From jazz festival to bluegrass, from Asian heritage to Hispanic to Nordic roots, Kansas is calling you to experience flavors from the world over.
We routinely hear about life sciences, manufacturing, aviation, and agriculture as key components of the Kansas economy. Hidden in plain sight right there in the Top 10 business sectors are hospitality and tourism.
Yep, the state that serves as the butt of jokes for the truly ill-informed is storming back to its pre-pandemic prominence in the state’s economy, with a combined direct and indirect economic impact of $11.8 billion. That’s right there in among the agriculture/ranching and manufacturing exports branches on the economic tree.
But what does that look like on the ground? Well, it’s a riot of activity.
Start with some of the massive events like the Wichita River Festival. This annual gathering draws an estimated 400,000 people to the banks of the Arkansas River just before June heralds the official start of summer. Food, music, fireworks, and cannons—yes, cannons—are all part of the party, with the biggest outdoor gathering of the year in the state.
That gets the summer off to a fine start in Wichita; just up K-96 to the northwest every fall, the summer season starts winding down with the Kansas State Fair in mid-September. There, you’ll see that the farming/ranching culture in Kansas is as vibrant as ever, with youth livestock shows, baking, canning, and rodeoing, along with the carnival ride Midway.
If you just want to sample the geographic wonders of the state, consider day trips (or weekend journeys) through the Flint Hills and its Konza Prairie in a stretch that runs from nearly Oklahoma to Nebraska, encompassing Manhattan, Emporia, and Junction City. Out west, there is the stunning Red Hills of southwest Kansas; through north-central Kansas run the Smoky Hills. Sunsets and sunrise images that are one-of-a-kind await professional and budding photographers alike at the Chalk Pyramids in Gove County.
If history is your thing, don’t miss the Museum of Natural History at the University of Kansas—and that history includes the prehistoric if you venture to the lower-floor displays of fossilized remains from a long-ago ocean that filled the Midwest. To the west, in Hays, the Sternberg Museum of Natural History at Fort Hays State University likewise offers deep dives into paleontology and paleobotany, geology, and zoology of the state through the millennia.
On the musical front, it’s hard to top the Walnut Valley Festival each September in Winfield, which attracts thousands of bluegrass fans each fall. Looking for something more formal and classical? Symphonies in Topeka and Wichita easily fill the bill.
And, of course, there are countless shopping opportunities. Towne East Square in Wichita continues to thrive, with more than 100 tenants in storefront and kiosk formats. Back up in Wyandotte County, Village West in western Kansas City continues to be the state’s top tourist destination, with its outlet-mall format supplemented by restaurants, big-box retailers, and sports events at the Kansas Speedway and Children’s Mercy Park.
And, for the camper, fishing fanatic, hunter, or all-around outdoors enthusiast, Kansas has plenty to offer. While there are few natural lakes of any size, the Army Corps of Engineers nearly terraformed the state in the 20th century, with flood-control projects across the state that have dammed rivers and created attractive camping options.
Federally operated or state-run lakes appeal to campers rustic and refined in their tastes: At the most basic level, primitive camping sites are in harder-to-access areas, but often with unique views you can’t find in the vehicle loops. At the other end, there are RV locations with full water, electrical, and Wi-Fi hookups. The point is, every style of camping life has an outlet in Kansas.
Once you’re there, swimming, fishing, boating, and kayaking are just steps away.
Hunters will find compelling game ranging from the big stuff—elk, antelope, and deer—to the more challenging pheasant, turkey, and migratory birds that pass through twice a year.
And for bikers, the state has plenty of wide open country roads that are well off the busier highways but still offer paved surfaces for smooth riding. A word of caution: Kansas has a reputation for being flat. Nothing dispels that misconception faster than trying to bike across the state, which has plenty of hill systems—some of them quite challenging—to interrupt the miles of farmland and prairie.