The Best Things to Do in Kansas City When Someone Visits
Kansas City sits at the center of an identity crisis. It’s a liberal oasis in the middle of two red states, and the state line divides the city itself between Kansas and Missouri. That’s good news for you though. Each day is a chance to explore cultures, worlds, and time periods the average visitor probably wouldn’t expect from a flyover state. Give yourself a weekend and you’ll be hooked.
KC is also having a moment right now. Season 3 of Netflix’s popular Queer Eye reboot is filming here. FX’s next season of Fargo is set here, during KC’s 1950s gangland peak. And Democratic Party golden boy Jason Kander is set to become the city’s next mayor. The city as a whole is set to become the next Austin before long.
So here are the best things to do in Kansas City, both the Kansas and Missouri sides, including plenty of free activities as well as a number of splurge-worthy spots to help you become a First Wave Kansas Citian before it’s no longer cool. These aren’t tourist traps: These are the draws that the folks who live here actually come out for. You’ll blend right in.
Eat BBQ, obviously
You can’t come to Kansas City and not indulge in the primal joy of eating meat right off the bone. This is a BBQ city and your BBQ choices will get you judged. Q39 is the newest contender (39th Street), where you can get whiskey with an ice cube made of meat juice. Gates is an all-time classic (found all over town) and The Peanut (the original is downtown but newer locations abound throughout the city) is a city secret for killer wings, dating back to 1933 when it was a speakeasy. Joe’s, located inside a functioning gas station, was featured in the final season of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, so you know it’s worth a stop. And Arthur Bryant’s (also multiple locations) is the move if you’re looking for the most meat for your buck.
Get real in the Jazz District
Free - $$$
Kansas City has an incredible history steeped in blues and jazz. Around 18th and Vine you’ll find the city’s jazz district, which is also home to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum, which are both excellent. But if you’re ready to get genuinely funky, head to the Blue Room for till-dawn drinking and music, or treat yourself to an equally late-night adventure (365 days a year) at the Green Lady Lounge.
Check out the flyover states’ best music scene
Free - $$
One of the biggest draws of Kansas City is the music scene. In addition to the city’s blues and jazz roots, there’s always killer acts hitting up the city to break up the empty drive between tour stops in St. Louis and Denver. Riot Room, Uptown Theater, Knuckleheads, and Arvest Bank Theater are all fantastic venues that always seem to have a show worth checking out. recordBar is one of KC’s best, just-big-enough venues, where you can catch all your favorite medium sized acts as they travel through town (recordBar also has a flying-under-the-radar brunch that is to die for, should you find yourself hungover in the area the next day.) And tiny record shop Records With Merritt has gained a sudden prominence in the local music scene, hosting almost nightly multi-act lineups in an intimate space where just 30 people will pack the room and me it feel like a special show.
Gaze at the lights on a stroll through The Plaza...
Free - $$$$
As a kid I came here to gaze at the millions of dollars in Christmas lights. As an adult I'm still impressed, but I’m equally interested in cruising the bars. This 15-block area just north of the river is filled with nice shops and high-end restaurants.The yearly Plaza Art Fair in the fall brings in international artists of all mediums and draws a crowd of over 250,000.
... then mainline a museum
Free - $$
Just off the Plaza, the nearby Nelson Atkins Museum of Art is the go-to stop in KC for high brow arts and culture. The exhibits range from the great masters to the new renegades, with a mile of gorgeous architecture that would be worth the trip even if there weren’t painting on the walls. There’s also a gigantic shuttlecock on the back lawn that has become an odd landmark in the city (it’s a must grab selfie while you’re here).
Not an art fan? Union Station is a historic train station built in 1914 with touring exhibits from around the world. It also sits across the street from the World War I Museum and Memorial, making it an excellent two-for-one destination.
Check out all nine blocks of walkable, drinkable fun at the Power & Light District
Power & Light
Power & Light is nine square blocks of walkable, drinkable fun. It’s a loud, electric space that’s KC’s microcosm answer to the Vegas Strip. At its heart, there are two stories of bars and restaurants, all overlooking a stage and stadium-style video screen, where you can catch anything from live music to a group rally around the biggest out of town sporting event. And the ability to dip into one of a dozen different styles of food and booze and then swagger back into the central space is a great draw.
Have a boozy game night
KC loves to get loose. Pawn & Pints is a bar and restaurant with a six-layered wall of board games that are available to you and your party. Take your pick from literally dozens of games, including Cards Against Humanity and Scattergories.
Tapcade and Up/Down are arcade-bar experiences with wildly different line-ins: the former being a combination movie theater and old-timey cabinet set-up, and the later being a balls-to-the-wall neon blowout. Both will reignite your inner child.
See what surprises await on a ride on the KC Streetcar
Running between River Market and Union Station is the state of the art KC Streetcar. This multi-million-dollar marvel currently only navigates about 2 miles of the city, but it passes more than enough good stuff to fill an entire weekend: bouncing between flea markets, restaurants, theaters, shops, and some oddball surprises in between. On our first trip, my wife and I found ourselves gorged on BBQ at a store with no discernible sign and then stumbled into a local board game meetup. Ride a free train and roll the dice on where it takes you.
Go dive bar hopping in the Volker neighborhood
Head out to 39th Street and into the the Volker neighborhood to find some of the best dive bars in the Kansas City. The three-bar stretch of High Dive, Mo Brew, and Drunken Worm will keep you busy for as long as you’re able to keep drinking. Mo Brew goes big on burgers, High Dive has a vending machine with mystery beers, and Drunken Worm has the city’s best tequila infusions. Down the block you can sober up at TikiTaco, where you can grab California-style Mexican cuisine, mixed with Midwest garbage influence. Anything with French fries and queso will bring you right back to life!
Sashay away at KC’s best drag show
$ - $$$
If you want to see the best drag show between the Mississippi River and Vegas, make sure to check out Missy B’s. The revue portion slays and the leather bar/electric dance floor upstairs is an excellent place to show off your own moves and sweat out the booze long after the bar has closed down.
Tailgate a Chiefs game
$$ - $$$$
Sporting KC is the only soccer in the Midwest that matters. If you care about that form of “football” you probably don’t need me to point you in this direction. There’s an incredible NASCAR track and related shopping village, but that only really applies to two weekends out of the entire year. So let’s talk about the Kansas City Chiefs. While Patrick Mahomes and the boys are absolutely DOMINATING this season, the best way to experience a Chiefs game is not in the stadium itself (thought it is considered the NFL’s loudest). No, the real party happens outside, where Chiefs fans spend the day before a game tailgating in the stadium parking lot. The Midwest knows how to cook out and this is not a party you’ll want to miss. You won’t need tickets but you will need a few coolers and make sure to bring some booze to share with your 76,000-plus new friends.
Go see the funniest comedians in the Midwest
Free - $
While KC has plenty of comedy venues, like the experimental Unicorn Theater and the fourth-floor warehouse venue Barrel of the Bottoms, the place you really need to hit up is The Green Room. The bar and performance venue provide a mix of improv and stand-up alongside their excellent trivia nights. This is the one stop shop for the funniest folks that KC has to offer, and often big names from out of town, like Kevin McDonald of The Kids in the Hall who just stopped by to host a multi-weekend regional improv event.
Decompress with a cold drink
$$ - $$$$
There are more than 50 excellent distilleries and breweries around KC and you’ll regret leaving without sampling the offerings. Boulevard Beer brewing company runs this city and their tour is the most visually engaging (and the hoppiest) around; like a midwest Willy Wonka factory. The Ship is an actual ship with incredible drinks and jazz/rock shows that’ll knock you off your sea legs. Julep Cocktail Club is pretty much a whiskey library. Do yourself the favor of embarking on a true deep dive of their offerings. S.D. Strong Distilling operates out of a cave where their gin could be your undoing. Finally, Manifesto is a similarly underground speakeasy-themed bar where you’ll need a reservation far in advance. (Be prepared to use your phone’s flashlight to navigate the impossibly dark spaces.)
Go to an event by KC tastemakers The Pitch
Free - $$
The people at local alternative magazine The Pitch have become masters of tastemaker events, hosting monthly competitions highlighting the absolute best of what KC has to offer. If you can plan your trip around Margarita Wars or Taste of KC, you’ll be glad you did. The latter pits the city’s best chefs against each other Top Chef-style.The Pitch also goes out of their way to put on gatherings with a thrust for social good, including a recent fashion-themed event featuring a moving body positivity panel.
Take a selfie in front of the Western Auto sign
Arthur Bryant’s (see the BBQ entry) is where most people love to stop for a quick photo, but if you want a selfie that the locals will respect you for, try to pose in front of the Western Auto sign. A gigantic glowing mainstay of the KC skyline, the sign has been unlit at night for decades, until now. Grab a shot of you and a friend outside one of the many local distilleries, with the huge glow of KC spirit behind you.