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Kansas City Union Station
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Jim Nix

The best things to do in Downtown Kansas City

Downtown Kansas City is drawing a spotlight on the Midwest with an eclectic combination of arts, culture, food, and family fun

Written by
Lori A May

What’s the deal with downtown Kansas City?

Without a doubt, Kansas City comes to mind when you think of world-class BBQ and a bustling jazz chronology. Yet this heartland city has so much history and all the more contemporary charm, you’ll need more than a few days to join us in celebrating our roots. Once the center of vaudeville and an important industrial base thanks to the port at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers, Kansas City has always been a thriving home base. While the city once ran one of the largest streetcar systems in the country, today’s commuters get around on a free streetcar that connects neighborhoods and cultural destinations throughout the core. Take a tour around town to discover a multitude of museums and landmark fountains, dip into culture with a wander through Kansas City Sculpture Park or spend the afternoon at one of the city’s many historical museums, from the iconic National World War I Museum and Memorial to the American Jazz Museum or the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum celebrating Kansas City’s baseball history. During your visit, plan to stay up late as our nightlife includes live music, an endless bounty of food, and homegrown distilleries you won’t soon forget.  

If you only do one thing

Do as the locals do and head to Crown Center. This multi-use facility is home to many of the city’s best annual events, and year-round you’ll find family-friendly fun every day of the week. The shopping and entertainment district is home to attractions including the SEA LIFE Kansas City Aquarium, Hallmark Visitors Center and the Ice Terrace, a public outdoor skating rink. Live performances take place at The Coterie Theatre and MTH Theater, while choirs and pop-up performances can be found throughout the complex. You’ll also find local foods to fuel your fun, from Burnt End BBQ to frozen custard and Kansas City Fudge.  

Go off the beaten track

While you visit famous landmarks in Penn Valley Park, like the Liberty Memorial at the National WWI Museum, take a look around. You’ll find one of the best skyline views of the city here. And if you want an even more mesmerizing view of the Midwestern sky, take in a movie under the stars. Favorite summer movie nights can be found at Crown Center’s weekender, the rooftop terrace at the Kansas City Public Library, and at nearby Boulevard Drive-In Theatre. On a rainy day, spend a few hours exploring The Kansas City Garment District Museum for a fun fashion tour housed in buildings that date back to the 1870s. 

Stay up late 

Jazz roots run deep in Kansas City with a history famed with appearances by Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong. Today you’ll find live performances every night of the week, and the art form celebrated throughout the city with the Charlie Parker Memorial and year-round celebrations at the American Jazz Museum. Start your musical immersion at the museum then head next door to the Blue Room Jazz Club before popping into locals-favorite Green Lady Lounge. Squeeze into The Phoenix for some hot local grooves or chill out with fine dining and cool sounds at Corvino Supper Club & Tasting Room.  

Eat here

Oh, you know barbeque is on the menu so let’s set you on the right track with what this city is known for. First up, know what to order. Go for burnt ends and pork ribs, and anything smokey like a beautiful brisket. Pair the melt in your mouth Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbeque with their legendary sides like a cheesy potato bake and hickory pit beans. Get in line (it’s worth your time) at roadside staple Jones Bar-B-Q for serious homemade sauce and a savory slab of ribs. Or go for sultry smoke at Big T's Bar B Q where the choices seem endless. Want even more barbeque? Kansas City is so intent on having you sample the goods, there’s a free app to guide you through the KC BBQ Experience

Be sure to check out other comfort foods around town, like Stroud’s pan-fried chicken, Gram & Dun’s chicken and waffles, and the all-American classic diner dishes at Winstead’s, a local tradition for more than 75 years. 

For fresh local flavors, take a stroll through the historic City Market for year-round farm stands and artisan snacks. Then satisfy your sweet tooth with a stop at Fairway Creamery, home to craft donuts and an amazing assortment of fresh ice cream. 

Drink here

While your night on the town hopping from one jazz club to the next is sure to satisfy your thirst, Kansas City has a number of other can’t-miss beverages. Take a tasting tour of distillery J. Rieger & Co, founded in 1887 and home to flavorful Kansas City whiskey. 

Sample German-style lagers and ales in the Biergarten at KC Bier Co. or combine local city history with contemporary tunes at Stockyards’ Brewing Co. Or pay tribute to long-lasting local bars like The Ship, established in 1935, or Harry’s Country Club, complete with jukebox and a wallet-friendly happy hour. 

How to get to downtown Kansas City

More than 50 destinations offer nonstop flight service to Kansas City, but you just might be within a road trip’s drive to visit this Midwestern gem. While public transit services visitors from Kansas City International to downtown, the faster bet is hailing a rideshare or cab. Once downtown, get around from one neighborhood to the next with the free KC Streetcar

What else is nearby? 

North Kansas City is just across the Missouri River with a 60-acre public park perfect for family fun in the sun, along with even more variations of local barbeque favorites. 

Need a reason to visit?

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