Kansas City isn’t the kind of place that most people would think of as a “tourist destination.” However, it’s a great city to visit! I’ll go through some of my favorite spots in this post, and why I like them.
Here are my favorite places to go in Kansas City, and why I enjoy them:
The National World War I Museum & Memorial
2 Memorial Dr, Kansas City, MO 64108
The National World War I Museum and Memorial is a well-curated museum which presents the war in a timeline format, focusing on every important aspect of the war. The museum itself is in a round, central building (which is accessed over a clear bridge over a field of 9,000 poppies), and is presented in a timeline format with countless artifacts from the conflict. The museum does a great job in helping ‘bring the war to life’ with it’s full-size and immersive replicas of actual life on the front lines–including post-explosion craters and trenches.
The main circular building of the museum is flanked by 2 exhibit buildings to the sides which double as memorial halls. Both have beautiful, ornate murals on the walls and interesting artifacts on display.
Allow for at lest 2 hours to see the museum–though it would probably be better to allow at least 2 and a half hours.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
4525 Oak St, Kansas City, MO 64111
The Nelson-Atkins is one of the great art museums in the United States. It is positioned in the middle of a park setting, adjacent to the Country Club Plaza. On the “Lawn” of the museum are four giant badminton shuttlecocks, which are recognized as icons of the museum.
To outsiders, these pieces may suggest a more modern collection is housed within the museum–and a notable modern collection is housed within the museum–but this completely discounts the notable American and European painting collection housed within the museum. Some highlights of the museum include Caravaggio’s John the Baptist in the Wilderness, Van Gogh’s Olive Trees (which contains a grasshopper that jumped into the oil on canvas while Van Gogh was painting it), 1/3rd of a Monet triptych (the other 2 parts are at the St. Louis Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art), a couple of really interesting studies (one being the man smoking the pipe from Cezanne’s Card Players series), and one of the best collection of Thomas Hart Benton paintings in a museum (including “Hollywood,” and “Persephone,” both highlights of Benton’s catalog.)
You could spend all day in this museum, but allow at least an hour and a half, at an absolute minimum.
Arabia Steamboat Museum
400 Grand Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64106
Just shy of 5 years before the start of the Civil War, the Steamboat Arabia hit a tree snag and sank in the bottom of the Missouri river. No lives were lost, but over 200 tons of cargo was lost in the sinking. After an extensive search in the 1980’s, the wreckage of the steamboat was found in the middle of a farmer’s field near the river (as the river’s route had changed slightly over the years.) What they found was the largest known collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world.
The rooms of items in this museum which would have been commonplace in an 1850’s general store really transports visitors to this era. The museum discusses the process of how the Arabia was found, how it was excavated, and how the artifacts were (and are being) preserved so they can be seen and enjoyed today.
Plan on spending 2 to 2 and a half hours here. Make sure to turn off your camera’s flash.
Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum
500 W US Hwy 24, Independence, MO 64050
The third completed presidential museum in the NARA system (after Roosevelt and Eisenhower–Hoover’s would come later), the Truman presidential museum is the first in the system that has all of the quintessential facets of what we think about when we consider the modern presidential museums (a replica of Truman’s oval office, Truman’s grave, an introductory video, etc). I would argue it’s the first “modern” Presidential Museum.
As such, the museum is quite well presented for a presidential library–very little bias is presented in the exhibits of the museum, and the president’s life and actions are viewed in a very honest light. Both Truman’s strengths and weaknesses are clearly on display, and the content doesn’t pull any punches. The museum describes a time when partisan politics had not stooped to the level in the country that they are today–though some of the politics that come with the position can be seen subtly and implicitly within some of the exhibits. (Example: An impressive Thomas Hart Benton mural greets visitors upon entering the museum–likely to compete with the murals that encompass visitors upon entering political rival Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential library in Abilene, KS.)
Don’t-miss items in the museum include the Benton murals, the “Dewey Defeats Truman” Newspaper, the Museum’s Norman Rockwell painting, “The Buck Stops Here” sign from atop Truman’s desk, the safety plug from the “Fat Man” atomic bomb used on Nagasaki, and Truman’s grave.
Allow for at least 1 and a half hours at the museum. Note that the museum is temporarily closed, in order for the entire museum to be renovated. The museum is projected to be re-opened in it’s renovated facility in about mid-2020.
Union Station Kansas City
30 W Pershing Rd, Kansas City, MO 64108
Many Midwestern cities have a notable and architecturally relevant union station (Indianapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, etc), and this one is no different. The building functions as a train station today, but its primary purpose is for the history of the building and the museums and exhibits it contains. The grand hall and plaza of the station are breathtakingly beautiful and humongous.
Union Station is heavily decorated during the holidays. Annually, the Holiday Express Train pulls into the station, a train that “brings” Santa to Union Station, and allows visitors to walk through the train. (Strollers are not permitted on the train.)
The time you will spend in union station is entirely dependent on what you plan to do while there. Be sure to allow extra time to get in and out of exhibits around Christmas time.
Kansas City Zoo
6800 Zoo Dr, Kansas City, MO 64132
The Kansas City Zoo isn’t generally on the “top” lists of zoos in the US, but there’s a lot of really great things about it. Highlights of the Zoo include the Polar Bears, Tigers, and the Penguin parade (pictured). The Africa loop is impressive with a huge savannah. Note that the zoo is quite spread out though, so make sure to wear comfortable shoes.
Plan on spending at an absolute minimum of one hour here, if you don’t plan to walk much around the park. For most, the zoo can be properly experienced in less than 4 hours. Plan on an average of 2 hours here.
Thomas Hart Benton Home & Studio State Historic Site
3616 Belleview Ave, Kansas City, MO 64111
Thomas Hart Benton was one of the most notable American artists of the early 20th century. He was a painter and a muralist, and he and his paintings are forever associated with the midwest.
Seeing his home and studio tells a lot about Benton and his legacy. This is a great place to get a deeper, first-person understanding of Benton’s creative process. When arriving at the home & studio, after paying your admission fee, you are given a tour of both the home and studio. The home and studio are a real time capsule of what it was like when Benton lived here. (Benton died here while finishing up his last mural in 1975, and not much of it has been changed since then.)
Allow at least 30 minutes to tour the property. You can park on the street. Be mindful of the neighbors, though–despite this house being a museum, you’re still in a neighborhood–and a very nice one at that.
National Airline History Museum
201 NW Lou Holland Dr, Kansas City, MO 64116
A flying Super-Connie? Really?
Yes, really–this small museum (located at the Downtown Kansas City Airport–not MCI) is home to a few flight-capable aircraft, including a flight-capable Lockheed Super-G Constellation (one of only 2-3 in the world). Of course, I’m a self-proclaimed aviation nerd, so this kind of stuff admittedly means more to me than it means to most.
Most of the stuff in this museum is dedicated to TWA, which was based in Kansas City many years ago. For those who aren’t as crazy about aviation as yours truly, there are other draws to this museum. For example–the interior of the Connie was used in a scene in Ace Ventura 2, and was also in the movie “The Aviator.” Additionally, one of the two replicas of the TWA “moon-liner” is on display here. (The one on display here was previously on TWA’s corporate headquarters building downtown. The other is permanently on display in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, near space mountain. A reproduction of the one on display here sits atop the old TWA building downtown today.
The museum is presented in more of a guided tour format. (The gentleman that gave us our tour was a retired airplane mechanic and was loaded with great information about the items on display, as well as stories from his career.)
Allow at least an hour to visit this museum, though the pacing through the museum will depend on how quickly the tour group goes through the exhibits.
Hallmark Visitors Center / Kaleidoscope
2450 Grand Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64108
Many folks don’t realize that Hallmark Cards is based in Kansas City. For the general public, they have two offerings–the Hallmark Visitors Center and “Kaleidoscope,” which is an interactive art and crafts area.
The Hallmark Visitors Center is a museum detailing the history of Hallmark and offers exhibits about all aspects of the Hallmark brand. In the center, you will see impressive displays of historical materials, complete sets of Hallmark ornaments, an industrial machine that efficiently ties bows, and even a few notable paintings! (Original Andy Warhol and Norman Rockwell paintings were on display, among others.)
Next door to the Visitor center is “Kaleidoscope.” At Kaleidoscope, kids are provided access to the excess and scrap materials from Hallmark’s factory and allow them to create whatever they can dream up in a very unique setting.
When visiting, allow a minimum of 30 minutes to explore the visitor center and 30 minutes to explore Kaleidoscope with your kiddos (though your kid’s attention span may vary).
Country Club Plaza
This neighborhood of multiple retail / mixed-use buildings built in a distinctively Spanish style serves as the place to shop in Kansas City. It’s a fashionable district in a very attractive area of town. Here, you’ll find all of the major retailers you’d see in a normal mall (Apple, Vineyard Vines, Urban Outfitters, Sunglass Hut, etc.) with some more unique, regional offerings peppered in throughout.
The country club plaza is also notable as the location in town where a trend officially took hold of the city which ended up as the city’s official logo and christened the city with the nickname “The City of Fountains.” Go for the shopping–stay for the ambiance.
Where to Eat: Jack Stack BBQ
Along with Texas, St. Louis, Memphis, and the Carolinas, Kansas City is one of the most famous staples of BBQ. While I don’t claim to have sampled every Kansas City BBQ restaurant, Jack Stack gets my pick. The food was delicious, the service has been consistently great, and even the building was memorable. Jack Stack is worth a detour. Also, unlike most BBQ restaurants that I have encountered, this is a full-service restaurant, so make sure you plan accordingly.
Note: On the map above, the “Freight House” location is shown. It is very easy to eat at the Freight House and walk on the pedestrian bridge to Union Station while enjoying panoramic views of the city as well as a birds-eye view of some of the unique trains below.