The charming river city of Ashland welcomes visitors warmly, whether they are arriving by bridge from the east, by boat from the Ohio River, or from the picturesque mountains that surround it to the north, south and west.
Although not many arrive by boat anymore, it likely was the favored mode of transportation as the city took root in the late 1700s. The little town originally was named Poage’s Landing, from the family name of the first pioneers who settled there. With the discovery of iron ore deposits in the region around 1800, the area drew entrepreneurs who built furnaces and capitalized on the ability to make iron products to be shipped up or down river. By 1854, the Kentucky General Assembly chartered the Kentucky Iron, Coal, and Manufacturing Company, which effectively sealed the town’s future as the state’s leader in industry.
With the town in boom-mode, the name “Landing” no longer fit, so the residents voted to change the name to Ashland, in honor of the Lexington estate of popular statesman Henry Clay.
Today’s Ashland is home to about 20,000 people. There are examples of the past mixed with the future throughout the downtown area. For our 24 Hours in Ashland, we are going to focus on that adorable downtown and the treasures you will find there.
Let’s start with breakfast before we head out.
On the outskirts of town, you will find one of Ashland’s best-loved dining establishments, the JJ Restaurant. Owned by the Justice family since 1959, the eatery has been serving home-cooked meals to Ashland residents for generations. The restaurant is known for its country-style dishes, like pan-fried pork chops, soup beans and cornbread, just like Mom used to make. Breakfast, which is served all day, provides the choices you would expect, except the portions are big and the bill is small. Order up some biscuits and gravy or a bacon, eggs and home fries meal, and you will be good to go.
Head a few blocks into downtown, where you might want to stop by the Ashland Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Executive Director Sue Dowdy and her friendly staff can answer any questions and give you ideas of things to see and do.
A great way to get to know the city is to wander Winchester and Carter avenues, the main streets of downtown. Keep in mind, even though it’s easy to walk around, Ashland does offer free two-hour parking on city streets.
The Highlands Museum and Discovery Center is a fun place to start. Chock full of historic Kentucky and Ashland memorabilia, the center features exhibits to appeal to all ages and interest levels. Capitalizing on the fact that Ashland sits on the Country Music Highway, U.S. 23, the museum also is home to Country Music Heritage Hall. Twelve musicians who have called the Ashland area home have donated to the exhibit. See costumes and keepsakes from notables like Billy Ray Cyrus, the Judds, Loretta Lynn and more. The museum is closed Sunday through Tuesday.
The Steen Military Museum has a unique collection of historic guns, uniforms and battle items displayed in the city’s Old Post Office building downtown. The military collection has been a lifelong interest of residents Marshall and Pat Steen, and when the collection outgrew their home, they decided to put it on display for all to see, coinciding with their purchase of the post office, a 1916 building on the National Register of Historic Places. The gorgeous building also is used for meetings and events, but the front part houses the museum, which is open every weekday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with free admission. For more on the Steen Military Museum, see the November 2015 issue of Kentucky Monthly.
Feeling artsy? Check out the Pendleton Art Center, which offers individual studio space to all kinds of talented artists. The artists keep varying hours, and when they are open, you can peek into their dorm room-sized studios, watch them create and shop their wares. Usually everyone is in the house for Ashland’s First Friday event, the first Friday of each month from 5-9 p.m.
No trip to Ashland is complete until you have prowled around the Camayo Arcade. Billed as the first indoor shopping mall in the state, the arcade opened in 1926. It stretches between Winchester and Carter avenues and there is an alley between the two blocks. Browse the shops and boutiques on one end, cross the alley, and then visit the rest of the shops.
As it must be getting close to lunchtime, you’re fortunate to be near two fantastic choices. If you are looking for a stick-to-your-ribs kind of place, Jim’s Hotdogs and Spaghetti has been a staple in the arcade for ages. In addition to the eponymous offerings, Jim also serves burgers and barbecue. Locals rave about the hot and spicy hotdog sauces.
For a little lighter fare, at the other end of the arcade is Ruth’s Cupcakes & Luncheonette. OK, so the cupcakes are not exactly “light,” but you need to look at the offerings in the display case first, so you can decide on a lunch selection and still have room for dessert. Owner Teresa Miniard opened the shop in 2015 and named it after her grandmother, Ruth Lewallen, who provided her with all the recipes. The menu features daily soup choices and sandwiches, like a classic club and a Philly cheesesteak. Miniard also makes magazine cover-worthy cakes and luscious cupcakes with inches of creamy frosting on top. Plan your order accordingly.
For exercise after lunch, one of Ashland’s best spots for working off a cupcake is Central Park. Right in the middle of town, it is a beautiful area of greenspace, full of birds and squirrels and giant old trees. There is a flat, 1.25-mile walking course around the park, and you’ll also find playground equipment and a pond with relaxing fountains in the middle. There are plenty of benches around to stop and enjoy the scenery.
Just a few blocks away is the Port of Ashland, a park-like setting along the banks of the Ohio River. You can watch boats and barges pass any time of day. Take a few minutes to enjoy the beautiful floodwall murals that relate Ashland’s history on your way to the river.
As you leave the riverbank, it may be time for a treat. How about an ice cream? At SuperHero Creamery & T-Shirt Factory, you can order up a dish of Very Berry Alien or a scoop of Wolverine Claw-Colate, as all the flavors have superhero names. The shop is full of new and vintage comic books, action figures and superhero-inspired merchandise, and you can purchase a customized T-shirt while you wait. The staff members even wear capes, so you know your visit will be fun.
As your day turns to evening, it is time to start thinking about downtown dinner choices. Ashland is wet, which means you can order a drink with your meal at lots of restaurants. And with the city located on the Country Music Highway, there is a good chance you can find a restaurant with live music most any night of the week.
One of the newest restaurants in Ashland is The Ambassador. Although it specializes in favorites from the grill such as filets, chops and chicken, the establishment has five chefs on staff to make sure every part of your meal is perfect. The Ambassador is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and make sure you save room for dessert, because the pastry chef creates some masterpieces you will not want to miss.
At Alma’s Italian Restaurant, “Italian meets Appalachia.” This is the proprietors’ way of saying the restaurant serves fine pastas and brick-oven pizzas in an atmosphere that is not so stuffy. Everything is made in-house, so you know it’s fresh. The menu includes one-pound loaded baked potatoes, burgers and sandwiches, and a fabulous selection of cocktails, wines and craft beers.
For a lively, family-friendly restaurant with a huge menu, Fat Patty’s is your place. The eatery boasts lots of of bar-style appetizers, huge burgers and sandwiches with clever names; and steak, chicken and seafood platters. This place is so much fun, it has two happy hours each day. Stop by for specials on drinks and appetizers.
If you time it right, your trip to Ashland centers around an event at the historic Paramount Arts Center, the grande dame of this riverside town. This gorgeous theater, which opened in 1931, is a fabulous example of the Art Deco architectural style. The original plan was for the theater to show silent movies made by Paramount Studios, but along came the Great Depression and those plans were scrapped. The theater was purchased by other companies and revamped in those early years so it could be the backdrop to thousands of movies, concerts and Broadway-style shows.
If you are not able to take in a performance while in town, stop by the Paramount and ask for a tour. The friendly staff will tell you the landmark’s history, show you around, and point out all the beautiful original-but-refurbished fixtures. With all that history under one roof, there is a good chance that the stories about ghost sightings might have some truth to them.
Of course, any season is a good time to visit Ashland, but there’s certainly a lot going on at Christmastime. Ashland actually glows during the Winter Wonderland of Lights Festival, when the entire downtown and Central Park are gussied up in stunning LED lights. The festival kicks off Nov. 14 at 6 p.m. at Central Park’s bandstand.
The Paramount Arts Center is home to the Festival of Trees and Trains, a 10-day event showcasing nearly 200 gorgeous, themed Christmas trees decorated by talented individuals and community groups. The fascinating train display is a miniature winter-themed exhibit beloved by all ages. Now celebrating its 32nd year, the festival is set for Nov. 18-27.
The annual Ashland Christmas Parade marches down Winchester Avenue, drawing thousands of spectators from the region. The parade always takes place on the Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving, which is Nov. 22 this year.