To confuse travellers everywhere, there are two places named Kansas City in the USA, and they’re sitting side by side. The state of Kansas might be the obvious place to find one of them but the older, more famous – and arguably more interesting of the pair – is actually just across the state line in Missouri, and that city is the subject of this guide.
Often abbreviated to KCMO, the city is the self-proclaimed barbecue capital of the world. It’s also a jazz hub, and the one-time frontier of the United States. A unique blend of Southern charm and Midwestern spirit lives here and, with a new airport terminal open as of February 2023, it’s gearing up for an influx of visitors.
Heading there as part of a road trip or tempted to make a special journey? Here are the best things to do, hotels to stay at and restaurants to dine in.
Best things to do
Learn about early US history
Missouri was, at one time, the final frontier of the United States. Land to the west was largely unexplored by European settlers and remained indigenous territory. Westward migration in the 1830s began from the nearby city of Independence, but Kansas City, located at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers, soon overtook it as the starting point for journeys along the Oregon, California and Santa Fe trails.
You’ll get a glimpse of this in the lively neighbourhood of Westport, where KCMO was founded, though you’re more likely to encounter its slew of bars and restaurants. So instead head to the Arabia Steamboat Museum, where the lives of people who were on the frontiers are told through a fascinating display of items salvaged from a 19th-century steamboat. Complete your education with visits to the cities of Independence and St Joseph; bus services are limited so you’re better off driving.
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Explore the art scene
For what’s a relatively small city, KCMO has a startlingly expansive art scene. The pinnacle is the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Early curators for the now 90-year-old museum amassed an enormous collection thanks to the Great Depression, which meant art and artefacts were being sold incredibly cheaply. Highlights include an extensive collection of Asian art and a prized Caravaggio.
The Crossroads neighbourhood is home to over a dozen small galleries showcasing works by local and international artists. All are free to visit, and within walking distance of each other. Leedy-Voulkos Art Center and Belger Arts Center are two of the bigger ones.
Soak up the jazz
They say that jazz was born in New Orleans but grew up in Kansas City. One reason was that during Prohibition (1920–1933), the city’s then-councilman Tom Pendergast never restricted alcohol sales, and clubs where African-American musicians from the southern states would play flourished.
The American Jazz Museum is a good place to start for this history lesson. Interactive displays celebrate artists as well as the genre’s progression through time. It’s also attached to The Blue Room, a cosy jazz club known for open jam sessions. Then hop over to the popular Green Lady Lounge. The upstairs main room is more spacious but the Orion lounge downstairs has the feel of a speakeasy. For night owls, there’s also the Mutual Musicians Foundation, where those early jazz musicians would play after their main gig. True to tradition, it doesn’t open until 1.30am.
Best time to visit
The city shows its best side during the summer months but any time can work. Just bear in mind that storms can cause havoc with your travel plans in winter – though you will be rewarded with glittery fairy lights over shop fronts and fire pits to keep things cosy.
Where to stay
Crossroads Hotel is in the middle of the arts district and repurposes the warehouse frame of an old brewery. Its lobby bar is the place to be seen almost every night of the week, and regular networking events as well as rotating art displays mean you’ll have a good chance to mingle with locals (if you want to).
Accor’s quirky 21C Museum Hotel brand has taken over a number of historic buildings across middle America and transformed them into hotel-meets-art spaces. The Kansas City outpost is no different. The rooms are relatively low-key compared to the lobby, which features an oft-changing cast of works, with guided tours for the public and guests alike.
Formerly the home of a social club that hosted Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, Hotel Kansas City is in the heart of the Power & Light entertainment district. As part of the Hyatt Unbound Collection – the brand’s luxury boutique portfolio – the rooms feature chic styling with decent amenities.
Where to eat
Barbecue is big business in Kansas City – so much so there’s an annual festival with over 600 pitmasters competing to be named the best in show. There’s no clear winner though; many restaurants are known for specific dishes and locals will pick ‘n’ mix on takeaways. Essential stops include Jack Stack’s melt-in-mouth beef short ribs and smokey hickory pit beans or the indulgent burnt ends (double-smoked first cut of briskets) from LC’s Bar-B-Q.
The best restaurants for refined dining are found in hotels. Try The Town Company in Hotel Kansas City from husband-and-wife team Johnny and Helen Jo Leach. Both have worked at the great and the good of American restaurants and are now turning their hands to elevated Midwestern cuisine, ranging from steak tartare to rolled lamb shoulder with seasonal vegetables.
If you’re in search of something cheap and cheerful, try King G for no-frills sandwiches that really hit the spot – especially if you’ve over-indulged at their bar. Hot salami and provolone cheese or veggie bahn mi are among the options. There’s also Billie’s Grocery, which does a roaring trade thanks to its gluten-free cookies and cakes.
Where to drink
Messenger Coffee is your go-to spot for artisan coffees, whether that’s a standard espresso, drip coffee or punchy cold brew. The Roasterie does factory tours, or make a bee-line for its cafe to sample specialty coffees, including one flavoured like snickerdoodles (a type of cinnamon cookie). Then there’s Café Corazón, where the latte flights are as popular as the yerba mate.
Kansas City has a whole spectrum of craft booze. The biggest is Boulevard Brewing Co, where you can take brewery tours. But the attached bar is far more interesting – aside from standard brews, there are experimental flavours such as strawberry wheat beer. For smaller brewpubs, East Crossroads is the neighbourhood to visit. Several outfits are within walking distance, including small batch specialists Casual Animal Brewing Co and family-owned Nimble Brewing.
Spirit-wise, J Rieger was America’s largest mail-order bourbon brand pre-Prohibition, but the company shut down production when alcohol was outlawed. In 2014, the brand was resurrected by the only remaining descendant of the family and a flashy new distillery with three separate bars opened. There’s also Mean Mule Distilling Co, which specialises in agave spirits – though its non-alcoholic cocktails, like the tangy Loosey Goosey (lemon and ginger beer-based), are surprisingly good, too.
Where to shop
If it’s souvenirs you’re after, Made in KC is your one-stop shop for everything local. Aside from the usual hats and T-shirts, there are barbecue rubs and hot sauces to bring a taste of KCMO home with you. There are a few outlets but the one in Country Club Plaza is one of the biggest; the outdoor mall has all the usual international brands too. Otherwise, whether it’s just a small deli or a hip bar, most businesses in the city will have their own line of merchandise.
Hammerpress in West Bottoms is a little out of the way but they have fun greeting cards and gorgeous stationery to choose from. The neighbourhood also hosts one of the largest flea markets in the US on the first Friday of every month. If you visit at other times of the year, there are a handful of antique shops with sporadic opening hours that are worth trying your luck with.
And if you’re after something a bit more unusual, try Kansas City River Market. It’s largely food and drink, but there are usually a handful of stalls from local makers selling art and jewellery.
For striking architecture, there are three essential stops: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and the National WWI Museum.
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
Should I tip?
The standard is 20 per cent.
What’s the time difference?
What’s the average flight time from the UK?
About 12 hours with a stopover in Chicago.
How should I get around?
The downtown areas of KCMO are compact enough to be walkable, while buses and trams will help you get to most of the touristy areas with ease. They run until midnight and are completely free. Uber and Lyft are both available.
What’s the best view?
The Liberty Memorial Tower gives 360-degree views of KCMO, and you’ll be able to see parts of Kansas City in Kansas, too.
Jesse James, one of America’s most famous outlaws, hails from Missouri. His birthplace, Kearney, is about 30-minute drive from KCMO, while St Joseph, about an hour away, is where he died. Both cities have museums dedicated to him that are well worth visiting.
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