Kentucky’s second-oldest city, brimming with Georgian and Federal architecture, is known as the Bourbon Capital of the World.
Bourbon has been distilled in Bardstown since 1776, and the industry has never been stronger, with new distilleries opening by the year.
Coming to Bardstown and touring the aging warehouses and distilleries is akin to visiting champagne cellars in Reims. You could stay for a week, visit a different distillery every day and still not see them all.
Bardstown has more than its fair share of historical landmarks to take in, from the historic former plantation at My Old Kentucky Home to the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral, endowed with magnificent paintings by Renaissance and Baroque masters.
1. My Old Kentucky Home State Park
Of the 200+ songs written by Stephen Foster (1826-1864) the one that truly strikes a chord in the Commonwealth is the ballad, “My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night” (1852), which is famously recited at the Kentucky Derby and became the official State Song in 1928.
Later, in the 1930s, the song’s enduring success prompted the Commonwealth of Kentucky to purchase the former plantation, Federal Hill (1795), and its surrounding 235 acres of neat gardens and farmland.
Foster was a cousin of the owners, the Rowan family, and is thought to have visited this property.
You can come to tour the mansion, which has more than two centuries of history, and is replete with fine art, antiques and original architectural details.
Your guide will be in period dress and will give a little rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home”. One of Kentucky’s premier golf courses is also on the property, along with an outdoor amphitheater where you can watch the biographical Stephen Foster Story musical, which we’ll talk about later.
2. Bardstown Historic District
One of the best things to do in the center of Bardstown is to set off on foot to see what historic sights you can find.
There’s a profusion of historic architecture in the city; in fact more than a third of the 279 contributing properties in the historic district date from between 1780 and 1850.
Be sure to check out the Cobblestone Path, running down the east side of the district and dating back to 1785, and the storied Old Talbott Tavern (1779), the Nelson County Jail (1800), Bardstown Station (1860) and Spalding Hall (1839), which we’ll come to later in this article.
The old Nelson County Courthouse is now home to the Bardstown Visitor Center, and is a great intro to the city.
Much of the commerce, with enticing locally-owned stores and restaurants, is concentrated here on Court Square and extending north along 3rd St for several blocks.
3. Kentucky Bourbon Festival
For a week in mid-September, thousands of bourbon fans come to Bardstown to honor the local industry dating back 250 years.
This event started out in 1991 as a modest gathering of 250 people but has since burgeoned into one of the largest annual events in the state, attracting 50,000+ people from more than a dozen countries.
The festival coincides with National Bourbon Heritage Month, and many of the activities take place on the elegant lawn in front of historic Spalding Hall.
There’s a vintage and rare bourbon auction, a tasting experience, culinary workshops, talks by leading industry figures, live music and the World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay Race, a bourbon barrel rolling competition.
4. Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral
The unusual name for this prominent landmark refers to its status as the original and former (proto) cathedral for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville, the first to be founded west of the Allegheny Mountains.
The Basilica of St. Joseph was built in the Greek Revival style between 1816 and 1823. What makes the building unmissable is the amazing inventory of European art that was donated by the likes of Pope Leo XII, King Louis-Philippe of France and Francis I of the Two Sicilies.
Touring the interior you’ll come across the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew by Mattia Preti, The Coronation in Heaven of the Mother of God by Murillo, two works by 15th-century Early Renaissance master Jan van Eyck and three paintings by 17th-century Baroque artist, Anthony van Dyck.
5. Willett Distilling Company
Established in 1936, Willett is another storied bourbon name, producing its own labels again after a 32-year hiatus (1980-2012), while continuing to bottle a slew of outside brands as a contract bottler.
The history of this small-scale operation, on the site of the original Willett Farm, will become clear the moment you set foot on the grounds, and Willett has taken great care to preserve the main distillery building, aging warehouses, cistern room and many other details on the property.
The water is sourced from subterranean, spring-fed lakes, and the distillery continues to use turn-of-the-century belt and pulley fan mechanisms.
Hour-long tours tell you all you could want to know about the Willett family and the process of making whiskey, ending with a guided tasting and your very own glass as a gift.
6. Civil War Museum
An easy walk from downtown Bardstown is this cluster of five museum attractions, all with an historical theme.
Your priority here should be the Civil War Museum & the Women’s Museum of the Civil War, which are the largest and most complete Museums in the country to focus on the Civil War’s Western Theater.
Here you can browse more than 8,000 square feet of artifact-laden exhibits relating the conflict between the Union and Confederacy, from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi in the west, and Georgia and the Gulf of Mexico in the south.
This sits next to the Old Bardstown Village, a set of ten original log buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, and the military-themed General Hal Moore Military Museum, dedicated to the namesake Korean War and Vietnam War veteran.
7. Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History
In Bardstown’s collection of beautiful sights is Spalding Hall, a glorious Federal-style building constructed in 1839 as the college for St. Joseph’s Basilica.
In the Federal style, this replaced an earlier building from 1826 that was destroyed by fire. Spalding Hall has a compelling history, and has been put to many uses, including as a hospital for Union soldiers in the Civil War.
Today it’s home to two museums, the first of which is a recommended companion to anyone touring Bardstown’s distilleries.
The Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History is an educational chronology of whiskey in America, from Colonial times up to the modern day.
Some of the many items on show are authentic moonshine stills, temperance radical Carrie Nation’s hatchet, Prohibition-era prescriptions for medicinal alcohol consumption and Honest Abe’s own liquor license from his days as a bartender in the 1830s.
8. Wickland, Home of Three Governors
One of the finest Georgian residences in Kentucky can be visited in Bardstown, just up the road from My Old Kentucky Home.
This is Wickland, a three-story brick mansion built in 1815 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973. March through October you can call in for a tour, and to find out about the building’s storied past.
Charles A. Wickliffe (1788-1869), the 14th Governor of Kentucky, built Wickland, hiring architect John Rogers, who designed the Basilica of St. Joseph.
The house was later home to his son and 15th Governor of Louisiana, Robert C. Wickliffe (1819-1895), as well as his grandson J. C. W. Beckham (1869-1940), 35th Governor of Kentucky. Inside you can check out the unusual cantilever staircase and exhibits relating to the Civil War.
9. Heaven Hill Bourbon Experience
Visiting Heaven Hill’s headquarters and bottling facility in Bardstown, you’ll learn the story of America’s largest independent, family-owned and operated distilled spirits company, founded in 1935.
Heaven Hill produces a slew of renowned whiskey labels, including Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Old Fitzgerald, Larceny and Rittenhouse Rye.
While the bottling facility is closed to visitors, the reason to come is for the Bourbon Experience, a recently updated attraction.
This features museum exhibits highlighting the founding Shapira family, an 11-minute movie presentation, the stylish Five Brothers Bar and an extensive choice of tasting experiences.
One is You Do Bourbon, in which you taste, bottle and personalize your very own bottle of bourbon to take home.
10. The Stephen Foster Story
During the summer the J. Dan Talbott Amphitheatre at My Old Kentucky Home State Park is the stage for The Stephen Foster Story, a musical that has been performed every year since 1959.
Written by Paul Green (1894-1981) who specialized in period dramas, the musical presents Foster’s life, love and heartaches, against a turbulent antebellum backdrop and littered with more than 50 of his most famous compositions.
There’s also an indoor, air-conditioned matinee performance on Saturdays, as well as regular concerts at the amphitheater as part of Bardstown’s Live at the Park series.
11. Lux Row Distillers
You can continue your bourbon odyssey in Bardstown at one of the newest stops on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Owned by Luxco, Lux Row Distillers opened in 2018 and represents the company’s entry into the Bourbon market.
Several brands are produced at this facility, including Rebel (smooth with hints of vanilla and caramel), Daviess (combining ‘wheated’ and ‘ryed’ mash bills for a spicy finish), the charcoal-filtered Ezra Brooks, the extra-aged, limited-quantity Blood Oath, and finally David Nicholson, which has honey and butter notes.
The Lux Row experience entails a 45-minute walking tour of the distillery and lofty barrel houses, followed by an enlightening 15-minute guided tasting.
12. Bardstown Historical Museum
For non-whiskey history, stop by this local museum, also at Spalding Hall. The Bardstown Historical Museum recounts more than two centuries of area history, and is rich with artifacts.
Here you can examine documents relating to Abraham Lincoln, papers dating back to pioneer times, Stephen Foster artifacts, Civil War uniforms and interesting Native American finds.
There’s also a display of objects relating to St. Joe Prep, which was housed in Spalding Hall for several decades up to 1968.
Look out for the long rifle, made around 1835 by the renowned gunsmith Jacob Rizer, and the remarkable collection of American silver, dating between 1860 and 1990.
13. James B. Beam Distilling Co.
A little further away in Clermont is the distillery for the world-famous Jim Beam brand, which has a history reaching back to the end of the 18th century. So it’s understandable that this place should be described as the “family home of American whiskey”.
For an immersive, multisensory experience, take the 90-minute Beam Made Bourbon tour of the distillery, discovering how the Beams have crafted Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey for more than two centuries.
If you’re pressed for time, there’s a 20-minute “Meet the Family” tasting, where you can try some favorites like Knob Creek and Basil Hayden’s, served with some fun anecdotes.
Among the other packages, there’s a four-hour behind the scenes tour, a culinary tasting experience, a mixology experience and the chance to become a distiller for a day.
14. Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest
Something to pair with the James B. Beam Distilling Co. is the largest privately owned natural area in Kentucky.
This was established in 1929 by the I. W. Harper founder Isaac Wolfe Bernheim (1848-1945). He purchased these 16,000+ acres at a discount because the land had been stripped for iron ore, and hired the Olmsted Firm to landscape the park.
The Bernheim Arboretum opened to the public in 1950 and has more than 40 miles of trails, with a wealth of things to see in these knobs, valleys, ridges and hollows.
Essential attractions are the 75-foot-high Canopy Tree Walk, the scenic Fire Tower (961 steps), Isaac’s Cafe, sourcing ingredients from the arboretum’s Edible Garden, the LEED-certified Visitor Center and the Education Center, with art exhibits and a wonderful Wildlife Viewing Room.
15. Abbey of Gethsemani
This monastery about 15 minutes south of downtown Bardstown belongs to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, also known as the Trappists.
Founded in 1848, the Abbey of Gethsemani is the motherhouse for all monasteries for this order in the United States and is set on a working farm covering more than 2,000 acres.
One important resident here was the social activist and theologian, Thomas Merton (1915-1968).
At the Welcome Center you can view museum displays and a video about monastic life, and there’s a gift shop stocked with items made at the monastery, including handmade fruitcake and bourbon fudge.
You’re also free to access some 1,500 acres of wooded knobs, or rolling hills, with miles of trails and maps available from the Welcome Center.