48 Hours in Kansas City: The Perfect Itinerary

01 of 04

An Intro Guide to Kansas City

Country Club Plaza at Sunset in Kansas City
Eric Bowers Photo/Getty Images

If the United States were a romantic comedy, Kansas City would be the heroine. Full of beauty and substance—if only you'd take the time to look. 

Known for its jazz and barbecue, this city has both in spades—and so much more. Once home to legendary trailblazers like Amelia Earhart and Jackie Robinson, Kansas City is no stranger to bucking expectations. It was a rebel in the Roaring '20s, scoffing at Prohibition and opening some of the world's best jazz clubs and speak-easies—earning itself the nickname the "Paris of the Plains." 

It's also a place of understated beauty. With more than 200 fountains, the city has more than almost anywhere else in the world—second only to Rome. The cobble-stoned streets and red-clay roofs of Country Club Plaza mirror those of its sister city, Seville, Spain. And its art museums are some of the best in the country. 

But let's not forget the barbecue. Born in the heart of the 18th and Vine district, the city's signature slow-smoked meats, rubbed with bold spices and topped with rich tomato sauce, rivals anything Texas or the Carolinas have to offer. 

If you only have a few days to explore Kansas City, this is how to make the most of your whirlwind trip. 

02 of 04

Day One

Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri
Derek Slagle/Getty Images

1 p.m.: Drop your belongings off at your hotel. For a splurge, stay at the Rafael Hotel, a “vintage chic” boutique hotel in Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza. Designed by early 20th Century architect Alonzo Gentry, this Italian Renaissance Revival-style hotel originally opened in 1928 as a complement to the then-newly constructed plaza. Originally built to serve as luxury apartments for KC’s most affluent tenants, the building was renovated and reopened in 1975 as a boutique hotel modeled in the elegant style of many small, European hotels. It has since been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to elegantly furnished rooms and a stellar location, the Rafael has live music in its lounge every night, a state-of-the-art fitness center, and complimentary high-speed wifi.

For more affordable accommodations, check out the 816 Hotel in Old Westport. Aptly named after the city’s area code, this modern hotel dedicates itself to all things KCMO. Themed rooms highlight the history of the city, with furnishings and decor chosen by iconic Kansas City institutions, and many guest accommodations include archival photographs from bygone eras. The hotel also boasts value-added amenities like a complimentary shuttle service to nearby attractions, breakfast, and a daily cocktail reception—making it a great value for those looking to take in all KC has to offer.  

2 p.m.: Make your first stop at Union Station. In its heyday, this 850,000 square-foot space built in 1914 used to see hundreds of thousands of train passengers every year. While you can still catch a ride on the Amtrak there today, Union Station is now much more of a mixed-use commercial space, museum, and tourist attraction, featuring—among other things—a planetarium, live theater, and a giant-screen cinema. It’s also an architectural beauty. Pop in to take a look at its majestic 95-foot ceilings and 3,500-pound chandeliers in the station’s Grand Hall. While you're there, bring your family to the Science Center for interactive exhibits and demonstrations, or meander through a visiting exhibitions.

3 p.m.: Make your way to the World War I Museum and Memorial. The first thing you’ll see when you walk into the museum is a glass-floored bridge over a field of 9,000 red poppies—each one representing 1,000 military deaths and setting the tone for a reverent glimpse into American history. The building holds some 100,000 objects, documents, and materials from World War I—more than anywhere else in the world—and chronicles not just the history of the war, but also the social and cultural impact of the war in the United States. Included in the museum’s exhibits is a replica trench stretching 90 feet long that will send shivers down your spine, as well as a chilling 15-foot-deep artillery shell crater that you can actually walk into. The site—and the adjacent Liberty Memorial Tower—is a piece of national history that’s been visited by more than two million people, including former President Barack Obama.

4 p.m.: Hop a cab or make the short drive to the American Jazz Museum. Located in Kansas City’s Historic Jazz District, this museum sits in the very neighborhood that once saw the musical genre flourish in the 1920s and '30s. Devoted exclusively to the sites and sounds of jazz music in the United States, the site holds a wide range of memorabilia, personal items, and photos of some of the country’s greatest musical talents. It also houses a working jazz club called The Blue Room that frequently hosts concerts by both local and national musicians.  

When you're through, saunter next door to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. This 10,000-square-foot facility features hundreds of photographs, films, and artifacts from the African-American baseball leagues of the 20th Century. The first Negro National League was founded in Kansas City in 1920, sparking a series of rival leagues throughout the country. These leagues served as economic and cultural drivers for African-American communities at the time, until Jackie Robinson—then player for the Kansas City Monarchs—was famously recruited for the Brooklyn Dodgers, integrating baseball and initiating a decline for the African-American-only leagues. This site is a must-see for history buffs and sports fans alike.

6:30 p.m.: Grab some good, old-fashioned, Kansas City barbecue for dinner. Two legendary KC barbecue joints sit within a mile of the museum: Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue and Gates Bar-B-Q. The debate over which is better goes back decades, but both restaurants’ roots can be traced back to a single man, Henry Perry. Commonly referred to as the “Father of Kansas City Barbecue,” Perry developed the style of slow-smoking meats now distinctive to the region—and he did it right in the iconic African-American neighborhood near where Gates and Arthur Bryant’s now stand. Whichever restaurant you choose, opt for the burnt ends. The crunchy, fatty meat taken from the point of a smoked brisket is a favorite among locals. 

8 p.m.: End the day by swinging by the historic 18th Street and Vine area for some live music and a nightcap. For a historical treat, check out Tom’s Town Distilling Co. This distillery features an art deco theme and cool speakeasy vibe.  

03 of 04

Day Two

Country Club Plaza in Kansas City Missouri
Derek Slagle/Getty Images

10 a.m.: Start your day with brunch at Gram & Dun. The menu at this unique eatery offers modern twists to classic Southern dishes. The space is elegant yet relaxed, and the patio offers a lovely view of the Country Club Plaza area. Treat yourself to one of the restaurant’s famous brunch cocktails—the bloody Mary is served with a piece of bacon—and the fried chicken and waffles. They won’t disappoint.

12 p.m.:  Next, make your way to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. At just under a mile away, it’s a quick drive or within easy walking distance if you want to work off some of your brunch. This contemporary art museum houses works from some of the world’s most famous artists, including Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Outside, be sure to snap a photo in front of one of the grounds’ three famous sculptures.

Continue your art-gazing by making your way to the nearby Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where you’ll find more than 34,000 pieces spanning 5,000 years. One of the most comprehensive art museums in the country, Nelson-Atkins is especially known for its collection of Chinese art and its iconic “Shuttlecocks” sculpture. While exhibition ticket prices vary, admission to both art museums’ permanent collections is free.  

4 p.m.: Round out your art appreciation by meandering through the Country Club Plaza. The 15-square-block commercial district was designed using Spanish architecture—down to the red-clay roofs and intricate iron work. The Giralda Tower, in particular, is worth a gander. The 138-foot structure at the corner of West 47th Street and JC Nichols Parkway is a nod to La Giralda, a tower in KC's sister city of Seville, Spain. Be sure to pass by the JC Nichols Memorial Fountain, as well. Named after the Plaza’s developer, it is the most photographed piece of art in the district and part of why Kansas City is often referred to as the "City of Fountains."   

6 p.m.: Unwind by grabbing a relaxing dinner at Chaz on the Plaza. Located within the Rafael Hotel in Country Club Plaza, this contemporary American restaurant is one of the best in the city. Savor a glass of wine on the patio, while you enjoy the nightly live music and a succulent prime rib. Evenings can get a little crowded, so call ahead to make a reservation.   

For more economical eats, try the Classic Cup. This beloved Plaza mainstay serves contemporary American cuisine, using mostly local, sustainably sourced ingredients. Delight in a savory cubano sandwich while people watching on the patio—without breaking the bank.

8 p.m. If you aren't yet ready to turn in for the night, head over to the Power and Light District for some high-energy fun. With more than 50 bars, music venues, and restaurants squeezed into eight city blocks, this area is the epicenter for Kansas City night life.  

04 of 04

Day Three

Tikka House at River Market in Kansas City, Missouri
Kevin Carlyle

8 a.m.: Begin your last day in Kansas City by grabbing a bite at City Diner. Indulge in a classic Southern breakfast of biscuits and gravy served with a hot mug of coffee, pour a little Tobasco sauce on your eggs, and don’t forget the taters.

9 a.m.: Explore the River Market area on foot with a walking tour. This guided tour will take you through nearly 200 years of Kansas City history, from its founding to present day. Hear colorful stories of legendary Missouri outlaw Jesse James, Civil War battles, and the Gillis Opera House, while you stroll through one of the city’s oldest districts. 

Afterward, swing by City Market for some light shopping at one of a number of stores and merchants. The Tikka House, in particular, is worth a stop. Located on the first floor of City Market, this predominantly Indian restaurant has some of the best bulk spices in the city. Before you go, try some of the shop's chicken tikka or fatire pies. 

12 p.m.: If you’re itching for one last cultural stop before leaving the city, head to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. There are currently 14 presidential libraries established throughout the United States, but Truman’s was the first to be established following the 1955 President Libraries Act. Take a peek at the late former president’s office—exactly as it looked when Truman died in 1972—and glimpse myriad artifacts, writings, photographs, and films from the life of America’s 33rd president.   

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