Even on cloudy days, the sun shines bright on Bardstown, a picturesque Bluegrass town that would make any visitor feel they have found a Kentucky home.
Though most places of this size around the country have relatively little to offer in terms of tourism, Bardstown and its 12,000 residents present enough activities to pack a church group’s itinerary for a couple of days. Located roughly halfway between Lexington and Louisville, the town typifies the state’s culture in ways both historic and modern, making a stop in Bardstown an essential part of any Kentucky tour.
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, and many of them now serve as restaurants, inns, shops and other establishments that serve visitors.
Among Bardstown’s chief attractions is My Old Kentucky Home State Park. This urban 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. This year, the park is also introducing a number of interactive programs for tour groups, which can include culinary demonstrations.
The park is also home to “The Stephen Foster Story,” one of the country’s most famous outdoor dramas. Running for 10 weeks each summer, this musical commemorates the life and career of Foster, America’s first professional composer, and deals with the issues of slavery and race, which he saw firsthand at Federal Hill. Performances take place in an on-site amphitheater and feature a cast of 50 professional actors and singers who wear colorful, dazzling costumes, a hallmark of the show.
Beyond historical experiences, groups have a wide range of available activities when spending time in Bardstown. The area is home to an active monastery, a basilica, a scenic dinner train, several museums and numerous bourbon distilleries.
Catholic heritage runs deep in Bardstown, where the first diocese of the West was established in 1808 and oversaw territory stretching from Chicago to New Orleans. Today, groups can tour the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral, which was constructed in the middle of the wilderness in 1818. Tours highlight the art and architecture of the building and give visitors an overview of the area’s Catholic history.
About 12 miles outside of town, the Abbey of Gethsemani is a working monastic community that is open for visitors. Tour groups can stop at the visitors center to learn about the work of the monks who live there. A gift shop sells bourbon fudge, fruitcake and cheese made on-site, as well as other handmade items from monasteries around the world. The abbey also has a retreat center for groups interested in an extended program of prayer and meditation.