Paducah, Kentucky may not top many bucket lists, unless you are a hard-core quilter, but for those that enjoy charming small cities, this Western Kentucky river town makes for a great weekend getaway. There are many things to do in Paducah for all interests, whether you love shopping and cocktails or learning about U.S. history.
Given its location at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, it is possible to pair a road trip to Paducah with a visit to Nashville, Louisville, Memphis, or even St. Louis. Or, for those who want a mix of lake life and small-city living, you can also spend a day or two exploring the Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park or the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, both of which are just 30-45 minutes away by car.
I was very surprised to learn that Paducah, Kentucky, is actually designated as a UNESCO Creative City. I’d heard of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but Creative Cities were new to me.
The UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN) was created to promote cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development. Altogether, there are 246 UNESCO Creative Cities and only nine of those are in the United States. Also known as “Quilt City”, Paducah is recognized for its Crafts and Folk Art.
To fuel the creative endeavors in Paducah the city offers an Artist Relocation Program, which has brought together painters, bookbinders, leather crafters, fiber artists, and jewelry makers from around the globe to the LowerTown Arts District, which is also home to the Paducah School of Art and Design.
Things to do in Paducah, Kentucky
Note: My trip was hosted by Travel Kentucky as part of a social media campaign with Shady Rays sunglasses. All opinions are my own.
Stroll the Wall to Wall Murals
Your first stop in Paducah should be at the Wall to Wall Murals that are painted by the river flood walls. Louisiana resident Robert Dafford is the primary muralist, along with assistance from Herb Roe, Benny Graeff, Douglas Dafford, Miriam Dafford, Mike Doherty, Justin Montovan, John Norris, Chris Condon, Robert Baxter, Sandy Lewis, Jeff Moss, Jason Brake, Brett Chigoy, and Chase Innis.
A stroll along the murals will tell you the history of Paducah, from its founding by William Clark, of Lewis & Clark fame, to its leadership as the “Strawberry Capital of the World” and “Atomic City” because of the uranium enrichment plant built in the 1950s. Take the time to read each plaque and you will soon get a sense of Paducah’s history and culture.
You can also find public mural artwork across Paducah in a more contemporary style.
The Wall to Wall Murals are located along 200-298 S Water St, Paducah, KY 42003.
Visit the National Quilt Museum
One of the main sources of tourism to Paducah is the National Quilt Museum, which attracts quilters from around the world, especially during the AQS QuiltWeek, which takes place in late April each year. The National Quilt Museum is the largest museum of its kind in the world and features a 320-piece collection of contemporary quilts and changing thematic exhibitions.
Even for this non-quilter, the workmanship of the quilts on display is quite exquisite. I was hoping for some exhibits about the history of quilting or the cultural significance of quilt patterns and designs, but that isn’t the mission of the museum. However, if you want to see the latest techniques, learn to appreciate quilting as an art form, or take part in one of the workshops taught by world-class instructors, the National Quilt Museum is a must-do thing to do in Paducah.
The National Quilt Museum is located at 215 Jefferson, Paducah, KY 42001. Adult admission is currently $12, with $11 for seniors, $5 for students, and children under 12 are free with an adult.
Visit the River Discovery Center & Railroad Museum
Whether you are visiting Paducah with kids or you just enjoy getting hands-on with history and local culture, don’t miss a stop at the River Discovery Center. The River Discovery Center (RDC) celebrates Paducah’s maritime history with interactive water-filled exhibits, including a working model of a lock and dam.
Visitors can use the boat simulator to pilot a towboat, Coast Guard buoy tender, or other watercraft to experience the river traffic at the Port of Paducah. There are also seven music stations located throughout the exhibit area that pay homage to three historic steamboats: Glendy Burke, Shawneetown, and John Gilbert.
The museum also teaches about the role of the rivers during the Civil War, when the rivers were used to transport and supply troops. This is also where Junior Rangers can find the Lewis & Clark program packet.
Just steps away, the Paducah Railroad Museum showcases equipment and memorabilia from the past of America’s railroads. The railroad simulator gives the sensation of riding a locomotive cab.
The River Discovery Center is located at 117 S. Water St., Paducah, KY 42001. Admission is currently $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, and $5 for children.
The Paducah Railroad Museum is located at 200 Washington Street, Paducah, KY 42001. Admission is $6 for adults and $3 for children. The museum is open Wednesday-Saturday and is closed during January and February.
Browse Art Galleries
The Yeiser Art Center is located in Historic Downtown Paducah in the 1905 Market House, along with Market House Theatre and the William Clark Market House Museum. The Yeiser Art Center features rotating exhibitions that spotlight a diverse range of art forms, styles, and techniques through works by regional and international artists. When I visited the exhibits focused on fiber art featuring the work of some truly creative and talented artists.
The Yeiser Art Center is located at 200 Broadway, Paducah, Kentucky.
You will also find art galleries, collectives, and cooperative spaces throughout downtown Paducah. Make sure to stop into the Art Guild of Paducah, Bricolage Art Collective, Gallery 5, and Ephemera Paducah.
Shop Local Boutiques
I love boutique shopping when traveling to small cities like Bentonville and Wichita because I always discover new brands and designers, plus it is good to support local businesses, many of which are women-owned. Paducah was actually voted one of USA Today’s 10Best Small Towns for Shopping in 2019, and I can see why.
You will find a mix of antique shops, gift shops, home goods stores, and fashion boutiques nestled in amongst the art galleries and chic restaurants. I loved the style and prices that didn’t break the bank at McClaran Manor and Selcouth Shop for women’s fashion.
Quilters will want to browse the designs at some of the many local quilt and fabric shops, including Hancock’s of Paducah, English’s Sew & Vac, Tuscan Rose, and Artist Endeavors. These shops provide the inspiration, tools, fabric, and books to bring your creations to fruition.
For a fun activity, you can book a session to make custom bath scrubs or lotion at Forever Pampered. And if you need a souvenir to bring home, make sure to stop into the With Love From Kentucky boutique.
Taste Craft Beer & Bourbon
Paducah is part of the Western Kentucky Brewery Hop, with two craft breweries, Paducah Beer Works and Dry Ground Brewing Company. On my visit, I stopped in to try a flight at Dry Ground Brewing Company, which is located in an old Coca-Cola Bottling plant, along with a Mellow Mushroom restaurant.
The exposed brick walls and spacious setting, along with a nice outdoor area, make Dry Ground a perfect stop whether you are on your own or with a group of friends. The beers ranged from ales to porters, and all were quite tasty.
Non-beer drinkers are also in luck, as you can check out the Purple Toad Winery, which is Kentucky’s largest winery and offers a wide range of sweet and semi-sweet wines. And, of course, you can’t leave Kentucky without trying some bourbon and Paducah is home to the Silent Brigade Distillery.
There are also a handful of excellent cocktail bars in Paducah, including Barrel & Bond, Freight House, The Johnson Bar, and Fox Briar Cocktail Bar.
Enjoy Local Restaurants
Paducah’s food scene is surprisingly creative and diverse. You will find a local favorite, Freight House, from Top Chef finalist Sara Bradley, featuring midsouth cuisine. Backwoods BBQ is perfect for carnivores looking for some local flavor. Although some locals swear that Doe’s Eat Place has better steaks than Ruth’s Chris.
I had a terrific casual lunch at Kirchhoff’s Bakery & Deli with a fried green tomato BLT, and for dinner, I sampled a variety of small plates (and amazing dessert) at Freight House. Locals also highly recommended Cynthia’s California Tuscan Ristorante for fine dining.
For something more fun and casual, Flamingo Row offers a taste of the Caribbean in Kentucky, while Parker’s Drive-in and 50’s Diner offers a retro experience with great barbecue, burgers, milkshakes, and treats.
See a Show
The Yeiser Art Centre, Maiden Alley Cinema, Market House Theatre, Clemens Fine Arts Centre, and the Carson Centre all contribute to Paducah’s vibrant cultural offerings including live theatre, visual art exhibitions, independent films, and classical performances by the Paducah Symphony Orchestra.
The Carson Center is a gorgeous modern venue in downtown Paducah, within easy walking distance of amazing restaurants and boutique hotels. The Carson Center hosts Broadway Series and a wide range of musical performances.
Learn About the Lewis & Clark Trail
Paducah was founded in 1827 by William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame and Paducah’s heritage and Native American roots can be traced to the city’s strategic location at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers. Just across from the floodwall murals near the National Quilt Museum, you can see a sculpture commemorating the town’s founding.
History buffs enjoy visiting Paducah as it is an important site on the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail. This trail travels 4,900 miles across 16 states and follows the historic outbound and inbound routes of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, as well as the preparatory section from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Wood River, Illinois.
Explore the Outdoors
You don’t need to drive far to escape town and enjoy the great outdoors. About 45 miles away near Grand Rivers, KY is the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. This area covers 170,000 acres and 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline in Kentucky and Tennessee, between Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake.
Land Between the Lakes offers 500 miles of trails to go mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, and off-roading. Attractions include the 700-acre Elk & Bison Prairie, Golden Pond Planetarium, Nature Station, and The Homeplace, a 19th-century working farm.
Thirty minutes southeast of Paducah in Benton you will find the Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge. Popular with birders, this National Wildlife Refuge consists of 8,500 acres including a fishing pond and about three miles of seasonal hiking trails.
If you don’t want to drive, the Greenway Trail is perfect for walking, running, or biking and stretches more than five miles and connects Historic Downtown to Bob Noble Park and Stuart Nelson Park’s disc golf course and dog park.
Where to Stay in Paducah
If you are planning a weekend getaway to Paducah, be sure to book one of the 10 rooms at the 1857 Hotel. This boutique hotel offers vaulted ceilings and exposed brick, with a blend of modern decor and amenities with the industrial design of the original building, which dates back to the 1800s.
The location is perfect, within easy walking distance to downtown restaurants, shops, bars, and entertainment venues including the Performing Arts Center. For guests that require more space, they also offer condos across the street from the hotel that can accommodate families or groups.
I absolutely loved the style, decor, and location of the 1857 Hotel. But keep in mind that with all the restaurants and bars nearby, you will likely experience some street noise, especially if you have a front-facing room. If you are a light sleeper, be sure to pack your earplugs.
Downtown Paducah is also about to embark on a development project, which will bring a boutique hotel, condos, and more shops and restaurants to the downtown area. While some residents object to the loss of a large downtown parking lot, I was pleased to see that there was plentiful free public parking throughout downtown, making getting around and visiting easy and affordable.
The bottom line is that Paducah, Kentucky makes a great weekend getaway for couples, friends, or families and it is only going to get better.