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9 Unmistakable Ways Kansas City Culture Defines the New Midwest

Sponsored by Visit Kansas City

Aug 4, 2021

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Kansas City’s renowned music scene, independent restaurants, and innovative urban planning make it the vibrant “Heart of America” and an exhilarating travel destination.

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What better way to liven up your life than in a city known for its culture-defining spirit? Getting out there and soaking up Kansas City’s cultural enrichment and excitement is exactly the trip you need to engage all your senses. You’ll learn how this diverse and inclusive community exemplifies the New Midwest, pulsing to its own beat.

Founded as a river trading post in 1838, Missouri’s largest city hit its stride during the Roaring 20s. The decade helped distinguish it as a hub for innovation, creativity, and freethinking. A hotbed for rising jazz stars, impressive sports victories, and chic fashion designers like Nell Donnelly, it was a place where many bucked the trends of Prohibition. The booze flowed freely at notorious basement speakeasies like the Pompeii Café, where revelers danced the risqué Charleston and Cootie Crawl. Good times rolled, balanced by social activists, serious filmmakers, and advances in transportation and agriculture.

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Today, it retains that exuberance but with a modern edge. Among more boulevards than any other city outside of Paris (earning it the nickname “the Paris of the Plains”) and a landmark park system, you can sample the region’s celebrated barbecue and enjoy live music—both thriving scenes informed by the city’s rich cultural legacy. This heady mix of past and present, whether fueling up with new-school pour-overs at Messenger Coffee Co. or sipping old-school bourbon at the oldest distillery west of the Mississippi River, offers travelers the kind of perspective-shifting experiences that truly “make” a trip. Read on for more of our picks that will enlighten your palate and your mind alike in Kansas City.

Green Lady Lounge

Jazz up an evening

During the Jazz Age, Kansas City launched the musical careers of legends like Count Basie, Joe Turner, and the city’s own Charlie Parker. The action was centered in jazz clubs around 12th Street and 18th & Vine, a historic district that contributed to UNESCO designating KC as a “City of Music” in 2018 (it’s the only one in the U.S.). The melodies continue today.

Stay at a Crossroads

Situated in the Crossroads Arts District, the Crossroads Hotel showcases beautifully designed interiors in an area known for its proliferation of art galleries, James Beard Award-winning chefs, and innovative restaurants. During rooftop season, take in the view from Percheron, a lively beer garden area also serving cocktails. Follow the colorful mural trail and stroll through galleries and pop-ups in the monthly First Friday walks.

National WWI Museum and Memorial

Time-travel back to the Great War

A major point of pride for Kansas Citians (and another spot for soaking up a great view or the occasional alfresco jazz concert) is the prestigious National WWI Museum and Memorial. Along with beautiful grounds, the Liberty Memorial, and a comprehensive collection of war artifacts, it sheds new light on the “war to end all wars” through a newly opened immersive VR experience titled “War Remains.” Told from a soldier’s POV, it transports viewers back to the Western Front for a thought-provoking look back at the history of conflict that’s still relevant today. 

Dig into delish eats beyond barbecue…

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It’s hard not to crave the smoky flavors of the city’s signature barbecue style—credited back to Black chef Henry Perry. But expand your culinary horizons at the River Market. This historic marketplace near the Missouri River dishes up globe-trotting flavors, from Brazilian burgers to Vietnamese pho. And you can get a digital passport to explore 27 area breweries with the KC Tap Tour offering a season- or three-day pass.

…or try a punk-rock take on grilling

The KC BBQ Experience is definitely worthy of its own app and bragging rights. Today, young chefs are giving barbecue their own edgy riff. In the case of chef Vaughn Good, a post-punk doom metal song inspired the name of his ever-popular popup Night Goat Barbecue at Fox and Pearl. The menu changes weekly and features pasture-raised meats that are trimmed and slow-cooked in house, amping up the flavor decibels.

Salute Black baseball players

Take a self-guided tour at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, spotlighting the sports stars of the leagues, which played from the end of the Civil War until the 1960s. It offers a timeline linking moments in the league to turning points in U.S. history.

Boulevard Brewing Co.

Find new purposes in repurposed buildings

The city’s small businesses and landlords were ahead of their time in repurposing historic buildings. A former laundry for the Santa Fe Railroad became the popular Boulevard Brewing Co., where grabbing a beer is still an essential rite of passage. 

Explore stories with fresh appeal

The Central branch of the Kansas City Public Library is a literal vault of local lore housed in a former bank, and the Hotel Kansas City inhabits the old Kansas City Club, a social gathering place first established in 1882. Reopened in 2020, it’s now one of the city’s many impressive boutique hotels.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Delve into a fount of urban architecture

Among the many working fountains around the city—numbering upwards of 200—the Fountain Basin in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s Rozelle Court was purchased in 1931, but dates back to 220 A.D. Historically, fountains were first installed to provide drinking water for horses and other animals in the late 1800s, but their practical purpose was soon eclipsed by becoming works of art and a long-running tradition that gave KC the moniker “City of Fountains.”

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