Kansas City sits at the center of an identity crisis. It’s a liberal oasis in the middle of two red states, and the state line divides the city itself between Kansas and Missouri. That’s good news for you though. Each day is a chance to explore cultures, worlds, and time periods the average visitor probably wouldn’t expect from a flyover state. Give yourself a weekend and you’ll be hooked.
You can’t come to Kansas City and not indulge in the primal joy of eating meat right off the bone. This is a BBQ city and your BBQ choices will get you judged. Q39 is the newest contender (39th Street), where you can get whiskey with an ice cube made of meat juice. Gates is an all-time classic (found all over town) and The Peanut (the original is downtown but newer locations abound throughout the city) is a city secret for killer wings, dating back to 1933 when it was a speakeasy. Joe’s, located inside a functioning gas station, was featured in the final season of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, so you know it’s worth a stop. And Arthur Bryant’s (also multiple locations) is the move if you’re looking for the most meat for your buck.
Free – $$$
Kansas City has an incredible history steeped in blues and jazz. Around 18th and Vine you’ll find the city’s jazz district, which is also home to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum, which are both excellent. But if you’re ready to get genuinely funky, head to the Blue Room for till-dawn drinking and music, or treat yourself to an equally late-night adventure (365 days a year) at the Green Lady Lounge.
Free – $$
One of the biggest draws of Kansas City is the music scene. In addition to the city’s blues and jazz roots, there’s always killer acts hitting up the city to break up the empty drive between tour stops in St. Louis and Denver. Riot Room, Uptown Theater, Knuckleheads, and Arvest Bank Theater are all fantastic venues that always seem to have a show worth checking out. recordBar is one of KC’s best, just-big-enough venues, where you can catch all your favorite medium sized acts as they travel through town (recordBar also has a flying-under-the-radar brunch that is to die for, should you find yourself hungover in the area the next day.) And tiny record shop Records With Merritt has gained a sudden prominence in the local music scene, hosting almost nightly multi-act lineups in an intimate space where just 30 people will pack the room and me it feel like a special show.
Free – $$$$
As a kid I came here to gaze at the millions of dollars in Christmas lights. As an adult I’m still impressed, but I’m equally interested in cruising the bars. This 15-block area just north of the river is filled with nice shops and high-end restaurants.The yearly Plaza Art Fair in the fall brings in international artists of all mediums and draws a crowd of over 250,000.
Free – $$
Just off the Plaza, the nearby Nelson Atkins Museum of Art is the go-to stop in KC for high brow arts and culture. The exhibits range from the great masters to the new renegades, with a mile of gorgeous architecture that would be worth the trip even if there weren’t painting on the walls. There’s also a gigantic shuttlecock on the back lawn that has become an odd landmark in the city (it’s a must grab selfie while you’re here).
Not an art fan? Union Station is a historic train station built in 1914 with touring exhibits from around the world. It also sits across the street from the World War I Museum and Memorial, making it an excellent two-for-one destination.
KC loves to get loose. Pawn & Pints is a bar and restaurant with a six-layered wall of board games that are available to you and your party. Take your pick from literally dozens of games, including Cards Against Humanity and Scattergories.
Tapcade and Up/Down are arcade-bar experiences with wildly different line-ins: the former being a combination movie theater and old-timey cabinet set-up, and the later being a balls-to-the-wall neon blowout. Both will reignite your inner child.
Arthur Bryant’s (see the BBQ entry) is where most people love to stop for a quick photo, but if you want a selfie that the locals will respect you for, try to pose in front of the Western Auto sign. A gigantic glowing mainstay of the KC skyline, the sign has been unlit at night for decades, until now. Grab a shot of you and a friend outside one of the many local distilleries, with the huge glow of KC spirit behind you.