The Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky, Berea is ranked among the top art communities in the U. S. Nestled between the Bluegrass region and the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, Berea offers visitors over 40 arts and crafts shops featuring everything from handmade dulcimers and homemade chocolate to jewelry stores, art galleries, quilt-makers, and even glassblowing studios. Sculptures of mythical beasts, vibrantly painted open hands, and historic architecture are a few of the delights as one wanders the town and college.
The beating heart of the folk arts and crafts scene in Kentucky, Berea is also home to more than 8,400 acres of closed canopy forest and a well-maintained trail system. Designated as one of Kentucky’s Trail Towns which are billed as a “home base for outdoor expeditions,” Berea is full of festivals, trails, parks, and performances.
The town is known for Berea College with its commitment to interracial co-education and service to the Appalachian Region. Berea is the “Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky—Where Art’s Alive.” Berea is situated in southern Madison County near the edge of central Kentucky’s Blue Grass Region. The town is located 39 miles south of Lexington, 113 miles southeast of Louisville, and 132 miles north of Knoxville, Tennessee.
The Berea story began in 1853 when abolitionist John G. Fee with the help of local supporters and other missionaries established a church, a school, and a tiny village. The school’s constitution specified that it would be interracial and co-educational—radical concepts for the time. Fee called the settlement Berea after the Biblical town where the people “received the Word with all readiness of mind.”
Today the one-room school has evolved into a college that is world-renowned for its dedication to social justice, community service, and the preservation of Appalachian culture. The tiny village has grown into a town with a thriving population of weavers, instrument makers, furniture artisans, jewelry designers, glass workers, potters, painters, sculptors, and musicians.
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Both the town and the college take pride in their contemporary Appalachian identity. Known as the “Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky,” Berea offers a public arts experience on multiple levels. You can enjoy the sculptures, architecture, galleries, and shops, or you can enter the studios of working artists and watch art being created. Best of all, you can join right in with events like Jammin’ on the Porch or the Festival of Learnshops.
Here are 15 of the best reasons to visit this historic Kentucky town.
1. Berea Welcome Center in the historic L&N Train Depot
Set the scene for a perfect visit to Berea by starting in the charming welcome center located at 3 Artist Circle. Staffed by, arguably, the most well-informed people in the county, they can tell you everything you need to know from what events are happening to who has the best pizza in town. Make sure you give yourself time to look around the restored brick railroad station where the center is housed in.
2. Public art
Sculptures of mythical beasts, vibrantly painted hands, fountains, stained glass, and historic architecture are a few of the delights on the Berea Public Art Tour. Go to BereaPublicArt.com and hear the voices of artists and local historians telling the story behind the art. Plus you can experience live art by visiting one of several studio artists, who invite you to watch them at work, or by joining local musicians at a weekly jam festival.
Look for mythical beasts, fountains, and historic architecture on the Berea Public Art Tour. It’s a great way to get the lay of the land while experiencing the artistic process firsthand. The Student Craft Program at Berea College keeps Appalachian craftsmanship alive. Stop by the College Visitor Center and Shoppe to arrange a tour.
3. Indian Fort Mountain Trail System
Owned by Berea College, the Indian Fort Mountain Trail System is located within one of the oldest managed private forests in the country. There are many trail options for hikers ranging from a short 2-3 mile outing to a longer 6-7 mile trek with plenty of vantage points highlighting the famous pinnacles. Open all year and in all seasons, the trails are particularly lovely in the spring when everything is blooming and when the fall colors are at their peak.
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Known as an artistic epicenter, shopping for unique handmade goods doesn’t get any better than in this artsy town. Start at the Kentucky Artisan Center and watch a weekly demonstration or performance before walking through the gallery featuring the work of numerous Kentucky artists, craftsmen, and authors. Next, browse the Appalachian crafts at the Log House Craft Gallery. Finally, check out the Artisan Village where there are enough interesting shops to keep an art lover busy all day.
5. Family-friendly biking
There are several well-established cycling trails that the whole family can enjoy including bike paths in Berea City Park, the 3-mile Mayde Beebe White Trail, and the 1-mile John B. Stephenson Memorial Trail. In addition, Berea is a stop on the TransAmerica Trail spanning more than 4,225 miles from coast to coast, 600 miles of which roll across some of the most beautiful parts of the Bluegrass State.
6. Historic Boone Tavern Hotel & Restaurant
A visit to Berea is simply not complete without visiting the Historic Boone Tavern Hotel & Restaurant. It all began in the summer of 1908 when Nellie Frost, the wife of Berea College President William G. Frost, provided lodging and meals at her home for some 300 visitors to the College. As the final visitor departed, her husband was told in no uncertain terms that it was time to build a guest house.
The award-winning restaurant serves up both traditional favorites and exciting reinterpretations of Southern Cuisine. Fresh, flavorful homemade dishes that are as locally sourced as possible and classically decorated rooms make for a romantic weekend or much-deserved getaway. The graceful white columns and airy verandas nestle among the vibrant galleries, cafes, shops, and studios.
7. Madison County Waterways
Kentucky has more miles of navigable water than anywhere else in the Lower 48 and the areas surrounding Berea in Madison County have plenty of it. The local outfitters can help you find the right fit no matter what your experience in the water might be, and many offer paddling trips for all levels.
8. Festivals, festivals, and more festivals
It’s hard to plan a visit here without being in town for one of the many festivals this vibrant community plans each year. The festival offerings range from arts and music to a Spoonbread Festival (September 17-19, 2022) to the annual Geocaching Weekend (3rd weekend in October).
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9. Jammin’ on the Porch
It’s Thursday in Berea—time to get together and jam! It’s not just for music. Storytellers, poets, and everyone is invited to come and share. Father and daughter Donna and Lewis Lamb, musicians from nearby Paint Lick host the free festivities beginning at 7:00 pm. The jam happens all year round but the location does vary based on the weather. When the weather is fine Jammin’ on the Porch is held on the porch of the log cabin on the lawn in front of the L&N Depot/Welcome Center. When it is too cold to be outside they move indoors usually to one of the local churches. Call the Welcome Center at 800-598-5263 to find out where they will be during your visit. It’s an authentic evening of entertainment and fellowship. Anyone of any age or skill level is welcome and encouraged to participate.
10. Berea Farmers Market
The Berea Farmers’ Market is a year-round market that offers fresh and local fruits, veggies, plants, honey, eggs, and more. With a growing community of small farmers aimed at providing fresh, local products it should come as no surprise that this “growers-only” market continues to, well, grow. Open on Saturdays year round expect to find prepared foods, canned goods, homemade jams, fresh-baked breads and cakes, and handmade artwork and crafts (not to mention seasonal fruits and veggies!).
11. Get Hands-on with Art
Artisans here love to share their skills and offer different ways to learn about their respective crafts. Through a program called Hands-on Workshops (or HOW), students can take a range of classes from culinary to arts and crafts workshops. If you’re looking for some great holiday gift ideas what better way to show someone love than with a handmade gift? In the months leading up to the Christmas season, take a class from the expert artisans and master craftspeople in the “Make It, Take It, Give It!” workshop series.
12. US 25 Yard Sale
As the saying goes, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. The “US 25 Yard Sale” runs across more than 500 miles of US 25 and US 25W through Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina. It’s usually held in the summer and this is one unique event worth checking out.
From newly renovated historic buildings to one-of-a-kind dining there is a brand new crop of fine eating coming to town. A few include Happy Jacks, Noodle Nirvana, Brandi’s Bakery, Native Bagel Company, Becky’s Breads, and Apollo’s Pizza.
14. Live performances for all seasons
The community’s love of culture extends beyond the visual arts into the performing arts with two main venues for live theater: The Spotlight Playhouse and the Berea College Theater Laboratory. There is also the annual Celebration of Traditional Music (49th annual; October 13-16, 2022) hosted by the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College.
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15. Oh! Kentucky Campground & RV Park
Traveling by RV? Then make your home at Oh! Kentucky Campground & RV Park. The park is easy-on, easy-off I-75 at Exit 76. Our pull-through site was in the 75-foot range and level with utilities centrally located. The park offers 71 sites (all pull-through) with 50 and 30-amp electric service, water, and sewer.
I try to apply colors like words that shape poems, like notes that shape music.