11 Authentically Kansas City Experiences to Have on Your Next Midwest Vacation

KC is all about local.

Courtesy of Visit KC
Courtesy of Visit KC

Kansas City may be known for its 200-plus fountains, barbecue, and jazz, but there is so much more to explore on a trip to Missouri’s largest city. Here you’ll find a buzzing community of homegrown chefs, local makers, and down-to-earth Midwesterners that make the city what it is.

KC is all about local. It’s the heartbeat that sustains the city — and ultimately, what you will want to come back for. Whether it’s picking up a lip balm made with locally-sourced honey, tasting six KC food offerings in one spot at a three-story food hall, or doing a DIY mural tour of some of the city’s street artists, this is how you do the Midwest right.

Satisfy your barbecue cravings at Chef J BBQ

Every week, Kansas Citians flock from near and far to experience the magic of Chef J BBQ, located inside haunted house The Beast (yes, really) in Kansas City’s historic West Bottoms district. While relatively new to the scene (it opened in early 2020), it’s one of Kansas City’s most talked-about barbecue joints, offering Texas-style ’cue. The medley of sauces also contrast Kansas City’s sweet, molasses-based blends: make sure you try the South Carolina-style yellow mustard and North Carolina-style vinegar-based sauces. On the weekend, lines form an hour prior to opening and for good reason — Chef J, aka Justin Easterwood, is all about barbecue done right: simple rubs and meats cooked over real hickory wood, hand-sliced to order. While you can find cult classics like brisket, pulled pork, and ribs, long-time patrons always take advantage of Chef J’s unique offerings including house-made sausages, sandwiches, and surprisingly, desserts.

Courtesy of Visit KC

Support hyper-local brands at Shop Local KC

Shop Local KC is a brick-and-mortar that evolved from the Strawberry Swing, an indie craft fair founded by Katie Mabry van Dieren in 2011. Its tagline, “Keepin it 100% KC,” best explains this hub for all things local — it aims to promote home-grown brands while also drawing awareness to the often overlooked Midtown Kansas City. Visitors of the shop and its online marketplace can find a bit of everything from Messner Bee Farm lip balm made with local beeswax and honey to Duplika jewelry crafted with real preserved botanicals.

Explore six locally-grown eateries under one roof at Parlor

If you love to be presented with options, head to this three-level chef collective found in the heart of Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District. Parlor is an eclectic mix of Kansas City’s diverse culinary talent featuring everything from American to Korean cuisine, all made by local chefs. Grab a drink at one of its two bars and prepare yourself for a gastronomic dream. Its longest-standing concepts, Mother Clucker — serving up Nashville hot chicken — and Sura Eats — serving Korean comfort food — are sure to please any palate.

Courtesy of Visit KC

Imbibe at J. Rieger & Co. Distillery’s adult playground

J. Rieger & Co. has been a household name in Kansas City since the 1880s. With its newly constructed distillery — making whiskey, gin, vodka, and even amaro — visitors and Kansas Citians alike can be wowed by tasty libations, good times, and a custom-engineered 40-foot slide. The expansive 60,000-square-foot adult playland located in the East Bottoms also includes three unique food and beverage concepts. Its most sought-after space, Electric Park Garden Bar, features an open-air patio and an adjoining atrium that serves as an extension of the distillery’s tasting room. Soak up the sun while you feast on its “Electric fries” and classic concessions like a smash burger or pulled pork sandwich. Pair with the Rambler, Electric Park Garden’s version of a snow cone, which is a combination of the J. Rieger & Co. spirit of your choice, juice from a medley of berries, and a lemon cordial. If you have time for a history lesson, be sure to peruse its 3,000-square-foot exhibit recounting the mark it has made in Kansas City.

Fuel your trip with Cafe Cà Phȇ

Kansas City’s first (and only) Vietnamese coffee shop quickly gained notoriety after hitting the streets in a vibrant, dragon-painted truck. While its founder, Jackie Nguyen, is not a KC native, she won the hearts of the masses with her love for the city and unique java. Her inventive coffee drinks like the Hella Good Latte made with ube, and Dragon Latte, which incorporates matcha, put a new spin on classic Vietnamese flavors. In addition to its standout coffee, Cafe Cà Phȇ has become a cultural centerpiece in Kansas City seen at the forefront of events, festivals, and ethnic celebrations. This mobile operation will soon be taking root in Columbus Park, with a brick-and-mortar location set to open later this spring or summer.

Courtesy of Visit KC

Discover your new favorite Black-owned products at The Black Pantry

Buying Black has become a lot easier thanks to Brian Roberts, owner of The Black Pantry — Kansas City’s first destination for all things Black-owned. His mission is to elevate Black voices and he does so by carefully curating local and national-owned Black brands. Whether you’re looking for a new favorite hot sauce or a hand-poured candle, odds are Roberts has just the thing for you. Find The Black Pantry in Kansas City’s Martini Corner inside a shared space with Made in Kansas City, another shopping destination for all things local.

Courtesy of Visit KC

Dance the night away at Nighthawk

If you want to bust a move, there’s no better place to go than Nighthawk. There are no reservations required, cover charge, or dress code. Simply come as you are to this basement bar located beneath the ballroom of the historic Hotel Kansas City, which features DJs and live music across various genres from salsa to western fusion (plus a pool table). Once you break a sweat, swing by the bar to sip on their housemade seltzers known as “Night Claws” and munch on their simple menu of bar snacks, baskets, and our personal favorite, fancy plates — elevated dishes like baked ziti and chile ribs that are available as daily specials from 7-10 pm.

Savor the flavors of Northern Thai cuisine at Waldo Thai

While Kansas City is well-known for its barbecue, we are home to global flavors, too, including hometown favorite Waldo Thai. This local staple led by Pam Liberda, a native of Northern Thailand, features authentic dishes from her childhood spent cooking alongside her mother. Let us emphasize the authenticity: dish names are listed in Thai and there are no substitutions allowed, providing patrons the chance to fully experience the meals as intended. Consider ordering a few dishes from the “Lanna Cuisine” section and enjoying them family-style for an authentic Northern Thai dinner. It may be hard to choose with six delicious options, but the Thum Kanoon, a flavorful shredded jackfruit, and Gaeng Hung Lei, a tender, rich pork belly curry, are both sure to please.

The cherry on top? An exceptional bar program led by Darrel Loo, who takes inspiration from Liberda’s culinary menu to create unique and enticing cocktails. Sip on the Mekong River for something familiar but mysterious: it’s made with pandan and cucumber infused vodka, ginger, galangal, lime and soda water.

Courtesy of Visit KC

Wind down with jazz at Green Lady Lounge

No visit to Kansas City is complete without barbecue — and jazz. The genre’s birthplace may be in New Orleans, but KC served as one of the critical cradles for its growth. While there are several destinations to get your jazz fix, including Mutual Musicians Foundation and The Phoenix, the Green Lady Lounge is a pleasant surprise. As you enter through the unassuming exterior, you’ll be delighted to find a dimly lit, relaxing atmosphere. It’s almost as if time has stood still in this windowless venue and your sole calling is to bask in live jazz music. And it’s not just any live music, either — all tunes at The Green Lady Lounge are original compositions of local Kansas City musicians. The lounge is also open until 3 am, seven days a week, which makes it an ideal spot for a nightcap.

Sit back and sip at Drastic Measures

Drastic Measures has taken Kansas City’s cocktail scene to new heights, the name an ode to their inventive creations plus a precise and meticulous approach. The mixology masterminds, Jay Sanders and Jill Cockson (the latter a James Beard Award nominee), have ushered in a new age of libations in this modern, reimagined bar. In true speakeasy fashion, the downtown Shawnee cocktail lounge is marked by a door knocker that’ll grant you entrance if the lobby light is green (meaning welcoming more guests). Visitors take note, there’s no wine or beer on the menu, simply expertly crafted cocktails impressive in both flavor and presentation (we encourage you to verify on the ’gram), all made with premium spirits.

Courtesy of Visit KC

Browse Kansas City’s art scene on a DIY mural tour

Kansas City is adorned with an eclectic mix of murals. To explore the work of local creatives all you have to do is hop in your car, pay attention, and prepare to be wowed by displays both big and small. Artists of all backgrounds have blessed Kansas City with everything from creations boasting our city’s pride to art as social commentary — numbering in the hundreds. Here are seven standouts to help kickstart your self-guided tour:

  1. Plaza Mural by J.T. Daniels & Octavio Logo; 4620 JC Nichols Parkway
  2. Raised Royal Mural by Lance Flores; 415 E. 16th Street
  3. Love Kansas City By D. Ross Scribes; 421 Southwest Boulevard
  4. Buck O’Neil & Kansas City Monarchs by Alexander Austin; 1616 E 18th Street
  5. KC Loves; 1720 Main Street
  6. Kansas City I'm So In Love by Ruthie Ozonoff; 200 E. 20th Street
  7. World Aids Day 2020 KC by Jared Horman; 3515 Broadway Boulevard