winning works by master quilters and welcomes visitors from all over the world year-round. The museum is evidence that quilting is much more than just a hobby; it’s truly an art form. Regardless of your quilting skills or level of interest in the craft, the museum displays quilt masterpieces that will squelch any preconceived notion you may have had. We saw some amazing pieces on display from around the globe, some taking up to three years of full-time quilting to create.

Just down the road is the Lowertown Arts District, an area of town that is home to many artists in residence who come to Paducah to hone their skills. Lowertown Arts District is perhaps best defined by the amazing, slightly eccentric homes found there. There’s also an undeniable artistic vibe that can be felt when walking around this area of Paducah. We stopped in at Ephemera, a self-described “mixed media mecca,” which is part store, part workshop, all of which is owned by Kristin Williams. Having done her time in the corporate world, she decided that for her 50th birthday, she was going to pursue her dream of focusing on her art and bringing the opportunity to create to the masses. The result is a fantastic space filled with art supplies and whimsical inspiration; the back of the building is the workshop, where classes are taught by both local and visiting artist educators. During our visit, artist Seth Apter was in town teaching several mixed media classes throughout the weekend.

The Shopping

In the downtown district, visitors can peruse a variety of shops — from art galleries to antique stores to the Paducah Chocolate Factory. Stroll the cobblestone streets, and check out places like Square Furniture Collection, a home store featuring everything from lamps and chairs to ceramic bunnies and woven baskets.

The Architecture

Walking through the streets of downtown Paducah, there is no shortage of eye candy. Walls made of hand-painted tiles, unassuming courtyards with spiral staircases leading to who knows where … and the Fox Briar Inn at Riverplace, which is where we stayed during our visit.

The Fox Briar Inn, which has both guest rooms for out-of-towners and rented apartments for locals, is a wonderful spot to spend a night or two. At amazingly affordable rates, you can book a unit for the night, each offering different numbers of bedrooms and bathrooms, as well as a kitchen, dining and living areas, so you can feel at home when you’re not. Antique furnishings are present throughout the building and are juxtaposed against the building’s industrial chic vibe, a look that is unusual but attractive. Another selling point about The Fox Briar Inn is its location, the entry found in the Maiden Alley. Next door is the Maiden Alley Cinema, across the street is the riverwalk entrance, and plenty of shopping and restaurants are within walking distance.

Whether you have a weekend you just want to get away or if you need a place to stop for the night, make a point of checking out Paducah. It’s truly one of the South’s hidden gems that has it all — history, food, architecture, shopping and art. What more could you possibly need?!

To learn more about Paducah, click here

Special thanks to Leila Grossman of Grannis Photography for the beautiful images of our visit to Paducah.