Traveling west from Kansas City, the bustling urban area that straddles the states of Missouri and Kansas quickly morphs into rolling prairie accented with picturesque barns, herds of cows, and (depending on when you visit) colorful wildflowers. Headed in this direction, you’ll find yourself first in Lawrence and then in Manhattan.
Home to the University of Kansas and Kansas State University, respectively, both are great college towns that aren’t too small or too big, and they’re full of friendly Midwesterners. Here’s how Lawrence and Manhattan compare.
1. Getting There
Traveling west on I-70, Lawrence is about 45 minutes from downtown Kansas City. Note that a good portion of this drive is on the Kansas Turnpike, a toll road, so if you want to take the scenic route, you can pick up KS 32 in Bonner Springs. It only takes about 10 minutes longer, and it is often more scenic.
Manhattan is another 90 minutes west of Lawrence. While most of the journey is a straight shot on I-70, Manhattan isn’t right off the Interstate like Lawrence. Visiting this college town is a bit more of a commitment because you’ll have to travel about nine miles north of I-70 on KS 177 (also named the Bill Snyder Highway after K-State’s legendary football coach) to reach Manhattan. If you’re visiting Manhattan from Kansas City, the Kansas Turnpike mentioned above stretches from Bonner Springs to Topeka, but you can avoid it by taking U.S. 40 and U.S. 24 between those two cities before picking up I-70 in Topeka.
2. What’s In A Name?
With a name like New York City’s most densely populated borough, you may be wondering if there’s a link between the Kansas college town of Manhattan and the Big Apple. There is! The settlers who established the town in 1850 were sponsored by the New England Emigrant Aid Company and named it after the larger, better-known city back east.
Lawrence also has a link to the Northeast. The son of Revolutionary War soldier Samuel Lawrence helped fund the New England Emigrant Aid Company. So another group of pioneers traveling westward in the 1850s to what is now Kansas named this college town after him.
Fun Fact: In a nod to its much more famous namesake, Manhattan’s nickname is The Little Apple. Meanwhile, folks affectionately call Lawrence “LFK” (and yes, the “F” stands for what you think it does).
With about 100,000 residents, Lawrence is the sixth-largest city in Kansas. Manhattan’s population is around 55,000, putting it three spots below Lawrence on the biggest cities in Kansas list. As college towns, both Lawrence and Manhattan see a spike in August as students arrive at their respective universities. And in mid-May when the strains of Pomp and Circumstance fill the air and cars are loaded to the brim, both towns suddenly feel much quieter and less crowded as students head home for the summer months.
4. Jayhawks Vs. Wildcats
Like in many regions from coast to coast, University of Kansas and Kansas State University are rival schools. And, in full disclosure, I’m the daughter of a K-State graduate, the mother of a K-State graduate, and an alumna who will forever have fond memories of the years I spent in “Manhappiness.” However, I did live in Lawrence for several years after graduate school (even though you’ll never catch me in KU gear).
Enrollment at KU is about 28,000 students, which doesn’t include its medical school and research hospital in Kansas City. The school mascot is a Jayhawk, a fictional bird based on Kansans who would cross the state line into Missouri, steal enslaved people, and bring them back to Kansas, the Free State.
When you visit Lawrence, Kansas, you’re sure to see a lot of royal blue and crimson shirts, especially packed into Allen Fieldhouse “waving the wheat” during basketball season. KU students and alums are tremendously proud of the team’s national titles and strong program. If you’re visiting outside of basketball season, or the team has an away game, you can still tour the DeBruce Center, which includes a glimpse of Dr. James Naismith’s original rules for the sport.
In Manhattan, K-State students number about 22,000, and when you visit, expect to see a sea of royal purple. As the Sunflower State’s land-grant college, it’s well-known for its agriculture, horticulture, and veterinary programs. The school’s mascot is Willie the Wildcat, who can be seen doing push-ups when K-State scores during football season.
Both schools tout famous alumni. KU alums you might recognize include actors Don Johnson and Paul Rudd, politician Bob Dole, and fashion designer Kate Spade. Well-known K-State alums include actor Eric Stonestreet, environmental activist Erin Brockovich, presidential press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, and Earl Woods, father of golf legend Tiger Woods.
5. Mass Street Vs. Aggieville
The best college towns often include an area near campus with quiet bookstores, local coffee shops, cozy cafes, and lively bars — and both Lawrence and Manhattan deliver.
Although it is a few blocks away from campus, Massachusetts Street (known locally as Mass Street) serves this role in Lawrence. The epicenter of Mass Street activity begins just north of the park around 11th St. and stretches to 6th St., where the road prepares to cross the Kansas River.
Kick off your time in Lawrence with breakfast or brunch at The Roost, and re-caffeinate as needed at Alchemy Coffee & Bake House. If you’re craving pizza, be sure to stop by Limestone, where everything is made from scratch. Dig into a filling sandwich at Quinton’s, or put delicious craft beer ahead of food at Free State Brewing Co. Whatever you choose, be sure to top things off with a scoop of ice cream (or two) from Sylas & Maddy’s.
In Manhattan, a six-block area adjacent to K-State known as Aggieville is the heart of off-campus activity. Anchored by Varsity Theater (which has housed non-cinema businesses since the 1980s and is currently a two-story Rally House filled with Wildcat merchandise and more), the main drag through Aggieville is Moro St.
Enjoy coffee and breakfast at Public Hall, browse the unique items for sale at ACME gift, pair a pour with some sunshine at Johnny Kaw’s Yard Bar, enjoy an away game with the crowd at Tanner’s, or dig into barbecue pulled pork mac ‘n cheese at Kite’s Bar & Grill. Whether you start your day with fresh donuts or wrap up a night of partying in the ’Ville with a stop at the food truck out back, no trip to Manhattan is complete without visiting Varsity Donuts.
Pro Tip: Although it’s not in Aggieville, the Call Hall Dairy Bar serves the best ice cream in Manhattan. Made with farm-fresh ingredients at the ag school, K-State students whip up and serve more than 20,000 gallons of ice cream each year. Be sure to try K-State’s signature flavor, Purple Pride, with fresh blueberries providing the perfect purple color.
6. The Kaw And Johnny Kaw
When you visit Kansas, you may hear people talking about the “Kaw.” It took me quite some time after moving to Northeast Kansas to realize that’s a nickname for the Kansas River and not an additional river in the region.
While in Manhattan, you may hear a lot about Johnny Kaw. He’s a fictional character created by K-State horticultural professor Dr. George Filinger in 1955. While this burly, larger-than-life character was busy creating the Kansas prairie and forging trails for pioneers traveling westward to the Sunflower State, his pets — a jayhawk and a wildcat — fought like cats and dogs. Their brawls were so intense that they started the Dust Bowl in one of Dr. Filinger’s tall tales.
While both Lawrence and Manhattan possess the energy you’d expect from a Midwestern college town, Lawrence has long been considered “a blue dot in a red state.” Overall, Kansas has roughly two times more registered Republicans than Democrats, but Lawrence’s Douglas County is the only one in the state with more registered Democrats.
In the Swinging Sixties, in large part due to the student population at KU, Lawrence was the focal point for social change in Kansas. When you visit today, expect a more socially conscious, environmentally observant, and liberal-minded experience than elsewhere in the state.
Manhattan is just a short drive from Fort Riley, a 150-year-old military post that is home to the “Big Red One” 1st Infantry Division and one of the largest infantry training facilities in the United States. Although Manhattan’s Riley County is close to a 50/50 split between registered Republicans and Democrats, expect a slightly more conservative vibe than in Lawrence, especially away from the K-State campus.
Pro Tip: If you love Lawrence and Manhattan, don’t miss these small towns in Kansas.
8. Things To Do And See
Round out your time in Lawrence by exploring a few of its most popular attractions. In addition to the Dole Institute of Politics and Booth Family Hall of Athletics, I suggest visiting the Spencer Museum of Art and Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum. Both are small but impressive museums on the University of Kansas campus.
In Manhattan, the Flint Hills Discovery Center teaches visitors about the region’s flinty limestone, smooth shale, and last unplowed tallgrass prairie in North America. Or, you can experience the beauty of the Flint Hills firsthand by hiking the 2.6-mile Konza Prairie Nature Trail. Less strenuous outdoor activities include strolling through the Gardens at Kansas State University or visiting the Sunset Zoo.
Whether you “rock chalk” or bleed purple, you’re sure to enjoy both of these great Midwestern college towns!
For more on the great state of Kansas, check out: