Straddling the states of Kansas and Missouri, Kansas City is affectionately known as the Paris of the Plains. Its tree-lined boulevards are home to a cornucopia of award-winning chefs, slowly smoked barbecue, and two million of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.
About 200 miles southwest of Kansas City, Wichita is the Sunflower State’s largest city. It’s the birthplace of Pizza Hut and earned the nickname the Air Capital of the World due to its avionic history.
Kansas is saddled with Wizard of Oz jokes and has long been dismissed as a flyover state, but people are often surprisingly delighted when they visit. Here’s what you should see, do, and eat when traveling between Kansas’s two biggest metropolitan areas on a road trip from Kansas City to Wichita.
Radiating from the junction of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers and bisected by the aptly named State Line Road, Kansas City is an up-and-coming destination. In fact, the guys from Netflix’s Queer Eye shot Seasons 3 and 4 of their series in Kansas City. Before you hit the road and head south to Wichita, here’s how you can explore the City of Fountains like the Fab Five.
Inspired by Spanish architecture, Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza was the nation’s first shopping center designed for patrons arriving by car when it opened in the early 1920s. Today this upscale neighborhood, about 10 minutes south of downtown Kansas City, remains a beautiful place to stay, shop, and dine. And if you’re visiting during the winter holidays, don’t miss the Plaza Lights, when miles of colorful bulbs outline each building.
Art lovers will appreciate the free experiences available to them at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art just off the Country Club Plaza. Look for the oversized badminton birdies and gigantic spider, and you’ll know you’ve arrived!
History buffs won’t want to miss the nation’s only World War I museum at the Liberty Memorial on the hill above the beautifully restored Union Station. And the suburb of Independence is the land of all things Harry S. Truman, from his presidential library and museum to his beautiful family home that served as the summer White House when he was in office.
Whether you’re a sports fan or not, you can’t help but feel the citywide support for the area’s sports teams, from the 2020 Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs to the Kansas City Royals to Sporting KC. Kansas City is also known as the College Basketball Capital of the World, and fans will enjoy the College Basketball Experience in the Power & Light District.
Pro Tip: There is no fee to ride Kansas City’s buses or streetcar.
When you’re ready to start your Kansas road trip, head southwest to Olathe (pronounced Oh-LAY-tha), Kansas. More than 150 years ago, when this area was predominantly prairie, the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails intersected at the Mahaffie Farm. Today you can spend a few hours traveling back to the 1860s at this living-history experience. You can even take a spin in the last operating stagecoach of the Santa Fe Trail!
When you’re ready to return to the present day, fuel up at Joe’s Kansas City, one of the most popular barbecue joints in the metro area. Try the signature Z-Man sandwich that layers brisket, smoked provolone cheese, onion rings, and tangy barbecue sauce on a Kaiser bun. And if you’re a vegetarian, you will enjoy the portobello Z-Man that substitutes smoked sliced mushrooms for the brisket.
As you get back on the road and continue south, stagecoaches will fade and the railroad will emerge, just as it did more than a century ago. The Midland Railway operates historic excursion trains like the Kansas Belle Dinner Train.
Baldwin City, Kansas, is also home to the Black Jack Battlefield and Nature Park, where some of the first shots of the Civil War were fired in the Free State of Kansas. It’s also where you’ll find the main campus of Baker University, a four-year liberal arts college with a storied past that was the first university in Kansas.
The next stop on this road trip -- Emporia, Kansas -- has several unique claims to fame, including being the first Prohibition town in the world (more than six decades before the 18th Amendment) and the first place in America to celebrate Veterans Day back in 1953.
Today, you can visit the stately red brick Tudor home of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and newspaper editor William Allen White. White and his wife, Sallie, hosted five presidents at this residence, affectionately known as Red Rocks.
Fortunately, the sale of alcohol is no longer prohibited in Emporia, so stop at Radius Brewing Company for a handcrafted brew and a bite to eat. The pretzel bread and beer cheese dip are perfect partners for any of the beers. If you’re the one behind the wheel on this road trip, then order a bowl of smoked Gouda beer cheese soup for the flavor of brown ale without the alcohol.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Heading westward in your modern-day gas-powered prairie schooner, you’ll reach the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. When covered wagons first rumbled across this region (likely camping overnight at the Mahaffie Farm), more than 170 million acres of tallgrass prairie blanketed North America. But in one generation, most of this complex ecosystem was converted to farmland.
Although it’s less than five percent of the original area, the Kansas Flint Hills are home to the largest section of remaining tallgrass prairie in North America. Take a guided tour of the preserve or hike one of the nature trails to explore this unique landscape.
Maxwell Wildlife Refuge
Thick herds of shaggy brown bison once roamed the Kansas prairie, providing Native Americans with food, clothing, tools, and more. But exploring the Sunflower State today, you’ll only spot the state animal on a farm, in a sanctuary, or woven into the state flag. One of the best places to observe the largest land mammal on the continent is at the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge, about 80 miles west of Emporia.
Continuing toward Wichita, be sure to stop at the Grace Hill Winery in Whitewater, Kansas. This full-service vineyard and winery offers free tastings and tours. Ask the tasting room attendant for a recommendation that pairs well with feta, chevre, or Gouda-style cheese (and buy a bottle for the next stop)!
About an hour south of the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge, Kechi, Kansas, is a small town on the northern edge of the Wichita metro area. Appreciate Kansas’s agricultural community in a uniquely flavorful way with a farm-to-table dinner at Elderslie Farm. Or, if time is short, stop by their creamery for a tasty collection of cheeses. The farm specializes in goat’s milk cheeses but also produces Foggy Ayr, a cow’s milk cheese. Pair your cheese with cured meats, bread or crackers, and your bottle of Grace Hill wine for an impromptu picnic.
Before you leave Kechi, stop by the Karg Art Glass Gallery for a glass-blowing demonstration and to admire Rollin Karg’s molten glass sculptures.
As you prepare to touch down in Wichita and officially enter the Air Capital of the World, stop at the Stearman Airfield Bar & Grill in Benton, Kansas. Not only can you enjoy the patio, sampling delicious food ranging from fried pickles to buttermilk-fried chicken drizzled with Sriracha, but you can watch planes come and go as you soak up the sun.
Standing at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers and looking toward the heavens as if offering a prayer, the Keeper of the Plains is a massive metal sculpture of a Native American chief and one of the most recognizable landmarks in Wichita. When you take in this moving sight, be sure to also tour the Mid-America All-Indian Center just a few steps away to learn more about the tradition and heritage of Native Americans.
If art and architecture are your thing, Wichita has you covered. Tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie-style Allen House, explore the Wichita Art Museum, and take in Wichita’s urban art scene with this self-guided walking tour.
If zoological and botanical gardens interest you, several fun Wichita attractions fit the bill. Botanica, Wichita’s botanical garden, is a beautiful oasis within the city year-round. Experience nine months of ever-changing blooms and colors from early spring through fall, or take in a breathtaking display of more than two million lights during Illuminations, the winter holiday light display. Animal lovers should check out the Sedgwick County Zoo or Tanganyika Wildlife Park for a walk on the wild side.
Whether you are seeking urban experiences or quiet moments on the prairie, you can find it all on this road trip from Kansas City to Wichita!