Our new series on weekend road trips aims to inspire you for what's to come as we slowly return to travel.
Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
You might be tempted to compare Kansas City to other towns, but the truth is, it’s one of a kind. KCMO—that is, Kansas City, Missouri—is locked right in the middle of America. (And shouldn’t be confused with smaller “KCK,” or Kansas City, Kansas, across the Kansas river.)
Just as the city’s central coordinates suggest, Kansas City is a hub for everything from agriculture and transportation, to gastronomy, arts, and culture. It’s surprisingly diverse and progressive, yet it’s proud to be a heartland city sprung from old-west traditions.
You can fly over Missouri from St. Louis to Kansas City in under an hour. Amtrak also operates the Missouri River Runner train across the Show-Me State, it takes about 5.5 hours. By car, enjoy a four-hour road trip westward from St. Louis across the state via I-70; or go more leisurely via US-50.
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You’ll likely hit Kansas City ready for a bite, and you may as well grab a local brew too. Grünauer is an unexpectedly fun first stop, where you can sample some of the Midwest’s best, authentic Austrian food. It’s a roomy gasthaus with indoor and outdoor beer-garden seating, serving up traditional dishes like stelze and wiener schnitzel, and of course, a hearty selection of European and local beers (plus wine and creative cocktails).
Just across the boulevard from Grünauer is historic Union Station. Opened in 1914 and restored in 1999, the active train station now is home to restaurants, a live theater, shops, the popular (and free) Model Railroad Experience, the Arvin Gottlieb Planetarium, and Science City. Stop by Parisi Coffee’s flagship location in the great hall to sip an artisan coffee and marvel at the Beaux-Arts architecture.
Exit Union Station to the south, then head uphill into Penn Valley Park. Across its 176 acres, you’ll find statues, a lake, lawns, fitness areas, and landmarks, including the soaring Liberty Memorial marking the National World War I Museum. It’s a rare U.S. landmark dedicated to the Great War, and well worth a visit. Afterward, climb atop the museum’s hilltop plaza for the best view of Kansas City, including Union Station, the Federal Reserve’s regional headquarters, and the city’s iconic 73-foot-tall “Western Auto” sign.
For dinner, reserve in advance at Bluestem, where the three-, five-, or seven-course tasting menus have earned its married proprietor-chef duo accolades for dishes that change often, but always showcase prime seasonal ingredients and a killer dessert lineup. A few blocks over on Pennsylvania Avenue are several good bars for a nightcap, especially Julep Cocktail Club, specializing in fine whiskey craft cocktail; and champagne bar Ça Va, with a lovely rustic bar and outdoor patio.
Start your day with house-made biscuits and gravy or perhaps a tofu hash at Happy Gillis in Columbus Park, an easygoing spot loved by locals for breakfast and lunch. You’ll be near the Kansas River, so afterward, consider a stroll along the Berkley Riverfront promenade over to the historic River Market area. Or head into Kessler Park to check out the Colonnade, a local landmark. Nearby in the Garment District, explore local history at the mansion–turned–Kansas City Museum.
Kansas City is home to incredible African-American history, much of it rooted in the neighborhood simply called “18th and Vine,” the city’s jazz district. To celebrate local musical heritage, the American Jazz Museum has exhibits and artifacts tied to legends including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and of course Charlie “Bird” Parker—a KC native who’s commemorated by the 18-foot-tall Bird Lives brass sculpture, anchoring his namesake plaza. There’s also a live jazz venue inside, so check the museum calendar for upcoming shows.
In the same building, swing into the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to view memorabilia, browse rare and autographed items, and learn all about this unique 20th-century sports league. You’ll be wise to top off quality time in 18th and Vine at Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque restaurant, the no-frills joint serving the original Kansas City, slow-cook, dry-rub ribs for more than a century now.
Of course, there are plenty of choices when it comes to Kansas City barbeque. If you want to compare tastes, consider the playful zestiness of Char Bar, the sophisticated sauces of Q39, or the old-time casual style of local chain Gates Bar-B-Q.
Arts and culture are cornerstones of this city, sometimes called “Paris of the Plains.” So the world-class Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art fits right in by showcasing an encyclopedic collection of artworks from around the globe. Its surrounding sculpture park features the museum’s most iconic mega pieces, Shuttlecocks, installed by husband-and-wife artist team Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen in 1994. Nearby, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art is a free, compact institution exhibiting thought-provoking works. It’s home to the excellent Café Sebastienne, serving contemporary cuisine within the museum.
Artsy time continues at the Crossroads Arts District, an enclave of shops, bars, restaurants, studios, and galleries. The neighborhood is always busy and a good place to walk around, and on every first Friday of the month, it’s flooded with locals who come to view art, hear bands, and join pop-up events and eateries.
Don’t miss a stop at Mission Taco Joint on E. 18th Street for fresh Mexican fare and tangy margaritas. Just down the way, try local pints of everything from IPAs to seasonal ales to stouts at Border Brewing Co., and compare theirs with the brews at Strange Days Brewing Co. in River Market.
Cap off your night the old-fashioned way, with tipples and tunes at the Green Lady Lounge, hosting all the great Kansas City jazz musicians. Or slip into the romantic, historic 1930s speakeasy P.S., under downtown’s Hotel Phillips.
Hopefully, you’ve saved some of your wherewithal to make it to the city’s unforgettable drag brunch at Hamburger Mary’s. Shows are on every Sunday at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., featuring bottomless mimosas and a talented lineup of buxom, bawdy queens—remember to bring plenty of $1s to tip the performers. (If drag shows are your jam, catch nightly revues at one of the local LGBTQ community’s favorite clubs, Missie B’s.) Chase Mary’s laughs with a sweet treat from retro-styled Donutology on Westport Road.
Some of the city’s best souvenirs await at Made in Kansas City, a local chain selling only locally made goods. Their products also are sold at The Bunker clothing and accessory store in Old Westport. It’s a cute neighborhood for a walkabout, and for tasty Japanese fare at Komatsu Ramen.
Between the NFL Chiefs and MLB Royals, not to mention soccer, NASCAR, and other athletics, Kansas City is a huge sports town. If you’re in town for a game, head downtown to the Power and Light District, where big games often turn the neighborhood into a makeshift block party. The area also hosts street fairs, music and beer festivals, wine walks, and lots more monthly and seasonal events. Better still, you can take the local RideKC Streetcar to and from the district—its arrival is trackable online, and rides are always free.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Phillips Kansas City, Curio Collection by Hilton is a stylish spot in a good location, with handsome décor, a subterranean speakeasy, and an inviting lobby lounge with a shuffleboard table. The Ambassador Kansas City is a charming Art Deco option inside a 1906 bank building, serving sophistication in its accommodations and Reserve restaurant.
WHEN TO GO
Prime times to visit Kansas City are fall and spring, to avoid the very coldest winter and hottest summer months. Festival season kicks off around April, starting with the 18th and Vine Jazz Festival, through Kansas City Pridefest, and KC Riverfest for July 4th—though 2020 will see most big events postponed or canceled. The city’s biggest festival, American Royal, runs August through December with a bevy of events from rodeo to food (and has yet to be canceled). The good news is that good music, art, and barbeque are dreamy all year long.