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Bardstown, the Best of Kentucky

Though it has only 12,000 residents, Bardstown is known to people all around the world as My Old Kentucky Home.

The sun shines bright on this picturesque Kentucky destination, where even cloudy days can’t obscure the history, scenery and Southern hospitality that make it a memorable stop for groups traveling through the Bluegrass State.

Bardstown presents enough activities to pack a group’s itinerary full for a couple of days. Located roughly halfway between Lexington and Louisville, the town typifies the state’s culture in both historic and modern ways.

Settled in 1780, Bardstown is the second-oldest city in the state, and evidence of this history can be seen all around. The town boasts more than 200 buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, many of which now serve as restaurants, inns, shops and other establishments that serve visitors.

Beyond historical experiences, groups have a wide range of other things to do when spending time in Bardstown. The area is home to a famous outdoor musical production, an active monastery, a basilica, a scenic dinner train, several museums and numerous bourbon distilleries.

My Old Kentucky Home

Among Bardstown’s chief attractions is My Old Kentucky Home State Park. Near the heart of town, this park preserves Federal Hill, a farm owned by a prominent local family that was immortalized by American songwriter Stephen Foster in his classic “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night.” Groups can tour the mansion with expert costumed guides to see the large collection of original family furnishings on display and hear stories of life at the farm. Last year, the park also introduced interactive programs for tour groups, among them culinary demonstrations.

The park is also home to “The Stephen Foster Story,” one of the country’s most famous outdoor dramas. This classic summer musical has run for 58 years and commemorates the life and career of Foster; the play deals with the issues of slavery and race that he saw firsthand at Federal Hill.

“We get to depict scenes that actually happened on these grounds when Stephen Foster saw a family friend sold on the plantation,” said artistic director Johnny Warren. “The story is structured as a year in his life when he’s trying to win the affection of Jane. He is also struggling with the idea of composing music for a living. He was the first American to do that.”

Performances take place in an on-site amphitheater and feature a cast of 50 professional actors and singers who wear colorful, dazzling costumes that have become a hallmark of the show.

“We’re known for the costumes in the show as much as we are the songs in the show,” said Warren.

Bourbon Central

If your group enjoys learning about and sampling local spirits, there is no better place than Bardstown to learn about bourbon, Kentucky’s native whiskey. The town is located near the heart of Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail and is home to several distilleries large and small. Groups can take tours of the small family-owned Willett Distillery or walk through the large industrial Barton 1792 Distillery for an in-depth look at its bourbon production. Tastings at both facilities introduce visitors to the wide range of flavors and techniques that make up the bourbon tradition.

Groups should also make time to visit the Bourbon Heritage Center at the Heaven Hill Distillery. This museum gives guests a comprehensive look at the history of bourbon in Kentucky and includes a tasting experience inside a room designed to look like the inside of a bourbon barrel.

The newest player on the town’s bourbon scene is Bardstown Bourbon Company, which opened last summer. The company takes a modern, scientific approach to distilling and uses a “farm to bottle” concept, with ingredients harvested from around the region.