There's No Place Like Kansas City

This Midwestern town is sizzling.
By Melanie Radzicki McManus / Photography: Douglas Merriam

May 2006

Kansas City came of age during America's westward expansion and rose to prominence as a meatpacking center. But today in this leafy Midwestern city, which straddles both Kansas and Missouri, you'll find the world's finest jazz and barbecue, stunning art deco and Mediterranean-inspired architecture, and more than 200 ornate fountains. And that's just the beginning.

Drop in now, when the 70- or 80-degree temps are ideal. And don't fret about crowds; although the metro area approaches two million, there's plenty of room to roam. Jump-start your planning with the following three-day itinerary, which takes you from one end of the city to the other-with plenty of time to enjoy the sights, sounds, and tastes of this heartland metropolis.

Day One: Cruising the Central City

Begin your exploration in the historic 18th and Vine Jazz District, where jazz legends Charlie Parker, Count Basie, and Big Joe Turner once jammed. At the American Jazz Museum (816-474-8463, www.americanjazzmuseum.com), you can see a bronze sequined sheath Ella Fitzgerald wore as she belted out the blues, listen to more than 100 jazz recordings, and tinker with rhythms on studio equipment. The museum's Blue Room, a popular smoke-free jazz club, is open four nights a week.

Just across the lobby from the jazz museum is the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (816-221-1920, www.nlbm.com), which showcases the history of the leagues through a wealth of memorabilia and a re-created field featuring 12 life-size bronze sculptures of league legends. If you're lucky, you'll run into famed player John "Buck" O'Neil, 94; the Kansas City resident and museum chairperson stops in regularly.

When it's time for lunch, stroll down to the original Arthur Bryant's (816-231-1123; www.arthurbryantsbbq.com), a favorite barbecue joint. The place looks like a bit of a dive, but you'll need to arrive before noon to avoid a line that snakes out the door. Try the burnt ends, a local favorite consisting of the blackened portions of lean beef brisket slow-smoked with a combination of hickory and oak woods, then slathered with the restaurant's spicy sauce and served over white bread.

Walk off lunch with a stroll through the city's Crossroads Arts District (816-472-5701, www.kccrossroads.org). This mile-square swath south of downtown, once full of abandoned buildings, is now home to more than 60 art galleries, one-of-a-kind boutiques, and top-notch restaurants, such as Webster House (816-221-4713), a 19th-century school now housing an antiques shop. On the first Friday of every month, most galleries and shops stay open past dark as the streets fill with performers, concessionaires, and shoppers.

Before dinner, pop into Union Station (816-460-2020, www.unionstation.org), once the third-largest train station in the nation. Recently renovated, it's filled with theaters, restaurants, and a science center. Afterward, head to frequent Cooking Light contributor Lidia Bastianich's restaurant, Lidia's Kansas City (816-221-3722, www.lidiasitaly.com), behind the station. If you're hungry enough, order the daily "pasta tasting," an all-you-can-eat spree through three freshly made pasta dishes.

If you visit this summer, toss a blanket on the grass in Southmoreland Park after dinner and catch a free play. The city's four-week Heart of America Shakespeare Festival (816-531-7728, www.kcshakes.org) runs nightly (except Mondays) June 20th through July 16th.

Day Two: Strolling the Market and the Plaza

Lace up your walking shoes, and head for the City Market (816-842-1271, www.kc-citymarket.com), five blocks from the banks of the Missouri River. An eclectic mix of international shops and restaurants borders a four-block plot, peddling everything from local wildflower honey to Yucatan ceramics. On Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, more than 120 vendors crowd the center of the square, offering the season's freshest fruits, vegetables, and herbs. At night, the area hosts a thriving social scene.

You may also want to tour the Arabia Steamboat Museum (816-471-1856, www.1856.com), which houses more than 100 tons of pristine 1856 merchandise recovered from the Arabia's sunken remains in the nearby river. You can watch as workers continue the meticulous cleaning and preservation process used on the remaining cargo yet to be displayed.

For lunch, duck into Blue Bird Bistro (816-221-7559). The unassuming café is located in a brightly painted 1890s building where vegetarians have plenty of choices, such as the green curry ladled over jasmine rice and garnished with fresh tomato.

Afterward, visit the historic Country Club Plaza (816-753-0100, www.countryclubplaza.com), America's first suburban shopping center. The 14-block plaza was created in 1922 and modeled after Spain's marketplaces. Today, it contains nearly 200 stores and restaurants, plus more than one million dollars in outdoor artwork and sculpture. Grab an art and architecture guide at the customer service office, and keep your eyes peeled for Giralda Tower, a small-scale replica of a famous 300-year-old Seville landmark, and its three graceful mermaids, which frolic in a ceramic-tile-lined pool. As you stroll the plaza, take notice of the dozen or so ceramic heads topping the apartment building on Summit and 48th. The pieces are self-portrait busts created by past students of the Kansas City Art Institute that the building's owner mischievously impaled atop his building.

For dinner try the Grand Street Café (816-561-8000, www.grandstreetcafe.com), and enjoy the Maryland blue crab cakes served with tomato salad, followed by the popular grilled pork chop marinated in olive oil, onions, and fresh herbs from the restaurant's own garden. Then catch some tunes at cozy Jardine's (816-561-6480, www.jardines4jazz.com), one of only a handful of Kansas City's 20 or so jazz clubs that have live music seven nights a week.

Day Three: In Search of Artwork and Fountains

Start the day with a jog or bike ride along the Harry Wiggins Trolley Track Trail (816-346-0200), which winds through scenic southern sections of the city and the University of Missouri. Grab a latte and a chocolate-filled croissant at Aixois (816-333-3305, www.aixois.com), with outdoor seating adjacent to the northern trailhead, then head for The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (816-751-1278, www.nelson-atkins.org), considered one of America's finest art museums. Though a $200 million expansion is underway, you can still view the facility's renowned collection of Asian art and European paintings. Admission is free, and the museum is closed on Mondays.

The Nelson-Atkins is also home to Rozzelle Court (816-751-1278, www.nelson-atkins.org), an open-air courtyard restaurant featuring columned arches, cloistered walkways, and an 1,800-year-old fountain imported from Rome.

After lunch, tour the neighboring Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (816-753-5784, www.kemperart.org). The small museum boasts works from Dale Chihuly, Andy Warhol, and Franz Kline. Don't miss walking among the bronze legs of the giant Spider sculpture or the feet of the Crying Giant, both on the front lawn.

At this point in your visit, you'll have noticed a lot of fountains in Kansas City. In fact, it is home to more fountains than any city in the world except Rome. And as the number of fountains has proliferated, it's become an unwritten rule that new commercial buildings incorporate a fountain into their designs. You can learn more by obtaining a fountain walking tour brochure from the Country Club Plaza's customer service center. Many of the city's fountains are clustered in the Plaza, including the landmark J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain.

Top off your visit the way many residents welcome the weekend: with a pint of brew on the rooftop deck of O'Dowd's Little Dublin (816-561-2700, www.odowdslittledublin.com), where people-watching is premium.

Where to Stay

Most of the best lodging can be found in the Country Club Plaza or downtown area, including the following:

Hotel Phillips (800-433-1426, www.hotelphillips.com; $109 to $229), adjacent to the new entertainment district, is one of the city's top boutique hotels. The recently renovated art deco landmark was built in 1931.

The Intercontinental Kansas City at the Plaza (866-856-9717, www.intercontinental.com; $219 to $289) offers a bed-and-breakfast package, starting at $169, which includes accommodations and a full breakfast for two.

Melanie Radzicki McManus, a travel writer, lives in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.