Travel Tips

Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Kansas City

Downtown Kansas City skylineIn some ways, Kansas City has a split personality: Its frontier roots belie a modern metropolis, where locals like to boast that their city has more fountains than any other destination except Rome and more boulevards than any city except Paris.

It’s a staid, conservative Midwestern burg, yet it’s been known as place to boogie since at least the cowboy days. It’s simultaneously kid-friendly and party-hearty.

Culturally, Kansas City might be described mash-up of the South (with blues and barbecue), the Chicago-led Upper Midwest (think jazz, trains and intricate brickwork) and the Great Plains (livestock, farming and wind-swept vistas).

But even if you have only the foggiest idea of what it might be like, here’s Kansas City’s secret: these days, it’s a surprisingly cool city.


It’s true that Kansas City can be a bit confusing at first to non-natives. First off, Kansas City International Airport’s code is MCI (as opposed to KCI). It’s a confusing, and frankly boring story as to why this is, so it’s best just to try to remember the MCI part.

Union Station and downtown KCMOThe Kansas City metropolitan area actually includes two Kansas Cities—one in Kansas and one in Missouri, separated by a river. The larger of the two with the main downtown area is Kansas City, Missouri, or KCMO. The smaller city immediately to the west is Kansas City, Kansas, or KCK.

Further complicating matters is the fact that extensive suburbs ring both cities—you can cross city or even state lines without even realizing it. Most visitors will stick to the Missouri side, as parts of KCK are a bit rough and largely bereft of popular attractions (the NASCAR speedway and its adjacent Village West shopping area being the notable exception). For example, 11th & Central in KCMO is the heart of downtown with Art Deco skyscrapers and wide boulevards, while 11th & Central in KCK is … a liquor store and an auto repair shop. So before you head out to one of the city’s attractions, make sure you know which state it’s in!


Most locals will recommend the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for visitors interested in an art experience. And while “the Nelson” certainly has its charms (the giant shuttlecocks and sculpture garden on the museum grounds, for one), the collections just aren’t as extensive as you’ll find in most other major cities’ flagship art museums.

Crossroads Art District patronsInstead, art lovers should head down to the rapidly-revitalizing Crossroads district south of downtown KCMO for First Fridays. On the first Friday of each month, the galleries of the Crossroads stay open late (they say 9 p.m., but don’t be surprised if the area’s still rocking at 10 or 11) and offer new works by local, national and international artists. There’s plenty of wine, music and the occasional cheese plate as art-lovers wander from gallery to gallery.

If you aren’t going to be in town on the first Friday of the month, perhaps you’ll be in town for the third Friday. If so, lesser-known but still worth a peek is a similar event in the Columbus Park neighborhood near downtown KCMO.


Freight House
Freight House districtLooking for a uniquely Kansas City-style dining experience? Locals will recommend any number of barbecue joints, of course, but there’s more to dining in Kansas City than the city’s signature cuisine.

For starters, check out the restored Freight House in the Crossroads district just across the tracks from the similarly-restored Union Station. With three restaurants to choose from—Jack Stack Barbecue, Lidia’s for Italian, and City Tavern for upscale Americana (including an oyster bar)—the Freight House caters to a variety of tastes. But all three restaurants share a beautifully restored building full of exposed brick, timber beams, soaring ceilings and flower-filled patios. 101 W. 22nd Street, Kansas City, MO
Jack Stack Barbecue:
City Tavern:

Full disclosure:’s Matthew Calcara worked for JackStack barbecue from 2002-2003.

Love barbecue? Check out Ribs, Ribs, and More Ribs: The Biggest Barbecue Contest in the West.

Boulevard Brewery
Boulevard BreweryEverything’s better with beer, especially the city’s signature cuisine. Kansas City’s hometown brewer is called Boulevard Brewing Company, which has grown into one of America’s 20 biggest breweries. You’ll find Boulevard’s beers in many Kansas City restaurants, especially the popular Unfiltered Wheat and Pale Ale.

Stop by Boulevard’s brewery for a 90-minute tour and beer tasting. Architecture lovers will want to explore the historic turn-of-the-century brick building, as well as its new expansion (photo and expansion courtesy 360 Architecture) offering skylights, atriums, glass walkways and a terrace overlooking the downtown skyline. Tours are offered Wednesday through Sunday, and though the tour is free, you should make a reservation well in advance to reserve a spot by calling 816-474-7095. 2501 Southwest Boulevard, Kansas City, MO 64108,

Farmers Market/City Market
Historic City Market sign 2Smack dab in the middle of one of America’s most productive agricultural areas, it’s no surprise that Kansas City has a number of outstanding farmers markets. Among the best in the area is the City Market, which lies just north of downtown on a bluff above the Missouri River. After celebrating its 150th anniversary season, the market was then named Missouri’s Best Farmers’ Market in 2008 (OK, it was named so by the Missouri Farmers’ Market Association), growers descend on the place with fresh produce, flowers, and natural products on Wednesdays and weekends. Be aware that many locals refer to the area as the River Market and the names are often used interchangeably. 20 E. 5th St., Kansas City, MO,

Go Vegetarian
Let’s say that for some unfathomable reason, you aren’t in the mood for barbecue, or even meat. Well you’re in luck because even in such a carnivorous city, there are vegetarian options. One is Blue Bird Bistro, where ingredients tend toward the organic and locally grown, although there are a few dishes with (free-range) meat on the menu. It’s a bit more upscale than your typical vegan eatery, with lots of brickwork and dark wood. On the Country Club Plaza, you’ll find Eden Alley Cafe, which offers an all-vegetarian menu with a variety of vegan and gluten-free meals. The Saturday brunch is a good bet, with imaginative dishes based on what’s available that day, and on Friday nights the “Essence of the Garden” features locally-grown and organic specials. As an added bonus, it’s among the cheapest places to eat in one of KC’s most expensive neighborhoods.
Blue Bird Bistro: 1700 Summit St., Kansas City, MO,
Eden Alley Cafe: 707 W. 47th St., Kansas City, MO,

You haven’t had a true Kansas City culinary experience without chowing down on some barbecue. If you’re looking for Kansas City’s Best Barbecue Restaurants, click here.


Coterie Theatre
Kids are likely to love the Coterie Theatre, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary in Kansas City. Artistic Director Jeff Church mixes cutting-edge fare—one season dedicated to plays of banned books—with more traditional mainstream theater like Our Town and Seussical.

Crown Center Square and fountain As an added bonus, it’s located inside Crown Center, a mall-ish commercial complex housing Hallmark’s headquarters and two of the city’s most upscale hotels: the Hyatt Regency and the Westin. Locals are also to name the fountain outside the main entrance as one of the city’s most popular—and most fun. Expect flocks of splashing kids here on hot summer days. 2450 Grand Boulevard, Kansas City, MO,,

Missy B’s
Open-minded adults would probably get a high-kick out of one of Kansas City’s least-expected attractions—a top-notch drag bar with near-nightly performances. Wednesday nights with Kansas City’s reigning queen of drag queens, Flo, are frequently hilarious and surprisingly straight-friendly (she does Fridays, too). But nearly every night offers up some gender-bending fun and each afternoon and early evening, “beer bust” specials. Darts and pool are also available.
805 W. 39th, Kansas City, MO,

Jazz It Up
Mutual Musicians playing jazz Another of Kansas City’s claims to fame lies in its contributions to music, especially jazz and blues. Locals will probably recommend the Blue Room at 18th & Vine, a club-style part of the American Jazz Museum. But truly in-the-know locals are aware that’s only the beginning. In addition to the dozens of live music venues scattered throughout the city, the city’s real jazz hotspot is probably the weekly Saturday night Live Jazz Jams, hosted and sponsored by the Mutual Musicians Foundation (MMF).

The MMF began in 1917 as Musicians Local No. 627 union, also known at the time as the “Colored Musicians Union.” Members have included famous jazz names like Count Basie, Jay McShann, Charlie Parker and Hot Lips Page. These days, the MMF helps keep music alive supporting local musicians and music students, so your $8 admission fee goes to a good cause. The Live Jazz Jam starts after midnight, as all jazz should, and often goes until sunup, as good jams should. Food and full bar are available. 1823 Highland, Kansas City, MO
Jazz Museum:
Mutual Musicians Foundation:


Hallmark’s Kaleidoscope
Kids at Hallmark’s Kaleidoscope Kids of all ages will appreciate this brightly colored creative space that’s part Children’s Museum, part art studio. Run by greeting card company Hallmark, Kaleidoscope allows kids access to all sorts of art supplies and materials, and basically lets their imaginations take over from there. And the cost for an arty afternoon? Nothing. Hallmark provides its leftover materials and art supplies. 2500 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO,

Science City @ Union Station
You may find that some (adult) locals bash what they call lackluster exhibits, but kids are more likely to be impressed. Most of the exhibits are hands-on and interactive, and with two levels and over two dozen exhibits, there are quite a few places for little hands. Best of all, the exhibits are designed to teach scientific concepts so the whole family might learn a few things while you play. Tickets are $9.50 for adults and kids. 30 West Pershing Road, Kansas City,

Moon Marble Company
Moon Marbles on display This offbeat shop is an unusual place to spend an hour or two, but one that your kids might enjoy. Catch a demonstration of marbles being made by owner Bruce Breslow on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. You and the kids may also enjoy the oddly mesmerizing marble displays (photo from, as well as the unusual toy offerings. This also makes a cheap diversion from the nearby Kansas Speedway complex if you’re in that area. 600 East Front Street, Bonner Springs, KS,


Clinton Lake
Clinton Lake is a man-made lake located just west of Lawrence, KS, about 45 minutes west of downtown KCMO. It has a surface area of 7,000 acres and is used for all types of boating, fishing and recreation. There are seven campgrounds around the lake with a total of 460 campsites, and a wide variety of amenities. The lake has two separate nine-hole disc golf courses, an archery range, a swim beach, four playgrounds, various nature trails, and a five-mile cross-country ski trail. Besides just fishing at the lake itself, there is also a five-acre trout fishing pond, and a one-acre children’s fishing pond.

Shawnee Mission Park
Shawnee Mission Park at Sunset The most visited park in the state of Kansas lies in suburban Johnson County, about 20-30 minutes from downtown. Shawnee Mission Park covers 1,250 acres and includes a 120-acre lake used primarily for boating, fishing, and sail-boarding. You can visit the Marina to rent a small sailboat, canoe, pedal boat or fishing boat. The lake even features a sandy beach—the closest thing you’ll find to an ocean in Kansas!

Water not your forte? There are a variety of hiking and horseback trails, numerous picnic areas including 12 shelter/cookout spots, an archery range, a disc golf course, and a tower overlooking the park and surrounding region. The park also has a 53-acre area where you can take off the leash and allow Buddy, Fido or Spot to roam free. The off-leash area even includes a beach, in case your dog wishes to take a dip in the lake.

Disc Golf
Disc golf player One of the fastest growing recreational activities in the area (and the nation, for that matter) is the game of disc golf (aka Frisbee golf, but calling it that is un-PC). The game is very similar to regular golf except for these notable differences: the ball is replaced by a disc, the club is your dominant arm, and the hole is a large metal basket.

However, using that Frisbee in your basement may result in derisive sneers from hardcore disc golfers. The “correct” discs are smaller, harder, and heavier—but they should only cost around $10-15 and all the disc golf courses in the area are free.

The biggest course in the area lies in Rosedale Park, near Mission Rd. and I-35. The park has two separate 18-hole courses: the “upper” course which is more open and runs along the woods; and the “lower” course which winds its way through the forest.

Water Works is one of the most scenic courses in the KC metro area. It has 18 holes, some of which overlook a water treatment facility, and also provides a good view of the downtown skyline. Water Works Park is located in North Kansas City. While these two are recommended, there are courses all over Kansas City and its suburbs. The Professional Disc Golf Association Web site ( has a course directory that lists every course in the country starting with the closest to your address.

By Matthew Calcara and Justin Hyde for Matthew and Justin grew up a few blocks from each other in the Kansas City suburbs but met for the first time working for Photos courtesy of the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association except as indicated.

If you like Kansas City, you might also like cities like Nashville, Chicago or Austin.

To get more information on barbecue, check out Ribs, Ribs and More Ribs: the Biggest Barbecue Cook-Off in the West.

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