Located in the center of the continental United States, Kansas City is often called “The heart of America.” You would think something as vital as the heart would receive a lot of attention. Sadly though, many travelers overlook Kansas City (literally). We are located on the direct path of jet traffic from the east and west coast. The only view people have of KC is as a bunch of lights from the passenger window. But if they were to land, they would find great music, food and people who were very down to earth (sorry for the pun).
Most visitors who get beyond the airport are pleasantly surprised by the myriad of activities, sights, and fun to be had here. So when you get here I want to make sure you get a fair look at the “Paris of the Plains,” Here are my top 10 things every first-time visitor to Kansas City should never miss.
10) The Steamboat Arabia Museum
In 1856, the steamboat “Arabia” was making the trek from Saint Louis to Kansas City. The Missouri river which runs through both cities was the major artery for supplies at the time. The “Arabia” was loaded with over 200 tons of supplies that would be unloaded in KC and sold to retailers and settlers heading west on the Oregon and Santa Fe trails. Sadly, “Arabia’ never made it to KC. The ship ran into rocks and sank into the river. Over the years the river would change course, and the boat was now buried in the dry land.
Fast forward to 1987, when “Arabia” is rediscovered 45 feet underground and over a half a mile from the present channel of the river. The cargo of the ship was still in mint condition at the time of its discovery, and the treasure became the most extensive collection of pre-civil war artifacts ever discovered. The boat had everything. Clothes, guns, tobacco, dishes, silverware and small appliances. Anything you could buy in a general store in the mid-1800’s you could find here. It’s all on display. You really get a sense of what day to day life was like. The museum is located in the scenic River Market full of shops, restaurants, and fresh fruit, vegetables, and flowers in the summer months.
The crates that carried most of the ship’s cargo were airtight. And the condition of “Arabia’s” hold is in pristine condition.
9) The City Market
The Kansas City Skyline as seen from the City Market.
The flat plateau on the banks of the Missouri River where the market now stands is the oldest part of Kansas City. The French explorer Jacques Choteau first built a trading post here and set up a small community of Osage Indians. After the territory was transferred to the United States in 1803, American settlers moved here and called the area “Westport.”
The city later became known as “The Town of Kansas” due to the convergence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers and also because of the Kansa tribe that lived near here. Later as it grew, it became the “City of Kansas.” or Kansas City. This would create a century of people asking “Why is it called Kansas City when it is not in Kansas?” Well, actually there is a much smaller Kansas City, Kansas too. I know, it gets confusing. But back to the market. In the 1970s the area was known as the “River Quay” and became an epicenter of an organized crime war with car bombings and was a dodgy area for a while. But that was over 50 years ago. Today the market is safe, family-friendly and an excellent place for food. There are Italian, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Honduran, and Brazilian cafes at the market and vendors selling fruit, vegetables, spices, and just about anything you can legally sell.
People from all over the world converge on the City Market. It is one of the best places in all of KC to people watch.
By the way, many of the locations on the Top 10 list are accessible on our streetcar which is free every day.
8) City Hall and the Power and Light District
Located on the 30th floor the outdoor observation deck at City Hall gives you a rare opportunity to see Kansas City from over 435 feet above the street, At the time the building was constructed in 1937, it was the tallest building in the state and was one of the highest observation decks outside of New York and Chicago. Even today, the building is still the fourth tallest city hall in the world.
The building was designed in the art deco style that was popular in the 1930s. The building interior is also lovely with a lot of brass fixtures and panoramic friezes.
Getting to the observation deck is free, but you’ll need to present identification and go through a metal detector. But the City Hall security people are amiable. Once you clear security you take the elevator to the 29th floor and you’ll need to use the stairs to the observation deck. The security guard will open the door for you and then wait while you stroll and/or take some pictures. The lady who helped me was super nice, and when I told her I was doing this for my blog, she asked for the name and said she would look it up. So, Hi security lady.
Looking west. The tallest building is One Kansas City place and is the tallest building in the city (and state). It is 654 feet tall and has 42 stories. The building to the right is the Town Pavilion Building which is 591 feet tall, The pointy building on the left is the KC Power and light building which was built in the 1930s and was the city’s tallest building for almost 50 years
A couple of blocks from City Hall is the Power and Light District. This area contains the Sprint Center where most of the major concerts and sporting events are held. There is also a basketball museum (Basketball was invented near KC) as well as nightclubs, bars, and several theaters (both live stage plays and cinema).
The Power and Light district is a great place to hear live music. The area is also an open bar so you can walk around with the drink of your choice from one club to another.
7) The American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues Museum
Located in the same building the dual museums can be purchased on one ticket and offer an essential look at the unique contributions made by the African-American community is the fields of music and Sports. In the 1920s the 18th and Vine distinct of Kansas City was the epicenter of the burgeoning jazz scene. Along with New Orleans Basin Street and Beale Street in Memphis, the neighborhood helped birth one of the most unique of all forms of American music. Such greats Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, and Ella Fitzgerald either got their start or developed their talent in the clubs surrounding the Jazz District around Vine Street.
The American Jazz and National Negro baseball Museums are housed together at 18th and Vine in Kansas City Missouri.
The Museum offers many interactive displays and has its own club, “The Blue Room” which features live jazz many nights of the week.
The National Negro Baseball league was created in 1920 as a way for African-American baseball players to showcase their talent and earn a living playing professional baseball. Segregation was, unfortunately, a way of life at the time and the league provided a way around this. There were several Black leagues established, but the National Negro league was probably the most prominent.
In 1920, under the guidance of Rube Foster owner of the Chicago American Giants several black team owners met at the black YMCA in Kansas City and established the National Negro League. A “Colored World Series” was created in 1924 to produce a yearly national champion among the league teams. The Kansas City team was the Monarchs. The Kansas City Monarchs won a total of ten national championships and had a winning record all of its seasons except one. Some of the greatest men ever to play professional baseball were among the roster of the NNL including Satchel Page, Buck O’Neil, and Jackie Robinson who be the first African American player to break the color ban and play Major League baseball. In fact, the KC Monarchs would eventually send more players than any other team.
The Museum features a life-size baseball diamond and statues of some of the League’s best players in each position.
Uniforms of some of the teams in the league.
6) Union Station and Science City
Honoring the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, Union Station (foreground) and all of KC is lit up in the tri-colors of the French Flag.
Kansas City’s Union Station was built in 1914 to replace the former rail station that had been destroyed in flood. At the time of its construction, the station was the second largest terminal in the nation. (Only New York’s Grand Central Station was more massive.) During both World Wars, the station was a major crossroad due to the city’s location in the center of the country, both for soldiers leaving for and returning from the European theater. The station is a focal point of civic pride and often has a beautiful light show. The colors change from Blue for the Royals baseball team to red for Chiefs football. The station is even colored green for Saint Patrick’s Day and the Kansas City Irish Fest held in September.
The exquisite interior. Besides being a working train station, the complex holds an exhibit space, live theaters, and a shopping concourse as well as Science City
A hands-on museum Science City’s interactive displays are a fun way of getting kids excited about the world around them.
5) Crown Center, Sealife Aquarium and Legoland
Crown Center is the world headquarters for Hallmark Cards. The shopping and entertainment complex has an outdoor ice terrace in the winter that converts to an open-air concert venue in the warmer months. Hallmark cards have a visitor center, and the open-air plaza area is located next to the SeaLife Aquarium and Legoland. The open-air area also hosts several annual citywide celebrations such as the Irish festival and Octoberfest in the fall months.
The Crown Center Courtyard
The world’s largest producer of greeting cards and holiday knick-knacks. Hallmark’s visitor center tells the story of the giant’s humble beginning.
Sea Life Aquarium allows landlocked Kansas Citians a chance to visit the world’s oceans.
4) The National World War One Memorial
If the Korean War is the “Forgotten War,” then WWI is the “Unknown War.” The first worldwide conflict is so overshadowed by the second it is little remembered today. In many ways, both world wars were actually just one big war with a twenty-year ceasefire in the middle. The unresolved conflicts and grievances of the treaty of Versailles which ended the battle only fomented a time bomb that would explode into the worst armed conflict the world has ever known. In 1921 work began in Kansas City to build a memorial to those who had died in the great war. An Obelisk over 217 feet tall was constructed on a hill just south of the downtown area. The work was completed in 1926.
The Nation’s official museum of the First World War, the memorial honors the 16 million people who died in the first worldwide conflict.
The museum has the equipment, munitions, and several life-size replicas of the trenches that were so prevalent in the conflict.
The memorial is located in a large park that contains many remarkable statues. This one called “The Scout” is one of the most famous.
3) The Country Club Plaza
Often shortened by locals to just “The Plaza” this outdoor shopping area is modeled after Seville, Spain. The area contains probably the highest dollar restaurants and shops in the entire city. It’s a great pedestrian area, and during the Christmas season it is lit up in colored lights and watching the lighting ceremony one of the most popular holiday traditions in all of KC
Kansas City has more fountains per square mile than any city in the world except Rome.
Everywhere you look at the Plaza there is a fountain.
The Plaza at Christmas
2) The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art usually referred by locals as just “The Nelson” is one of the nation’s best art galleries. Renown for its large photography exhibits and exceptional Asian Art, the museum also features an extensive collection of Impressionist Art.
Quan-yin The goddess of compassion.
The wing containing Native American Art is one of the newest additions.
Monet on the Impressionist floor
The museum also hosts several annual cultural events including the Chinese New Year, Passport to India festival, The Day of the Dead and the Native American Pow Wow.
And Number One: The Barbeque
If you were to go to any other major city in the United States and stop a random person on the street to ask them what is the one thing that comes to their mind when it comes to Kansas City and nine out of ten will say “Barbeque.” (I actually have no idea what that one person in ten would say. I’ve never heard anyone say anything else.) This is a carnivore town, and they love their beef and pork (and occasionally lamb, sausage and chicken) grilled and covered in sauce.
There seems to be a Barbeque restaurant on every corner. In fact, there are well over 100 different places. If you ask 10 Kansas Citians what the city’s best place to get some authentic cooking you’ll get 15 different answers. Probably the big three are Gate’s, Arthur Bryant’s and KC Joes. Kc Joes was visited by renown food critic Anthony Bourdain who heralded it as one of the Top 10 best restaurants in all of America. So what makes KC BBQ different? Locals would tell you it is the rub. A spice mix that is rubbed on the meat before grilling. That and the lengthy cooking process that locks in the natural juices.
While primarily geared for the meat-eating crowd. Many of the BBQ establishments have great vegan and vegetarian side dishes such as baked beans, cole slaw, potato wedges cooked in the spice rub and salad dishes.
I could easily come up with 10 more fun things to see and do but I want to leave some things for you to discover on your own. So when you’re in the Midwest USA make sure to stop in KC. We’ll start some BBq for you, it takes a while to cook, so it will be ready when you get here.