On the Wilderness Road that brought pioneers and early settlers into Central Kentucky, the small town of Danville is held as the birthplace of Kentucky statehood.
Then known as Crow’s Station, Danville became a center of political activity, and at Constitution Square downtown you can visit the exact place where the first Kentucky constitution was drawn up between 1785 and 1792.
As the home of Centre College, Danville is a spirited place, full of history and colorful annual events, all powered by a percolating cultural scene.
The town is also on several long-distance trails and tourist corridors, like the Lincoln Heritage National Scenic Byway, with multiple themes including bourbon, the Civil War, religious history and Abraham Lincoln.
1. Constitution Square Historic Site
At this three-acre park in downtown Danville you can visit the place where the first Kentucky constitution was written and signed.
In what was then known as Crow’s Station, this square became the location for the Supreme Court for the District of Kentucky, built in 1785 and in use until Kentucky gained statehood in 1792.
The site soon fell into disuse, but became a state park in 1937 (now a county park), and is littered with historical markers, monuments and reconstructed historical structures, like the log cabin courthouse, meetinghouse, jail and stocks.
One original building is the old post office, the first west of the Allegheny Mountains, and constructed before 1792.
A modern defining feature on the west side is the Governor’s Circle, honoring each Governor of Kentucky, above all Isaac Shelby (1750-1826), who was the first and fifth governor.
2. Downtown Danville
Many spots in this list are in, or within an easy walk of, downtown Danville, which is centered on the intersection of Main St and 3rd St.
Crammed with locally owned businesses this district demands to be seen on foot so you can appreciate its pretty painted storefronts and abundance of stately landmarks.
The linchpin has to be Boyle County Courthouse (1862), in a Renaissance Revival style, and serving as a hospital following the Battle of Perryville, which occurred just months after the building was completed.
Downtown Danville has a growing roster of enticing local shops, for antiques, toys, bicycle gear, gifts, jewelry, tea and more, as well as a food and drink scene encompassing a delicatessen, coffee bar, bakeries, pizza, Southern specialties and contemporary dining.
3. Pioneer Playhouse
Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theater is here in Kentucky, counting the likes of Jim Varney, Lee Majors and John Travolta among its alumni.
The Pioneer Playhouse has brought Broadway to the Bluegrass since 1950, and was founded by the Danville-born Eben Charles Henson (1923-2004) who moved to Manhattan after WWII to pursue a career on the stage.
This was curtailed when his father fell ill, but Eben used his ingenuity and imagination to build his own theatre closer to home.
The Pioneer Playhouse is an artifact in its own right, composed of 200-year-old beams from a local livery stable and timber from historic Centre College and Kentucky School for the Deaf buildings.
The box office has its own story to tell, as it was built by MGM as a set for the Raintree County (1957) starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, shot in Danville and repurposed by Henson.
There are normally five plays per season, presented under the stars, and moved inside on rainy evenings.
4. Jacobs Hall, Kentucky School for the Deaf
Established in 1823, the Kentucky School for the Deaf, provides elementary and high school education to hard-of-hearing and deaf children.
When it was founded, this was the first school of its kind west of the Allegheny Mountains, and one of the driving forces behind its creation was General Elias Barbee (1763-1843), a state senator whose daughter was deaf.
The oldest building on the campus is the Italianate Jacobs Hall (1857), which today houses the KSD’s superintendent’s office, residence and a museum.
The latter is open on weekdays and recalls the history of this institution, recreating a classroom and student dormitory from the mid-19th century.
5. McDowell House Museum
Facing Constitution Square is the preserved Federal-style home of the pioneering surgeon Ephraim McDowell (1771-1830).
Built in phases, the house first took shape in 1795 and was purchased by McDowell in 1802, after which he added the present clapboard frontage and the small office by the back porch.
In 1809, history was made at this very place when McDowell performed the world’s first documented successful removal of an ovarian cyst (weighing 22 pounds).
This procedure was completed without anesthetic or antisepsis, and yet the patient, Mrs. Jane Crawford, lived for another 32 years.
On a tour you can find out more about McDowell’s work, and admire the carefully restored house and pharmacy, filled with period furniture and medical antiques.
6. Art Center of the Bluegrass
Next to Boyle County Courthouse is Danville’s grand former post office building, completed in 1909. Since 2005 this has been a vibrant hub for community art engagement, also nurturing the remarkable depth of artistic talent in the Danville area.
The Art Center curates a rotating lineup of exhibits all year, presenting the work of local, regional and national artists.
Recent shows have dealt with Kentucky’s Appalachian art and culture, contemporary abstract art and quiltmaking, along with solo shows for the likes of Wayne Daugherty, Sarah Wiltsee and David Ray Farmer.
In August you can check out the annual show for the Plein Air Artists of Central Kentucky, while there are regular juried exhibitions for anything from still lifes to landscapes.
The center also has diverse arts education programming, with classes for all ages, open studios, workshops and lunchtime lectures.
7. Norton Center for the Arts
Opened in 1973, Centre College’s performing arts complex is on the eastern edge of the campus and within walking distance of downtown Danville.
The Norton Center for the Arts encompasses 85,000 square feet, containing the 1,476-seat Newlin Hall and the more intimate 367-seat Weisiger Theatre.
The Norton Center has welcomed renowned touring music acts, including the likes of Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss & Union Station, ZZ Top, Yo-Yo Ma and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as international dance and theater groups and touring Broadway musicals.
This was also the stage for The Vice Presidential Debate in both the 2012 (Biden vs Ryan) and the 2020 (Pence vs Harris) presidential elections.
8. Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site
The site of Kentucky’s largest Civil War battle is about ten miles west of Danville and merits the brief drive. The Battle of Perryville (October 8, 1862) is remembered as one of the bloodiest in the entire conflict.
After great losses on both sides, the battle ended in a pyrrhic Confederate victory, as before long Braxton Bragg’s Army of Mississippi had to withdraw to Tennessee, and Kentucky would remain in Union hands for the remainder of the war.
Mostly unaltered, the battlefield rolls out over 890 acres and its decisive events are marked with interpretive signs, cannons and other monuments.
You can take a three-mile driving tour of the battle, or go on a memorable hike along as many as 19 miles of interpretive trails.
The museum and visitor center is close to the spot where many of the Confederate soldiers were initially buried, and recounts the battle with graphics featuring photos and firsthand accounts, along with uniforms, weapons and other artifacts from the battle.
9. The Great American Dollhouse Museum
Just north of the Centre College campus is a museum documenting American social history through the prism of dollhouse miniatures.
There are more than 200 dollhouses on show, all in immaculate condition and furnished to a startling level of detail.
So complete is the collection that it gives you a precise chronology of the United States, beginning with pre-colonial Native American, then through the Colonial period, Old West, early Southwest and the modern era.
Another compelling display presents a complete town from the early 20th century in miniature, neatly organized by industry, residential and business districts, and with a Shaker village on its outskirts.
The third and final section is a whimsical wooded fantasy land, inhabited by trolls, witches and elves, and featuring a walk-in dragon cave.
10. The Great American Brass Band Festival
In early June downtown Danville and the Centre College campus are visited by tens of thousands of people for the four-day Great American Brass Band Festival.
Mixing brass band performances, a parade along Main Street, a hot air balloon race, picnics, a 5k run and tons of other activities, the event has now been going for more than 30 years and brings in performers from across the country and beyond.
The two big days in the schedule are Friday, when you’ve got the NOLA-style Bayou and Brass party on the courthouse lawn, and then Saturday, kicking off with a parade and featuring non-stop entertainment until 11pm.
11. Wilderness Trail Distillery
This family-owned bourbon distillery opened just southwest of Danville in 2012, and its founders are two fermentation experts with decades of experience in alcohol production.
Wilderness Trail Distillery has a few special points of pride, including its locally-sourced grains, its unusual sweet mash process, a low-barrel entry proof and absence of chill filtration (a process thought to impair the taste).
If you’re curious about the science behind bourbon distilling then tours are available Tuesday through Sunday, when you can see the distillery’s inner workings and find out about the various steps that distinguish Wilderness Trail’s bourbons.
12. Hemp Highway
Before tobacco, hemp was the crop traditionally associated with the Bluegrass Region, which produced more than 90% of the US yield in 1889.
After being banned during the War on Drugs, industrial hemp production has kicked back into gear in the last decade, following the Agricultural Act of 2014.
At the time of writing Hemp is grown in 73 of Kentucky’s 120 counties, but the birthplace of the industry is Danville.
As you’ll see at the lawn of Boyle County Courthouse, a historical marker declares that Danville is close to the site of the first documented hemp crop in Kentucky, from 1775.
This can be the first stop on a free self-guided tour through the Bluegrass Region, leaving the interstate behind and exploring backroads through pretty countryside with rolling green hills and rustic stone fences.
There are 14 historical markers in total, each telling a different strand of the hemp story in Kentucky.
13. Millennium Park
Danville’s premier public park is a minute or two northwest of downtown and a favorite place to relax or be active outside.
There are more than 3.5 miles of trails here, including a two-mile perimeter loop, perfect for a 30-minute stroll or a jog.
At the center of Millennium Park is a pond, drained by a small creek that eventually feeds the Dix River, a couple of miles north of Danville.
The pond is flocked by ducks and other waterfowl, and healthy duck feed is available. Some of the other features include several baseball fields, picnic shelters, basketball courts, a soccer complex, a skate park, a dog park and children’s playgrounds.
14. Boyle County Farmers’ Market
Historic Constitution Square is the appropriate location for a farmers’ market, taking place every Saturday morning, April through October.
Shopping here among the historic buildings you’ll be able to pick up seasonal and locally-sourced food and ingredients, while supporting local businesses and finding more about where your food comes from.
On a typical Saturday you should find fresh fruit and vegetables, grass-fed meats, plants, flowers, baked goods, fresh roasted coffee, honey, jams and jellies, sauces, handmade crafts, organic soaps and balms and a variety of prepared food. Live music is normally part of the experience.
15. Lincoln Heritage National Scenic Byway
Another reason to call in at the Visitor Center at Constitution Square is to get hold of a map for this 70+ mile National Scenic Byway through the Knobs of Central Kentucky.
As you’ll see Constitution Square is at the east end of this corridor, marking historic locations along U.S. 31 east and U.S. 150 as far as Hodgenville, where Lincoln was born in 1809.
These spots are united by the overarching themes of Abraham Lincoln, religious heritage, bourbon and history/Civil War.
There are eight distilleries along the route, as well as the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site and the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, the oldest Trappist Monastery in the country.