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The 8 Best Things to Do in Kansas City

By Jill Dutton

May 25, 2021

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The National WWI Museum is the only American museum exclusively dedicated to remembering the Great War and its impact.

Courtesy of National WWI Museum and Memorial

The National WWI Museum is the only American museum exclusively dedicated to remembering the Great War and its impact.

From historic architecture and major museums to exciting shopping, street art, and spirits, KC has much to offer beyond its signature sauce.

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Think of Kansas City and barbecue and blues may come to mind, but there’s so much more in this Cowtown-come-arts-destination than smoked meat and music. 

From world-class museums and galleries to impressive theater, dance, and opera, the cultural offerings here are on par with much larger cities. And for those who prefer sports to the symphony, there are the Kansas City Royals and Chiefs. Win or lose, both teams bring much excitement and hometown pride to the city. 

Whether you’ve come to shop the famous Country Club Plaza, see some powerful murals, or experience the city’s vibrant distillery scene, you can expect to be surprised by the City of Fountains. Read on for eight of the best things to do in Kansas City. 

One of KC’s most famous fountains, Mill Creek Fountain was actually built in Paris.

1. Go fountain hopping around town

The City of Fountains Foundation wasn’t founded until 1973, but Kansas City’s love affair with fountains started much earlier. A vision by city leaders in the late 1800s to create “more boulevards than Paris, more fountains than Rome” led to the first few, which were used primarily as watering holes for both residents and animals. As time went on, however, fountains were installed more as memorials or for beautification of the city and, today, KC is home to more than 200, 48 of which are open to the public.

The city’s oldest working fountain, the Women’s Leadership Fountain in the Paseo West neighborhood, dates back to 1899. More celebrated examples appear in the Country Club Plaza shopping center and green spaces like Kessler Park. For a fun day of fountain hopping, start at the city’s most recognizable—and most photographed—one, the Mill Creek Fountain. Built in Paris in 1910, it was brought to Kansas City in 1951 and installed in its namesake park.

Afterward, head to Union Station to see the towering spouts of the Henry Wollmach Bloch Fountain, which features 232 water jets, then carry on to the Crown Center Square Fountain, where children dance in sprays choreographed to recorded performances by the Kansas City Symphony. End your exploration at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to view the Fountain Basin; the oldest fountain with a marble bowl, it dates back to 220 C.E. and was purchased from Italy.

Learn all about the Great War and how it changed America forever at the National World War I Museum.

2. Visit one of several world-class museums

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For a mid-size city, KC has several exceptional museums. Visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to see the giant shuttlecock sculptures on the front lawn as well as robust Asian art, ceramic, photography, and centuries-old furniture collections, or spend the day at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, the only American museum exclusively dedicated to remembering, interpreting, and understanding the Great War and its enduring impact. Other popular institutions include the American Jazz Museum in the 18th & Vine Historic Jazz District and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which works to preserve and celebrate the rich history of African American baseball and its impact on the social advancement of America. 

Country Club Plaza is known for its Spanish-inspired architecture and excellent shopping.

3. Shop at Country Club Plaza

Kansas City’s premier shopping center, Country Club Plaza is the place to be, whether during the holidays for the Plaza Lighting Ceremony, over the summer for a gondola ride along Brush Creek, or come fall when it hosts the Plaza Art Fair. The 15-block destination, filled with Spanish-inspired architecture, is also an appealing place to shop any time of year. Here, you’ll find high-end stores like Michael Kors, Tiffany & Co., and Charlie Hustle, as well as singular boutiques and spots like Made in Kansas City, where you can pick up locally made items like hats, candles, and drinkware. 

For some of KC’s most exciting art, take to the streets to check out all the murals.

4. Tour Kansas City’s many murals 

Kansas City may be home to some of the Midwest’s top museums and galleries, but much of the city’s most exciting art is found on the streets. Start your tour in the 18th and Vine District to view murals that celebrate Kansas City’s jazz history, then head to the corner of West 43rd Street and Westport Road to see a new painting of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Finish at East 17th and Main Streets, where, on the side of Tom’s Town Distilling, you’ll find the Chiefs Kingdom Mural honoring the city’s championship football team.

One of Kansas City’s originally distilleries, J. Rieger and Co. offers tours, tastings, and a stylish cocktail bar.

5. Visit a distilllery and get a taste of KC cocktail culture

Thanks in part to corrupt political boss Tom Pendergast, Kansas City maintained a thriving drinking scene during Prohibition. Bootlegging flourished and the city was full of speakeasies, gambling dens, and even a red-light district, earning it the nickname “the Paris of the Plains.” 

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This devotion to good drinks remains today, evidenced by several top-notch distilleries around town. Founded in 1887, J. Rieger & Co. produced more than 100 alcoholic products before being forced to close in 1919 with the advent of Prohibition. Ninety-five years later, it reopened in its original location in the Electric Park district of the East Bottoms and now distills whiskey, dry gin, wheat vodka, and other spirited products. Open to visitors Wednesdays through Sundays, it also offers facility tours, spirit tastings, and the Monogram Lounge, where you can sip cocktails overlooking the distillery production floor.  

Other KC distilleries worth visiting include Mean Mule Distilling Co., which makes American agave spirits; Tom’s Town Distilling Company, named for Pendergast and home to award-winning gin, vodka, and bourbon; and Lifted Spirits Distillery, which produces boldly flavored spirits like green absinthe. 

Just north of River Market, Berkley Park offers beautiful views across the Missouri River.

6. Explore the historic River Market area

While Kansas City’s River Market neighborhood is primarily known for its weekend farmers’ market, it’s more than just a place to buy fruits and vegetables. After shopping for produce, plants, and locally made trinkets at City Market, browse the surrounding stores (don’t miss Carollo’s Italian Grocery and Deli, with its homemade sausage, fresh cheese, and olive oil stored in barrels), then take a stroll to Berkley Park and enjoy the views over the Missouri River.

For a window into the past, swing by the old-timey Planters Seed & Spice Co. before hitting the Arabia Steamboat Museum, where you’ll find an impressive collection of pre–Civil War artifacts. Later, refuel with a cappuccino at City Market Coffee or a sandwich at Pigwich, located within the Local Pig butchery. 

Full of flowers, fountains, and sculptures, the Kauffman Memorial Garden is a lovely place to spend an afternoon.

7. Smell the flowers at the Ewing and Muriel Kauffman Memorial Garden

A gift to Kansas City from pharmaceutical entrepreneur Ewing Kauffman and his wife Muriel, this two-acre garden is a gorgeous place to visit. The couple designed the garden to mimic parks throughout Europe, pairing colorful perennial beds and many unique trees with stone walls, brick walkways, fountains, and bronze sculptures by Tom Corbin. Parking and admission are free, though visitors can also book prearranged tours to more thoroughly explore the grounds. 

Union Station is far more than a transportation hub, with restaurants, a theater, a science center, and more.

8. Shop, eat, and be entertained at historic Union Station

Built in 1914, this architectural gem served as a working railway station until the 1980s, when it closed after years of neglect. In 1999, however, it reopened after a historic renovation that removed more than 10 million pounds of debris and restored the building to its original glory—all 850,000 square feet of it. Today, Union Station still serves Amtrak trains, but it also houses classic restaurants like Pierpont’s and Harvey’s, live entertainment at City Stage Theatre, a planetarium, a science center, and more. While visiting, be sure to also check out the massive chandeliers, 95-foot ceiling, and six-foot-wide-clock in the Grand Hall. 

>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Kansas City

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