Tucked into a bend on the Ohio River in Western Kentucky, Owensboro is a culturally-rich city with a lively downtown and a newly redeveloped riverfront. In Owensboro you’ll get acquainted with some regional classics, all starting with the letter “B”.
First off, you’re in “The Barbecue Capital of the World”, and you can indulge in the typical pit barbecue and burgoo stew at numerous local establishments, or during the International Bar-B-Q Festival on the second weekend in May.
The eye-catching new Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum is on the riverfront, telling you all about the distinctive genre of music that grew up in these parts in the first half of the 20th century.
And then there’s bourbon, with a clutch of distilleries in the area, including the Green River Distilling Company, welcoming visitors to its historic HQ for a tour and tasting session.
1. Smothers Park
The star of Owensboro’s newly revitalized riverfront is this sensational park, which actually has a history dating back to 1816.
Smothers Park came through an extensive upgrade in 2012. Now, as well as being an ideal place to watch the Ohio River roll past, this is a prime vantage point for big outdoor events, from the annual air show in September to the Friday After 5 series.
Beyond that, Smothers Park is a dreamland for kids thanks to the exceptional Lazy Dayz Playground and Spray Park, both of which have state-of-the-art equipment and are ADA accessible. Other perks include free Wi-Fi, clean restrooms and concessions in summer.
2. International Bar-B-Q Festival
For a weekend in mid-May the scent of hickory smoke wafts over the Owensboro riverfront when teams compete for titles including the prestigious Governor’s Cup.
The International Bar-B-Q Festival has been held in Owensboro since 1979, and is the perfect time to taste regional specialties like mutton, Bar-B-Q pork sandwiches and burgoo.
For visitors, food is the main event, as you’ll get to try mouth-watering samples from the competitors, as well as familiar fair food like funnel cakes and corn dogs.
There’s more going on across the weekend, from contests to carnival rides, arts and crafts and live music.
3. Green River Distilling Company
Housed in a complex of striking old brick buildings in the west of Owensboro is one of the oldest bourbon distilleries in the world.
The westernmost stop on the famous Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the Green River Distilling Company was founded in 1885, making it the tenth-oldest in the state.
The operation is now overseen by the eighth-generation Master Distiller Jacob Call, and after decades known as the O.Z. Tyler Distillery, the brand has reverted to its original name.
On a tour you can get to know every detail of production, from grain to glass. One you’ve seen how it’s made, you’ll enjoy a guided bourbon and rye tasting session with the distillery’s resident experts.
The facility is also something of a living museum, with founder John W. McCulloch’s rediscovered desk on show, along with bottles from the first years of production.
4. Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum
Owensboro isn’t far from the birthplace of musician and songwriter Bill Monroe (1911-1996), remembered as the Father of Bluegrass.
So it’s apt that the hall of fame and museum for this beloved genre should be in the city, and this attraction moved into a brand new complex on the riverfront in 2018.
Here you can trace the intricate roots of bluegrass in jazz, blues, folk and gospel, and find out more about its progenitors including Monroe, the 5-string banjo player Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt, who both played with him.
There are rich profiles of the musicians who continue this legacy, from Alison Krauss to Sam Bush and Ricky Skaggs, and all kinds of enlightening interactive exhibits to deepen your appreciation for the artform.
Live performances take place at the 447-seat Woodward Theatre, purpose-built for acoustic music, and the scenic outdoor stage area.
5. Downtown Owensboro
One of the great things about downtown Owensboro is the way it merges with the riverfront area and its exciting new developments.
Which means you’ll find a profusion of long-standing restaurants, bars, coffee houses and live music venues, and a smattering of stores for homewares, fashion and antiques, all within walking distance of Owensboro’s top attractions.
Many of the historic storefronts have been given facelifts in the last few years, and the newly repaved sidewalks have trees, elegant street furniture and ample outdoor seating for local eateries.
On the east side, the downtown and riverfront areas converge at the RiverPark Center, an impressive performing arts venue for musicals, concerts, comedy shows and much more.
6. Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn
If you’re a meat eater, you can’t visit “The Barbecue Capital of the World” and not treat yourself to the local pit barbecue.
Your first port of call should be this family-owned joint, which has been on the map since 1963 and is now into its fourth generation. Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn selects only quality cuts, cooked slowly in custom-built hickory pits until perfectly tender.
The hickory fragrance is a big part of the experience, and people visit Moonlite from far and wide for its signature buffet, which has its own room.
Lined up is a tempting selection of meats cooked to perfection (try the mutton) , accompanied by country vegetables and Moonlite’s special recipe corn muffins. There’s also a salad bar here, and the banana salad is not to be missed.
7. Owensboro Museum of Fine Art
For a cultural interlude, Owensboro has an art museum with a robust collection. This has more than 4,000 items, spanning the 1400s to the present, and touching on American, Asian and European art.
A few noteworthy artists to feature in the collection are Picasso, Kentucky-native Frank Duveneck, Charles Wilson Peale and the English Regency Portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence.
The venue is in Owensboro’s Carnegie Library building from 1909, while the decorative arts wing is in a pre-Civil War mansion, the John Hampden Smith House.
In spring, you can catch the Owensboro Art Guild Juried Exhibition, which has been going for more than 60 years now and is a showcase for more than 70 talented artists from the region.
8. Owensboro Convention Center
This sleek, award-winning facility right on the riverbank, brings a continuous series of trade shows, conferences, concerts, sports, exhibitions, fairs, markets and other special events to Owensboro.
The convention center has a 44,000+-square-foot exhibition hall, but also incorporates the outdoor Kentucky Legend Pier, which is a spectacular setting for outdoor events.
This is the best spot to enjoy the city’s 4th of July fireworks display, or the Owensboro Air Show, normally held in September.
Even on the rare days when nothing’s happening, you could come for lunch at the Kentucky Legend Cafe here, open Monday through Friday, with a menu of salads, sandwiches and wraps.
9. Owensboro Museum of Science & History
Designed for younger minds, this interactive museum is downtown, in a grand four-story building from the turn of the 20th century.
The permanent exhibits are the Owensboro Rotary Playzeum indoor playground, the motorsports-oriented Speedzeum, the hands-on Encounter, the Ford Government Gallery, the Coal Mine Gallery and finally the RiverHeritage History Gallery, which was being developed when we wrote this article.
There’s also one traveling/temporary exhibit that is updated every few months. A word on the Playzeum, which is a fantastic resource for parents with children aged ten and under, with play components inspired by Owensboro’s past and the landscape around the city.
10. Owensboro’s Sassafras Tree
Next to the Daviess County Public Library, at 2100-2166 Frederica St, there’s a towering sassafras that is thought to be as old as 300 years.
This magnificent tree, labeled with a Kentucky Historical Society marker, stands more than 100 feet tall, more than twice the size of a typical sassafras.
It is officially the largest sassafras in the United States according to the American Forestry Association, and could well be the largest in the world.
The tree has been noted for its size since the 1880s and was rescued from destruction in 1957 by Dr. and Mrs. Grace Rash.
11. Friday After 5
The Owensboro riverfront is even more dynamic and inviting on Friday evenings during the summer.
Throughout the season there’s an award-winning weekly get-together by the Ohio River, with live music, food trucks and family entertainment.
Friday After 5 takes place at five different venues along the eight-block riverfront, combined with a street fair that kids are sure to love, costume characters.
This ticketless free event has been going since 1997, and is the perfect way to bring in the weekend.
12. Legion Park
Under the canopy of dozens of mature trees, this cute park in the south of Owensboro has been a prime picnic location for some 130 years.
A modern feature that brings families to Legion Park is the wonderful SprayPark, open Memorial Day weekend through Labor day.
Some other facilities here are a ½-mile walking trail with workout equipment, a lighted basketball court, a tennis court, playground, one open picnic shelter and two screened picnic shelters.
If you’re in town during the holiday season, make sure to bring your family to see the traditional Christmas light display for some festive cheer.
13. Western Kentucky Botanical Garden
This exquisite botanical garden in the west of Owensboro has gradually taken shape over the past 30 years.
Greeting you here is a patchwork of themed gardens, including an expansive herb garden, an English cottage garden, a rose garden, a children’s garden, an ericaceous garden, a Japanese memorial garden and a Kentucky symbol quilt garden.
If you have a special interest in horticulture you’ll also be fascinated by the University of Kentucky Extension display garden and the Western Kentucky University experimental garden.
There’s a small collection of buildings dotted around the site, among them a doctor’s office from 1890, a gazebo, a classroom and conservatory, an historic 19th-century ticket booth and large gazebo.
14. Reid’s Orchard
A worthwhile outing from Owensboro is this family-run orchard, just around the riverbend on the east side of the city.
Reid’s Orchard was founded by the current owner’s great-grandfather in 1873, and continues a fruit-growing tradition that has lasted some 150 years.
You can drop by in season to buy strawberries, peaches, blackberries, pears, cherries, apples and a wide variety of vegetables from the farm market here.
A date to mark in the calendar is the third weekend in October, when the farm opens up for the acclaimed Apple Festival, with some 100 craft booths, food booths for all tastes, carnival rides, hayrides and a petting zoo.
15. Preservation Station Market & Event Center
Something out of the ordinary a short way out of Owensboro is a former elementary school building that has been converted into a retail marketplace with more than 60 shops.
The Preservation Station has almost 40,000 square feet of retail space, with a wide array of vendors for antiques and unique, handmade crafts.
Look out for special market days, when there are even more vendors, combined with live music in a party atmosphere.
A 100-seat restaurant has also recently opened at this spot, for Southern specialties like fried green tomatoes, wild catfish & hush puppies and a ½ lb chuck burger glazed with a bourbon sauce.