You know about the barbecue. You know about the sports teams. But what you might not know about Kansas City is just how cool it really is. Straddling the state line between Kansas and Missouri (you’ll mostly stick to the Missouri side), this Midwestern hub is an eclectic mix of artsy neighborhoods, boutique hotels, jazz clubs, and delicious restaurants that serve way more than brisket and burnt ends—although you’ll want to try those, too. There are breweries to sample, museums to tour, and used bookstores you can easily spend hours in. In other words, KCMO is much more than a drive-by city. Plan a trip here—the locals will welcome you with open arms—and learn the true meaning of “Midwest is best.”
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What to do in Kansas City
To ease into your Kansas City itinerary, head to the Country Club Plaza (about a 15-minute drive south of downtown) for some of the best shopping, dining, and architecture in the city. While you can find tons of high-end brand names here, the experience is more about walking through essentially a fancy outdoor mall, stopping to admire the fountains and mosaics along the way. (If you can visit around the end of November through December, you can see the Plaza decked out in twinkling lights, which is a local favorite.) The Plaza area also houses two of the city’s best museums. First up is The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (bonus: admission is free), which has a massive collection of art from all continents, plus a rotation of excellent exhibits. Just down the road, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art is a more intimate collection of modern sculptures, paintings, films, and installations—you’ll know it from the four-story spider statue out front.
Heading into the heart of the city, stop by a few other cultural institutions, starting with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, where you can take a self-guided tour of the history of African-American baseball. Located in the same building, the American Jazz Museum is a great way to learn about the genre’s association with the city before catching a live show later in the night. While we’re on the subject, Green Lady Lounge is arguably the best place to catch live jazz in the city, with red velvet walls and a basement dimly lit by golden chandeliers. It feels more like a 1920s speakeasy than a modern bar in a buzzing city. Or, for a nightlife activity that doesn’t involve a stand-up bass, head to Hamburger Mary’s for drag bingo every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evening at 7 p.m., and Saturdays at 4 p.m. It’s easily the most fabulous way to spend an evening, and the proceeds go directly to Kansas City charities.
Back to daylight activities: While you’re downtown, set aside a couple hours to visit Boulevard Brewing Company, one of the largest breweries in the Midwest. You can take a 45-minute tour to learn about the company’s brewing process, which ends with free beer (that’s really why you’re here, right?). If you’re lucky, you might get to catch one of Boulevard’s live concerts or block parties that they’re known to throw.
By this point, you probably need to slow down a little, which is the perfect opportunity to check out some of Kansas City’s coziest, trendiest coffee shops. In the Plaza-Westport area, head straight to Oddly Correct for solid pour-overs, or Monarch Coffee for Instagrammable latte art and espresso cream soda. In the artsy Crossroads District, Messenger Coffee is a three-story cafe and bakery where locals come to mingle or work on their laptops. And The Roasterie is one of Kansas City’s OG roasters, with a few locations downtown and in the surrounding suburbs. Grab a cup to go, and sip it on your way to Prospero’s Books, the perfect place to wind down after a caffeine fix. The used bookstore has 50,000 titles spread across three floors, with a cafe that hosts live events from book readings to art shows.
What to eat
Let’s start with barbecue. You probably won’t get the same answer from two different locals as to the greatest BBQ joint in town, but most people agree that Joe’s Kansas City Barbecue is one of the best. Go to the original outpost on 47th street, which is housed in an actual functioning gas station. The line will be out the door, but it’s worth it for the smoky ribs, crispy fries, and signature dishes like the Z-Man sandwich: sliced smoked brisket, smoked provolone cheese, onion rings, and barbecue sauce, all on a Kaiser roll. A relative newcomer to the BBQ scene, Q39 has already imprinted itself as a real contender. More like a restaurant that happens to serve barbecue, Q39 offers the regulars like chipotle sausage and burnt ends, but also dishes like brisket poutine and pork belly BLTs. The original midtown location is always packed, but you might have more luck snagging a table at the Overland Park location.
Aside from barbecue, Kansas City is known for a few other culinary staples—including tacos and cinnamon rolls (not at the same time). There is at least one beloved taco joint in pretty much every neighborhood, and you almost can’t go wrong. But for a sure thing, go to El Pollo Rey for a filling lunch or dinner. The KCK spot really only serves one thing—chicken—but they do it really, really well. The birds are cooked over live fire, and you can order either a half ($8) or whole ($14), both of which come with tortillas and a little cup of salsa so you can have DIY smoked chicken tacos. El Camino Real is a bare-bones eatery serving up cheap, but delicious, tacos on homemade corn tortillas; the al pastor tacos are a favorite. As for cinnamon rolls, The Corner Cafe is usually regarded as having the best in town, although Dolce Bakery, Rye, and Donutology are strong contenders.
For something more upscale, try to score a table at the Corvino Supper Club & Tasting Room in the Crossroads District. The restaurant offers two concepts: the 70-seat main dining room that serves up shareable plates, and the 18-seat tasting room with ten courses cooked and delivered with theatrical flair. Chef Michael Corvino was nominated for a James Beard Award in 2020 thanks to his New American dishes like buckwheat dumplings with caviar and goat milk sherbet with bee pollen. The Stilwell, the Loews Kansas City Hotel’s in-house restaurant, is brand new (it opened in March 2021), but is sure to make several “best of” lists in the years to come. Chef Patrick LeBeau created a menu of elevated Midwest fare, like shrimp and grits with pulled pork, prosciutto biscuits with blue cheese butter, and what is already some of the best fried chicken in the city.
Where to stay
Most of Kansas City’s best hotels are located downtown, some within a few blocks of each other. One of the newest additions to the hotel scene is Hotel Kansas City (rooms from $169), which opened in October 2020. Housed in a former social club once frequented by Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 144-room building is compact but gorgeous, with a Gothic-style lobby, rooms with black bathroom walls, and rose gold accents everywhere. It feels more like a New York hotel than a typical Kansas City stay—and not just because the bathrooms are tiny. The elegant touches and views of the Power and Light District feel old-school metropolitan.
Another relative newcomer and neighbor to Hotel Kansas City, Loews Kansas City Hotel (rooms from $199) is a sprawling, 800-room complex with several ballrooms and a covered walkway to the adjacent conference center. Despite its size and business connections, the hotel still manages to feel intimate and exclusive, thanks to thoughtful touches like local Kansas City artwork adorning the public spaces, a lobby bar serving up local spirits, and guest rooms featuring floor-to-ceiling windows and practically every amenity. The bedroom carpets printed with flight patterns from Kansas City International Airport are another lovely touch.
If you’re looking for a more unique stay, head to 21c Museum Hotel (rooms from $135) in the Library District. Like the other hotels under the 21c umbrella, this outpost boasts a massive art collection that makes you feel like you’re spending the night in a secret museum. You also have the benefit of sleeping next to one of the city’s best restaurants, The Savoy at 21c, which serves up modern Midwest dishes like next-level smash burgers and chicken from Missouri’s Campo Lindo Farms. Over in the Crossroads District, The Crossroads Hotel (rooms from $143) is as Kansas City as it gets. Housed in a former Pabst Blue Ribbon distribution plant, the hotel features an industrial-looking atrium, exposed-brick rooms, and one of the best rooftop bars in the city.
If you want to stick more to the Plaza area south of downtown, you can’t do better than The Fontaine (rooms from $149), located smack dab next to all the best shops and restaurants. You can taste the luxury as soon as you walk into the lobby, which is adorned with crystal chandeliers and Renaissance paintings yet doesn’t feel stuffy. Guest rooms are roomy (and the suites are massive), while the rooftop restaurant and breakfast solarium afford great views of the surrounding Plaza architecture.
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