Framed by low mountains, this Utopian town has a story that begins in the mid-19th century with the foundation of the first racially integrated and coeducational college in the South.
Berea College continues to be devoted to sustainability, social justice, community service, but also the preservation of Appalachian culture, which has helped turn Berea into the “Folk Arts & Crafts Capital of Kentucky”, a status held for well over 100 years.
Berea is populated by a flourishing community of fine artists, furniture artisans, weavers, ceramicists, instrument makers, jewelry designers, glass blowers, musicians and many more.
You could spend days discovering the many skills nurtured in the town, and unearthing works of art that cannot be found anywhere else.
1. Berea Pinnacles
Berea College manages around 9,000 acres of forest, part of a forestry effort that began under Forester Silas Mason, at the very start of the American conservation movement in 1897.
In one portion at Indian Fort you can scale a pair of peaks dubbed The Pinnacles, on a system of well-marked trails, with trailheads along Big Hill Road.
After stiff but relatively short climbs, these will deliver you to magnificent lookouts at East Pinnacle, West Pinnacle, Indian Fort, Eagle’s Nest and Buzzard’s Roost.
The Pinnacles are such a part of local culture that Berea College even has a Mountain Day, when students are encouraged to forget their studies and work, and to head out onto the trails.
2. Berea Welcome Center
For a small town, the quantity of attractions, galleries, studios, sights and experiences in Berea is almost dizzying, but fortunately there are a few centers to help you get oriented.
The main visitor information center for Berea has a top-notch location at the historic Louisville and Nashville Depot. The railroad first came through in the 1870s, and the fine brick depot standing today was the third on this site, completed in 1917.
The depot became the Berea Welcome Center in 1987, and was undated with a thorough renovation in 2011.
The center is an attraction in its own right, but also a useful resource for friendly advice, maps, bookings, brochures and with interesting public art on the lawn in front.
The depot continues to be an anchor for the Old Town, with regular classes, demonstrations and live music at the log cabin on the grounds.
3. Berea College
One of the reasons Berea is a hub for high-quality folk arts & crafts is Berea College’s commitment to extending and supporting the practice of traditional crafts from the Appalachian region, partly via work-study programs.
When the college was founded in 1855 by abolitionist John Gregg Fee (1816–1901), it became the first college in the south to be coeducational and racially integrated.
Another special detail about Berea College is the absence of tuition fees, and every student enrolled here has the equivalent of a four-year scholarship.
Free student guided tours are given from the Visitor Center & Shoppe, and there’s a choice of experiences including an Historic Tour, Crafts Studio Tour, or the Eco Tour.
If you’re making your own way around the verdant campus, there are a few must-sees, like the majestic Colonial Revival Draper Building (1938), the Frost Building (1905) and the student-built Phelps-Stokes Chapel (1904-1906).
4. Kentucky Artisan Center
Conveniently located at Exit 77 on I-75 is an enormous facility serving as a showcase for more than 800 Kentucky artisans.
In a limestone building, the Kentucky Artisan Center is open seven days a week and sells handmade items for pretty much every category of modern and traditional crafts.
Think pottery, oil paintings, furniture, sculpture, fashion accessories, bourbon-related items, textiles, blown glass, prints, seasonal decorations, handmade toys, essential oils, candles, spice rubs, sauces, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
And while the center sells Kentucky crafts, the artisan Café & Grill cooks up Kentucky comfort food made with local ingredients.
5. Old Town Artisan Village
Surrounding the Berea Welcome Center is Berea’s downtown shopping district at the beating heart of the “Folk Arts & Crafts Capital of KY”.
Squeezed into a small area is a rare concentration of independent shops, studios, galleries and restaurants. Old Town is a district to encounter on foot, and even though it has a small footprint, you’ll need hours to do it justice.
For a condensed summary, there’s ceramics, jewelry, fine art, fabrics and hand blown glass, and plenty of opportunities to see these crafts in action.
The Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen here is the oldest operating arts organization in the state, maintaining a gallery in the Old Town for juried artists.
6. Historic Boone Tavern Hotel & Restaurant
At Berea College, the Boone Tavern was established in 1909 after Nellie Frost, Berea College First Lady, had received several hundred guests in her own home.
This is an eye-catching landmark, painted white and with three grand Ionic porticoes. A member of the Historic Hotels of America, the building was given a $11.3m renovation in time for its centenary, becoming the first LEED Gold certified hotel in the state.
The rooms are endowed with handcrafted furniture, art and other decorative elements made by Berea College students.
One way to experience this splendor is at the restaurant, which has a contemporary menu, with emblematic dishes like “Chicken Flakes in a Bird’s Nest”, as well as spoonbread, a Berea tradition, paired with fine wines, craft beer and a range of Kentucky bourbons.
7. Anglin Falls
For more natural beauty you can make the short, winding drive south to the John B. Stephenson Memorial Forest State Nature Preserve.
On 123 acres, the preserve protects a stunning wooded gorge with remarkable natural diversity, and is dedicated to a former president of Berea College who wanted to protect this rugged scenery.
The main sight here is Anglin Falls, which can be reached along an approx. 1.5-mile trail, which takes you across some difficult terrain to the foot of the waterfall.
This rises 75 feet, and is at its most dramatic in winter, but also impressive in spring, when the woods are bedecked with wildflowers. The trail then leads back to the top of the ridge, where there’s another, smaller cascade a short way upstream.
8. Berea College Forestry Outreach Center
The best place to begin your adventure at the Pinnacles is this visitor center, set right by the main parking lot on Big Hill Road.
First up, this has a host of useful facilities for hikers, including restrooms, showers and a water station.
Inside you can view exhibits shining a light on the history of the Pinnacles and the natural habitats you’ll encounter on your hike.
The center also organizes tons of events and activities, from seasonal guided hikes to stargazing to live music performances.
9. College Square
The Boone Tavern marks the southern end of another adorable commercial district, mostly in the terrace of elegant storefronts along Main Street.
So if your enthusiasm for high-quality crafts is undimmed there are plenty more spots worth your attention here, like the historic Log House Craft Gallery, a premier showcase for Berea College Student Crafts, while the Berea College Farm Store is the retail outlet for the Berea College Farm, the oldest student educational farm in the country.
The starting point for any visit to Berea College is the Visitor Center & Shoppe, for souvenirs and student craft demonstrations, and also boasting a smoothie bar and the tempting Candy Shoppe.
10. Berea Craft Festival
One event that reinforces Berea’s reputation as a center of excellence for crafts is this three-day festival every July, a short way east of downtown at the Indian Fort Theater.
With an ever-changing lineup, the Berea Craft Festival features more than 110 acclaimed artists from across the country (15 different states when we wrote this list).
As well as displaying their work, many artists will give demonstrations for a wonderful insight into their creative process, from metalwork to pottery. There’s also great food, live music and dance performances to check out.
11. Berea Farmers’ Market
Unlike many local farmers’ markets, the one in Berea is a year-round event, moving indoors at the Old Mitchell Tolle Building November through March.
Another point of pride is that this is a growers’ only market, which means the vendors are the same people who grew, raised or made these items.
So not only will you get to know where your food came from, you can get to know the farmer too.
Shop here for fruit and vegetables as they come into season, as well as eggs, honey, herbs, plants, flowers, jams, spices, pastries, preserves, cheeses, homemade soaps, alpaca yarn, jewelry and plenty more.
12. Spoonbread Festival
One Southern specialty specific to Berea is spoonbread, which is a moist, cornmeal-based savory pudding, so soft that it’s best eaten with a spoon.
Since 1997, Berea has honored this unique dish with a three-day annual festival, normally in mid-September.
This event continues to grow by the year, and features a crowd-pleasing schedule of contests, cooking demonstrations, tastings, vendors, free entertainment and inflatables for kids.
Traditionally, the most emblematic event is the Hot Air Balloon Glow, happening just after sunset on Friday night.
13. The Spotlight Playhouse
When it comes to performing arts, Berea has a professional regional theater putting on more than 200 performances each season.
The schedule is diverse, and designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, so this means musicals, comedies, mysteries, thrillers, adventures, children’s shows and a dinner theatre.
And if you want the classics, recent productions include Steel Magnolias, Arsenic and Old Lace and Oklahoma!.
As part of its mission to bring performing arts to the entire community, the Spotlight Playhouse also puts on “pay what you can” shows, where audience members can set the admission price. On the education side of things, there’s the Spotlight Acting School, for children aged 4 to 18.
14. Public Art Tour
There’s so much artistic flair on show in Berea that an itemized Public Art Tour has been set up to make sure you don’t miss anything in Old Town Berea or the Berea College Campus.
Taking you to galleries, studios and outdoor sculptures, this has 20 stops, some of which are in this article, like the Kentucky Artisan Center, Old Town Artisan Village, Historic Boone Tavern Hotel & Restaurant and College Square.
One stop not mentioned here is the Berea Arts Council building at 444 Chestnut St., with exhibitions for local and regional artists, complemented by an excellent gift shop.
15. Battlefield Park
Ten minutes north of Berea is the site of the Battle of Richmond, fought August 29–30, 1862. This was the first major battle in the Civil War’s Kentucky Campaign, and is remembered as one of the Confederacy’s most complete victories in the conflict.
Although much of the battleground is now on the Blue Grass Army Depot, a big chunk is preserved at Battlefield Park, which centers on the fine Pleasant View (1824) residence, which served as a hospital in the wake of the battle.
On more than 2.5 miles of interpretive trails you can trace the pivotal moments over those two days, while the house contains a museum.
For more background, the Battle of Richmond Visitors Center and Museum is a short drive north at the 1811 Rogers House.