In the center of the country sits a city rife with culture, food and a self-sustaining independent music scene that punches above its weight class. It may not be on your radar as a travel destination, but Kansas City — an equidistant flight from both coasts — has an ever-growing and diverse music community and now a new airport terminal with thousands of additional flights in and out every week. Home to a historic jazz district, music festivals dedicated to music discovery and a treasure trove of independent record labels and artists, Kansas City is an underrated music hot spot. Spend a weekend (or longer!) here going to shows, sipping coffee at artsy cafes and indulging in the surprising delight of eating burnt ends and crepes in the same day.
You’re Here for the Flourishing Indie Music
From indie rock to hip-hop, from bluegrass to jazz, Kansas City’s independent music scene is a vital part of the city’s culture. There are a few larger music festivals in Kansas City, like Boulevard Brewing Co.’s own Boulevardia, but on any given weekend local artists are lighting up stages across the city. Keep an eye out for one of the K’s in Kansas City: Kadesh Flow, Kat King, Kevin Morby or Khrystal.
recordBar (and more)
The key to finding great music in Kansas City is knowing where to look. Venues like The Rino, Black Dolphin, Knuckleheads Saloon and Farewell Transmission run the gamut of genre representation throughout the city. If you can catch a show at recordBar, you’ll find yourself at a staple of Kansas City’s music scene. This space has been home to music festivals, up-and-coming headliners including Billie Eilish and hometown heroes alike. You’ll find both local and touring artists playing these venues, as well as bars hosting local breweries and distilleries on tap and on deck.
Outside of traditional music venues, Manor Records transforms natural wine bars and distilleries into outlets for music discovery. The local record label also hosts an annual music festival at both traditional and non-traditional venues throughout the city and in the neighboring city, Lawrence, Kansas. (Pictured: Liney Blu at a recent Manor Records showcase. Photo via Instagram)
And Kansas City’s Historic Jazz District
On the east side of the city, Kansas City’s Jazz District holds decades of history. In the 20th century, Kansas City was an epicenter for the genre and home to renowned jazz musicians like Charlie Parker. Jazz musicians congregated in Kansas City in the ’20s and ’30s, where jazz clubs continued to thrive despite Prohibition, largely thanks to a prominent bootlegger, Tom Pendergast. Today, that history is alive at 18th and Vine, where jazz venues line the street.
The Gem Theater and Blue Room
The Gem Theater is in the heart of the district, with a vintage marquee lighting the street below. Built in 1912, the space is a more formal theater for seeing live music. Across the street you’ll find The Blue Room, a more casual establishment attached to the American Jazz Museum.
The Blue Room
Mutual Musicians Foundation
For a more underground jazz experience, the Mutual Musicians Foundation hosts regular events — just check to see if the sign is illuminated to know whether the venue is open. Nights at MMF routinely roll around until the wee hours of the morning, and it’s a great place to stop by after catching another show in the neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of MMF Facebook.)
Stay in Crossroads, the Heart of the City
Just south of Kansas City’s downtown is an arts-centered neighborhood called the Crossroads. A walkable district, you’ll find locally owned restaurants, galleries and jazz bars and a speakeasy or two in the neighborhood. You’ll also find two ideal options for a weekend stay: the larger and aptly named Crossroads Hotel, and a smaller boutique space called No Vacancy.
Crossroads Hotel is an ideal for someone looking for a suave spot for dinner, drinks and an open pool table. The hotel’s rooftop bar, Percheron, has views of the city’s downtown skyline including an iconic glowing red Western Auto sign. Downstairs, Crossroads’ lobby bar XR Café is a great spot for a bite, a drink or a quick game of pool before a night out.
A few blocks north, No Vacancy is a smaller space with just eight rooms. Nestled above a plant shop and across the street from art galleries, No Vacancy is somewhere between a boutique hotel and bed and breakfast. No two rooms at No Vacancy are alike, but all have well-curated modern decor with exposed brick and colorful accents. You’ll also have access to a large common space with all the trappings of home: fresh flowers on the coffee table, a stack of vintage records and freshly brewed coffee in the mornings.
Drink Coffee in Creative Hubs
Around downtown Kansas City, great coffee is never too far away. In a sea of cortados and cold brews, two shops stand out: Café Corazon and Café Cà Phé. These colorful coffee spots offer flavors and options outside of the ordinary, and have become staples in Kansas City’s creative communities as well. You’ll find art on the walls, murals on the buildings and sweet cups of coffee at either spot.
For a spot where an afternoon coffee can quickly turn into an early evening cocktail, Thou Mayest in Kansas City’s River Market District or the Made in KC Cafe downtown sell both coffee and beers, whiskeys and wines crafted locally.
Your're also here for barbecue
In a quick visit to Kansas City, it’s imperative to swing by at least one barbecue restaurant, but the more joints you make it to, the better.
Most barbecue places around the city will have full menus and include some form of a vegetarian-friendly option, but for meat-eaters, the go-to should be burnt ends — Kansas City’s resourceful take on brisket. This speciality is the savory and yes, sometimes burnt, end trimmings of brisket sliced into cubes and smoked, then served with Kansas City’s tangy and sweet style of barbecue sauce. Try Joe’s KC for a classic barbecue experience.
An unexpected treat you’ll find in Kansas City are sweet or savory crepes at one of the city’s two well-loved creperies: Seven Swans and Chez Elle. The two are so popular that the crepe has become an unofficial staple in Kansas City’s food culture — perfect for breakfast, lunch or quick sweet treat.