Bardstown is one of the oldest cities in Kentucky settled by European Americans. Settled in the 1780s, it was chartered in 1790.
Reflecting the westward migration of Americans after the Revolutionary War, Bardstown was the first center of Catholicism west of the Appalachian Mountains in the original territory of the United States. The Diocese of Bardstown was established on February 8, 1808, to serve all Catholics between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. Its cathedral still stands as the Basilica of Saint Joseph Proto-Cathedral. The seat of the diocese was transferred to Louisville in 1841.
The Old Talbott Tavern, built in 1779 and located just off the Courthouse Square in the center of Bardstown, is part of Bardstown's rich history. Several notable Americans have passed through the tavern's doors, including Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Boone. Bullet holes in an upstairs wall are reputed to have been put there by Jesse James. Some of the people who stayed at the tavern in years past are rumored never to have checked out, even after death, as people claim to have encountered ghosts or other paranormal activity at the tavern.
Bardstown is the home of My Old Kentucky Home State Park. On their plantation, Judge John Rowan and his wife Ann Lytle Rowan built "Federal Hill," the mansion that is mistakenly alleged to have inspired his cousin Stephen Foster to write the song "My Old Kentucky Home." Federal Hill is depicted on the reverse of the Kentucky state quarter issued by the United States Mint in 2002.
Several distilleries operate in and around Bardstown, including Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, and Heaven Hill. The regional production of bourbon has generated the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival, whose promoters have trademarked the phrase Bourbon Capital of the World® to apply exclusively to Bardstown. The local tourism commission promotes the use of the trademarked phrase. A public museum, the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey, showcases this aspect of local history.
Bardstown's downtown area is a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.