Day and Night, 36 Hours in Kansas City

Kansas City Streetcar

The Huffington Post recently named Kansas City the coolest city in the U.S. Richmond is number 2. You can take these rankings with any number of salt grains, but there was certainly more to Kansas City than I expected.

I had been here once before, but that trip amounted to a walk through the magnificent train station and many hours in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. This trip afforded some time away from paintings to see more of the city (and plenty of paintings for a second time).

Arriving Saturday morning, the first stop after the considerable drive from the airport was the Eagle Scout Memorial Fountain. There is no train from the airport, and no official parking space near the monument, so we took advantage of a school lot behind. A relocated sculpture and clock portal from New York’s Penn Station make up the monument. Demolished in the 1960s, this magnificent portrayal of Day and Night by Adolph Alexander Weinman was donated by the Pennsylvania Railroad and transformed into the Eagle Scout monument.

Undoubtedly this is one of the fountains for which Kansas City is known.

Night from Penn Station

The next stop was the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which took up much of Saturday. It houses an impressive collection that undoubtedly makes more recently begun institutions in the booming Sunbelt madly jealous. The massive black granite columns inside remind me of those in the National Gallery. The bulk of the American, Asian, European and other collections are in the historic part of the building which surrounds a central court and serves as a restaurant. If you don’t have time to see the museum, admission is free, and the cafeteria here is a magnificent place to eat.

Buddah in Nelson-Atkins

This area contains other art institutions including the Kansas City Art Institute and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, which also houses a popular dining spot.

One of the things the Huffington Post mentioned was the food. Famous for barbecue, the food choices were plenty with flesh-free offerings as well. After the Eagle Scout Monument, we headed to a vegan coffeehouse called Mud Pie. When it came time to look for dinner, there were several options, even in the purely vegan category including FüD and where we ended up Cafe Gratitude. There we met a couple who had driven in from Iowa and were doing the tour of vegan restaurants. They had eaten at FüD and described it as amazing as well.

Inside Kauffmann Performing Arts Center

Kansas City seems relatively walkable, but I am not sure all of the walkable areas are well connected. Cafe Gratitude didn’t seem too far from the new Kauffman Performing Arts Center, our next official stop. Before that, we set out to find the old TWA Headquarters Building, which turned out to be somewhat interesting, if not as impressive as expected.

One of the things that may surprise you when you visit is how hilly the place is. It’s not San Francisco, but it certainly has its inclines. When we were there last, the Kauffman was being built on a hillside in downtown. Labeled an opera house, and I was glad to learn that it contains a separate symphony hall. The scale of the building is significant yet still able to engage somewhat with the street, the lobby area vast and a glass wall overlooking the city lights simply magnificent.

Blue Room Jazz Kansas City photo by Lin Wang

This all made for a long day, but Kansas City is after-all famous for Jazz, so one more stop was in store. The city’s 18th and Vine area seemed to have a few active clubs but are likely a fraction of what it once was. A jazz museum there could certainly aid the comeback, and I can’t imagine there are two many districts in America where people are lining up for jazz in any numbers these days. The Blue Room, which had been suggested by our waitress at Cafe Gratitude, was our stop. The jazz was satisfying, and the crowd was steady, but not overflowing. You might guess one of the songs was Cole Porter’s Night and Day, which provided a perfect bookend for the day. There’s apparently an after-hours club where the musicians go to jam when the old folks leave the staidest clubs. Apparently I was too far into night already.

Herbs at City Market

Sunday morning is usually reason enough to look for a lazy coffee shop, and we found such a place at the City Market. Appropriately titled City Market Coffee, the beans were being freshly roasted, and the muffins vegan. The market is in old buildings, which means the ambiance is authentic. The back of the shop faces a park and an iron circular staircase leads to an assumingly quiet and cozy place away from the sights and smells of the bustling market.

We wondered where the river was and how much the city had taken advantage of it. We asked the guy roasting coffee the best way to see, and he pointed to the other side of the park where we found a steel pedestrian bridge that crossed multiple railroad tracks and led to a concrete trail along the river. The end of the bridge features an elevator, and some bicyclists rode on the bridge after the ride up from the river trail.

Kansas City Streetcar

From there we took a short walk to River Market Antiques, which is only three or so block away. It looked as if many of the brick warehouse buildings had been, or were in the process of being converted into housing. Also noticeable was streetcar tracks.  With the absence of actual streetcars, it became apparent the system was new and hadn’t started service yet. The two-mile system will connect Union Station with City Market.

After a visit to the Kemper, we were on our way home. One more thing. There are no restaurants inside the security line at the airport. If you don’t want to go through security twice, don’t go hungry.

It all adds up to make Kansas City a pretty good place to live, and a good place to visit. There is an ample supply of art, culture and city life, without the stress. It’s filled with local businesses, adventurous eateries, and day or night, a surprise or two awaits in whichever neighborhood you visit.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me