The tale of two Kansases is a story of one city known far and wide for its finger-licking barbecue, extravagant fountains, and unique jazz heritage. Its many nicknames include the titles “Paris of the Plains”, the “City of Fountains”, and the “Heart of America”. Kansas City is also home to a large community of Irish-Americans, who were not only among the first large immigrant groups to settle in the city, but also played (and continue to play) a pivotal role in the city’s art and culture, with popular bands, dancers, and newspapers. Gone are the days when Kansas City-style barbecue and Kansas City strip steaks were the city’s only claim to fame. While still a dark horse among popular tourist destinations, Kansas City was recognized by National Geographic as one of the Best Trips in 2019, with particular emphasis placed on Kansas’ modern revival that seems to be taking the city by storm. Filled with decked out distilleries, magnificent museums, and artsy neighborhoods, Kansas City may soon become one of the most talked-about trendy cities in the country.
WHAT’S THE BEST TIME TO VISIT KANSAS CITY?
Kansas City is one of those destinations where temperatures vary drastically throughout the year, and it experiences four distinct seasons. While the area of the city is less temperate compared to some other destinations in the country, Kansas City weather is still quite pleasant, with July, August, and June being the hottest months (mid-July highs around 92.7°F or 33.7°C). July and August are also the busiest months, perhaps surprisingly followed by February. You can expect higher hotel rates and more expensive flights during these months, even though that can be mitigated by purchasing tickets and making reservations well in advance.
Very few tourists come to Kansas City in October and November, which means that these two months are the best time to visit Kansas City if you’re looking for a better deal. Between September and November, the daily highs range from 84.3°F (29.1°C) and 51.2°F (10.7°C), with frequent precipitation. The winter is usually far too cold for most people (especially January), although a number of tourists visit Kansas City for the holidays.
A FEW FACTS ABOUT KANSAS CITY
Why Is Kansas City in Missouri?
For some people, Kansas City can be quite confusing. Kansas City, Missouri is a city that was incorporated in 1852 – meaning it is the older Kansas City, even though it is not located in the state of Kansas. Many visitors struggle to understand whether Kansas City is one or two cities and how the locals perceive the division. Well, in administrative terms, Kansas City is not one or two cities, but three, with North Kansas City being an independent municipality that has been surrounded and basically absorbed by Kansas City. However, all of these distinctions mostly serve only to divide the Kansas City metropolitan area on paper.
In practical terms, Kansas City is one city for all intents and purposes. People who say they’re from Kansas City mean the whole metropolitan area, spread across two states and fifteen counties. In the past, as Kansas City spread into another state, the mayor could no longer govern the new part of the city, which became a new administrative unit. As another interesting tidbit from the city’s history, there were several rather funny names in the running when Kansas City was being named, including Rabbitville and Possum Trot.
Other Facts About Kansas City
While historian Carl L. Becker argued that Kansas is America in microcosm, the region was in fact first explored by the Spanish, and Frenchmen from St. Louis were the first to inhabit the now metropolitan area of Kansas City. The earliest European settlers were fur traders who benefitted from the strategic advantages offered by the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers, which also played a vital role in the westward expansion of the country.
The reason why Kansas City is nicknamed the “City of Fountains” is because it has 200 fountains, an impressive number only surpassed by Rome. When it comes to boulevards, Kansas City is second only to Paris, which explains the city’s other most popular name. The city is also sometimes called the “Soccer Capital of America” due to the popularity of the sport among the locals. The soccer team and the home stadium for the U.S. Men’s National Team are located on the Kansas side, as is the NASCAR race track. The Missouri side is home to the football and baseball stadiums. Make of that what you will.
When it comes to other things Kansas City is famous for, jazz often crops up, owing to the fact that the area around the intersection of 18th and Vine became extremely famous for its revolutionary music and nightlife in the 1920s. Also, Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City. Other famous figures who lived in KC at one point in their lives include Walt Disney, whose family moved there when he was nine, and Ernest Hemingway, who basically started his career as a writer for Kansas City Star, an experience which reportedly had a major influence on his writing style.
ONE DAY IN KANSAS CITY ITINERARY
Follow this guide and make the most of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do on your one day in Kansas City.
Start Your Day at the Kansas City Zoo
The Kansas City Zoo occupies a large section of the vast 1,805-acre Swope Park in south Kansas City, with the beautiful Blue River cutting through the middle. The zoo opens at 9:30 AM, so there’s no need to rush things in the morning. Have a bite or grab a cup of coffee and make your way to the Kansas City Zoo. Touring the zoo is a great way to start the day and is one of the best things to do in Kansas City with kids. A lot of emphasis is placed on animal interaction and informative conversations with the zookeepers.
Although the zoo had only three monkeys and four lions when it opened in 1909, it was founded with the intention of becoming the largest zoo in the country. Significant progress has since been made towards that goal, as the zoo today houses more than 1,300 animals and covers an area of 202 acres.
Visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Try not to spend more than two hours at the zoo if you want to have enough time for all the other things to do in Kansas City. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is one of the most popular and beloved Kansas City museums, facing the corner of Southmoreland Park on Oak Street. You can grab a taxi or an Uber from the zoo and get there in 15 minutes. Alternatively, take the bus (number 18) from KC Zoo Main Entrance to Cleveland Avenue & Blue Parkway. Then cross the Blue Parkway on foot and hop aboard bus 47 to Cleaver II Boulevard & Locust Westbound (under 40 minutes total).
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art was founded in the first half of the 20th century when the trustees of William Rockhill Nelson’s estate decided to join forces with the executors of Mary Atkins’ will. Both were members of Kansas City elite (Nelson was the founder of The Kansas City Star) who posthumously left a large portion of their wealth for the purpose of building an art museum and purchasing art for the citizens of KC.
The museum, which underwent several transformations, is now home to more than 35,000 works of art. The artwork is incredibly diversified, celebrating different cultures and the importance of community participation. You can find ancient Greek sculptures, Renaissance paintings, ancient Egyptian art, Picasso, Warhol, Chinese ceramics, Native American art, and so much more.
A true bastion of art and culture in the heart of the city, the museum is an architectural marvel in its own right, and, unbelievably, it is completely free, in spite of being a world-class museum, touted by many visitors as the best museum they have ever visited. If you are looking for free things to do in Kansas City, touring this museum should be your number one priority.
Head Downtown and Explore the Heart of the City
When you come to Kansas City, you can’t just spend the whole day exploring museums and galleries, no matter how beautiful and exciting they may be. At least a portion of your time should be spent on sightseeing and finding interesting new places on your own. And one of the best places to see in Kansas is Downtown Kansas City, famous for its top-level foodie hotspots, charming shops, concert halls and live music venues, and numerous attractions and landmarks. Some of the latter include the City Market KC, the Kauffman Center, the Sprint Center, the National WWI Museum, the Central Library, the Union Station, and the entire Power & Light District.
From the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, you can take a short 10-minute walk west to Main Street, the city’s busiest street, and then take the bus north until you reach Union Station or one of the other landmarks. The entire area between the Missouri River in the north and the 31st street in the south is defined as Downtown Kansas City. In 2012, Forbes magazine selected Downtown Kansas City as one of the best downtowns in the country for its gorgeous fountains, rich culture, vibrant culinary scene, and upscale shopping.
Pick a Nice Spot for Lunch
Speaking of the vibrant culinary scene, Kansas City has always been famous for its barbeque and steak, so good that even Obama couldn’t resist visiting a Kansas City BBQ restaurant. Once you’ve had enough of sightseeing, pick one of the nearby restaurants and try the delicious beef ribs, brisket, or steak that the city is known for.
Jack Stack Barbecue-Freight House is one of the best eateries in Downtown Kansas City, right across the train tracks near Union Station. Set in the converted Freight House, the restaurant’s interior is almost as impressive as its delicious barbecue. Highlights include the amazing burnt ends smoked beef brisket, a legendary Kansas City staple, and the tender, flavorful BBQ prime rib.
The only other restaurant that compares is the nationally celebrated Joe’s Kansas City BBQ, a gas station restaurant that had been famous for years before gas station restaurants became the next big thing in cuisine. During lunch, the line can be pretty long, but it moves quickly, and it is certainly worth waiting for what just might be one of the best dining experiences of your life.
Jeff and Joy Stehney started Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, now one of the most popular restaurants in the world, as Slaughterhouse Five, which is also the name of their massive barbecue platter/combo of smoked meats that serves 8-10 people. The gas-station-located original Joe’s Kansas City BBQ can be found on the corner of W 47th Street and Mission Road.
Check Out Union Station Kansas City
In case you had your lunch at Joe’s, come back downtown to see the city’s majestic, historic central train station, dating back to 1914. Visiting Union Station, an important historical landmark, is one of the most unbridled fun things to do in Kansas City, not just because of the station itself, which is an architectural masterpiece, but also because of the numerous exhibits, as well as the nearby planetarium and science center.
The station was at its peak during WWII, but experienced a period of decline after the 1950s, which eventually led to it being closed in 1985. Luckily, it was reopened in 2002, and is now the second busiest Amtrak station in the state. The Grand Hall is especially impressive with its massive 3,500-pound chandeliers and a gorgeous six-foot clock in the central arch. In addition to enjoying the grandeur of the restored interior, you can also visit the Model Rail Experience, a large model train exhibition and one of the best things to do in Kansas City with kids.
Choose One of the Nearby Kansas City Museums to Visit
The museums in Kansas City are truly world-class in every sense of the word. There are so many of them that picking just one can be quite tricky. Luckily, most of them are pretty close together, not too far from Union Station, which means that you can potentially get around to visiting more than one in a single afternoon.
The closest one to Union Station is Science City. In fact, this museum is located in the same building. It is very family friendly (named one of the best science museums in the country by Parents Magazine), and houses a planetarium in addition to a large number of interactive exhibits that show how science is everywhere around us, as an essential part of our day-to-day lives.
Among other options, let us mention the National WWI Museum and Memorial, just south of Union Station. The museum’s gorgeous 217-foot (66 m) Liberty Tower can be seen from quite a distance as it rises over the neighboring area. It is the only museum in the country dedicated to the Great War, and its 9,000 red poppies are a constant reminder of the 9 million soldiers who perished during the war.
Feel Free to Live It up at Worlds of Fun
If you’re looking for fun things to do in Kansas City – or at the very least something a bit different than your typical touristy activities, nothing can beat Worlds of Fun, a KC amusement park covering 235 acres. And if that doesn’t sound enticing enough, Worlds of Fun is connected to Oceans of Fun, a tropical-themed waterpark which opened in 1982 as the largest water park in the world. The parks, which are both covered by a single admission fee, are located north of the Missouri River, and it takes approx. 20 minutes to get there by car from the Union Station.
Sadly, Worlds of Fun is usually closed for the winter. Same with the waterpark. In April, Worlds of Fun is open on weekends, before transitioning to a daily schedule from May-August. It is again open weekends-only September through November. In case you visit Kansas City when Worlds of Fun is open, give it a visit, you will not be disappointed.
Consider the Alternatives
In case you don’t feel like spending the afternoon at an amusement park (or if it is closed), there are still a couple of fun things to do in Kansas City that you can try. Sports fans will love the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, located at 18th & Vine, right next door to the American Jazz Museum. While the Jazz Museum features interactive exhibits and live performances, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum houses a large number of exhibits that follow the history of America’s segregated league from 1920 (when it was founded) until Jackie Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs got recruited by a major league baseball team (Brooklyn Dodgers, late 1940s).
This museum focuses on one of the reasons why Kansas City is such an important place when it comes to African-American history. You can visit one or both of these museums, or you can check out Sea Life Kansas City on Crown Center Square – less than 10 minutes (0.4 mile) from Union Station. With 5,000 sea critters, including sharks that you can come face-to-face within the aquarium’s viewing tunnel, Sea Life is a must-visit.
If you’d like to see as much as possible on foot, the best way to spend the afternoon is as follows. First lunch, then Union Station Kansas City (with the model train exhibition), then the National WWI Museum and Memorial, with Sea Life Kansas City saved for last. If you are looking for things to do in Kansas City with kids, the LEGOLAND Discovery Center Kansas City is literally next door, so it’s a no-brainer really.
Try the Famous Kansas City Steak
In Kansas City, there are few bad restaurants, which means that all you have to decide is what you’d like to go for and take it from there. If you’d like to eat a great steak, ’37 Steak is one of the better options. Located in a hotel on Riverboat Drive, overlooking the Missouri River, this steakhouse is refined and elegant, although not as posh, and certainly not as expensive as the flashy, clubby restaurants south of the river.
If you’ve had enough of meat or if you want to try something completely different, consider Cafe Gratitude Kansas City, a vegan restaurant (the blasphemy!) near the intersection of Southwest Boulevard and Broadway. Not only is it right behind the Union Station, but it also serves creative, delicious dishes in an artsy, positive interior with a mellow, welcoming vibe. All the veggies are fresh and locally sourced, resulting in delicious, hearty dishes such as the Luminous Salad and the thick, spicy Vegan Chili.
See What the City Has to Offer at Night
In the city famous for its jazz, a regular night out simply will not do. Instead, you will want to hit one of the great live music Kansas City venues to close out the day. Howl at the Moon Kansas City, near the massive Sprint Center arena, stands out as an excellent choice. Let your hair down at this lively bar with thrilling dueling piano shows fueled by colorful and creative bucket drinks. If you would prefer to just have a couple of great craft beers instead of snazzy cocktails, check out the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium, which is right around the corner.
WHERE TO STAY IN KANSAS CITY?
Around every corner in the gorgeous Crossroads Hotel, there is something new and exciting to capture your attention. On the outside, all you see is an unassuming redbrick building that looks like an old factory. However, the hotel’s poker-faced front hides a real pearl inside. Modern and hip, this boutique hotel is as cool as the Crossroads Art District where it is located. An ideal blend of the historic and the modern, the hotel features gorgeously designed rooms and inspired common areas fashioned by local artists and designers. Filled with passion and creativity, Crossroads Hotel is classy, sophisticated, full of personality, and, most importantly, unashamedly, balls-to-the-wall unique.
Hotel Indigo – Kansas City Downtown
Hotel Indigo’s superb downtown location, coupled with its fun, creative décor and amazing, friendly atmosphere, makes it one of the best hotels in the city. Subtle, yet noticeable mid-century and Pop Art-inspired details give the comfortable rooms and spacious shared areas a particularly energetic vibe, in line with the Power & Light District’s buzzing shopping and fashion scene injected with a particular penchant for classy partying.
Hotel Indigo – Kansas City Downtown is close enough to the Sprint Center, the National World War I Museum, and other things to see in Kansas City that you can easily walk to. In case you choose to spend some extra time at the hotel, you will love the hotel’s well-kept bar, notable for its great service and affordable drinks.
The centrally located Honeycomb Hostel, set in a historic house mere minutes from all the exciting places to visit in Kansas City’s downtown area, has recently been remodeled, and now features comfortable, clean rooms with a patio and a large shared kitchen. The common areas, especially the chic dining room and the colorful lounge, pay homage to the city’s vibrant art scene. Some of the hotel’s many strong points include the friendly, accommodating owner who goes above and beyond to make sure that every one of her visitors, many of whom come from abroad, feel just like home.
DAY TRIPS FROM KANSAS CITY
If you didn’t know what to do in Kansas City prior to reading this itinerary, here’s hoping that you now have a couple of ideas and leads that can help you plan out your trip. In case you’re hungry for more, don’t worry, there are plenty of places to visit in Kansas (the state) and Missouri that you can reach within a couple of hours or less.
You can find out more in our article that covers all of the most exciting day trips from Kansas City. Just to give you an idea of what’s out there, the world’s largest ball of twine is located in Cawker City. Intrigued? You can also visit the massive salt mine in Hutchinson, the Jesse James State Home in Kearney, or the world’s largest Titanic museum in Branson.
EXTRA TIPS FOR VISITING KANSAS CITY
-There are occasional tornadoes and storms in the general area, so it’s always a good idea to stay mindful of that and listen to the news for alerts. Otherwise, Kansas City is quite safe, meaning that normal safety precautions should suffice.
If you have any other propositions for this One Day in Kansas City Itinerary, feel free to share them in the comments below!
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Anca is a travel writer and the founder of One Day Itinerary - the biggest collection of travel itineraries for those who are time-limited or just want to maximize their time while traveling. Although she easily becomes homesick for Croatia, she thinks travel is essential to her happiness. She has traveled to more countries than she is years old and doesn’t plan on changing that fact. In her travel guides she aims to inspire people to travel whenever they have a spare day (or two).