With one of the US Coffee Championships qualifying events happening in Kansas City in February, I wanted to give some of my personal suggestions for things to do, places to go, etc for visitors to the City of Fountains! Kansas City is a great town with an awesome food and beverage scene and if you’re a photography buff I’ll share some of my favorite spots for you to check out to. I know I always like to try to get some good photos if I can when I travel. Sorry if you “didn’t make the list.” I’m trying to keep this short and informative and, of course, there are TONS of places in KC that are AWESOME that just don’t fit what I’m trying to do with this article. If you’re only looking for coffee suggestions, go here. If you need recommendations or whatever while you’re here in KC or preparing for your trip, “follow” me on Twitter (kccoffeegeek) and use the DM system to stay in touch! Oh, and please, if you have a good experience at any of the places I recommended, please tell them you found them on KCcoffeegeek.com, and thank you!
Kansas City is geographically laid out relatively straightforward. If you’re flying in, the airport is way north of the city. Kansas City grew over the Kansas-Missouri border a long time ago. So, when a local says “Kansas City” they could mean damn near anywhere in a 50 mile radius! I’ll keep you focused on the areas you’ll most likely be in or want to be in while you visit. In general, you have “North of the River” or “the Northland.” I don’t know anything about that area except that it’s north of the Missouri River. KC area maps may as well say, “Here there be dragons” when it comes to my knowledge of “north of the river.” LOL Move south of the river and you are magically transported to downtown Kansas City. Keep in mind that there is Kansas City, Missouri (“downtown” always refers to KCMO) as well as Kansas City, Kansas (“KCK,” which is best visited with a trusted guide and you probably don’t have lots of reasons to be in on a visit).
The numbered streets in Kansas City run east-west, more or less, and the numbers get bigger as you go south. That’s the easiest way to generally know where in the heck you are here. As you continue south past 31st St. you enter Midtown, home to some cool neighborhoods you’ll probably find yourself in. The competition is downtown and since KC sprawls forever in every direction, I’ll concentrate on Downtown and Midtown for the most part because that’s probably where you’ll be rolling while you’re here
The main areas you’ll probably visit while you’re here are the area around the Convention Center and some other downtown neighborhoods like the River Market, Columbus Park, the Crossroads (almost definitely), the Power and Light District and possibly even the West Bottoms. In Midtown, there’s a good chance you’ll make it to Country Club Plaza or Westport. If you’re looking for some good, inexpensive Mexican food or taking a Boulevard Brewing tour or going to the taproom for some Early Riser coffee porter (featuring Maps coffee, which I helped grind a bit of!), you’ll find yourself on “the Boulevard” or Southwest Boulevard in the 20’s-30’s blocks.
For the most part, KC is a pretty safe town overall. I’m going to make some big-time generalizations and probably offend some locals, but for a general safety check there are some areas to mostly avoid if you don’t have a local guide showing you the way: “KCK” (Kansas City, KS) has some notorious areas, as does a lot of downtown and Midtown east of Troost. Now, I’m not trying to be offensive, but those areas contain some tough neighborhoods with a higher concentration of crime and while there are cool places to go within those areas, they’re best visited with someone who knows the lay of the land. I hate saying that because by and large, people in KC are sweet and especially in those neighborhoods there are mostly good people with a handful of bad apples screwing things up for everyone else. But any big city is like that, I guess.
Now that that unpleasantness is behind us, let’s tackle the various main neighborhoods from north to south…
The River Market
The River Market is a cool area around the City Market, an outdoor farmer’s market that happens every Saturday with a perimeter of shops that are open all week long. There are lofts and restaurants and bars in the River Market area. It’s a ZOO on Saturday when the farmer’s market is going down, though. If you’re a history geek, visit the Arabia Steamboat Museum. Basically a steamboat ended up in the middle of a farm field after the Missouri River was diverted and everything got really well preserved. If you’re an antiquer River Market Antique Mall is worth a visit. Quay Coffee is a great multi-roaster shop that is always busy and does an awesome job. Il Lazzarone is right next door and they have awesome pizzas (the daily special is always kick-ass and $10) and do a lot of pizza + beer deals at night for service industry folks. Their pizza is really thin and in the style of Naples, the way God intended it. The Farmhouse is a great breakfast place right down there, too. They may do other meals, but I’ve only been there for breakfast and it’s always excellent. Harry’s Country Club is a pretty good low-key bar in the River Market with a cool view of the skyline from the outdoor area.
I don’t know a ton about this neighborhood other than that it used to be the Italian quarter of the city, I think. Garozzo’s is a KC classic for Italian food. Also very notable in Columbus Park is Happy Gillis, which I think is a breakfast and lunch place (which I’ve never been to because I’m a loser) and they also own KC’s only standalone ramen shop, Columbus Park Ramen Shop, which is only open after 5PM. It’s supposed to be amazing, and expect a line if you aren’t there before it opens, but I haven’t gotten there myself. Because I’m a loser and I’m old and I will turn into a pumpkin if I’m out after about 6PM.
If you were to go basically east and a bit north of Columbus Park you’d eventually hit an area called the East Bottoms. This is a pretty sketchy-looking neighborhood, as funky as it gets, and it’s downright scary-looking at night, but it’s sort of up-and-coming. It’s not a real bustling part of the city yet, but nonetheless worth mentioning. The Rieger’s distillery is down there and there’s a cool live music venue/dive bar called Knucklehead’s there. Also the AMAZING Local Pig, which is the best butcher shop in KCMO and has a lunch stand called Pigwich, too.
The USCC is at the Kansas City Convention Center, which is right by the 12th Street bridge. If you head west on 12th St, right when you cross over I-35 you are in the West Bottoms. This is one of the coolest parts of KC, in my opinion. It used to be the stockyards and slaughterhouses, then around WWII it was a manufacturing area for tank parts or something. Then it fell into disuse and in the ’70’s-’90’s it was home to squatters, artists living there mostly illegally, some real-life speakeasy clubs, etc. Even when Krista and I got married in the West Bottoms in 2011 it was mostly empty. Now it is the home of a TON of antique shops. They are mostly closed except on the first Friday of each month (a time of the month called, you guessed it, First Fridays! LOL) and on a Friday-Sunday during FF’s it is INSANE in the West Bottoms. The shops are cool and a bonus, Blip Roasters is located in the Bottoms, too. Otherwise go at off-times and it’s pretty empty down there and it’s the best place to wander around with a camera, trust me.
Power and Light District
If you head east from the Convention Center you’ll run into the Power and Light District and then the Sprint Center, that big glass spaceship looking thing. P&L is sort of a manufactured entertainment district with tons of bars and restaurants. A lot of it is national chains and while the P&L District is cool, it’s less KC than most of the rest of KC. But, if you’re with a big group of people who want to drink a lot you may end up here. LOL Outside of the P&L District is the best dive bar (well, it used to be, I haven’t been there in years), especially for late night, called The Cigar Box. And there’s a strip club right next door, if that’s your thing, called Totally Nude Temptations. LOL Also near the P&L is a good dive called The Brick and there’s a well-respected tattoo shop nearby called The Mercy Seat.
If you head south from the Convention Center you end up in the Crossroads. When I moved here in 2007 the Crossroads was just beginning to catch wind in its sails and now it’s a super-happening place. The Crossroads has a ton of art galleries and First Fridays was actually started in the Crossroads when all the galleries would open to the public. So, it’s a ZOO on FF weekends, too. There is a ton of things to do in the Crossroads and as far as KC neighborhoods/areas go, it’s rather large. PT’s Coffee Roasting Co., the famed roaster from Topeka, KS, has it’s flagship cafe in the Crossroads and they kill it on the Slayer. Pizza Bella has nice thin pizza. Raygun is a cool shop if you’re looking for funny t-shirts and stuff that makes fun of/celebrates the Midwest and it’s a great place for a KC souvenir.Town Topic is a greasy burger dive that is a KCMO mainstay. The Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange has THE BEST bar (as well as a second bar inside called Manifesto, which is awesome) and is an amazing restaurant, too. Thou Mayest is in the Crossroads and is half coffee roaster, half bar and a super cool place to hang out. Grinder’s, right next door to Thou Mayest, has awesome pizza and food and is a live music venue, too. The Crossroads is happening, trust me. There are arcades you drink in, breweries, etc etc etc. Oh, and if you like chocolate you have to go to the Elbow Chocolates shop in the Crossroads. And if you’re looking for rad letterpress cards, music show posters, etc etc then hit up Hammerpress.
If you go south and west out of the Crossroads you head toward the Boulevard (Southwest Boulevard), home to lots of great Mexican joints and Boulevard Brewing. Ponak’s, some place we just call “The Taqueria” and Margherita’s are all solid TexMex joints.
If you go south to a little southeast you hit the Crown Center area, which is the headquarters of Hallmark, with a nice shopping mall and lots of kids stuff to do with the LEGO store and places like that. Just west of Crown Center is the National World War I Memorial, which is the single tower standing tall in the sky that you can see from all over KC. The WWI Memorial is a great place to see downtown at night (you can drive right up, safe at night), and you get an awesome view of Union Station and all of KC.
Not too far from the WWI Memorial is the Kansas City Scout, which is my favorite overlook for KC panoramas. You can see all of downtown from here. I’ve been there at night and sometimes it’s a little sketchy, so take a couple friends if you’re shooting photos. There’s a skate park up there, too, if you brought your deck.
As you head south and move into Midtown proper the buildings get shorter and the street numbers get bigger. You’ll undoubtedly find yourself in Westport, which contains KC’s oldest building (now Kelly’s Westport Inn, which is really an Irish bar)… get the pizza and put honey on it, thank me later). Westport has a ton of bars and restaurants. McCoy’s is good food, good beer. Right next door to McCoy’s they own the Foundry which is also great. Across the street they also own Beer Kitchen, which has good food and an awesome beer selection. Port Fonda is a cool hipster Mexican place. The Riot Room has great beers and tons of live music. Westport Ale House is a good choice. Jerusalem Cafe has good gyros and eastern Mediterranean food. And, of course, no trip to Westport is complete without visiting two of my favorite KC coffee spots, Oddly Correct and Broadway Cafe. Both are worth the stop, big time. Broadway’s roastery is right down the street, too, so ask them to point you in the right direction.
Westport and the Crossroads are all the entertainment you could ever want in KC of the food and bev/club type, but moving south from Westport for a while you’ll hit the country’s first outdoor shopping mall, Country Club Plaza, which is great. Lots of good food, shopping and bevs here, too. The Plaza was inspired by one of KCMO’s sister cities, Seville, Spain. For coffee you have Kaldi’s, which serves it up good. I am very in love with their Brown Sugar Rosemary latte, syrup made fresh in-house. Kaldi’s is a St Louis company, but we let them hang out here as long as they keep the BSR flowing. 😉 They are rich, so get a small or medium.
Odds & Ends: BBQ, CrossFit and Photography
There are a ton of other good coffee stops in KC, like the Filling Station, Second Best, etc. See my comprehensive-ish guide here for the lowdown.
Everyone always wants to know about KC barbecue, too. It’s rad. Arthur Bryant’s in the 18th and Vine Jazz District (also home to the American Negro Leagues baseball museum) is awesome and was my first KC BBQ experience. It’s not a great neighborhood, so go early, leave early. I love Jack’s Stack but I think that’s only in Overland Park, which is like a big suburb of KC on the Kansas side and it’s 20 minutes from downtown. A little off the beaten path but probably most famous thanks to Food TV is Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, formerly known as Oklahoma Joe’s. The line is always a mile long and the food is good. It’s in a gas station and you can buy your disc golf supplies there, too because there are some good courses nearby. LOL The Z-Man is dope. If you want to look like a pimp order a Jumbo Chicken Z-Man. It’s not on the menu (at least it never used to be) and they’ll think you know the secret handshake and everything.
Need to do some Olympic weightlifting or CrossFit or kettlebell training while you’re here? Go no further than my home box (I train people there on Tuesday’s 5:30AM) at CrossFit I-35. Let me know if you’re wanting to drop in.
Photographer? Bring your camera everywhere, but the West Bottoms is a prime spot, all of downtown and Midtown are picturesque, the Liberty Memorial and Kansas City Scout are awesome classics, and for a different view of downtown that also has water as a feature (great at night, but remote, so have a partner with you), look up the Lewis and Clark Historic Park at Kaw Point. It’s at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers and you have an awesome skyline view (great at sunset) of all of downtown. It’s a short walk from where you park. A little weird to get back there from the street and it was all torn up and under construction last time I was there, so if I hadn’t known where I was going I would never have found it, but it’s a hidden awesome gem for shooters.