Located at the heart of the American Midwest, Kansas is a land of surprises waiting to be discovered. Beyond its reputation as a vast expanse of rolling plains, Kansas offers a diverse array of tourist attractions and activities that celebrate its rich history, natural beauty, cultural heritage, and unique charm.
From historical landmarks that date back to the tumultuous days of the American Civil War to the stunning vistas and the vibrant cultural scenes of its major cities, Kansas draws in tourists with a blend of tradition, adventure, and quirkiness.
Whether you are a history enthusiast, a nature lover, a cultural explorer, or an aficionado of the extraordinary, Kansas promises an unforgettable experience that will leave a lasting impression on your heart and mind. To help you get the most out of a trip to the Sunflower State, we’ve explored some of the state’s best attractions, things to do, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
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Kansas’ Rich History
Kansas boasts a compelling history that has significantly shaped the nation as a whole. One of the most prominent aspects of this history is its pivotal role in the American Civil War.
The state was at the centre of the turmoil leading up to the Civil War, earning the moniker “Bleeding Kansas” due to the intense conflicts between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed the residents of these territories to determine whether they would permit slavery, triggered a wave of violence and political battles.
The struggle for control over the territory culminated in events like the “Sack of Lawrence” and the infamous John Brown-led Pottawatomie massacre. Ultimately, Kansas entered the Union as a free state in 1861, firmly aligning itself with the anti-slavery cause.
This tumultuous period in Kansas’ history played a significant role in pushing the nation towards the Civil War and solidifying its legacy as a pivotal battleground.
Santa Fe Trail
Another integral aspect of Kansas’ historical tapestry is the Santa Fe Trail, which played a large role in the westward expansion and trade during the 19th century. Stretching from Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico, this historic trail was a vital commercial artery for nearly six decades.
The Santa Fe Trail was a lifeline for traders and pioneers, facilitating the exchange of goods, culture, and ideas between the American frontier and the Mexican territories. It was along this trail that the iconic images of covered wagons, traders, and Native American encounters were etched into the American imagination.
Today, remnants of the Santa Fe Trail can still be explored, and visitors can walk in the footsteps of those who once traversed this historic route, gaining insight into the challenges and opportunities that shaped the nation’s western expansion.
The Santa Fe Trail stands as a testament to the adventurous spirit of the early pioneers and the enduring legacy of westward expansion in the United States.
Fort Scott National Historic Site
Kansas boasts a wealth of key historical attractions that offer a glimpse into the state’s deep past. One such attraction is the Fort Scott National Historic Site in Fort Scott, Kansas. This site preserves a well-preserved military fort that played a pivotal role throughout American history.
Established in 1842, Fort Scott served as a crucial outpost on the frontier, protecting settlers and traders along the Santa Fe Trail. During the Bleeding Kansas era and the Civil War, the fort became a strategic point in the conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces.
Today, visitors can explore the well-preserved buildings, barracks, and exhibits, immersing themselves in the history of the fort and gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by early settlers and soldiers in the region.
Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site
Another significant historic site in Kansas is the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka. This site holds immense historical and cultural importance as it commemorates the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
The site includes the Monroe Elementary School, one of the segregated schools involved in the case. Visitors can step inside the school and learn about the courageous efforts of the Brown family and the other plaintiffs who challenged the discriminatory policies of the time.
The site’s exhibits and educational programs provide valuable insights into the Civil Rights Movement and the ongoing struggle for equality in America.
Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City
For those interested in the Wild West and the frontier days, the Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City is a must-visit historic attraction in Kansas. Dodge City, known as the “Wickedest Little City in America” during the 19th century, was a notorious frontier town filled with cowboys and outlaws.
The Boot Hill Museum takes visitors back in time to this turbulent era, offering a recreation of the town’s historic Front Street, complete with saloons, shops, and a blacksmith. The museum also features a cemetery where some of Dodge City’s most infamous characters were buried, earning it the name “Boot Hill.”
With its engaging exhibits, gunfight reenactments, and a rich collection of artefacts, the Boot Hill Museum offers a fascinating glimpse into the Wild West and the colourful characters who once called Dodge City home.
Areas of Natural Beauty
Kansas’ Natural Landscapes
Kansas’ natural landscapes offer a surprising diversity that amazes tourists unfamiliar with the state. While it is often associated with flat plains, the geography of Kansas is far more varied than meets the eye.
The eastern part of the state is characterised by lush forests, rolling hills, and numerous rivers and streams. Moving westward, the landscape transitions into the iconic Flint Hills, a unique and visually stunning region covered in tallgrass prairie.
Further west, you encounter the Gypsum Hills, featuring striking red and orange rock formations. In the southwest, you’ll find the Cimarron National Grassland and the expansive High Plains. This varied geography provides a wealth of natural beauty and outdoor activities for visitors to explore.
The Flint Hills stand out as one of the most iconic and picturesque landscapes in Kansas. Stretching across eastern Kansas, the Flint Hills are characterised by their rolling, grass-covered hills, which create a vast and seemingly endless horizon.
What makes the Flint Hills particularly remarkable is the presence of tallgrass prairie, one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America. Visitors to this area can explore its natural beauty through hiking trails, wildlife observation, and scenic drives, all while gaining an appreciation for the delicate balance of nature.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, located in the heart of the Flint Hills, is a testament to Kansas’ commitment to preserving its natural heritage. This preserve protects one of the last remaining expanses of tallgrass prairie in the world.
Visitors have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the tallgrass ecosystem, which is home to diverse plant and animal species. Hiking trails, guided tours, and educational programs allow visitors to explore this unique environment and learn about the history of prairies in America.
The preserve’s stunning vistas and the soothing sway of tallgrass in the wind provide an unparalleled connection with the natural world.
In contrast to the Flint Hills, Kansas’ Gypsum Hills offer a strikingly different natural attraction. Located in the southwestern part of the state, these hills are known for their dramatic red and orange rock formations, which stand in stark contrast to the surrounding plains.
These sedimentary rocks have been shaped by erosion over millions of years, creating canyons, buttes, and mesas that provide a rugged and visually stunning landscape. Visitors can hike, explore, and marvel at the unique geology of the Gypsum Hills, all while enjoying breathtaking panoramic views.
The area is also home to a variety of wildlife, making it a fantastic destination for nature enthusiasts and photographers.
Outdoor enthusiasts will adore the wealth of opportunities for outdoor adventure in Kansas. Hiking and trail options are abundant throughout the state, catering to novice and experienced hikers.
In the Flint Hills, trails wind through the rolling prairies, offering breathtaking vistas of the tallgrass landscape. The Konza Prairie Nature Trail, for example, provides a glimpse into the heart of the Flint Hills, with multiple trails of varying lengths for visitors to explore.
On the other hand, the Gypsum Hills offer hiking trails that meander through unique rock formations and canyons, providing a unique hiking experience. The state parks and wildlife areas across Kansas offer a range of trails, from short nature walks to longer backpacking routes.
Kansas’ natural areas also provide excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. The state’s diverse ecosystems support a wide range of species, making it a prime destination for birdwatching, wildlife photography, and animal enthusiasts.
The Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, known as the “Crown Jewel of Kansas Wildlife,” attracts thousands of migratory birds, including waterfowl and shorebirds, making it a birdwatcher’s paradise.
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve offers a chance to spot bison, elk, and other wildlife that call the prairie home. Visitors can also observe white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and various species of songbirds in the state’s woodlands and grasslands.
Camping and Outdoor Recreation
For those seeking a more immersive outdoor experience, Kansas has many camping areas. Many state parks and wildlife areas in Kansas offer well-maintained campgrounds where visitors can pitch tents or park RVs, allowing them to spend the night amid the natural beauty.
Additionally, fishing and boating opportunities are abundant in the state’s numerous lakes and reservoirs, making it an ideal destination for anglers and water sports enthusiasts. Whether casting a line, paddling on tranquil waters, or simply enjoying a campfire under the starlit Kansas sky, camping and outdoor recreation offer a chance to unwind and recharge.
Museums and Cultural Organizations
Impact on Art and Culture
Kansas’ art and culture scene is a dynamic blend of diverse influences, reflecting the state’s rich history and the creativity of its residents. The art scene in Kansas encompasses a wide range of artistic expressions, from traditional to contemporary.
Cities like Wichita and Kansas City are home to vibrant arts communities, with numerous galleries, theatres, and music venues that showcase local and international talent. The state’s museums and cultural institutions regularly host exhibitions, performances, and events that contribute to the cultural enrichment of both residents and visitors.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
One of the standout institutions in Kansas is The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Renowned for its extensive and varied collection, this museum offers a treasure trove of artistic wonders. It houses works spanning thousands of years and diverse cultures, including European, American, Asian, and African art.
The museum’s collection includes iconic pieces like Henry Moore’s “Sheep Piece” and the impressive “Chinese Temple Bell,” among many others. The Nelson-Atkins also boasts beautiful outdoor sculptures and a picturesque sculpture garden, making it a must-visit for art enthusiasts and anyone seeking a cultural experience in Kansas.
Mid-America All-Indian Center
Located in Wichita, the Mid-America All-Indian Center plays a vital role in preserving and promoting Native American culture and heritage. This cultural centre offers an engaging and educational experience for visitors of all ages. It showcases the rich history, art, and traditions of the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains.
The centre features rotating exhibits, art displays, and interactive programs that provide insights into Native American history, art, and contemporary life. Additionally, the Mid-America All-Indian Center hosts cultural events and powwows, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the vibrant and diverse cultures of the state’s Native American communities.
Kansas City Jazz Museum
For lovers of jazz music and history, the Kansas City Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, just across the state line, is a must-visit destination. This museum pays tribute to the city’s rich jazz heritage, which played a pivotal role in the development of this quintessentially American music genre.
Visitors can explore interactive exhibits that trace the evolution of jazz and its impact on American culture. The museum also hosts live jazz performances, educational programs, and special events that celebrate the contributions of legendary musicians like Charlie Parker and Count Basie.
Urban Attractions in Kansas
In Kansas City, you can’t miss the city’s world-famous barbecue scene. Known for its deliciously smoky flavours and mouthwatering meats, Kansas City is a BBQ lover’s paradise. Restaurants like Arthur Bryant’s and Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que are iconic destinations for indulging in ribs, burnt ends, and other delectable barbecue specialities.
Beyond food, Kansas City has a vibrant music scene deeply rooted in jazz history. The 18th & Vine Historic District is a cultural hub where you can explore the history of jazz and enjoy live performances.
Additionally, the Country Club Plaza offers upscale shopping, dining, and entertainment in a beautifully designed Spanish-inspired setting. Visitors can stroll the Plaza’s charming streets, adorned with fountains and art, making it a perfect place for leisurely exploration and people-watching.
Wichita, often referred to as the “Air Capital of the World,” is a city with a strong aviation heritage. The city is home to several aerospace companies and museums dedicated to aviation history and innovation.
The Kansas Aviation Museum showcases the state’s aviation history, including the role of Wichita in the aircraft manufacturing industry. Visitors can explore vintage aircraft, learn about the pioneers of flight, and even step inside historic planes.
Wichita also offers a variety of cultural attractions, such as the Wichita Art Museum and Exploration Place, a science and discovery centre. The city’s Old Town district is a lively area filled with restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues, making it a vibrant nightlife destination.
Topeka, the capital of Kansas, boasts a range of cultural and recreational offerings. The Kansas State Capitol is a must-visit for its stunning architecture and historical significance. The Kansas Museum of History offers engaging exhibits that delve into the state’s past, from Native American cultures to the Civil War era.
Gage Park, one of Topeka’s green gems, features beautiful gardens, a zoo, and a train that takes visitors on a scenic tour. The Topeka Performing Arts Center hosts a variety of cultural events, from live performances to concerts and theatre productions.
Topeka’s diverse dining scene offers everything from local favourites to international cuisine, making it a great place to sample a wide array of flavours. Whether you’re interested in history, the arts, or outdoor recreation, Topeka has something to offer every visitor.
Unusual and One-of-a-Kind Experiences
World’s Largest Ball of Twine
Kansas offers a range of unusual and unique experiences that will leave a lasting impression on anyone who visits. In Cawker City, you’ll discover the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, a quirky and iconic roadside attraction.
Started by a local resident, Frank Stoeber, in 1953, this massive ball of twine has been continuously growing ever since. Visitors can add their own contributions of twine to the ball, which has now reached astonishing dimensions.
It’s a testament to the creativity and community spirit found in small-town America and offers a unique and lighthearted experience for tourists passing through Kansas.
Strataca: Kansas Underground Salt Museum
Strataca, often referred to as the Kansas Underground Salt Museum, provides an extraordinary subterranean adventure in Hutchinson, Kansas. This unique attraction takes visitors 650 feet below the Earth’s surface to explore a former salt mine turned museum.
The underground chambers are not only educational but also provide a surreal and otherworldly atmosphere. Visitors can learn about salt mining and geology and even take a train ride through the underground passages.
The highlight is the stunning salt formations, which give the underground world an ethereal beauty. Strataca offers a one-of-a-kind journey into the depths of Kansas that is both informative and awe-inspiring.
Monument Rocks, located in western Kansas near the town of Oakley, are geological wonders that transport visitors to another era. These massive chalk formations, also known as the Chalk Pyramids, were created over millions of years by the erosion of the Smoky Hill Chalk deposits.
Rising dramatically from the otherwise flat landscape, these natural monuments are an unusual and captivating sight. Monument Rocks are also a testament to the rich geological history of the region and provide an opportunity for exploration and photography.
Designated as a National Natural Landmark, these unique formations offer a sense of wonder and mystery, making them a must-visit attraction for those seeking extraordinary experiences in Kansas.
Quirky Festivals and Events
International Pancake Day Race
Kansas is known for its vibrant events that celebrate the state’s unique culture and traditions. One such event is the International Pancake Day Race in Liberal, an annual tradition that dates back to 1950.
Inspired by the centuries-old English tradition of pancake races, Liberal’s race takes place on Shrove Tuesday, just before Lent begins. The race features local women, each carrying a pancake in a skillet, as they sprint down the streets of Liberal, competing against a team from Olney, England, in a friendly international rivalry.
It’s a lighthearted and amusing event that brings the community together and draws visitors from around the world to witness the pancake-flipping spectacle. The International Pancake Day Race is a testament to the sense of fun and camaraderie that permeates the state.
The Kansas State Fair
The Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson is another beloved event that captures the spirit of the state. Held annually, this multi-day extravaganza offers a wide range of entertainment, attractions, and activities for all ages.
The fairgrounds come alive with carnival rides, food vendors serving up delicious and sometimes unconventional treats, live music performances, rodeo events, and agricultural exhibits showcasing the best of Kansas’ farming heritage.
The fair also features quirky competitions, such as the Kansas State Fair Hot Dog Eating Contest and the Demolition Derby, which never fail to entertain and amuse attendees. Whether you’re interested in exploring the latest in farming technology, indulging in fair food, or enjoying the atmosphere, the Kansas State Fair is a quintessential Kansas experience.
Kansas is a Destination Full of Adventure
Kansas, often referred to as the Sunflower State, offers a plethora of diverse and captivating tourist attractions and activities that cater to a wide range of interests. From its rich historical sites to the stunning natural landscapes, Kansas has much to offer.
Kansas’ tourist attractions and activities reflect the state’s rich history, natural beauty, cultural heritage, and penchant for the unusual, making it a captivating and enriching destination for tourists from near and far.
Whether you seek adventure, relaxation, education, or simply a taste of the American heartland’s charm, Kansas has something to offer every explorer and enthusiast.
If you’re looking to explore the best of the American Midwest, check out Indiana, USA: Awe-Inspiring Attractions in The Hoosier State.