Today we’re taking a trip to Bardstown, a city bathed in bourbon and Catholicism, making it rich in spirit–and in spirits, for that matter. Old and distinguished, it’s not some clapboard town from pioneer days. Established in 1780 with a land grant from Virginia Governor Patrick Henry, Bardstown became a large and prospering city (as an outpost) in the Commonwealth of Virginia and then later, Kentucky. So prosperous was it, that in 1808, The Catholic Church established four dioceses to divide their territory: Boston, New York, Philadelphia–and Bardstown. The Bardstown Diocese covered as far south as New Orleans and as far north as Detroit. Eventually, people began migrating north toward the Ohio River, establishing Louisville as a populous commercial hub. They left the bourbon behind.
Bardstown is the Bourbon Capital of the World. They like to say that “Smell our Spirit.” Pun intended. Heaven Hill, Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam and Willet are here, just to name a few. Others such as Woodford Reserve and Four Roses are a ways down the road, in Versailles and Lawrenceberg respectively.
Driving into town means driving right straight into the center of things. North Third Street is Bardstown’s “Main Street.” Heading towards the Nelson County Courthouse, follow the roundabout (think Big Ben, Parliament) and branch off towards South Third or Stephen Foster Avenue.
Head east on East Stephen Foster Avenue to see Bardstown’s Federal Hill Mansion. This is the home that Stephen Foster wrote about in his pre-Derby favorite ballad, “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Also on this property is the Stephen Foster Amphitheater, which always plays host to the Stephen Foster Musical and currently is featuring Shrek: The Musical.
This amphitheater has a stunning view and a magical set in place for Shrek. Tucked back into the woods, you almost expect a little troll or ogre to come sauntering out at any time in this quaint setting.
Some light reading and songbooks about Stephen Foster are available in the gift shop here. Just reading the lyrics to My Old Kentucky Home makes me tear up a little. Oh, how I miss the Derby.
We actually made a wrong turn and stumbled across the Old County Jail, which is a small medieval-looking fortress dating back to the 1820s. Below is the jail gate, with a beautiful green patina.
Adjacent to this gate is the jail with the original limestone walls.
Across the street is a cemetery and log school house that appeared to be something straight out of Little House on the Prairie.
Even the roof was perfectly covered in moss.
I took a photo through the one window and was so pleased with the pioneer atmosphere here.
The schoolhouse is surrounded by an old cemetery.
Bardstown is synonymous with Bourbon and there is evidence of this economic driver all over town. You don’t have to look far and wide for a bourbon barrel around these parts. This one (below) from Jim Beam was for sale at a thrift shop.
In the next photo, half of a barrel hides an ugly gas meter. (I’m seriously thinking about doing this at my home).
Set aside plenty of time to shop here, because there is a lot to see and it is all in short walking distance. We started right by the public parking lot behind Third Street at a neat place appropriately named “The Shed.”
Speaking of art, look at these old bottles of bonded Jim Beam in the photo below. These came from special “bonded warehouses.”
Also, we found a beautiful selection of candlesticks for sale here. Look closely in the left corner and you will see a rotary phone, which my children promptly put on their Christmas lists. They were fascinated by notion of a land line.
We walked through a beautifully shaded alley on our way to Third Street to shop.
Our first stop on Third Street was Shaq & Coco, a fantastic home decor and design store.
I loved the light fixtures in this store so much that I am going to devote a future post to them. Here is one in particular, which looks like it is covered in moss.
The restored floors here are beautiful–they appear to be antiqued or whitewashed.
We stepped next door for a quick fix at Sugar Buzz. You can smell the deliciousness of this place the entire time you are shopping at Shaq & Coco. The stores are adjoined.
Jack & Jill Children’s Store is next door, with an adorable selection of clothes and children’s accessories.
On to Brandi’s Boutique, with both women’s and children’s clothing and accessories.
For more home decor, visit At Mary’s.
We found a lot of cute clothes and great sales at Peacock on Third, a women’s boutique.
Around the corner on Flaget Street are two great stores. This is newly opened Simply B women’s boutique.
And a couple doors down from that is Barbara’s Etc, a simply beautiful store full of home decor, furniture and history. We spent a lot of time in this store, just exploring the bones of it.
This store was originally a hardware store. Here is a view of the roof and the rafters.
Below is a shot of an antique elevator, complete with hand crank, pulleys and all sorts of other moving parts that I don’t understand. (It is basically like raising the floor up and down to see it in use.)
We travelled back down the other side of the street and viewed more bourbon barrels used in all sorts of ways. Here is the sale table at Wildflower’s Boutique, with some great jeans on sale.
Look down in front of many of these retailers and you see their names spelled out in tile on the ground, as in the case of Spalding & Sons below.
Let’s eat! We went down to Kurtz’s Restaurant, mainly because I wanted an old-fashioned lunch for my interns to enjoy. And honestly, with one intern newly-endowed with braces, she was looking to just eat pie for lunch, and this is what they are known for.
Kurtz’s was busy with the lunch crowd, as I suspect it always is. We had soups, sandwiches, salads and everybody had a piece of pie.
The Kurtz Family owns the restaurant and the hotel next door. The matriarch of the family runs the hotel, while her daughter and son tend to the restaurant.
Another restaurant–located on the roundabout circle–is Circa. This restaurant came highly recommended by just about everyone. I will be sure to visit it on my next trip. The patio is lovely and we stopped to take a shot of this and the beautiful restaurant.
Probably the most popular eating and drinking establishment is The Old Talbott Tavern, established in 1799. It has a restaurant, bourbon bar and even rooms to rent.
As an aside, one serious note: every single establishment in town has this poster (below) hanging on their front door. The memory of fallen Bardstown police officer Jason Ellis, who was ambushed and killed on his way home from work on May 25, hangs heavy in this town. It’s a proud community that sticks together regardless of what life brings, both the good and the bad.
We enjoyed our day trip to Bardstown and definitely did not allot enough time to adequately shop and see everything we wanted to see. Next time, I would take the carriage ride tour because we were all interested in learning the history of all the structures in town. I would also go visit the Cathedral. There’s so much to see and do here, I can definitely see why this charming place is recognized as one of the top 100 Best Small Cities in the Country.