The Midwest is often snubbed by those living on both coasts of North America, as “flyover country”.
And I must confess that, until recently I was not at all inmune to this stereotype. So, when I was invited to attend a work gig in Kansas, I did not really know what to expect.
Yet, a day in Kansas City (that, by the way, is not located in the state of Kansas, but just across the state line in Missouri!) sufficed to dispel any such notions as totally inaccurate.
In fact, as soon as I started to put together my own research and the tips I got from my local contacts it started to become obvious that the full day I had allocated for sightseeing may not be enough...by quite some way.
My impression of Kansas City is that it is a city of museums...and some rather unique ones at that. Whether you are into military history, aviation history, American history you have come to the right place.
In my case, I had only a limited amount of time in the city, so I had to prioritise.
When looking at the main attractions in Kansas City, the National WW1 Museum and Memorial was a must (since I had included it in this list of great military museums that I compiled for CNN ) and, given my interest in commercial aviation, so were the TWA Museum and the National Airline History Museum.
At the very last minute, I also decided to visit the Arabia Steamboat Museum, that did not disappoint.
This meant there was no time left for some other items in my to-do list, such as the Nelson-Atkins art museum or the money museum at the Federal Reserve of Kansas City.
But, well…they say you should always leave something for the next visit!
So here is my list of what to do in Kansas City
National WW1 Museum and Memorial
City Market and Steamboat Arabia
Downtown Kansas City
Like so many other cities in America, Kansas City has glass and steel downtown. Nothing special here.
But, what other cities possibly lack is the sort of privileged vantage point offered by another of Kansas City’s landmarks, the National WW1 Museum and Memorial (more on this later) and its tower (whose height adds to the museum’s already elevated position, on top of a hill).
Once you are up there, looking at the lights of the city, any sense of coldness and impersonality in contemporary American architecture fades way. There is always something mesmerizing about this type of skyline.
If looking at downtown Kansas City from the WW1 museum, one particular building dominates the scene. It is not a high rise tower, but the massive classical-style building of Union Station, built in 1914, a vestige of the time, well before the idea of “flyover country” came into being, when Kansas City played an important role in the transcontinental rail network.
Above are a couple of interesting “steampunk”-style pieces of street decor near Union Station
The National WW1 Museum and Memorial
This is, simply put, the museum of reference about WW1 in America.
The museum was set up in 1926 by popular subscription, the tower and adjacent pavilions are from that time. It was, however, vastly renovated a decade ago.
The granitic, solid look of the museum grounds, and its majestic location, on a hill overlooking downtown Kansas City and surrounded by vast green open spaces, give it a, quite fitting, solemn aspect.
The museum is structured around a tower, whose top floor, still open to visitors today, was, for many decades, the highest point in hundreds of miles around.
An interesting feature of this museum is that, unlike other war museums, it depicts the conflict in its entirety, in a purely chronological manner, instead of focusing only on the American point of view.
Also, pretty much all items in the museum are original and have come from the many different fronts of WW1, often via donations from individual collectors.
The exhibits go from the macro, societal level aspects of the war, all the way down to the many gripping personal stories, as well as some curious facts about the war.
The museum also regularly organizes temporary exhibits covering specific aspects of the conflict. When I visited there was an interesting exhibit about handicrafts produced by people that were involved in the conflict.
But, perhaps one of the most remarkable items, at least for me, is the painting Pantheon de Guerre.
This is a rather unique piece of art, since it is said to have been the largest painting ever completed. When it was whole (only part of it is preserved), it covered the same area as a football field.
Pantheon de Guerre, that was completed shortly after the war, depicts over 6,000 characters, real and allegorical, representing the victorious nations and its leaders. Quite conveniently, it is possible to check who is who in the painting with the assistance of some electronic displays located throughout the hall.
As a bonus, I visited during the week of “Taps at the Tower”. A memorial taps ceremony, with a bugler and flags is performed at sunset every day during a whole week (weather permitting!). At the end of the ceremony, it is possible to get up the tower for a nocturnal view of Kansas City’s skyline.
The sloping area between downtown and the Missouri river is home to the City Market, an open square (with parking space at its center).
This space is lined by fresh food shops and restaurants offering different cuisines from around the world.
On certain days there is an outdoor market too, hence the name of the place!
At first glance, it looks like City Market and the adjacent streets are a sort of small pedestrianised (a somehow “hipsterish”) enclave in Kansas City
The Steamboat Arabia Museum
It is also here that you will find one of Kansas City’s most interesting and unsuspected finds (in this case, quite literally!): the Steamboat Arabia.
The Arabia was a paddle steamboat was one of many that plied America’s waterways in the pre-Civil War era. Navigation in the American frontier was far from safe and sinkings were a relatively frequent occurrence.
This is what happened to the Arabia, on one night of 1856, when it hit a drifting log (when floating in the downstream current logs can be dangerous to ships, like a torpedo of sorts!) and sunk.
In fact, it did not sink immediately, but it settled slowly in a mudflat a few miles upstream from Kansas City. All passengers could be safely evacuated, but not its cargo.
And this is what makes the Arabia so interesting.
The anaerobic environment in which it sunk helped preserve in (almost) mint state the 200 tons of goods that it carried onboard. Mainly merchandise to re-supply stores serving newly created settlements upstream in the frontier. In short, it was the 1850s equivalent of a “floating Wal-Mart”, a time capsule of what life was like at that time for ordinary Americans.
The location of the wreck was lost shortly after it went down, but in the 1980s a team of entrepreneurial enthusiasts set to locate it. And this they did, in 1988.
As soon as the hull was found, efforts started to recover it and salvage its contents.
The museum is the result of this private enterprise. It is not large, but very well organized and the exhibits are quite impressive, as most of the items are in mint condition.
There is an impressive array of tableware, tools, clothes, footwear, weapons and even some relatively well preserved canned sardines (although still whole, I confirmed that no one actually dared to taste them)
I would strongly recommend joining one of the guided tours that run throughout the day and are included in the entrance fee.
At the end of the tour, visitors are shown a video documentary and...surprise!...at the end of it, a member of the Hawley family (the one that found the wreck and manages the museum) shows up and addresses the group, ready to answer any additional questions about the Arabia.
After 30 years of work, the restoration of the Arabia Steamboat’s contents is not yet finished, there are still tons of material in storage waiting to be cleaned. Visitors to the museum can get an idea also about how the items are cleaned and prepared for exhibition at a special lab (picture below).
And this is not all, the Hawley family is already preparing to dig a second wreck, this one of 1841, while it keeps looking for more. Ultimately their idea is to add sections to the museum, with one wreck from each decade of the first half of the 19th Century.
Note: the Steamboat Arabia museum may be moving to a new location in the coming years, something that has not been decided yet. This is a real possibility as new space will need to be found if salvage of additional wrecks goes ahead.
This is a really small museum, but one that will surely delight aviation history enthusiasts.
Although no longer in existence, the TWA brand has retained much of its allure and it remains, to this day, one of the most iconic airlines in commercial aviation history.
The museum, that is located in a building adjacent to Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport (just across the river from downtown Kansas City) is absolutely packed with all sorts of memorabilia connected to the history of the airline.
You can also admire a beautifully preserved Lockheed Electra aircraft, which, I later learned, had arrived to the museum the day prior to my visit!
Also, right by Kansas City Downtown Airport, is the National Airline History Museum. Unfortunately, it was closed on the day I was in town, but from what you can find on its website it looks like an interesting option to combine with the TWA museum.
Other interesting museums in Kansas City
Here are some other museums, that, had I had the time, would have been next in my schedule. I leave the details here, in part as a to-do note for my next visit!
Nelson-Atkins Art Museum
Apparently one of the best art museums in the Midwest (and in America, for that matter!)
Located within the building of the Federal Reserve of Kansas City and just across the street from the National WW1 Museum and Memorial grounds. To judge from the reviews, this seems to be also quite an interesting museum.
While on the museum front Kansas City really overshoot my expectations, the shopping experience was a bit underwhelming, at least when it comes to the city centre (didn’t explore big box retailers and malls in the suburbia).
To be fair, I visited just one downtown mall, Crown Center, located next to the WW1 museum and Union Station. It is part of a large office complex of the same name (that happens to be the HQ of famous Hallmark greeting card company!), but I found the offerings, both shopping and eating, to be nothing to write home about. It also closed at 7pm, which is quite early (even for European standards!).
Same story for nearby Union Station. As I got there on my (unfulfilled) quest to find some spot to eat before the taps ceremony at the museum. The station itself is quite beautiful and monumental, a vestige of the time when Kansas City was a major rail hub, however it was totally deserted and only one, not too appealing, restaurant was open.
To be fair, preparations were going on for some sort of festival, which may explain why activity was below normal, but even taking this into account it was far from what I was expecting from such as central spot.