Beautiful Owensboro sits alongside a quiet stretch of the Ohio River, just waiting for guests to arrive. The town of about 60,000 has a welcoming, small-town feel, but visitors will quickly realize that this city has a lot going on.
Although Owensboro has long been known for its bluegrass music and barbecue, the completion of the multimillion-dollar riverfront park about four years ago is credited for a downtown renewal, bringing lots of new restaurants, shops and even a new distillery to town.
There’s quite a bit to see and do, but you can get a nice sampling with just 24 hours.
Since 1947, the people of Owensboro have been going to the Rolling Pin Bakery when they crave a doughnut. And you should probably start your day there, too. Classic jelly doughnuts, long johns and the mouthwatering smell of an old-time bakery welcome you. Get one for now and one for later. The Rolling Pin opens at 4 a.m., so early risers are covered.
A great way to start your day is with a walk along the river at Smothers Park. The four-city-block, $80 million community gathering space is the city’s jewel and truly has something for any visitor.
Kids will never want to leave the Lazy Dayz Playground and SprayPark, one of the largest in the country and voted one of the best in the world—yes, world—by Landscape Architects Network. But don’t take their word for it: Ask any kid there. So much to climb and explore, with huge, colorful fiberglass trees and animals placed throughout to make it an entertaining experience. The park is handicapped accessible and furnished with a soft, cushy padding that covers the entire floor of the playground.
It has several areas for live music and events, along with plenty of glider-like swings that offer relaxing views of the river, and a wide, decoratively paved path meandering through it.
Three giant fountains form the centerpiece of the park and present a water show every 15 minutes. Designed by the same folks who created the famous fountains in front of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, the Kentucky version is just as mesmerizing. See it in the morning, and then swing back through at dusk.
After your walk, it’s time to pay homage to the music that was born in Kentucky: bluegrass. This sound—a combination of gospel, Scots-Irish and African-American music with a dose of Kentucky twang—is a version of country music, traditionally played on stringed instruments such as the banjo, mandolin,guitar and upright bass.
Bill Monroe, the father of the genre, was born in nearby Rosine, so it stands to reason that the International Bluegrass Music Museum is located in Owensboro. The museum is a must for any music lover, filled with the plaques from the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and a video oral history library that documents pioneers of the music in their own words. It even has the fiddle that belonged to Pendleton Vandiver, Monroe’s uncle—better known to fans as Uncle Pen—who taught Monroe how to play.
The museum hosts thousands of visitors a year and is in the midst of building a new, larger museum just a few blocks away. The new building, slated to open in the spring of 2018, will feature more exhibit space, a 450-seat performance stage, an outdoor stage that can seat 2,000 and a rooftop restaurant. Mark your calendar for a trip back to Owensboro to see the new digs.
The walkable downtown area has antique, consignment and specialty shops that are fun to poke around in, and you can eat at one of the many home-style restaurants.
But for our 24 Hours in Owensboro, we went by the saying: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” which is why the lunch recommendation is Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn. Credited as Owensboro’s No. 1 tourist attraction, Moonlite brings 300,000 guests to the city each year.
Serving barbecued beef, mutton and pork—and up to 70 gallons per day of burgoo—Moonlite offers lunch and dinner buffets, so guests can sample all the meats, along with homemade sides like hominy, soup beans, creamy mashed potatoes and its famous banana salad.
After 53 years with the restaurant now in its third generation, the Bosley family obviously is doing something right. Owner Kenny Bosley says on a typical Friday night, it is not unusual to spot license plates from seven different states in the parking lot.
A visit to the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art is a fabulous way to start the afternoon. The state’s second-largest art museum features 15 galleries that display an impressive collection of Asian, European and American art, with pieces by Degas, Picasso and Duveneck. There’s also a stunning gallery dedicated to stained-glass windows.
If you are in Owensboro on a pretty day, why not take in the Western Kentucky Botanical Garden? This lush, 10-acre property has about 10 themed gardens with a smooth, paved walking trail that weaves through them. In addition to the daylily and rose gardens, there are a children’s garden, a working greenhouse, and special events and displays throughout the year. Stop by and see what’s blooming.
Now, you might not think of Owensboro as a bourbon town, but bourbon was being distilled there in the early 1800s, and with the Aug. 26 opening of O.Z. Tyler Kentucky Bourbon Distillery, bourbon is once again being produced in the city.
The 24-acre property was formerly known as Green River Distillery, which burned in 1918, and later the Medley Distilling Company, which sold the property in 2007. It was then purchased by South Carolina-based Terressentia Corporation in 2014. The company has invested $25 million to resurrect the old buildings, incorporate modern distilling techniques and bring back bourbon production to Owensboro.
One of these techniques is its patented process that can reduce the time of bourbon aging. Bourbon traditionally ages in a barrel for four or more years, but this process utilizes ultrasonic energy to mature the product in just a few hours. The O.Z. Tyler bourbon, named for the inventor of the process, still ages in the barrel in a traditional rickhouse for a year and a day, but it can hit the store shelves years sooner than bourbon ever has.
A thorough behind-the-scenes tour and tastings are offered on weekdays, where you can see all the elements from the old distilleries as well as the new technology Terressentia has brought to Owensboro. Plus, there’s a rustic gift shop, where you can purchase logo shirts and caps, along with the bourbon itself.
As the afternoon comes to an end, you might be thinking about dinner. Owensboro has so many restaurants, all of them worth a try, but we’ll narrow it down to three.
The Miller House is one of those places that everyone in town recommends. In this gorgeous 100-plus-year-old home in the historic district, you’ll feel like you are going to a relative’s house for dinner. The Southern-inspired menu has favorites like shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes and cheese straws, but you also can find sandwiches, salads, burgers and steaks. After dinner, have a nightcap at the bar, Spirits, in the basement, which sports an unbelievable wall of bourbon, with 400 bottles on display.
If you are in the mood for pizza, head to Fetta Specialty Pizza downtown. Fetta, which means “slice” in Italian, serves pizza by the slice or the whole pie with toppings you don’t see every day. Sample the mashed potato, bacon and scallion or the BLT pizza, complete with mayo. Of course, Fetta also has traditional cheese and pepperoni, but since you are in Owensboro, you might want to try a slice with pulled pork and barbecue sauce. The pizzeria also features mouthwatering garlic bread knots, fresh salads and calzones. The eatery has a relaxed dining room, and outdoor seating is available, weather permitting.
If you want to eat as the people of Owensboro have been eating since 1954, you need to visit Big Dipper, a classic burger joint. You can drive through or walk up to the window, but there is no such thing as “eating in.” In addition to Big Dipper’s juicy burgers are homemade chili, onion rings, milkshakes and a side dish called potato gems, or what most people refer to as Tater Tots. It feels like something out of American Graffiti, and to keep it authentic, the restaurant accepts only cash.
Anytime is a great time to visit Owensboro, but if you can work in a trip while the city is hosting one of its events, it’s even better.
The annual music weekend called ROMP Fest, hosted by the International Bluegrass Music Museum, is an outdoor, camping-friendly music experience. Held at Yellow Creek Park, the festival brings in well-known bluegrass acts and about 25,000 fans.
Every Friday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Owensboro hosts Friday After Five at Smothers Park. The free, family-friendly event features five musical acts performing on different stages around the park. There might be country music at one end, a gospel act at another, and a pop act, jazz band, or bluegrass trio (remember, we are in Owensboro) on the others. In addition to the music, you can expect food trucks, restaurant booths and usually other attractions, like car shows and events for the kids.