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Kansas City – The Paris of the Plains. A midwestern treasure, located just a couple hundred miles from the geographic center of the United States. Most travelers opt to spend their hard-earned vacation time visiting a coastal destination, completely overlooking the aptly-named “flyover states.” In this Guide to Kansas City, I will attempt to persuade you to visit the City of Fountains, BBQ City USA, and home of the defending World Series Champion Royals. You’ll be glad you did!
When you fly into the Kansas City Airport (MCI), you will be in the state of MISSOURI, not Kansas (I know, it’s confusing). You will find yourself in a city known for it’s incredible barbecue, great jazz music, and numerous fountains. Kansas City also has a sordid history of organized crime, with mob activity and the Pendergast political machine. (Visit Tom’s Town Distillery for a fascinating summary of Mr. Pendergast’s influence on the city, and some excellent Gin.) Fortunately, the organized crime days are in the past, and hospitality reigns supreme these days! Whether you’re a history buff, a foodie, or just looking for a great city to visit, Kansas City has something for you!
- Where to Stay – Which part of town is the best to target for accommodations.
- Restaurants/Bars – Top picks for great food and drink in the city.
- Local Treasures – Places the locals love that 90% of tourists will miss.
- Tourist Attractions – Activities you may have heard of, but are still worth doing.
The Kansas City metro area is not very large, but you will want to rent a car to fully experience what the city has to offer. You should plan to stay downtown at one of the many hotel options. See the map above for a reference point. All of the recommendations we offer in this guide are on the map. Use AwardMapper to find a solid option in this area, using which ever award points you have at your disposal. If you don’t have award points, AirBNB options in the city are inexpensive.
I will preface this section by reminding you that Kansas City is all about the BBQ. I like to refer to the “three levels” of barbecue restaurants. These levels do not define the quality of the barbecue, but more the ambiance of the restaurant. Level 1 restaurants do not care about appearances, because they are all about the quality of their meat and sauce. Level 2 restaurants have a more smart-casual vibe and generally more menu options, with no discernible loss in quality. Level 3 presents a more polished look at a higher price point, but you definitely get what you pay for in terms of taste and variety.
Joe’s Kansas City (formerly Oklahoma Joes) – Level 1
Joe’s Kansas City is an institution. Formally known as Oklahoma Joes, this gas station on the Kansas side of the state line is revered for its barbecue offerings. Consistently winning contests as the top BBQ spot in Kansas City, Joe’s often has a line out the door and around the small building! If you want to experience the wonderful flavors here, be sure to arrive early… 10:45am is a good time to beat the line (15 minutes before it opens). If you don’t make it in around opening, be prepared to wait for a bit, but the line does move fairly quickly.
As a meal selection, I 100% recommend the Z-Man Sandwich and seasoned fries! This sandwich features thinly sliced brisket, smoked provolone cheese, and two crispy onion rings. Every time I go to Joe’s, I think I’ll branch out to other options, but the Z-Man is SO GOOD.
Other Level 1 barbecue options include Arthur Bryant’s and LC’s Barbecue.
Q39 – Level 2
Q39 is known to Kansas Citians as the “new kid on the block.” Since opening in April 2014, this restaurant has consistently ranked at the top of the Kansas City Barbecue reviews – no small feat! It currently occupies the #1 restaurant spot on TripAdvisor for KC, MO. (Joe’s is #1 for KC, KS.)
The vibe at Q39 is like a trendy BBQ shack, with exposed brick walls, natural wood, and no shortage of trophies on display. Make a reservation here, or be ready for a 1hr+ wait time. The menu offers some great options. My personal favorite is the No Jackin’ Around Sandwich – pulled pork, classic sauce, and jalapeño jack cheese on toasted bread. Brooke usually goes for the 3 sliders, which offer a nice variety – brisket with spicy pickle slaw, pulled pork with pickled onions, and chicken with honey glaze. Also, grab the Spiced Onion Straws as an appetizer with extra BBQ aioli, and thank us later!
Another Level 2 barbecue option is Char Bar in Westport.
Jack Stack – Level 3
Fiorella’s Jack Stack defines the level 3 category, or what I like to call “fine dining BBQ.” Our favorite Jack Stack location is in downtown KC at the Freight House, a historic railroad building. The ambiance here is excellent, with vaulted ceilings and chandeliers, all contained in a rustic brick building.
This is where you should grab a sampler platter. We recommend the Kansas City Combo – Pick 3, and be sure to include Burnt Ends (a KC specialty) as a choice. For sides, the Cheesy Corn Bake, Cheesy Potato Bake, and the Hickory Pit beans are hard to beat!
Pigwich has a unique set up in an industrial area known as the East Bottoms. The “restaurant” itself is a permanently-located food truck attached to a butcher shop called The Local Pig. All of their meat is sourced from local farms around the Kansas City metro area. They even offer butchering classes, if you’re interested.
The food truck features a few regular sandwich options and a daily special. I am a huge fan of “the Pigwich” sandwich – smoked pork, slaw, and BBQ sauce. Brooke always gets the Bahn Mi, with meatballs, pickles, cilantro, and Sriracha. If you visit Pigwich on a Friday, the Meatloaf Patty Melt is also a fantastic option.
Manifesto is a fantastic little bar in downtown Kansas City. Located below the historic Rieger Hotel, Manifesto is designed in the style of a prohibition-era speakeasy, including a secret entrance, bowtie clad bartenders, and candle-only lighting. Descending the narrow staircase into the small bar is like walking back in time. While I sip my cocktails, I like to imagine a time when gangster legends like Al Capone sat in this very place.
The hand-crafted cocktail menu at Manifesto is impressive. We always recommend the Winter in Buenos Aires to first timers, which features pureed butternut squash. Peruse the menu yourself (if you can see it in the candle light), or just ask the bartender to make a drink based on your favorite spirit. You can’t go wrong here! Also, keep your cell phone in your pocket, or you will be scolded by the staff.
If you plan to visit Manifesto on a weekend, call (816) 536-1325 to make a reservation a couple weeks in advance to ensure you get in. Seating is extremely limited!
If you’re looking for a brunch spot, look no further than Happy Gillis Cafe & Hang Out in the Columbus Park neighborhood. This small, unassuming cafe features mismatched furniture, plates on the wall, and vintage salt/pepper shakers like grandma used to have. They offer breakfast all day on the weekend, so you can grab the Biscuits & Gravy, no matter how late you were out at Manifesto the night before! We’ve never had a bad meal here, so pick anything from the menu and you should be impressed.
Quay (pronounced “key”) is a coffee shop in the River Market area. I cannot say enough great things about the feel of the shop or the quality of their offerings. Corey, the shop’s owner, taught me the wonders of pour over coffee. If you have never tried a pour over, I recommend getting one here and drinking it black. You may even get a funny look if you ask for cream or sugar. Trust me on this, pour overs are meant to be consumed without the extra fluff. If you don’t typically enjoy black coffee, opt for an African-origin, because they tend to be naturally sweeter.
Other options include Brooke’s favorite – the latte with house-made lavender-lemon honey syrup or spiced brown sugar, or a cold brew coffee made in one of the ornate Kyoto towers at the back of the shop. Also, if you arrive early enough, they may still have some Ham & Jam croissants. Ham, cheese, and raspberry jam baked in a flaky croissant and dusted with powdered sugar… excuse me while I wipe the drool from my keyboard!
Christopher Elbow is an artisan chocolatier. His shop in the Crossroads district features tiny chocolate works of art. You simply must stop in and grab a few. Our favorites are the raspberry and the passion fruit. If you’re lucky enough to be in town on the First Friday of the month, these little delights go for $1 each (normally $2.50). Expect a long line on First Fridays.
If you find yourself near the Plaza area, stop in at Glace. This ice cream shop is an extension of the chocolate shop in Crossroads. Sample unique flavors like sweet corn and goat cheese & honey. Oddly delicious!
Cinderblock Brewery is located north of the Missouri River in the Northland area, approximately 8 minutes from downtown by car. If you enjoy great craft beer, Cinderblock is sure to impress. Grab a flight of the year-round offerings or opt for a pour of the seasonal. If you’re lucky, you may catch the Barrel-Aged Black Squirrel Russian Imperial Stout or the Collapse Barleywine on tap.
Once you finish your beers, you can walk across the street and try your hand at a game of pickleball at Chicken & Pickle or sample some fine spirits at Restless Spirits Distillery.
This is a bonus for those who have some extra time in Kansas City. Weston is a small town located approximately 40 minutes north of downtown KC. Take a day trip to Weston and visit the following, which are all within walking distance of each other:
- O’Malley’s Brewing – Brewery with a CAVE that descends a few stories underground.
- Pirtle Winery – Sample some tasty Missouri wines.
- McCormick Distilling – A shop on main street features 25-cent “samples” of flavored McCormick vodka. Two samples of glazed donut vodka for 50 cents, yes please!
- Weston Tobacco – Grab a hand-rolled cigar from their extensive selection.
The Nelson-Atkins Art Museum features world-class collections of artwork. Take a minute to stroll through the sculpture gardens outside before walking in. Exhibits include works from Van Gogh and Monet. Best of all – IT’S FREE!
Union Station is a functional train station and a historic landmark in Kansas City. Stop in and marvel at the architecture, visit the rotating exhibits, and check out the model trains.
The Liberty Memorial is a monument to commemorate World War I. Visit the World War I Museum and head up to the top of the tower for the best view of the Kansas City skyline.
Boulevard is Kansas City’s most prominent brewery. You have likely tried some of their wares, like the Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale or their popular Boulevard Wheat Ale. Take a tour of the brewery or simply visit the newly-opened Boulevard Visitor’s Center. Try some brewery-only releases or the smokestack series. Rye on Rye and Love Child are a couple of our favorites.
Kauffman Stadium/Arrowhead Stadium
If you visit during baseball or football season, try to make it to a game. Kauffman Stadium (Royals) and Arrowhead Stadium (Chiefs) are a short 15 minute drive east of the city. They share a parking lot, so you will have plenty of space to tailgate and enjoy the atmosphere. Kauffman is an absolutely beautiful facility, and it has been electric since the Royals became the reigning champs. Arrowhead owns the title of loudest stadium, with a Monday night crowd generating 142.2 decibels!
Power & Light District
The Power & Light district, in the heart of downtown KC, features a variety of bars and restaurants in a small space. This area gets very busy on weekends and some bars charge cover, which I am not a fan of. If you visit in the summer, you may catch a free country music concert on a Thursday night.
The one bar that I do recommend visiting in Power & Light is called No Other Pub. It does not have a cover charge and offers all sorts of activities, including bowling, pool, darts, shuffleboard, ping pong, fooseball, and beer pong.
Kansas City claims the nickname “City of Fountains,” because of the many, ornate fountains around the metro. One of the most beautiful fountains can be found near the Country Club Plaza. Keep an eye out for fountains as you drive around the city.
Country Club Plaza (or “The Plaza”) is the premier shopping district. Check out local shops like Charlie Hustle and Baldwin KC, or peruse many national retailers. You can even test drive a Tesla (if you qualify)! During the holiday season, The Plaza lights up in a dazzling display of Christmas lights.
Hopefully this guide to Kansas City gives you a new perspective on this oft-overlooked destination. Come visit KC and sample our barbecue, taste some artisan chocolates, sip a local brew or cocktail, take in a game, and spend a day browsing shops on the Plaza. Most of all, enjoy the easy-going Midwest vibe of the Paris of the Plains! You will be glad you did. Cheers!
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