When Covid shook things up, my husband Tim and I left our jobs, bought a boat and embarked on the Great Loop. Experiencing the diversity of places and people that make up our beautiful country we likely never would see otherwise was one of the best parts of the trip.
Paducah, Kentucky was one of those special places. After three continuous days cruising down the rivers without accessing land, it wouldn’t take much for us to be excited to stop and explore wherever we could dock next. We had no idea, though, how much this town can offer. If you’re thinking of cruising down the rivers, Paducah is likely on your list of places to stop—even if it’s just for fuel and to stretch your legs. But, we hope our itinerary will convince you to stay for a couple nights so you can also experience our action-packed 36 hours in one of our favorite stops on the rivers.
4 pm: Pull into the Paducah Transient Dock
The city of Paducah built a sturdy, flood-proof transient and fuel dock within walking distance from downtown in 2017. The $8 million docks are part of the $12.8 million project to develop Paducah’s waterfront and make it more accessible and usable by its visitors and residents. While amenities are limited, it is a welcome stop after the 2-3 day voyage—with no marinas—from the St. Louis area. Many boaters arrive in the afternoon after cruising through the Olmstead Lock, but arrival can vary depending on the commercial traffic at the lock. For us, we lucked out and pulled in right in time to kick off a weekend. Space is limited, so be sure to reserve your spot ahead of time.
Caption: Paducah has seen river levels as high as over 60 feet during the flood of 1937 and as high as 55 feet in 2011. Paducah’s floating dock helps accommodate varied river levels.
5 pm: Run, walk or bike the Greenway Trail
After three days of long cruising and no access to land, we definitely were ready to stretch our legs. Lucky for us, Paducah has a beautiful, paved trail along the river’s edge. You can bike it, run it or walk it—we did a little of all 3 during our stay. You even get the chance to see a wastewater treatment plant up close—don’t worry, it doesn’t smell.
7 pm: Grab a burger the Freight House
Caption: The burger and cocktails at Freight House restaurant were some of the best we had on our Loop and definitely worth a visit.
Freight House is owned by Top Chef 2nd place winner, Chef Sara Bradley, who moved back to her hometown to encourage agriculture sustainability in the Western Kentucky region. We grabbed a couple of seats at the bar which was situated in a corner of the open restaurant. We didn’t have a reservation, so the bar worked great for us—and you still get to experience the atmosphere of feeling like you’re in someone’s cozy farmhouse dining room. The cocktails are great—they rotate by season—and we had one of the best burgers of the Loop.
9 AM: Kick off your morning with pastries from Kirchhoff’s Bakery
My family owned a bakery for three generations, so we’re always on the hunt for local baked goods. Kirchoff’s has been around since 1873 spanning 5 generations, and the quality of their breads prove they’ve been doing this for a while. We got a pumpkin scone and breakfast focaccia. They were hidden in the bottom, but Tim got a tip from a local woman on what to order and she didn’t disappoint. Etcetera Coffee is conveniently right next door—you don’t even have to go outside the buildings are connected—for a morning caffeine fix.
Caption for all of them: Start your morning with fresh pastries (because it will be impossible to choose one) at Kirkoff’s and a coffee from Ectcetera Coffee.
10 AM: Walk through the Saturday Morning Farmers Market
Even though growing season was over when we cruised through in mid-October, we still picked up some juicy apples and crisp onions from Paducah’s farmers’ market. There were also a lot of crafts for sale—so no matter what time of the year you happen to visit—there should always be something to peruse.
11 AM: Stroll through Paducah’s Flood Wall Murals
Caption: One of Paducah’s most popular (and impressive) attractions is its 50 murals painted along the town’s floodwalls. If you see a friendly person in a red ambassador jacket, be sure to ask them to share more about the mural and the town’s history.
Caption: Each mural showcases a different part of Paducah’s rich history and the people and events that make it the place it is today.
Caption: The walls may seem high, but its clear they’ve been needed on several occasions to protect the town.
Paducah’s history on display was one of the most memorable from all the places we visited—from signs depicting historical events to museums to its impressive floodwall murals. It is difficult not to notice the towering floodwalls built to protect the town in cases of high river water levels. What is even more impressive is they are covered in 50 murals showcasing a different era with a description of Paducah’s history. And in case you want more information, they even have walking ambassadors who are more than happy to share some history of the town as you explore.
12 PM: Grab a hearty sandwich at Kirchoff’s Deli
We went back to Kirchoff’s for lunch because their adjoining deli has some of the best sandwiches in the town, and that’s what we were craving. Even though it’s in the same building as the bakery, it still feels like a different restaurant. But, if looking to try something different, we heard Gold Rush Cafe is pretty good too.
1 PM: Explore Paducah’s River Discovery Center
We try to soak up as much information about the waterways we’re cruising through. So when we found out Paducah had a whole museum dedicated to its waterways, we didn’t think twice about heading in—plus they have a towboat operator simulator. Learning about the history of what life was like on the rivers throughout the 20th and 21st centuries put into perspective how different and alike our journey is from the skippers that traveled before us. We picked up a copy of the recently released, Holding Back the River, which provides current context on the Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental and political challenges with controlling our inland waterways—a must read for learning about these waterways.
2:30 PM: Admire incredible talent at the National Quilt Museum
It is no surprise the National Quilt Museum is consistently ranked as the #1 stop on the Great Loop. It is like an art gallery—but except paintings—everything is made out of fabric. Depending on how long it takes you to go through an art gallery, that’s how long you should expect to spend here.
5 PM: Grab drinks and pizza at Dry Ground Brewing Co and Mellow Mushroom
Caption: It’s hard to beat a beer by a cozy fire with a great slice of pizza. If you’re able, Dry Ground Brewing and a pizza from Mellow Mushroom next door is worth the 3 mile trek.
After walking around the town all day, we hopped on our bikes to make the 3-mile trek to Dry Ground Brewing Co. They had a fire pit, the air was cool and crisp and we couldn’t have welcomed fall a better way. Their building is the old Coca-Cola bottling factory, built in 1939 after the original factory flooded in 1937. The site was chosen after the factory’s owner, Mr. Carson, floated to the first area of “dry ground” he came across during that wet period—a whole 31 blocks from the river. We weren’t planning to eat dinner here—but after a few beers and a warm fire—bringing over pizza from Mellow Mushroom next door was one of the best ideas we had next to deciding to do the Great Loop. If you don’t have bikes or want to stay closer to time, we heard Paducah Beer Werks downtown followed by Doe’s Eat Place is pretty good.
7 PM: See a show at the Market House Theater
If theater is of interest, we heard several recommendations to check out a show at Market House Theater, which has had almost 60 seasons of shows. In October, they were offering ghost tours via carriage rides around the city if wanting to get yourself in a fall-festive mood.
9 PM: Have a nightcap at a bourbon bar
Since we were in Kentucky, we wanted to get the full bourbon experience, so stopped by for a drink at Barrel & Bond, which has over 1600 bourbon and whiskeys on its menu.
Caption: If looking for a trendy cocktail bar and decent spot to enjoy what Kentucky does best, make sure to check out Barrel and Bond.
8 AM: Fuel up and pump-out
For most cruisers, the next stop is Lake Barkley—which takes a full day—so most tend to take off around first light. Since we didn’t make it to the fuel dock before we pulled in, we did this in the morning—and lucky for us—Paducah’s city staff were available to open the pumps for us at 7:30 am.
Caption: One of the best parts of Paducah is it is located right along the river, giving you beautiful views of a misty morning and slow barges moving along the waterway accessible by boat or land.