There’s nothing plain about the plains of Kansas.
Centrally located in the U.S., the Sunflower State is where American heritage and culture converge on many fronts. Named for the Native Americans who once inhabited its lands, Kansas and its occupants played a central role in bygone eras, including the westward expansion, the Civil War, and more recently, the civil rights movement. It’s also known as the Wheat State because of its agricultural prowess, but its varying climate and terrain support a surprising range of industries, meaning a trip to Kansas can emulate both the comforts of the Midwest and the wildness of the West.
From cities devoted to modern innovation to laid-back cowboy towns, this state in America’s heartland is landlocked and loaded to give groups a good time.
The Kansas City Metropolitan Area consists of two incorporated cities, one in Kansas and one across the state line in Missouri. Groups will find plenty to do on both sides — and easy access between the two. However, the Kansas side has a distinct combination of large-scale attractions and quaint wells of culture. A trip to Kansas City, Kansas, offers group travelers the opportunity to build a customized itinerary where entertainment, history and authenticity are represented.
One of the city’s largest attractions is the Kansas Speedway, a one-and-a-half-mile long NASCAR racetrack. NASCAR newbies and lifelong fans can catch a race or get access to the infield on nonrace days. Other prominent attractions in the city are related to its rich history. Group tours of sites like the Quindaro Underground Railroad Museum, the Quindaro Ruins Overlook and the city’s John Brown Statue teach visitors about the fight between abolitionist and proslavery forces. At the Strawberry Hill Museum and Cultural Center, groups will learn the stories of the Eastern European immigrants who once worked in the city’s meatpacking industry. These displays of culture and heritage offer perspective on the diversity of the present-day Kansas City community.
“You’re going to find a lot of unique cultural heritage here, a lot of unexpected things that you won’t find anywhere else,” said Alan Carr, executive director of Visit Kansas City Kansas.
When it comes to cuisine in Kansas City, its two essential dishes often surprise visitors. The first is its barbecue, which is known for a thicker, sweeter sauce. Group-friendly restaurants serving up this local favorite include Slap’s BBQ and Famous Dave’s Bar-B-Que. The other culinary surprise is tacos, and street taco tours allow visitors to sample as many tacos as they’d like. Or, groups can eat their fill at Taco Republic.
Lawrence, founded in 1854 by free-state advocates, had contentious beginnings during the Bleeding Kansas era. The city was even sacked and burned during the Civil War. Despite its combative beginnings, today it’s a college town, home to University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University, which has members from nearly 150 Native American tribes enrolled.
“We are a university town, a really fun, vibrant quirky college town,” said Andrea Johnson, director of marketing and communications at Explore Lawrence.
Many groups choose to make the college experience part of their itineraries with the Jayhawk Experience, which focuses on the University of Kansas’ athletic programs. Groups can see a display of the original rules of basketball and historic memorabilia, and tour some of the university’s sports facilities. The KU campus also includes group favorites like the Spencer Museum of Art, the Kansas University Natural History Museum and the Dole Institute of Politics.
In addition to its enthralling on-campus experiences, Lawrence is home to a buzzing downtown district, which features four blocks of local shops, eateries, art galleries and live music. Groups can enjoy the local scenery and walk the district together or on their own. For an off-campus history lesson, groups can visit the Watkins Museum of History in downtown Lawrence, featuring rotating exhibits focusing on the area’s history.
Lawrence has six breweries offering space for groups to enjoy traditional pub fare and craft beverages. One of the more prominent in town is Free State Brewing Company, the first legal brewery in Kansas after Prohibition. This laid-back local favorite serves quesadillas, fish and chips, and burgers. Merchants Pub and Plate, set in a historic bank building, offers farm-to-table selections using local ingredients.
Topeka is the unassuming capital of Kansas, with just over 125,000 residents. But this city on the Kansas River is also a hotspot for art and history. Established in the 1850s, Topeka was home to many abolitionists and even a stop on the Underground Railroad. About a century later, Topeka was the site of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case that made school segregation illegal.
Groups can see historic attractions throughout the city, including the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site and the Brown v. Board Museum; the Historic Ritchie House, the city’s Underground Railroad Stop; and Constitution Hall, where the anti-slavery constitution for Kansas territory was drafted in 1855. That’s in addition to the state’s capitol building, which was recently renovated and restored to its former glory.
“In Topeka you’re going to get some of that big-city feel with attractions, but you’re going to have the small-town feel of hospitality as you come in,” said Melissa Sowers, vice president of convention sales and marketing at Visit Topeka.
On top of rich history, groups will find plenty of art throughout Topeka. They can see many murals scattered throughout the city’s districts and visit its art galleries and museums, such as the Rita Blitt Gallery and Sculpture Garden and the Mulvane Art Museum. Another one of Topeka’s popular group attractions comes around each April at an event known as Tulip Time, when 100,000 tulips bloom at the Ted Ensley Gardens at Lake Shawnee. After a day of exploring the city, groups can stop at Blind Tiger Brewery and Restaurant, where they’ll find delicious craft beers and a varied menu featuring pub food, steaks and barbecue. Another local favorite is Hazel Hill Chocolate, where groups can receive a behind-the-scenes tour to learn how the shop’s delicious treats are made.
The largest city in Kansas has surprisingly humble roots as a trading post and site for cattle drives, even sporting the nickname “Cowtown” for a brief time. Wichita was officially incorporated in 1870, but by the early 20th century it was an aircraft production hub, earning it the new designation of “Air Capital of the World.” Today it’s a prominent site for industry and a metropolitan mecca of culture, featuring plenty of museums, art and restaurants. It’s also home to a great deal of Native American history. One of the city’s signature landmarks is “The Keeper of the Plains,” a 44-foot-tall steel sculpture representing the convergence of all the Plains tribes. In addition to this sculpture, the city has many murals and multiple art galleries for visitors to check out.
“Wichita is not only a vibrant destination with over 50 museums and attractions and more than 1,200 restaurants, but it’s also a city full of passionate and friendly locals ready to greet groups with a welcoming spirit,” said Marisa Pechanec, convention sales manager at Visit Wichita.
Wichita is home to a district called Museums on the River. Here, groups can see “The Keeper of the Plains” up close and visit the Mid-America All-Indian Museum. Groups can visit the Old Cowtown Museum, a living history museum transporting visitors back to 1865. They can also tour the Wichita Art Museum and Botanica Wichita, a beautiful collection of gardens and horticultural library. Another prominent Wichita museum is the Kansas Aviation Museum, where groups will find historic planes and an exploration of the city’s aviation history.
Nature-loving groups can visit Tanganyika Wildlife Park for up-close encounters with sloths, lemurs and penguins, or visit the many species at the Sedgwick County Zoo. After a day of exploring the city, groups can treat themselves to a mouthwatering meal at restaurants like River City Brewing Company for some pub food and live music.
To round out their Kansas itinerary, groups should visit Dodge City and step back in time to the lawless era of the Old West. Gunslingers, saloons and cowboys brought this historic town alive, and that energy can still be felt today by visitors. This small town in eastern Kansas was named for Fort Dodge, which was constructed to protect travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. Later, the Santa Fe Railroad brought the cattle trade through the city and established its legacy as a frontier town that captured the rowdy spirit and grit of the West.
“We have a ton of history that really captivates people,” said Robin Bailey, tourism coordinator at the Dodge City Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A step-on guide can accompany a motorcoach group along the Santa Fe Trail to immerse them in the stories of those pushing west in the 19th century. They can also see historic attractions, such as the Santa Fe Depot, constructed in 1898, and the Mueller-Schmidt House, the oldest building in the city still at its original site, complete with period furnishings. Other historic hotspots include the Boot Hill Museum, which contains over 60,000 Old West artifacts and the Long Branch Saloon, where visitors can sip on a sarsaparilla following their trip to the museum.
A trip to a city built on the cattle trade would be incomplete without a hearty steak, which Dodge City delivers. At Central Hill Station, a restaurant set in a historic freight house, groups can try a steak made on the only mesquite grille in the city. Cowboy Capital combines the feel of a historic saloon and a steakhouse. For a meal accompanied by entertainment, groups can attend the Long Branch Variety Show, where they’ll be entertained by Miss Kitty and the Can-Can dancers while they dine.