Words and photos by Ken Billett
May 2021—Another big bike, this time a Harley, rumbles and grumbles under our second-floor window. With its stereo thumping out a rap beat, a mid-size sedan cruises through the intersection and disappears through a gap in the floodwall. On the other side of that concrete wall are a small park, a paved drive with parking, and a boat launch.
Laughter rises from the sidewalk directly below us.
City sounds, as I call them, don’t disturb Vicki and me. We’re lounging in the living area of our one-bedroom rental—a beautifully restored loft with twelve-foot ceilings and an open floor plan, in a hundred-year-old building with a view of the Ohio River.
Once again, we feel safe—secure—in yet another sanctuary. We love staying in vacation rentals as opposed to hotels or resorts. Freedom, independence. Privacy. A chance to relax and get away, but with that comfortable, home-like vibe.
That’s why we love Paducah, Kentucky. When you stay in downtown Paducah, you feel at home: comfortable, and secure.
Feature image Fox Briar Inn (left) at night
Memphis to Paducah: From one river town to another
If you’re not familiar with Paducah’s location, it’s a little over three hours northeast of Memphis, in western Kentucky where the Tennessee River meets the Ohio River. From Memphis, you drive to Union City, then catch the soon-to-be Interstate 69 heading north and east until you hit US 45, which takes you straight north into Paducah.
May was our third visit to Paducah in two years and we found the city just as charming and just as homey as on our two previous visits. With each visit—even during a pandemic—we have discovered new things to love about this small river city.
May 2019—While looking for a music festival a reasonable distance away from Memphis for a weekend drive, we stumbled upon the Lower Town Arts & Music Festival, a two-day event held in mid-May in the streets of the Lower Town Historic Arts District near downtown Paducah.
The festival, a family-centered affair, draws musicians and artists from Western Kentucky and Western Tennessee, from Memphis all the way to Nashville. We enjoyed our time in Lower Town and felt that laid-back, welcoming energy from all the locals we met.
Unfortunately, the Lower Town Festival has been sidelined for the past two years. That didn’t stop us from visiting Paducah in October 2020 for our wedding anniversary getaway and again, as previously mentioned, in May of this year as an early birthday celebration for me. Both visits were spent cocooned inside our favorite downtown hideaway—or sanctuary—in the Fox Briar Inn at Riverplace.
Hard against the Ohio River, with a distant view of Illinois, downtown Paducah reminds me of the South Main Arts District here in the Bluff City. The architecture, the old-fashioned street grid, lofts and condos situated above shops, restaurants, and bars – it all looks and feels familiar.
Paducah takes pride in its artistic community and is a designated UNESCO Creative City. That artsy vibe is felt throughout the revitalized downtown, home to the National Quilt Museum and the Yeiser Art Center, located inside the historic 1905 Market House on Broadway.
At the western end of Broadway, where the Ohio River drifts towards the Mississippi, you’ll find Paducah’s floodwall, painted with 50 life-sized murals. The murals tell the story of Paducah, from the city’s early founding by William Clark (one-half of Lewis and Clark), to its strategic importance during the Civil War, its role as a major railroad hub before and after the war, and onwards to the origins of Paducah’s mid-20th century nickname: “Atomic City.”
In addition to a river and a railroad, Memphis and Paducah are also both the largest cities in their respective geographic areas, both are home to regional medical centers, and both have large Midtown neighborhoods, which, eerily, look very much the same.
As I said earlier, we like comfortable and we like laid-back. Our tastes may run a bit different from that of a typical tourist or visitor. We like to discover places that aren’t on most people’s radar and make them ours by returning again and again.
Here are some of our favorites in and around downtown Paducah:
Kirchhoff’s Bakery & Deli
Kirchhoff’s Bakery is a Paducah institution, and its reputation is well-deserved. The food is delicious and the atmosphere welcoming. Kirchhoff’s supplies other Paducah restaurants with its fresh-baked breads. Located in the Market House Square section of downtown, Kirchhoff’s deli sandwiches are incredible – especially any sandwich with roast beef.
Market House Square
A stone’s throw from our downtown loft is Market House Square, home to shops, restaurants and bars, and a theater, along with Kirchhoff’s, the Yeiser Art Center, and the Market House Museum. Beautiful old trees line the bricked streets on both sides of the Market House, adding to the Square’s distinctiveness.
Paducah Beer Werks
Paducah Beer Werks (PBW) is located inside a former Greyhound Bus Station. Almost all the old terminal signage remains in-place, including the sign for the Memphis-bound bus. Painted lines for bus parking are still visible in the rear lot, adjacent to a comfortable, covered patio. PBW is our style, and the type of place we visit—frequently—when traveling. Good pub food, including sandwiches on Kirchhoff’s buns and rolls, and their own unique craft beers.
Featured last month in my first Get Out of Town column, the Hotel Metropolitan is a unique place of historical, cultural, and social justice importance. The Metropolitan is an African American-owned property that catered to some of the greats of entertainment during the early to mid-20th century – Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Della Reese, Louis Armstrong, James Brown, and many others.
The hotel is both a museum, and a bed and breakfast. Tours are by appointment only, and Betty Dobson, the Metropolitan’s director, personally gives each tour and meets each guest.
When you visit the Hotel Metropolitan, ask “Miss Betty” about the souls who still inhabit several of the upstairs rooms.
Ohio River Front and Greenway Trail
Take a walk along the Ohio River from the Port of Paducah and the floodwall murals to the Carroll Convention Center, where the Greenway continues on to Bob Noble Park. The river front walk is well-maintained, quiet, and relaxing.
Port of Paducah, Ohio River Front
The Coke Plant
A Midtown landmark, the historic Coke Plant (at the other end of Broadway) houses several businesses, including a Mellow Mushroom and Dry Ground Brewing Company. The beautiful Art Deco building, built in 1939, sat vacant for twenty years until locals worked to restore and renovate the building for mixed use. The results sparked a renaissance in Paducah’s Midtown district, and the Coke Plant building is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
May 2021—I turn from the window and settle back down on the comfortable couch. We’re safe, secure. Relaxed. The sounds of downtown Paducah on a gorgeous late afternoon in May add to that security.
We feel like we’re home…even when our house in East Memphis is two hundred miles away.
Paducah will do that to you. Make you feel welcomed, at home.
Writer’s Note: Credit and acknowledgement to the Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau, the City of Paducah (website Partake in Paducah), and the Hotel Metropolitan as references for several of the historic facts and figures in my column.
Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and the newest, Get out of Town as, ongoing features here on StoryBoard.