Kansas City is underrated. You will hear me say this over and over again, but it’s true. There is literally something there for everyone, for all budgets and tastes. It has Midwestern values combined with a sophisticated art and dining scene comparable to any of its urban counterparts, but psst…it’s more affordable. I used to tell people back in California that KC is a sleeper city (I’ve heard the term flyover country more times than I care for), but the secret’s out. KC is having a real moment right now. After the MLB All Star game in 2012 and the Royals winning the World Series in 2015, people have started to take notice of this city as a travel destination.
I lived in the heart of America for eleven years, so when I visit, I try to hit all of my favorite spots in 2-3 days. This is a tall order because there’s so much to
eat do! Of course, this itinerary assumes that you’re not coming for a specific concert or sporting event. I could write a thousand posts about that (and maybe I will), but for now here’s my way to spend 3 days in Kansas City, MO (with a cameo from Kansas City, KS, too).
Click those red heels like Dorothy, because there’s no place like home…
I usually try to visit the first weekend of the month, landing at MCI on Friday late morning/early afternoon, flying from the earliest flight out from California. Ideally you will have a rental car when you land in KC as the airport is about 20-30 minutes from the main city. It is very easy to navigate, but the neighborhoods tend to be spread out, so having transportation is vital if you want to explore. Public transport is not the best and taking ubers all over town can be spendy. The rental cars have an insane tax in KC, but at least a lot of the places you’ll go have free parking, so you can save in that regard.
The first place I always head to is invariably Joe’s Kansas City BBQ. I don’t care what anyone says. Kansas City is BBQ. BBQ is Kansas City. There is no shortage of great BBQ joints but this is my favorite. You must go to the original location on the Kansas City, KS side. You must stand in the inevitably long line (it’s okay, you can make some new friends). You must order the burnt ends (Wednesdays and Saturdays), ribs, fries and famous Z-man brisket sandwich. You must douse everything in Night of the Living Dead Sauce. You must love it. Start drinking water now, you’ll need it.
After you roll out of the restaurant, you’ll want to walk off some of the calorie bomb you just inhaled, so head down the road to the Country Club Plaza. I recommend people stay either in the plaza or downtown to have easy access to most places.
The oldest outdoor shopping center in the US, it takes its architectural inspiration from KC’s sister city, Seville, Spain, so check out the mosaic painted tiles and Spanish rooftops. Walk around for a bit and you’ll also see why Kansas City is known as the City of Fountains (my favorite is the one outside of Starbucks). I usually spend a few hours perusing the shops (everything from Tiffany to Forever 21), but make sure you visit the Baldwin store, Kansas City’s denim king Matt Baldwin’s flagship. You will see people walking around town with KC-emblazoned wool baseball caps, and that’s where they get them (they are beautifully crafted and make wonderful gifts).
If you’re ready for a little libation, stop at Gram & Dun, grab a seat on the expansive outdoor patio and sip some fancy cocktails as you people watch to your heart’s content. If you are lucky and visit at the end of September, you may chance upon the Plaza Art Fair, a three day extravaganza that shuts the whole area down to celebrate art, food, and music. It’s a great way to see how the locals live and sample foods from many of the Plaza’s acclaimed restaurants.
As I mentioned earlier, I try to visit on the first weekends. First Friday features an art crawl through the Crossroads district that attracts Kansas Citians in droves. This is the full KC experience: there’s people young and old participating in impromptu hip hop dance parties, grabbing posters and postcards from the Hammerpress stationery, imbibing free wine from the upscale galleries filled with twisted metals, strutting in avant garde fashion shows, and gobbling up the artisanal Christopher Elbow chocolates ($1 special) all night long.
If your gut bomb has finally been digested, it may be time to grab a quick bite at the always crowded Grinder’s. Owned by sculptor/entrepreneur/KC legend Stretch, this Crossroads institution pre-dated First Fridays (and pretty much everything in the area) and not only has its own concert venue that draws huge national acts, but also has the most incredible slice of pizza you can find: the Bengal Tiger. Crab meat, chicken, curry, hearts of palm on a pizza. Be still my heart…literally, you’re gonna have to keep walking off the calories this weekend.
If you’re not already dead tired, you should rally and head downtown to the Power & Light District. After all, you’re on vacation! Yes, I know, I am an enabler, but whether you go ironically or to literally get your drink on, here you will find a square plaza of bars thumping music for every genre of person. Cowboy bar? PBR, check. Want to pretend you’re in Miami? Mosaic and Hotel, check. Just want a beer and a place to chat with your buddies? There’s a Flying Saucer, check. You want to belt out Sweet Child of Mine or Don’t Stop Believin’ at the top of your lungs? McFadden’s, check.
For me, the only reason to end the night in P&L is the fact that the Gyro Truck parks nearby. Gyro Truck isn’t even the business’s name, but that’s what it’s known as, a food truck before we even ever knew what food trucks were. The most delicious gyros at any hour, but especially late at night. And the people who run it are so nice, they never even judge you for your various states of inebriation or lack there of (there’s a reason why I have no pictures from this time of night).
But I digress, on to the next day. To start my first full day, I’ll grab a cup of joe from one of my local favorites, One More Cup. Located in next-big-neighborhood, Waldo, it features one of my favorite lattes ever: the Root Beer Chai, using local root beer flavored Shatto milk. This place is cuter and filled with more whimsy than an episode of Gilmore Girls.
After a deliberate start, drive through the beautiful tree lined neighborhoods in charming Brookside to Ward Parkway, where you can gawk at gorgeous, gigantic homes owned by the founders and CEOs some of America’s most prominent brands–Hallmark, Sprint, Applebee’s. After ruing the fact that I can’t afford to rent a room in one of those homes, I head to find things I can afford, in the West Bottoms.
Every first weekend, this area, a former industrial livestock exchange area, transforms into a local maker’s market/antique faire wonderland. People teem out into the streets, so you have to get there early if you have any hope of getting decently close parking. There are 20-30 different buildings all filled to the brim with flea market finds that will fill anyone looking for eclectic decor, vintage fashions, one of a kind collectibles or Kansas City themed items with joy. Literally, it looks like Etsy exploded in some of these warehouses, and I am here for it. The worst thing about visiting is that you will find a huge piece you will want to take home with you, but you talk yourself out of it (or buy it because they ship!). My favorite stores are Bella Patina, Good JuJu, Hickory Dickory, One Man’s Treasure, and Hello Sailor. They’re all great, there’s so much to see, and if you get hungry for a snack there are food trucks galore. I could spend most of the day here, but for the fact that there’s food to be eaten elsewhere.
On the way back towards the Plaza area, stop to marvel at the Moshe Safdie designed Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. It a feat of modern architecture and beauty. If you can catch the symphony or ballet there, even better!
As a morning surrounded by crowds can leave one feeling a little overwhelmed, the next stop on the KC tour is to wind down at the Nelson Atkins Museum. Most people don’t think about one of the largest privately owned Asian Art collections when they think about Kansas City, but they should! The Nelson Atkins is one of the best museums I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting (and volunteering at), and I always make it a habit to have lunch in the Rozzelle Court cafeteria style restaurant or across the street at Cafe Sebastienne in the Kemper Museum of Art when in town. Both museums are free and cover wide range of art styles from Early American oil paintings to contemporary pop. Plan to spend a few hours here, but if you’re only able to visit for a brief period of time, at the very least you need to get a picture of the renowned Shuttlecocks for your Instagram.
If art’s not your thing,
we need to have a talk, the World War I museum, American Jazz Museum, Negro Leagues Baseball museum, and the Money Museum at the Federal Reserve are worthy of your time as well.
After resting for a bit (you’ve already seen a ton), you should head out for a night on the town. Saturday nights are nights to celebrate, so my top dinner spot of choice is Bluestem in Westport. Bluestem has my favorite happy hour menu of all time, but if you’re visiting on the weekend it’s not available–luckily everything else is just as good. Once you taste the farm to table comfort food offerings, you’ll understand why owner chefs Megan and Colby Garrelts have won multiple James Beard designations. Unsurprisingly, it is incredibly popular, so make sure you make a reservation in advance.
After dinner enjoy an aperitif at Westport Cafe and Bar (Pimm’s cup FTW), Ca Va champagne bar or Julep whiskey bar. You’ll end the night tipsy and happy and surrounded by others just like you. If you want to get more rowdy, head to Kelly’s, the Foundry, Harry’s, Harpo’s or Westport Ale House. I can’t say much for those places now (because I am old), but I can say without a doubt, that at the end of the night you should definitely get a slice of pizza from Joe’s and drizzle honey on it. Thank me later.
When you finally drag yourself out of bed on Sunday, you might be feeling a bit sluggish. That’s okay because you can catch up on sleep on your way back home. Today is for casually strolling in the City Market, Kansas City’s vibrant farmer’s market. But first, brunch! There are so many options, but one of my all time favorites is the spicy pozole at Port Fonda in Westport (I know, you were just there). But trust, this will wake you up and cure whatever (hangover) ails you.
From there you can head over to Crown Center to park, walk across the pedestrian bridge to Union Station where you will see one of the most beautiful relics of the early 20th century. The train station today has several shops and restaurants, and most importantly, a stop for the KC streetcar.
The streetcar is free, air conditioned and will take you straight to the River Market where you will be greeted with the sites and sounds of fresh veggies, fruits and every type of ethnic cuisine (Ethiopian! Vietnamese! Jordanian!). Grab yourself a treat from Bloom Bakery as well, they will have free samples and delicious bread pudding.
After riding the streetcar back to Crown Center, my last hurrah in KC usually involves picking up a take out order from Q39 BBQ on 39th Street. Your fellow passengers will probably hate you, but your stomach will love you when you eat that delicious last souvenir from a trip well spent in KC.
Suggested souvenirs: KC hat from Baldwin, any number of Kansas City themed items from the West Bottoms, Charlie Hustle t-shirts found at Bunker, Christopher Elbow chocolates, Joe’s French Fry Seasoning, Boulevard beer.
Must try food and drink: BBQ and Boulevard beer (the craft brewery of choice)
Famous companies from KC: Hallmark, Sprint, AMC, Applebee’s, Russell Stover
Famous sons: Paul Rudd, Jason Sudeikis, Rob Riggle, Eric Stonestreet, David Koechner — they host annual Big Slick charity weekend to benefit Children’s Mercy Hospital
Sports teams: Kansas City Royals (MLB), Kansas City Chiefs (NFL), and Sporting KC (MLS)
Where do you like to visit when you’re in KC?
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