This Bourbon Country Gateway Town Is Experiencing a Cultural Renaissance

Go for the bourbon, stay for the historic hotels, queer cafes and dog mayors

October 6, 2023 6:49 am
Roebling Bridge into Covington
Roebling Bridge into Covington

When most folks envision Kentucky, they probably think of race horses and fancy hats, Mint Juleps and hot brown sandwiches, or, of course, bourbon. But how about metropolitan rooftop bars, pickle factory hotels, queer cafes and dog mayors? That’s all par for the course, along with a bevy of the state’s most famous whiskey, in Covington, an on-the-rise city in northern Kentucky just teeming with surprises. 

Nestled on the southern shores of the Ohio River across a series of historic bridges from Cincinnati, Covington is one of America’s more underrated cultural crossroads. It’s perched at the intersection of the Midwest and the South and forms an urban gateway to Kentucky bourbon country. It’s also a blend of old and new, Cincinnati-style chili and Kentucky-style fried chicken, historic and contemporary — the kind of city where sleek new restaurants and kaleidoscopic galleries are found alongside vaunted hotels and shelves of vintage bourbons. Coupled with quaint nearby communities, lined with pastoral farmland and riverside kitsch, Covington is a singular slice of Americana that needs to be seen, sipped, tasted and experienced. 

In a Pickle Retro Loft
In a Pickle Retro Loft
The Pickle Factory by Neat Suites

Where to Stay

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. And in this case, we mean stay in a boutique hotel that has a full-fledged whiskey distillery on the ground floor. It’s called The Pickle Factory, and it’s pretty much exactly as it sounds — a former pickle factory that’s been transformed into a charming art-filled inn with themed rooms that look like something Wes Anderson would film. The intimate abode, which dates to 1873, is located down a brick-lined alley and contains a handful of lofty rooms on the second and third floors. Each one sports a tasteful theme, from candy-colored soda pop to a green-filled pickle suite, with spacious living quarters, exposed brick and retro decor. Plus, you’re never far from a drink, thanks to Wenzel Whiskey being located just downstairs. Named after Henry Wenzel, the entrepreneur who first established the building as a soda factory, the modern distillery is a convenient stop for connoisseurs looking to sip spirits or partake in a blend-your-own bottle experience.  

For something a tad more traditional but no less historic, rest your head on 300 thread-count linens at the Hotel Covington, a venerable establishment exuding stately elegance and upscale flair. Along with a new suite-filled expansion, the North by Hotel Covington, the timeworn property — housed in a former department store that stood as the city’s first skyscraper —is filled with vintage art and accents, coupled with contemporary furnishings, comforts and cuisine. The latter is best savored at Coppin’s Restaurant + Bar, an chic space slinging seasonal plates and visionary comforts, like country-fried mushrooms, blueberry salad and fire-roasted succotash with barbecued kohlrabi. 

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Rabbit Hash General Store
Rabbit Hash General Store

What to Do

There’s a lot more to Covington than bourbon. While there’s certainly no shortage of the stiff stuff, this is a small city with a surprisingly metropolitan vibe and infinite options for entertainment. For some, said entertainment includes perusing loud-and-proud art supplies and attending drag queen painting parties at LGBTQIA-owned CHAD, aka the Creative House of Art and Design. Owned by artist and teacher Chad Turner, the shop is an all-ages space of vibrancy and inclusivity, with events and classes that run the gamut from cabaret to Disney-themed family paint night. Added bonus: there’s a secret bar in the back of the shop, along with a picturesque patio, where guests can sip craft beer and frozen cocktails. 

Harkening to the region’s history, the Behringer-Crawford Museum is a lavish homage to all things northern Kentucky, from its locomotive lore and its performing arts to its nature and architecture. Initially opened at the William Behringer Memorial Museum in 1950 in Devou Park, it was outfitted with oddities like taxidermy, a two-headed calf and its marquis attraction, the Kentucky streetcar. Since the museum name change in 1980, the property has steadily been filled with more art and artifacts relating to paleontology, steamboats, frontier life and the Civil War. Rail travel still plays an integral role here too, as evidenced by its Rails Gallery modeled after a midcentury railroad depot. 

Mainstrasse Village

A different kind of history is on decadent display at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, a prized piece of architecture that looks more like something you’d find in Rome. Built in the late-1800s and one of only 85 minor basilicas of its kind in the United States, the Gothic temple is a marvel to behold and available for both self-guided and docent-guided tours. 

To really immerse yourself in the well-rounded culture of northern Kentucky, you’d be remiss not to hop in the car for a bucolic riverside drive to the singular community of Rabbit Hash. Like nothing you’ve seen before, reminiscent more of a preserved-in-time township than a modern-day town, this tiny community looks like a real-life Schitt’s Creek, where the main business is longstanding general store and the mayor is a literal dog. In fact, roving canines outnumber the people here. A popular destination for picnics by the river, barn dances and scenic motorcycle rides, Rabbit Hash also contains a vintage store, a barbecue trailer and beautiful views of the Ohio River. 

Mama's on Main
Mama’s on Main

Where to Eat and Drink

Covington is a regional melting pot of eclectic flavors and soulful spirits. In the morning, rise and shine with a custard-filled Cruffin or a coffee-scented babka bun at North South Baking Company, an adorably rustic cafe with an ever-changing lineup of seasonal pastries like dark cherry bostock, peachy frangipane galettes and strawberry-lemon meringue tarts. Or, skew savory — and Middle Eastern — at Lil’s Kitchen, a former beloved bagel brand that moved to a new location inside Roebling Point Books & Coffee in Dayton and shifted its vittles to egg salad sandwiches, tahini smoothies, merguez sausage “Hawt Pockets” and Israeli couscous salad. The LGBTQIA-owned business, replete with vibrant decor and art, also hosts regular queer wine tastings and other inclusive events. 

Later in the day, Covington’s booming restaurant scene paves the way for an eclectic patchwork of dining and drinking destinations. These include Mama’s on Main, a marinara-soaked newcomer in hip Mainstrasse Village that draws inspiration from Italian-American red sauce joints in Manhattan for dishes like eggplant Parm, spaghetti al limone and rigatoni with vodka sauce. Cocktails and wine are both on point, and the house-made limoncello makes for a puckery digestif. 

Libby’s Southern is the perfect example of Covington’s Midwest-meets-South terroir, with a comfort food menu that handily straddles the regional line. The funky, garage-like dining room is particularly revered for its fried chicken, which shares menu turf with other Southern staples like fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, pimento dip and deviled eggs. But don’t miss the goetta hush puppies, a dish that single-handedly honors both sides of the state line. The crispy fritters are made with local goetta, a Cincinnati specialty crafted using with ground meat and oats, originally brought to the region by German immigrants. 

Revival Vintage Spirits
Revival Vintage Spirits

Around here, history doesn’t just manifest in food and architecture — history is also potable. As the gateway to Kentucky bourbon country and home to a bourbon-splashed food trail of its own, it’s safe to expect an endless stream of brown spirits around town. Drink it all in at Revival Vintage Spirits, a rigorous bottle shop that doubles as both a tasting room and a veritable museum of aged elixirs. The small, tchotchke-filled space features shelves lined with dusty bottles and whimsical ephemera, from vintage toy cars to poodle-shaped decanters. Overseen by local politician Shannon Smith and bourbon guru Brad Bonds, both of whom stock their store with bottles that pre-date the JFK presidency, it’s a fascinating place to peruse and sample whatever bottle they’re pouring that day. 

In nearby Ludlow, Second Sight Spirits is a distillery that takes a fanciful approach to liquor. Having worked for Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, owners Rick Couch and Carus Waggoner have a penchant for pageantry, and it shows in their display of magically themed distillation equipment — like a whiskey still shaped like Houdini — and their fortune-telling fish tank. The spirits are just as magical, like their Oak Eye Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, Second Sight Smoked Cherry Rum and Second Sight Queen Mab, a hazelnut liqueur that marries nicely with coffee. 

Beyond bourbon, there’s more drinking to be had in the Covington area. This includes great craft beer at the circus-themed Bircus Brewery in Ludlow or Braxton Brewery downtown, as well as swanky Ripple Wine Bar and Second Story Bar, a whimsical upstairs watering hole with a giant faux tree behind the bar and intricate seasonal cocktails. 


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