Wichita, Kansas’s largest city, offers terrific dining, shopping, cultural, and recreational activities. Every time I visit Wichita, the city opens more of its treasures, and I am always reluctant to depart. But an entire state awaits discovery beyond its largest city.
Here are nine Kansas cities to explore. We enjoy them because of their attractions, dining, and character.
I’ve visited several of these communities on press trips. However, all opinions are my own.
1. Eat Your Way Along Kansas City’s Food Trails
The Kansas Turnpike runs from Wichita to Kansas City, Kansas, nicknamed KCK. The drive requires a bit under three hours. Make sure you arrive hungry because a parade of dining delights lies ahead. Kansas City is famous for its barbecue, and SLAP’s BBQ leads the parade. The restaurant’s name stands for Squeal Like A Pig. Come on Tuesdays for Burnt End Tacos.
Save room for the KCK Taco Trail, nearly 50 taquerias serving every type of taco. Sign up to earn prizes. We loved El Camino Real, which continually turns the meat on a spit. A pineapple spins above the meat, adding flavor and moisture. They make fresh tortillas for every order.
Village West includes excellent shopping at Legends Outlets, where shops and food abound. Sports fans will enjoy Sporting KC games and races at Kansas Speedway. Stay in the Chateau Avalon’s themed suites.
Pro Tip: Some of the taco trail’s prizes come from Spicin Foods. The factory produces its signature lines, plus private-label products. Visit their outlet for deep discounts.
2. Explore Top-Notch Museums And The State Fair In Hutchinson
Hutchinson is only an hour northwest of Wichita on Highway 96, but the short drive will guide you to the heights of the cosmos and the depths of the earth.
The Cosmosphere started with a planetarium show in a Kansas State Fairgrounds building. From that small beginning, the museum has grown to include the most extensive combined collection of American and Soviet aircraft. It’s the only Midwestern museum to hold spacecraft from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs. Don’t miss the Justice Planetarium and movies in the digital dome theater. If you enjoy things that go boom, you’ll love Dr. Goddard’s Lab.
Explore the earth’s depths at Strataca, the Kansas Underground Salt Museum. You’ll never look at salt the same after Strataca. The hoist carries visitors 650 feet down into a salt mine, where the faint smell of salt surrounds visitors. Train rides convey guests around the mine. The 30-minute Dark Ride explains the mine’s safety challenges. The guides tell fascinating stories, and you can choose a free chunk of salt. My piece sits on my desk, and I often rub my fingers over it while writing.
UV&S stores numerous companies’ archives in the mine. Look for the movie display, where we saw the machine Dorothy from the movie Twister. Two hours later, we evaded tornadoes around Dodge City.
Pro Tip: In the summer, bring a jacket to lessen the shocking disparity between the mine’s temperature and the intense Kansas heat.
Every September, celebrate Kansas at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson.
Stop at Yoder Meats southeast of Hutchinson on Highway 96 for delicious meats, cheeses, baked goods, and pickles. At Carriage Crossing Restaurant, savor a hickory-smoked ham with sides, followed by a slice of their divine pies.
3. Take The Road To Wamego, The Emerald City Of Oz
We grew up watching The Wizard of Oz on television each year. Relive the Oz experience in Wamego, two hours northeast of Wichita. The 9-mile Road to Oz starts at I-70’s Exit 328. In Wamego, find the unmistakable Oz Museum on the west side of Lincoln Ave. The movie runs continually in the museum’s theater, but the collections encompass the entire Oz universe. The Oz Museum is one of 11 Midwest museums that we recommend.
Totos TacOZ is next door. If your stomach is empty, eat the Bust My Buttons burrito. If you manage to eat it all, your buttons will burst. Those who aren’t so hungry should eat a Yellow Brick Burrito. Plan for leftovers.
Enjoy a wine tasting at The Oz Winery, a block south of the museum. We recommend the Squished Witch, Can’t Find My Way Home, and Wicked Deeds.
Pro Tip: For the entire Oz experience, park on Ash Street, two blocks east of the museum. Eat lunch at The Friendship House, then walk the mural-covered Yellow Brick Road toward the museum. At the road’s west end, take a selfie at the gate.
4. Experience #6740Wonderful In Salina
Salina’s hashtag is #6740wonderful. Drive 1.5 hours north on Interstate 135 to experience Salina’s relaxed lifestyle. A mural on Ad Astra Books & Coffee House’s north wall celebrates the city’s zip code. After taking a picture in front of the mural, drink Ad Astra’s coffee and buy a Kansas-themed book.
Head 20 minutes west to the Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure. The attraction has two sections: the zoo and a museum. Your ticket includes both. Watch as the zoo’s animals roam in naturalistic habitats. In the museum, animatronic “humans” tell stories about climates and cultures from the Arctic to the tropics.
Pro Tip: Go to the zoo during the day’s best weather, when the animals are most likely to be outdoors. Visit the museum during uncomfortable weather. Wheelchairs and scooters are for rent, and your dogs can stay in air-conditioned kennels.
5. Ride To Concordia, The Orphan Train Town
At the turn of the last century, numerous children lived desperate lives in Eastern cities. The Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital decided to ship 250,000 children to better lives. Concordia, two hours north of Wichita on Highway 81, preserves their stories. The National Orphan Train Complex and the orphans’ sculptures solidify Concordia’s status as the Orphan Train Town.
First, examine the 140-foot-long Whole Wall Mural on the Cloud County Museum Annex’s east wall. It’s the longest sculpted brick mural in the United States. See unusual kiddie ride animals inside. Before you leave, make an appointment to tour Camp Concordia.
The Orphan Train Complex tour begins in the former Union Pacific Depot. But the most evocative museum exhibit is a vintage passenger car, which takes visitors back in time. Children hoping for a better life have left their belongings on the train while they’re out meeting potential families. The objects in the car evoke the children’s longings and fears. If your ancestor was an orphan train rider, visit the research center.
The orphans weren’t the only fascinating people to enter Concordia by train. From 1943 to 1945, Camp Concordia held German prisoners of war. Three hundred buildings served 4,000 POWs. Building T-9 contains a small museum.
Try the Hangover Burger with sour cream and chives fries at Easy G Sports Bar & Grill. Look for the section of the Cloud County Community College T-Birds basketball floor. Play Ms. Pac-Man while drinking a malt at Britt’s Fountain and Gifts.
Pro Tip: The World’s Largest Ball of Sisal Twine is an hour west of Concordia in Cawker City. Contact the caretaker, Linda Clover, to add a piece to the ball.
6. Take A Bite of Manhattan, The Little Apple
The home of Kansas State University, Manhattan, is two hours northeast of Wichita. For the best scenery, enter Manhattan via I-70’s Exit 316.
Dangle your feet from the rocks at Pillsbury Crossing Wildlife Area. At high water, Deep Creek Waterfall is about 60 feet wide and 5 feet tall. Drive through a low water crossing on Pillsbury Crossing Lane and park on the east side.
Follow the short hiking trail or walk along Deep Creek. I hiked all over the falls with my trekking poles. Be cautious on the wet rocks, but the hint of danger adds exhilaration to the experience. Fish for channel catfish and spotted bass upstream and downstream of the crossing.
Hiking nearby Konza Prairie is my favorite thing to do in Manhattan; it’s one of the state’s best hikes. Download the Nature Trail guide, which includes all three loop trails’ maps. All hikers must exit the preserve before dusk.
Prepare for occasional steep climbs, uneven footing, and narrow pathways. Bring trekking poles and water. The views make your effort worthwhile. Listen for bird calls and the wind rustling through the grasses. In the spring, wildflowers carpet the hills. Spring also brings cinnamon-colored bison calves.
Follow Pillsbury Drive into Manhattan and look for the boat ramp under the east edge of the Kansas River bridge. Float down the river in your kayak or canoe. Access points are 1.5 and 11.5 river miles east. Check water levels before you go.
Your hikes have taken you through the Flint Hills. Learn more about the region and its tall grasses at the Flint Hills Discovery Center. Treat your palate to wild boar at Wine Dive + Kitchen, then drink a Raspberry Townie beer at Manhattan Brewing Co.
Pro Tip: Are you planning a trip to Wichita? Here are 11 unique things to do in the Air Capital.