Table of Contents
Our Perspective on Kansas
Although our views of this state vary, we both agree that it is a place we call home (and no, that’s not a Wizard of Oz reference). People who aren’t familiar with Kansas and even those who live here tend to think there’s nothing to do here, but that is simply not true. In fact, there’s much more to see and do than even locals may realize. If you love road trips as much as we do, then we highly recommend driving through Kansas instead of flying over it.
I’m sure many people can relate to the fact that our homes don’t seem as interesting to us as they might to others and that has definitely always been the case with me. However, I knew we had to take the time to write a good article because being able to promote your home is one of the many great reasons to travel close to home. In researching for this article, I realized that there are so many more interesting things to do and see in Kansas than I could have ever come up with just off the top of my head. I certainly hope you’ll take the time to stop by and see some of the cool landscapes and interesting historical sites as well as try some of our world-class food.
Kansas might not be on top of the list of must-see places in the world, but it’s a wonderful place to relax and even explore some very interesting places, as you will discover in the following guide. Moreover, Kansas always makes me feel at home which is why I love to go back there every year (if possible). So, even though it is not the most famous place on this planet, we hope that you might find and add one or more things to see to your bucket list while reading this article. Go ahead, read and be surprised by how much there is to do. 😉
12 Quick Facts About Kansas
- This is the birthplace of the American Civil War.
- This is where the famous Brown v. Board of Education case took place, kickstarting anti-segregation laws around the United States.
- There was a huge Underground Railroad network and support for freed slaves.
- The oldest living settlement of freed slaves was established in Kansas.
- There is a rich Native American history, albeit also tragic.
- The Santa Fe Trail ran through Kansas.
- Route 66 runs through Kansas.
- Arguably the best beef in the world comes from Kansas.
- Arguably the best barbecue in the world comes from Kansas.
- You can almost always find a local brewery or winery these days.
- Kansas is great for outdoor lovers, as there are plenty of lakes, rivers and hiking trails to enjoy.
- Kansas isn’t as flat as everyone says.
I-70 from East to West
Kansas shouldn’t be considered a flyover state. In fact, there’s a rich history in Kansas that any good American should take the time to learn about and there’s no better place to grasp the weight of historic events than to visit the actual sites themselves. It’s true that the landscapes may not be as fascinating as you’ll find in the west, but if you’re just driving through (as most people do), then there are plenty of things you should see and do along the way. That’s why we’ve written this guide in order from east to west as if you were driving on Interstate I-70.
Kansas City is split into two halves: Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri. Although this is a Kansas travel guide, we’ve included some things to do in Kansas City, Missouri as well.
What to Do
During your visit to Kansas City, you will definitely want to take the time to check out a few of the sites. Fortunately for you, most of the historical sites and museums are located quite close to one another.
Union Station served as the central train station in the Midwest, which helped turn KC into the metropolis that it is today. The key location near the Kansas and Missouri Rivers as well as the tracks connecting the northern, southern, eastern and western states made it the perfect hub. All trade, mail and travel passed through here. You should stop by Union Station to learn more about its history and understand what the station means for KC’s past and present.
Right across the street from Union Station, you’ll find a huge park with the National World War I memorial and museum. Even if you don’t go into the museum itself, this is still a good place to stretch your legs and take some nice photos.
Not too far from here, you’ll also find the Negro League Baseball Hall of Fame, where you can learn about the history of America’s favorite pastime before the modern era of sports. Today, sports are synonymous with inclusion, teamwork and breaking down barriers, but it wasn’t always that way. At least not until one of my favorite historical sports figures, Jackie Robinson, broke the race barrier by becoming the first African American baseball player to compete in the Major Leagues. Before that, he was a member of the Kansas City Monarchs. If you love baseball or even just sports in general, then it’s worth your time to check out this museum.
The Steamship Arabia is a fascinating exhibit showcasing a steamship that sunk in 1856 with all of its contents (including a poor donkey), never to be seen again. The ship and everything inside quickly sunk and was well preserved in the sediment at the bottom of the river until it was found 132 years later approximately 100 meters inland. In addition to everything this wreck can teach us about life in 1856, the story also provides a great example of how rivers meander over time.
If you’re into sports, then you have to take in a football, baseball or soccer game in Kansas City. Even if you’re not a fan of our teams, you’ll still have a great time, as these are some of the most exciting atmospheres in sports. Aside from that, one could say our teams have been doing pretty well lately. 😉
Before you completely leave the Kansas City area, you may be interested in taking a drive to Leavenworth, where you will find plenty of well-maintained historical sites up to 200 years old. Here, you’ll find history dating back to the early settling of the west as well as pre-, mid- and post-civil war and even roots of early civil rights movements.
Where to Eat
If you’re going to grab a bite in Kansas City, then there’s only one place you need to go: Oklahoma Joe’s. This barbecue restaurant may be located inside a gas station, but Joe’s has set the standard for Kansas City barbecue for years. In fact, we support the argument that there is no better BBQ in the world. If you can’t believe it and if their countless awards aren’t convincing enough, then just go try it for yourself. Be sure to get there early, though, because a line forms fast and extends out the door on a daily basis. The last time we were there, we showed up around 11 am and “only” waited for about 20 minutes before we were able to place our order.
If you’re in Kansas City at the right time of year, you can also stop by the American Royal BBQ competition and sample smoked creations from around the country. You’ll find big names like Joe’s as well as individuals who have mastered their craft and offer their own take on BBQ. Either way, you’re in for a delicious time.
In addition to world-class barbecue, Kansas City is now also home to numerous breweries. The brewpub scene has exploded in the last 10 years, so you won’t have trouble finding good beer complemented by good food. The most famous KC brewery is probably Boulevard, but we personally prefer the smaller breweries and it’s really up to you as to which one you try out. In this case, you do need to be careful not to confuse “brewpub” chains with local breweries. While places like Granite City and Yardhouse do offer tasty beers and food, these are national chains that don’t necessarily offer the local flavors.
Traveling west on I-70 will inevitably lead you past Lawrence and you shouldn’t skip this city either.
What to Do
Lawrence and the nearby city of Lecompton are known as the birthplace of the Civil War. In fact, if it weren’t for Kansans standing their ground in the name of freedom, there’s no telling if or when the United States ever would have been reunited or how long it would have taken to outlaw slavery completely. If you want to understand this part of American history, then you have to visit Lawrence and Lecompton.
In addition to Civil War history, Kansas is also a great place to learn about Native American History. Kansas actually gets its name from the Kanza people who inhabited this land long before Europeans arrived. While you’re in Lawrence, you can visit the Haskell Cultural Center at Haskell Indian Nations University. They have an excellent museum and displays that teach you all about the locals’ way of life and the tragic history that followed the arrival of Europeans.
If you want to get outdoors and do some fishing, boating, swimming or just enjoy the water, then you can go to Clinton Lake. The lake is quite large, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a nice relaxing spot to enjoy an afternoon.
The sports tradition doesn’t stop in Kansas City. In Lawrence, it’s college basketball that you want to see. The Kansas University Jayhawks have one of the most impressive legacies in all of college sports and the atmosphere at Allan Fieldhouse is electric. We can promise you won’t experience a basketball game anywhere else like you will here. Oh and by the way, the game of basketball was invented in Lawrence, so you’re welcome.
If you’re just looking to stretch your legs and kill a few hours, then you should head down to Mass(achusetts) Street, where you’ll find a number of unique shops and great places to eat.
Where to Eat
On that note, we recommend going to Free State Brewing Company. We haven’t tried one of their beers that we haven’t liked. Granted, we love beer, but no two beers are the same, so it truly is a craft to get it right. In addition to their delicious beers, they also cook up some nice dishes. If you’ve never tried fresh baked bread, then you really need to go to WheatFields bakery. This bakery was listed in USA Today as one of the 10 best bakeries in the entire country. It also made the Kansas Sampler list as one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Cuisine. After living in Germany for so long, we’ve learned the value of fresh bread baked right, so it’s always nice to know we can get something this good when we’re in Kansas. If neither of these piqued your interest, then you can just take a stroll down Mass Street and have your pick from the number of interesting restaurants and cafes, offering a variety of local and international foods.
Stull “The Gateway to Hell”
When traveling from Lawrence to Topeka, you may be tempted to stop by the unincorporated town of Stull to see the legendary cemetery. Although theologians and historians agree that the so-called “gateway to hell” is nothing more than an urban legend, thrill seekers and filmmakers alike travel to Stull to see if they too can have a Supernatural experience. The easiest way to get here is to take Highway 40 West out of Lawrence and exit left (straight) onto Stull Road.
Once you’ve made it to our state’s capitol, you may have a difficult time deciding which place to visit first on your Kansas history tour. Luckily for you, you’re reading a guide written by locals.
What to Do
The best way to take in Topeka’s historical sites is to first go to the Brown v. Board historical site. Brown v. Board was a famous 1954 supreme court case that kickstarted anti-segregation movements throughout the entire country. In 1951, a young girl was refused admission to her nearest public school due to the color of her skin. The Topeka School Board’s decision was a direct violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Ms. Brown’s father, along with the parents of 11 other students, filed a class action lawsuit that went all the way to the supreme court, who ultimately ruled in Brown’s favor and declared that every segregated school in the country should desegregate immediately. You can visit this historical site at 1515 SE Monroe Street.
Next, you should go to the Capitol Building. If you feel so inclined, you can even take a tour to learn more about Kansas history, the building and the inspiration behind the fascinating murals painted inside. Of course, you are also free to walk around yourself. This is an especially good way to spend an hour if the weather isn’t cooperating.
After that, you can swing by Ward Meade Park to take in the botanical gardens, a Victorian mansion and visit the Old Prairie Town. From there, you can drive through the historical district of Potwin to view even more Victorian homes on red brick streets. This neighborhood is especially popular during the Christmas season, as the decorated houses take on an added charm.
On your way out of Topeka, you should make a final stop at the Kansas History Museum, where you will find the most extensive information about all things Kansas. They have displays and artifacts from Native Americans, the earliest days of western settlement and everything after that. It’s well worth your time.
If you’re looking to spend some time outdoors, then you may also want to visit Perry Lake, Lake Shawnee, one of the city’s many parks or the Topeka Zoo, which houses the world’s first rainforest exhibit.
Where to Eat
If you’re looking to grab a bite before you leave Topeka, then there are a few local staples you should know about.
The most famous burger joint in Topeka is probably Harold’s Prize Package. This tiny mom & pop place has been around for ages and every local knows this is where you go for delicious greasy cheeseburgers and amazing fried pickles. There isn’t much room to eat inside and a line forms quickly, but service is fast! So, get your order to go and find a nice quiet place to enjoy this famous Topekan meal. If you want an old-fashioned burger where you can sit down, then you’ll want to go to The Pad in North Topeka. Another famous burger place is Bobo’s Drive In, which has also been around forever. The original location is found on SW 10th Ave. They’re also known for their apple pie.
If you have vegetarians or vegans with you, but you’re all really hankering for a burger, then you’ll want to go to the Burger Stand at College Hill. They have many creative meat and veggie options as well as good beers and a nice variety of delicious sauces for your fries (sweet potato fries too!).
Okay, so we have tons of burger places, but if you really want something more international, then we have a couple of those to recommend as well. A nice locally owned Italian restaurant is Paisano’s. You might feel under dressed when you walk in, but you won’t be treated that way at all. The food is more authentic than you’ll get at a chain like Olive Garden and the service is exceptional.
In terms of Asian food, you might want to try out Tuptim Thai, which has been around for as long as I can remember. The food is authentic, tasty and reasonably priced.
There are numerous Mexican restaurants in Topeka, which makes it hard to pick a single place to recommend. If it’s authenticity you’re after, then you should hit up a taco truck. These can be found in various places, but your best bet is to go to Tacos El Guitarron at I-70 and SE California Ave.
Continuing west on I-70, it won’t be long until you find yourself in the Flint Hills. Enjoy the hills while you can because in about an hour or two, things are going to get really flat really fast. But before that happens, there are a few places you can stop along the way.
For the most scenic route, you should instead take Highway K-4 west out of Topeka. This will take you through hilly green pastures and into the town of Dover, where you can sample the best pie in America, according to Good Morning America in 2008, at the Sommerset Hall Cafe. As you continue west, you will end up in the small town of Eskridge, which is known as the Gateway to the Flint Hills. This route also takes you along the Native Stone Scenic Byway. Early settlers in this region had to use the materials at their disposal to build their settlements and maintain their properties. Native limestone was abundantly available, which made it the material of choice. At one time, this entire region was full of limestone buildings and the roads were lined with limestone fences. These have deteriorated over the years and this part of our history was on the verge of being lost. The Native Stone Scenic Byway committee was formed to restore and rebuild many of the fences along the way. While you’re driving through the Flint Hills, be on the lookout for the historical limestone fences!
After driving through Eskridge, you’ll soon find yourself at Lake Wabaunsee, which is a nice place for a picnic, to do some fishing, boating or play a round of golf. If you do like golf, then we highly recommend playing at Wabaunsee Pines, as it is a non-profit 9-hole golf course that is very well maintained and very affordable–$10 for 9 holes or $15 for two rounds. After passing Lake Wabaunsee, we recommend heading back toward I-70 through the town of Alma, which also has a small museum worth checking out.
If you like wine, then you may be enticed to backtrack a few miles from this point so that you can do a personal wine tasting at the Prairie Fire Winery. It doesn’t get more local than this vineyard. We’ve done the tasting ourselves and ended up leaving with 3 bottles of wine!
The next stop on our Kansas road trip is the city of Manhattan. Here, you can visit the Konza Prairie to either learn more about why these vast pastures are so important to our environment and economy or just to take a hike with panoramic views of the surrounding area. While in Manhattan itself, you can enjoy an afternoon at Tuttle Creek Lake or visit a local brewery.
The Kansas sports tradition continues in Manhattan and this time, it’s all about Kansas State University football. This is one of the most electric football venues in college sports with one of the most loyal fan bases. You’re definitely in for an experience if you decide to watch a football game here.
After the game, Aggieville is the place to be. This is one of the best bar scenes in the United States, so if you’re down for a good time, then you won’t want to miss a night on the town in Aggieville.
If you decided not to stop in Manhattan, but still want to stop somewhere and get outdoors, then your next opportunity is Milford Lake in Junction City.
History buffs and chocolate lovers will love stopping in Abilene. Abilene is where President Dwight D. Eisenhower grew up and the city has turned his childhood home into a historical site. Adjacent to the home, you will find the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum, which showcases a variety of exhibits surrounding his life and time periods at which he was serving his country. Kansans are particularly proud of “Ike”, as he is considered throughout the country as one of the most revered presidents in American history. Next to the museum, you also have Old Abilene Town, which is a recreation of what life used to look like in the region. This is another great way to spend a few hours and give the family a learning experience as well. When you’re ready to leave, you’ll want to stop by the Russel Stover’s chocolate factory. Here, you can see how chocolate is made and you can purchase cheap treats that didn’t make the cut to be sold in stores.
6 Worthwhile Detours from I-70
From this point forward, most of your stops are going to be less about human history and more about natural history, as you play witness to geological formations that you wouldn’t expect to find in the flatlands. If you’re strictly following I-70, then the only realistic detours from this point would be to take you to the following places:
To the north of I-70, as you head west past Salina, you can take a detour to look at giant stones that are seemingly out of place in this otherwise flattening landscape. These stones were actually brought here by ancient glaciers during one of the Earth’s ice ages.
Kanopolis State Park
This state park is a nice place to get outdoors, go for a short hike and enjoy the peacefulness of the lake. We recommend stopping in here if you feel like moving a bit or if you just want to find a nice place for a picnic lunch.
Mushroom Rock State Park
The name pretty much gives this one away. A short detour south of I-70, near Kanopolis State Park brings you to giant mushroom-shaped stones that have revealed themselves to us after thousands of years of erosion.
This tiny unincorporated town in the middle of nowhere is much more significant than one may think at first glance. Nicodemus, Kansas is the oldest African-American founded settlement still in existence today. Kansas fought hard to be a free state and welcomed African-American refugees and newly freed slaves before, during and after the civil war, some of whom founded the once underground town of Nicodemus. In our opinion, this significant piece of history is worth the detour from I-70 and a great way to stretch your legs as you walk around the national historic site, reading and learning about the town’s history.
You can’t get much more west in Kansas than the Arikaree river. This stop is a quite out of the way, but all of the photos we’ve seen look really cool, so it may be worth your while depending on how adventurous you are and how good your car is. You won’t find reliable locations on Google Maps and the online resources are a bit difficult to understand, but the best way to take in the views is to head north on Highway 27 when you reach Goodland. Take a left when the road ends and drive into St. Francis. You’ll want to go north on S Benton St. and you’re pretty much going to follow this road all the way to Nebraska. Once you’re out of town, the road name changes to N RS 115, then forks to the right where it turns into Road 15. The only detour that might be worth taking or backtracking for is to see Horse Thief Cave. To see it, you’ll need to go east on Road BB, then north on Road 17. The cave has since caved in and is now more of a natural bridge. Keep in mind that this entire drive is done on miles of dirt roads and you’ll need good weather to make it. If you’re continuing west, then it may be best to just continue north into Nebraska and pick up the paved Highway 34 West.
The Kansas Badlands
If you’re up for a little detour or if you’re heading to the American Southwest anyway, then it would be worth your time to take exit 115 from I-70 and checkout the Kansas Badlands. You won’t need an off-road vehicle, but you will be taking gravel roads to get there. After taking the exit, head south on 523 (aka 130 Ave) for about 12.5 miles and turn right onto U Road for about 3 miles. Take a right on Gove 80 and drive 1.5 miles into the Castle Rock Badlands.
Leaving the way you came, continue south on Gove 80 and follow the natural road (the name changes a couple times to Gove G and Road 82) until you reach the paved Highway 4 at Utica. Go West until Highway 4 ends at an intersection with Highway 83, where you will head north. There are two places to see here, so it’s up to you as to which one you visit first. From Highway 83, you can take Gold Road west and then Road 400 north to reach the Little Jerusalem Badlands. When you want to go to Monument Rocks National Natural Landmark, you can either take Jayhawk Road or Dakota Road from Highway 83. If you’re taking Jayhawk Road (coming from the north of the monument), then you’ll want to follow the road all the way to the end and then head south on Gove 16. If you’re taking Dakota road (coming from the south), then you’ll follow this road all the way to the end and go north on Gove 16.
If you’re continuing south, then it’s best to leave by going south on Gove 16, then west on Gove E (Dakota Road) and follow that back to Highway 83 south. If you want to go back to I-70, then head north on Gove 16, then west on Gove J (Jayhawk Road) and follow that back to Highway 83 north.
More Places To See in Kansas
Depending on your end destination or driving route, you may be able to visit a few more interesting places in Kansas. Many of the upcoming destinations are convenient stops along other major highways and interstate systems. We’ll start this list by picking up where we left off in the Kansas Badlands.
Driving south on Highway 83 will bring you to Scott City. If you feel like getting out of the car for awhile, then you can stop in at the El Quartelejo Museum to learn about the Pueblo dwellings found here. This is particularly interesting as pueblos are most often associated with locations in the American Southwest.
If you’re coming from Scott City heading south, you can take an approximately 1 hour detour on Highway 400 from Garden City to go back east toward Dodge City. On your way, you can stop and see wagon tracks that are still left over from the 1800’s when settlers were heading west on the Santa Fe Trail. Dodge City, Kansas is famous for various wild west figures, like Wyatt Earp and ‘Doc’ Holiday who spent lots of time here. While here, you can learn more about these men as well as the city’s role during the wild west days in the Boot Hill Museum.
The last stop in Kansas as you leave going southwest on Highway 56 is the Cimarron National Grassland and Point of Rocks in Elkhart. You can view Santa Fe Trail tracks here as well.
Emporia is conveniently located on Interstates 35 & 335 (toll road) and is a great place to stop and stretch your legs, grab a bite to eat and maybe even some delicious craft beer while you’re at it. If you haven’t seen enough of the vast grasslands during your drive, then you can head a few miles west on Highway 50 and visit the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and learn more about the local ecosystem and why it’s preservation is so important for the environment.
Afterwards, you can head back into Emporia and stop in at one of our favorite microbreweries Radius. We always make a point to stop here whenever we’re in the area because they are constantly brewing up unique creations and have delicious food to complement their tasty beers.
Elk River Hiking Trail
If you’re heading south toward Tulsa, Oklahoma or driving north out of Oklahoma and need a break from their dusty red plains, then you may be interested in a hike through the forest along the Elk River, near Independence. The trailhead is located west of Independence on Highway 160, just before Elk City. We haven’t personally done this one yet, but we certainly will the next time we’re in the area.
Not many people know this, but the famous Route 66 actually passes through Kansas. Even though the total mileage in Kansas is minimal, we can still lay claim to a portion of it. If you want to visit, then you’ll be able to find it in the southeast corner of the state between Galena, Riverton and Baxter Springs. There’s a small Route 66 museum in Baxter Springs as well.
Liked this post? Pin it!