The state of Kansas is a Midwest destination that’s a hidden gem when it comes to tourism. First-time visitors to the Sunflower State are often drawn to the larger cities in Kansas, such as Wichita and Topeka, but once you venture outside the larger metros and into the flat farmlands, Kansas starts to shine.
You many be surprised to discover that the state has produced some of the world’s leading engineers, scientists and pioneers, with Nobel Prize laureates and even a former US President hailing from Kansas. Check out large urban Kansas cities, such as Wichita, Topeka and Overland Park, as well as smaller, less-travelled destinations, such as Atchison, Dodge City and Abilene, to get the whole picture of what makes Kansas tick.
Cities in Kansas
20 Kansas Cities To Visit
The Sunflower State’s largest city, Wichita, is a Kansas city where the state’s culture and captivating history are on full display for all to see and experience.
Wichita began as a humble trading post along the Chisholm Trail during the 1860s before earning the nickname “Cowtown” when the young city became a popular stopping point among cattle drives heading north to Kansas’ railroads from Texas.
The city also became known as “The Air Capital of the World” when Cessna, Beechcraft and Stearman Aircraft set up shop in Wichita during the 1920s and 1930s, followed by the likes of Airbus and Learjet in recent decades.
Wichita is not just a hub for farming and manufacturing, but the city is also a destination with significant archaeological importance, with evidence suggesting that the Wichita region was inhabited as early as 3,000 B.C.
When it comes to sights to see and places to visit, Wichita has no shortage of amazing attractions and landmarks to stop by, such as the Wichita Art Museum, the Orpheum Theatre, Keeper of the Plains or the Exploration Place.
Topeka is the Sunflower State’s official capital city and ground zero in Kansas when it comes to stately architecture and captivating museums.
It’s also one of the cities in Kansas where you will find excellent outdoor recreational opportunities.
The state’s capital was officially founded in 1854 as a stopping point and ferry crossing along the Oregon Trail westwards, with the city’s name originating from the Kansa-Osage Native Americans.
Topeka became Kansas’ first and only capital when the state was admitted into the Union in 1861.
The city has steadily grown into modern-day contemporary Topeka, which has a population of more than 125,000 people.
There’s plenty to see, do and explore in the Sunflower State’s seat of power, with the Kansas State Capitol, the Evel Knievel Museum and the Ted Ensley Gardens being just a few of Topeka’s many must-see attractions.
3- Overland Park
The second-largest city in Kansas in terms of population and the most populous suburb of Kansas City, Overland Park is a great destination to stop at if you’re looking for a balance between urban excitement and the Great Plains outdoors.
12 miles (19 km) outside downtown KC, Overland Park is a fully-fledged tourist destination in its own right.
It was officially founded in 1905 when railroad magnate William B. Strang Jr. began plotting subdivisions in downtown Overland Park.
It has a mix of art galleries, wide open spaces, museums, as well as a range of trendy shops and even some nearby vineyards.
Overland Park’s most visited attractions and landmarks include the Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead, the Museum at Prairiefire and the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, making the city an obvious choice for history and culture.
A quintessential college town, the city of Lawrence in eastern Kansas treats travellers to museums, entertainment, nightlife and cultural attractions.
Lawrence is home to the main campus of the University of Kansas, the state’s largest public university, and that of Haskell Indian Nations University, the oldest continually operating federal education institution for Native Americans in the US.
The city was first settled in 1854 and was initially a stop along the Oregon Trail before being converted into Kansas’ busiest educative hub during the latter stages of the 19th century.
Lawrence’s attractions range from the leafy campus of KU to the bleachers of Allen Fieldhouse, where one of the country’s most successful collegiate basketball teams wows crowds of local followers.
Not to be outdone by boisterous Lawrence, Manhattan is another college town in the Sunflower State’s northeast best known for being the home of Kansas State University, the arch-rival of Lawrence’s KU.
Manhattan was founded during the 1850s by members of the New England Emigrant Aid Company.
It was a “Free City” (along with Lawrence and Topeka) during the heights of the infamous Bleeding Kansas era, from 1854 to 1861, when violent civil conflicts erupted over the contentious issue of slavery.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed settlers of newly organised territories to decide the issue of slavery through popular sovereignty.
Pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” from neighbouring Missouri and anti-slavery “Free-Staters” from the North flooded into Kansas, leading to brutal violence, which included guerrilla warfare, massacres, and widespread arson, earning the territory its “Bleeding Kansas” nickname.
The conflicts were a prelude to the American Civil War, reflecting the irreconcilable differences between the North and South in their views of slavery in the United States.
The city is well known throughout Kansas for its excellent academics, youthful atmosphere and pleasant small-town charm, all located less than 60 miles (96 km) from downtown Topeka.
Travellers are bound to be pleasantly surprised when it comes to things to do in the city dubbed “The Little Apple”, with attractions on offer such as the Konza Prairie, the Bill Snyder Family Stadium and the Linear Park Trail.
Salina is a city of arts, as this central Kansas city is home to a thriving arts community that’s helped make Salina one of the state’s most-visited cities.
Salina gained prominence during the mid-to-late 1800s when it served as the westernmost city along the Smoky Hill Trail, with Salina serving as a vital trading post for gold prospectors heading toward Pikes Peak.
The city is also home to several smaller universities.
You’ll find a few interesting attractions to stop by, including Smokey Hill Museum, the Salina Art Center and the Stiefel Theatre for the Performing Arts.
The fourth-largest city in the state population-wise, Hutchinson is truly a must-see destination in Kansas, home to quite a few interesting landmarks and sights to behold.
Known by most Kansans as “Salt City” due to the large underground salt mines near Hutchinson, the city is among the most influential industrial hubs in the state and sits on one of the Midwest’s richest oil fields.
Hutchinson might have gained much of its wealth and prominence from minerals and natural resources, but it’s the city’s tourist attractions, such as the annual Kansas State Fair and Strataca underground museum, which have made Hutchinson a top-notch Kansas city to visit.
8- Dodge City
A slice of the authentic Wild West in modern-day Kansas, Dodge City is a Midwest destination where visitors are transported to the mid-1800s through attractions such as the Boot Hill Museum and the annual Dodge City Rodeo.
Dodge City started out as a frontier “cow town” during the mid-19th century before officially settling in 1872 when the Santa Fe Railroad arrived in town.
The city has a population of just over 27,000 people and is a popular destination in southwest Kansas for travellers seeking to experience Old West saloons and Wild West culture.
Dodge City isn’t just cattle and tales of the frontier days, though, as it has sophisticated entertainment venues such as the Carnegie Center for the Arts and the Kansas Teachers Hall of Fame.
Olathe, which roughly translates to “beautiful” in Shawnee, is among the most populated cities in Kansas and a major tourist destination just outside downtown Kansas City.
The city was formally established in 1857 by John T. Barton and is a pretty historically significant city in the region, with Olathe having endured violent uprisings during the Bleeding Kansas period and several Civil War onslaughts.
Olathe remains a popular destination for travellers seeking to explore KC without actually staying in KC, with attractions such as the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop-Farm, the Kansas City Automotive Museum and the Heritage Park all fantastic places to visit in Olathe.
Situated roughly halfway between Topeka and Wichita, the two most populated cities in the state, Emporia is a popular weekend destination among Kansas city slickers wishing to exchange skyscrapers for the state’s Great Plains.
Emporia can trace its roots back to 1857 when five men from nearby Lawrence settled the city on what was dubbed “the loveliest site in the world for a town”.
The city’s name is derived from Carthage, an ancient empire founded by the Phoenicians in modern-day Tunisia, with Kansas’ Emporia gaining prominence after the railroad’s arrival in 1869.
Steeped in history and famed for its connection to one of the world’s famous ancient empires, Emporia is a delightful destination to explore with something unique and colourful to see around every corner.
Steeped in Wild West character and a rich Volga-German heritage, Hays is a small city and college town in the heart of Kansas.
Hays is home to the campus of Fort Hays State University and was used as a tribal meeting point between the Kiowa, Arapaho and Pawnee people before the city’s official settlement.
The city was founded as a strategic military fort along the busy Smoky Hill Trail by the US Army in 1865, growing into a thriving frontier city thanks mainly to Buffalo Bill Cody.
William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (26 February 1846 to 10 January 1917) was an iconic figure of the American Old West who earned the nickname “Buffalo Bill” for his prowess in hunting buffalo to supply railroad workers with meat.
He created Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show that romanticised the Wild West.
The touring spectacle entertained audiences in the late 19th century with displays of western-themed performances, including cowboys, Native Americans, trick riding and reenactments of historical moments such as Custer’s Last Stand.
Hays’ top attractions include the Fort Hays State Historic Site, the Sternberg Museum of Natural History and the Frontier Historical Park.
12- Garden City
Home to the largest zoological park in western Kansas, the mid-sized Garden City is a delightful destination to visit if you’re keen to trade urban attractions for the great outdoors.
Garden City began in 1878 when James R. Fulton, William D. Fulton and L.W. Fulton arrived in the city’s downtown area today, plotting the city on their empty, tree-less plots.
The city has come a long way since its humble beginnings and now has attractions that include the Lee Richardson Zoo and the Parrot Cove Indoor Water Park.
Teeming with Kansas culture and history, Leavenworth is the oldest incorporated city in Kansas and another must-visit destination if you’re a Midwest history buff.
Leavenworth started in 1854 and was named after Colonel Henry Leavenworth, a War of 1812 veteran and the founder of Fort Leavenworth, situated north of downtown Leavenworth.
Attractions in Kansas’ oldest city include the C. W. Parker Carousel Museum, the Leavenworth Landing Park and the Frontier Army Museum, all within 33 miles (53 km) from KC.
14- Great Bend
In the heart of central Kansas is the city of Great Bend, which a modest city with a population of about 14,000 people that’s been punching above its weight ever since its settlement back in 1871.
Great Bend has produced several Kansas icons, none more so than Nobel Prize laureate Jack Kilby and US gold-medal Olympic basketball player John Keeler, who both called Great Bend home once upon a time.
Named for its geographic location along the Arkansas River, Great Bend is among the finest Kansas destinations, featuring attractions such as the B-29 Memorial Plaza, the Barton County Historical Society and the Pawnee Rock State Historic Site.
15- Junction City
Drawing its name from its geographic location near the confluence of the Republican, Smokey Hill and Kansas Rivers, Junction City is a city of many firsts and a mighty fine destination to explore in northern Kansas.
Junction City became the first city west of the Mississippi to distribute Coca-Cola and was also where Kansas’ first “talkies” (motion picture) theatre opened its doors.
Founded in 1854 by Andrew J. Mead, Junction City is a mid-sized city that treats travellers to attractions such as the C.L. Hoover Opera House, the Milford Nature Center and the Buffalo Soldier Memorial.
Atchison is a city in northeast Kansas with charming neighbourhoods, boutiques, cafes and historic buildings.
Perched along the banks of the Missouri River, the city was officially established in 1854.
It was named in honour of former Missouri senator David Rice Atchison, who was influential in the city’s early settlement.
Some attractions in and around Atchison are the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum, the Muchnic Art Gallery and the International Forest of Friendship.
Situated right on the Kansas-Missouri state border and just 10 miles (16 km) south of downtown Kansas City is the city of Leawood, a KC suburb within a population of more than 33,000 people.
The city got its start much like Kansas City did, with the Louisiana Purchase and the Santa Fe Trail attracting settlers to the region during the early 1800s before many left for greener pastures following the events of Bleeding Kansas.
Leawood is not just your typical residential suburb, though, as the city has some one-of-a-kind attractions to visit, including the Museum at Prairiefire and Gezer Park.
Home to a population of more than 67,000 Kansans, the city of Shawnee in the Sunflower State’s northeast is among the largest cities in Kansas and a real treat in the Midwest.
Shawnee is 11 miles (17 km) from downtown Kansas City, making it a popular destination for anyone looking to experience another Midwest metro during a trip to Kansas City.
Attractions include the Shawnee Town 1929 Museum and the Aztec Shawnee Theater, making this delightful Kansas destination much more than just another KC suburb.
The ninth-largest city in the Sunflower State, Lenexa was the birthplace of multinational tech firm Garmin, which first opened up shop in little old Lenexa in 1989.
Lenexa receives an influx of visitors every year thanks to the city’s proximity to Kansas City and Overland Park.
From the Sar-Ko-Par Trails Park to the nearby Kansas vineyards, Lenexa is a fun city to visit without venturing too far from the big city.
With a small population of around 6,000 people, Abilene is a far cry from the largest cities in the Midwest, however, it is the birthplace of a former US President, which makes it an interesting city in Kansas to tick off your to-visit list.
Indeed, it’s in Abilene where Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former WWII commander and 34th US President, began his military and political career as a young boy in 1892, placing Abilene firmly on the map in the Midwest and beyond.
Visit the Dwight D Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, the Seelye Mansion and the Old Abilene Town.
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