Today’s vendors of vegetables, spices, and flowers know what the horse traders, settlers, and political rally organizers knew a century and a half ago: Kansas City’s City Market is a prime spot to be on a weekend morning.
The historic marketplace, which sits between the leafy banks of the Missouri River and the soaring skyline of downtown Kansas City, has served as a gathering place for commerce for more than 160 years.
While the market area has gone through times of decline over the years, it also has had regular periods of renovation and revitalization. Today, the City Market attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, and it is one of the top tourist attractions in Kansas City.
Permanent merchants are open seven days a week, but Saturdays are when the City Market is at its best. On my May 2022 visit to Kansas City, I found the City Market’s River Market District to be relatively laidback during the weekdays. But on Saturday morning, everything came alive, with vendors offering fruits, handmade crafts, and a huge variety of international foods.
It is a tradition that is rooted in history. In the early days, the City Market area was situated at the crossroads of the move west by U.S. settlers. A Kansas City Public Library brochure notes that the first market shed was built at the site in 1857. “Little more than a stone’s throw from the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers, it was the center for a brisk trade, a place where farmers, settlers, westward-bound emigrants and riverboat crews bargained over foodstuffs, wood, textiles, tools, and other manufactured goods,” the brochure says.
Along with its farmers market on Saturdays, City Market also operates additional markets on Sundays and Wednesdays.
Here are nine reasons Kansas City’s historic City Market is worth a visit on a Saturday morning.
1. Scenic Location
With Kansas City’s big-city skyline as a backdrop, the City Market’s location just a block or two from the Missouri River gives the area a parklike atmosphere. In fact, the City Market is a part of Kansas City’s vibrant River Market District. A large overhead sign stands on one side of the City Market, and the trees and greenery of the river line the other side.
The area, once known as Westport Landing, served as the place in the early 1800s where traders on the Santa Fe Trail brought their goods by steamboat as far up the Missouri River as possible before departing on foot and wagon for Santa Fe.
The market is also not far from the spot where the Lewis & Clark Expedition famously stopped in 1804 for a rest at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers. A few blocks from the market, on a building at the corner of Wyandotte and West 5th Street, is a large mural that depicts the expedition’s stop in what is now Kansas City.
2. Farmers Market Shopping
On Saturdays from mid-March through mid-November, the City Market hosts the region’s largest farmers market, featuring 140 local vendors offering fresh produce, seafood, plants, baked goods, and handmade crafts. In addition, a mid-week farmers market is held on Wednesdays from June through October.
Vendors are arranged in an open-air market house, and the walkways are regularly filled with people browsing the flower stands, produce tables, and craft booths. Food trucks offer everything from snacks to meals.
In addition, the buildings that surround the open-air market house more than 30 shops and restaurants that are open year-round. A range of goods and souvenirs, such as T-shirts, baseball caps, coffee mugs, and scarves are available in shops like So Young’s Fashion and Yoki.
3. The Fun Vibe
The City Market gets about 600,000 visitors a year, and spring, summer, and fall weekends are abuzz with vendors and shoppers.
Along with the fun of browsing the stands and lunching at the variety of restaurants and cafés surrounding them, the market also offers events, including a concert series that entertains visitors with headlining acts. Updates can be found on the market’s events page.
Pro Tip: While admission to the market is free, some of the special events, exhibits, and concerts may charge admission.
4. Eclectic Dining
From the grilled meats at Taste of Brazil to the gyros and falafel at Hibashi House to the crispy pork egg rolls and pho soup at Hien Vuong Restaurant, the dining choices in Kansas City’s City Market offer a veritable tour around the globe.
The market’s website lists 17 restaurants and coffee houses, with focuses ranging from Asian cuisine to an Italian deli to locally sourced meats and sandwiches. The market is billed as a place to taste flavors from around the world, and the restaurants more than deliver in their variety.
5. Spices At Tikka House
For home cooks who want to experiment with their own Indian and Middle Eastern creations, the Tikka House Indian Cuisine & Market is a not-to-be-missed spot. Customers gravitate to Tikka’s small eatery and market for both the fresh-made, Indian-inspired kabobs and pockets, as well as the large array of bulk spices.
Tikka House’s Facebook page lists dozens of spices that are available by the scoop, and when I stopped by on a busy Saturday morning, I found a long line of shoppers waiting for specialty spices and herbs, such as hibiscus, basil, and cilantro.
6. Town Of Kansas Bridge And Riverfront Heritage Trail
Just down the block from the City Market, visitors will find the picturesque Town of Kansas Bridge, which serves as an entry point to the 15-mile Riverfront Heritage Trail.
The 650-foot-long bridge was constructed in 2004 and provides a bike and pedestrian link between the north end of Main Street and the original birthplace of the city on the banks of the Missouri River.
The bridge also features an observation deck that offers stellar views of the Missouri River and its series of historic bridges. An elevator is located near the observation deck, which takes bikes and walkers to the Riverfront Heritage Trail, which follows the route of the river for a time before meandering through historic neighborhoods of both Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas.
Pro Tip: Sunset is an especially beautiful time of day to visit the Town of Kansas Bridge. The sun casts its colorful reflection on the surface of the Missouri River.
7. Ice Cream At Betty Rae’s
Nothing beats the heat of a Midwest summer quite like ice cream, and Kansas City’s iconic Betty Rae’s Ice Cream has a location just a short walk from the City Market.
With its colorful outdoor mural and its range of creative flavors, Betty Rae’s is a fixture in the River Market District. When I visited on a hot afternoon in May, a cone of Brown Butter & Toasted Pecans offered the perfect cool-off treat. Other popular flavors include lavender honey, s’mores, and crème brulee.
Betty Rae’s is also known for its Ice Cream Sammies, with versions such as the classic chocolate chip cookie and vanilla ice cream and the Notorious PBC, with peanut butter cookie and chocolate ice cream.
8. Steamboat Arabia Museum
For 132 years, the cargo on the steamboat Arabia was a mystery. The steamer sank in the Missouri River in 1856 and wasn’t recovered until 1988, revealing a time capsule of life on the American frontier in the mid-19th century.
Today, the Arabia Steamboat Museum on the east side of the City Market offers an opportunity to see the everyday objects that made life possible for the pioneers of the 1800s. The museum’s website notes that the steamboat was carrying more than 200 tons of cargo intended for general stores and homes in 16 midwestern frontier towns. “The steamer was still fully loaded when it hit a tree snag and sank just six miles west of Kansas City,” says the website. Luckily, no human passengers lost their lives; however, a mule aboard the boat did.
The steamer remained buried for over a century. And with erosion and the change of the river’s course over the years, it was clear that Arabia was no longer beneath the Mighty Mo. In 1988, it was recovered lying 45 feet deep beneath a Kansas cornfield, a half-mile from the river’s modern location. In 1991, the steamer’s cargo was transferred to the Arabia Steamboat Museum, which is now a top Kansas City attraction.
9. Convenient Streetcar
I found getting to the City Market from the downtown area to be super easy via Kansas City’s streetcar. The KC Streetcar, which runs on a 2.2-mile route along Main Street, has 16 stops and connects the River Market to Union Station/Crown Center. Along with being convenient, the streetcar is free to riders.
Among the streetcar’s stops are the City Market at 5th and Walnut streets, the River Market North at 3rd and Grand, and the River Market West at 4th and Delaware. All are within an easy walk of the City Market.
Pro Tip: Picnic areas are available near the City Market at the shady City Market Park, and at Berkley Riverfront Park, which is along the Missouri River and accessible via the Riverfront Heritage Trail.
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