Kansas City means jazz, barbecue, dazzling fountains and greeting cards. Split between Kansas and Missouri, Kansas City embraces a host of small communities within its metro area—each with its own character, history and appeal. Kansas City also has a raucous nightlife that spawned many of the legendary jazz artists of the 20th century.
Kansas City is more complex and interesting than you might expect at first glance. It boasts one of the finest museums between Chicago and California in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, as well as a few unique museums that highlight events or periods in U.S. history. The city's multitude of fountains adds to its cosmopolitan character, as do the clubs and shops of Westport, the Crossroads Arts District and Country Club Plaza. And happily, the syncopated rhythms of jazz continue to drive the city and provide an enjoyable link to its past.
Kansas City sprouted on the southern bank of the Missouri River, but the city now extends in all directions, including across the Kansas-Missouri border. The metro area includes the outer Kansas communities of Lenexa, Overland Park, Shawnee and Olathe, as well as the Missouri towns of Gladstone, North Kansas City, Liberty, Independence and Parkville.
Visitors will find the majority of attractions on the Missouri side of the city, which lies on the east side of State Line Road. Some of the newer family-friendly attractions lie on the Kansas side of the city.
East-west streets are numbered, with the numbers increasing as you travel south from the river. The River Market/City Market area is sandwiched between Interstate 70 and the Missouri River (Second-Fifth streets). Just south of that and I-70 is the downtown area, with its art-deco skyscrapers and brick warehouses (Sixth-20th streets).
The downtown Power & Light District embraces an eight-block area south of 13th Street, while the Crossroads Arts District begins at about 18th Street and runs to 22nd Street. A little east of downtown is the historic 18th and Vine District, birthplace of the city's jazz scene.
South of downtown is the trendy Westport area, home to some of the oldest buildings in the city and a thriving nightlife scene. It falls roughly between 40th and 43rd streets along Westport Road. Country Club Plaza, an upscale shopping and entertainment district that opened in 1922 as the nation's first suburban shopping center, is approximately bordered by 47th Street on the north and Brush Creek (a well-lit walking area with fountains and waterfalls) on the south.
Continuing south, the neighborhood south of the University of Missouri at Kansas City is known as Brookside, a leafy area that extends through the streets numbered in the 50s and 60s. Still farther south is the Waldo District.
Kansas suburbs such as Shawnee, Olathe and Overland Park form the eastern and southern periphery of the metropolitan area.
Long before European settlers arrived, the Osage, Kansa and Wyandot tribes shared the bluffs where the Kansas and Missouri rivers merge. In the early 1800s, trappers and traders established a settlement on the southern bank of the Missouri that would later become known as Kansas City. A supply post was built next to the trappers' settlement, while nearby communities named Independence and Westport became starting points for travelers heading west on the Oregon and Santa Fe trails.
The Battle of Westport was an important victory for the Union in the Civil War, effectively ending the Confederate campaign west of the Mississippi River. In the decades following the war, the town—now known as Kansas City—grew quickly as railroads and westward expansion brought more people to the area. It was during this period that the city became the nation's cattle-trading center, forming its reputation as a cow town.
Contrary to most of the country, Kansas City continued to develop through the Great Depression, led by its strong-armed political powerhouse "Boss" Thomas Pendergast. Many of the art-deco buildings that populate downtown were built in the 1920s and 1930s. Despite Prohibition, nightclubs flourished under Pendergast, and with them, Kansas City jazz. The 18th and Vine District became a hotbed for black musicians, including Count Basie and Charlie Parker.
A 1951 flood devastated the city, but the downtown area was revitalized in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The construction of interstate highways spurred housing developments, office parks and shopping districts in the smaller communities around Kansas City.
The city has continued to administer periodic face-lifts in the years since, most notably to the 18th and Vine District in the 1990s and the Power and Light Entertainment District in 2007.
Kansas City bid goodbye to a significant part of its history when it closed its enormous stockyards in 1991, and the decision produced a symbolic shift in the city's economy. Today, the former cow town boasts an expanding telecommunications industry as well as growth in tourism, banking, finance and the service industries. The city has undergone an extensive construction boom that includes renovations of Kansas City International Airport, the Convention Center and the establishment of a downtown entertainment district, arena, performing-arts center and major outdoor shopping centers in the northern reaches of Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas.
Kansas City has a nice mix of historical sites, cultural museums and pleasant public spaces. One of the best places to start a tour of the city is the 18th and Vine Historic District. This old African-American neighborhood was a hotbed of jazz players in the first half of the 20th century—a legacy that is chronicled in places such as the American Jazz Museum. The adjacent Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is a shining point of the community.
About 30 blocks southwest of 18th and Vine is the Country Club Plaza area. A pair of art museums lies just east of the Plaza: the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, renowned for its outstanding collection of Asian and modern art, and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, with notable works by emerging and established modern and contemporary artists.
Other museums in Kansas City worth visiting include the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial, the country's only national museum outside of Washington D.C. The Thomas Hart Benton Home offers insight into the life of the famous painter (a Kansas City native). Anyone interested in riverboat history should check out the remains of the Arabia, a cargo steamboat that sank in the 1850s. The ship's contents, bound for pioneers out west, were recovered in 1989 and became the focus of a museum in the City Market area.
There's more history on display in Independence, a suburb just east of Kansas City that was the home of 33rd U.S. President Harry S. Truman. The Truman Library and Museum and the former president's home pay homage to one of Missouri's favorite sons. Another lovely place east of the city is Powell Gardens, a large botanical garden with picturesque waterfalls.
On the Kansas side, suburban attractions relating to the area's history include Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop, the only preserved stop on the Santa Fe trail open to visitors, and the Johnson County Museum of History, which describes the growth of suburbia after World War II.
You'll need a car to get to most of these sites, but you won't have to get out of the vehicle to see the stately residences that line Ward Parkway. There are more mansions just off the parkway in the area called Mission Hills, home to many local celebrities and sports stars. Finally, Kansas City boasts that it has more than 200 fountains. You'll undoubtedly encounter several as you explore the city—we especially like the Kansas City Children's Fountain, J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain at Country Club Plaza and the Henry Bloch Fountain at Union Station.
Because Kansas City was a breeding ground for jazz in the 1920s through the 1940s, nurturing legendary players Charlie Parker and Count Basie among others, the 18th and Vine District is a must for aficionados. Though no longer the heart and soul of the jazz scene (no single area of town has a lock on the jazz scene anymore), Kansas City has reached back to its roots to make certain there are still many opportunities to hear excellent live jazz at many locations throughout the city. Some of the more traditional include the Blue Room and the Gem Theater.
The Power & Light District is downtown's dynamic entertainment destination, in an area packed with restaurants, clubs, lounges, and live-music venues that attract young professionals and business people who work downtown. Westport tends to be the destination for the college and post-college crowd looking to drink, dance and mingle. With its older buildings and classic apartments, it has its finger on the pulse of the younger generation. The area, particularly the intersection of Westport and Pennsylvania, can get pretty raucous. On busy weekends, police block off streets and food vendors set up camp on the curbs. The Plaza draws an older, more professional crowd. Most bars open their doors as early as 11 am. A number of places stay open until 3 am.
The title of the cookbook published by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (Barbecue...It's Not Just For Breakfast Anymore
) gives visitors some idea of what to expect when surveying the town's restaurant options. This is foremost a meat town, with more than 100 barbecue joints ready to serve up a carne-copia of delights for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The most famous is Arthur Bryant's, though Gates is not far behind. Both are no-frills, down-to-earth eateries that specialize in ribs, brisket and burnt ends. Or, if you fancy a classic cut of sirloin served in a historic Kansas City landmark, you can head to either the downtown Majestic or Plaza III in Country Club Plaza.
The city's love affair with meats does not come at the expense of other cuisines. Far from it. If you're in the mood for Mexican or Spanish, head to Southwest Boulevard (known to residents simply as "the boulevard"), where there are at least a dozen Mexican restaurants, plus La Bodega, which offers tapas and terrific sangria.
A variety of hip restaurants are clustered around 39th Street and State Line Road, including the Blue Koi and d'Bronx deli, which bakes the best pizza in town. The Westport area has more bars than restaurants, but its Corner Restaurant is great for breakfast. The Plaza area offers dozens of restaurants, though they tend to be a little more expensive than those around 39th Street or in Westport.
For contemporary American cuisine, good bets are museum cafes and the trendy Crossroads Arts District. One of the city's best Asian eateries, Bo Ling, is farther off the beaten path but definitely worth seeking out.
Most restaurants serve meals at the following times: 7-10 am for breakfast, 11 am-2 pm for lunch and 6-9 pm for dinner.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for dinner for one, not including tax, tip or drinks: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$25; $$$ = US$26-$40; $$$$ = more than US$40.
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