Kansas City is proof that you don’t need to be on the coast to be cool. A cultural cornerstone of the Midwest, it has enough to entertain travelers for days, from top museums and art galleries to gut-busting barbecue restaurants—more than 100 and counting—that dish up tender meat doused in the city’s signature tangy, molasses-sweetened sauce. Nicknamed the “Paris of the Plains” during the Prohibition era, KC punches well above its weight class and elicits comparisons to cities many times its size. It rivals Rome in its number of fountains; its Country Club Plaza district evokes the architecture of Seville in southern Spain; and while New Orleans might be the birthplace of jazz, KC is where some of the genre’s most famous names got their start. Thanks to the city’s unpretentious attitude and unhurried atmosphere, it’s easy to get into the groove and let Kansas City move you.
When’s the best time to go to Kansas City?
Spring, early summer, and fall are the best times to visit Kansas City, when pleasant temperatures are perfect for sitting on a bar patio or strolling the Plaza. It’s not the crowds you have to avoid here, but the infamous Midwest weather. Hot and sticky summers regularly push the mercury past 100 degrees, and frigid winters bring snow, ice, and poor driving conditions.
How to get around Kansas City
Like many mid-sized U.S. cities, Kansas City sprawls—in this case across two states—making a car essential to getting the most out of your visit. Rent one at Kansas City International Airport (MCI), about 20 miles northwest of downtown. Otherwise, you can grab a taxi or shuttle bus from the airport into the city. Rideshare services, such as Uber and Lyft, also operate to and from the airport and throughout the metro area.
KC Streetcar, opened in 2016, is a handy (and free!) way to explore downtown, with its 10 stations along two miles of Main Street. For shorter trips downtown, hop on an electric scooter or bicycle from the city’s bike-share service, RideKC Bike.
Can’t miss things to do in Kansas City
- The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has a stellar collection of more than 35,000 works, including renowned European paintings and Asian ceramics and furniture. Free to visit, the building is easily identified by the four 19-foot-tall aluminum-and-fiberglass shuttlecock sculptures on its 22-acre lawn. Temporary exhibitions (past ones include Picasso and the relics of ancient Egypt) are worth planning a trip around but require an entry fee and are best booked in advance.
- Kansas City’s excellent National World War I Museum and Memorial is the United States’ official museum dedicated to remembering and understanding the Great War. Here, visitors can browse important artifacts, documents, and interactive displays.
- Designed by famed architect Moshe Safdie, the curiously shell-shaped Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is where the Kansas City Ballet, Kansas City Symphony, and Lyric Opera take to the stage. Secure tickets ahead of time to experience a slice of KC’s classical culture. Afterward, head into the surrounding Crossroads district to continue an art-filled evening at the neighborhood’s many galleries, boutiques, and bars.
- Tap into Kansas City’s still-thriving jazz scene in the Historic Jazz District at 18th and Vine Streets. The Blue Room, inside the American Jazz Museum, puts on weekly jam sessions and big-band nights. Around the corner, the Mutual Musicians Foundation has been hosting late-night music sessions in a former union hall since the 1930s. Performers start after midnight and continue into the wee hours.
- Shoppers flock to the Country Club Plaza, a 15-block outdoor district opened in 1923 and built in Moorish revival style with mosaic tilework and fountains. Luxury brands like Tiffany & Co. and Coach have stores here, but for souvenirs, stop by the Made in KC Marketplace.
Food and drink to try in Kansas City
- Barbecue is a religion in Kansas City. But, as the saying goes, ask two locals for recommendations and you’ll get three answers. Many worship Arthur Bryant’s, where open-faced sandwiches come piled with sauce-drenched burnt ends. Also worth trying is Q39, which draws devotees with its honey-glazed ribs. Consult our Barbecue and Brewery guide for more options.
- Dining out in laid-back Kansas City rarely requires reservations, but if you have your heart set on a specific restaurant, especially if it’s a smaller venue, book at least a day before.
- Kansas City openly flouted Prohibition in the 1920s, when political boss Tom Pendergast controlled the police and opened a pipeline for Al Capone to deliver bootleg hooch to the city’s bars. Today, KC’s drinking scene still includes historic speakeasies and bars that nod to the city’s notorious past, such as Tom’s Town Distilling Company.
- Along with great cocktail bars, KC has an ever-growing list of renowned craft breweries. Boulevard Brewing Company was first on the scene in the 1980s, creating pale ales and wheat beers with equipment from a shuttered brewery in Germany, but now it’s all about newer, smaller breweries like Casual Animal, Double Shift, and Torn Label.
Culture in Kansas City
Kansas City is filled with diehard sports fans who back the local teams through thick and thin. Join the bandwagon and catch a Chiefs (football) or Royals (baseball) game during your visit. KC is also a great place for live music, from intimate shows at Westport bars to major concerts at the T-Mobile Center downtown. For even more culture, check out the city’s several impressive art galleries or important museums that spotlight untold stories, such as the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Local travel tips for Kansas City
- Dorothy and Toto aside, tornado season in Kansas City is no joke. The most severe weather usually occurs between April and June and can have lethal results. Know where the tornado shelter is located at your accommodations, and follow the National Weather Service in Kansas City on Twitter for breaking updates.
- State Line Road and the Missouri River split KCMO (Kansas City, Missouri, pronounced “K-C-moe”) from KCK (Kansas City, Kansas). Much of what lures travelers to KC is on the Missouri side, but going to Kansas is as simple as crossing the street.
Essentials by Kansas City–based travel writer and editor Lauren Keith (@noplacelike_it). Required Eating by travel writer Caitlin Morton (@caitlinmorton23). Best Things to Do by food and travel writer Jill Dutton (@usabyrail). Best Hotels by wellness and travel journalist Tonya Russell. Barbecue and brewery coverage by Kansas City–based travel/food writer and author Pete Dulin. Ask a Local by travel and lifestyle journalist Lola Méndez (@lolaannamendez). Best Museums by New York–based freelance writer and editor Ann Shields (@aegisnyc), who is the cranky product of two charming Midwestern parents.