Detour by Train from Chicago to Visit Kansas City

We are so lucky to live in the transportation hub of Chicago. While of course Chicago has gazillions of attractions, sometimes we have to get away and travel elsewhere. We can easily do so with two major airports and plenty of highways, but people often forget–or just don’t know–about the beauty of train travel.

Kansas City, Missouri is an awesome and cheap getaway from Chicago. I have fun telling people that I was so impressed by this city when they inevitably scoff at a visit to Kansas City. With the idea that the middle of the country has nothing but corn fields, who would bother taking a trip to Missouri? If you feel like braving the 7-hour scenic trip on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief from Chicago to Kansas City ($50-60 if you book early), you will be pleasantly surprised with historic architecture, a giant farmers market, jazz history, antiques galore, and excellent farm-to-table restaurants.

This quick guide to visit Kansas City tells you what’s cool about this place that you won’t find in Chicago.

kansas city history architecture of west bottoms
West Bottoms, Kansas City. Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese.

1. An entire district of early industrial architecture called the “West Bottoms”

The companies in this riverside district made anything from Faulty Starch for clothes to Krispy Crackers to feed for animals. Both Armour and Swift–major meatpackers of Chicago–had operations here. The area thrived with shipbuilding in World War II, but afterward the business dissipated.

Kansas City, like all cities, had already started to go downhill after the widespread influence of the car on cityscapes, but really the point of no return was after a horrible flood of the West Bottoms district in 1951. In Chicago, our more consistent influx of development means that many early industrial buildings have been torn down or adapted into something else. In the West Bottoms, it’s trapped in time.

History of Kansas City Flood
West Bottoms Flood of ’51. Photo Credit: Unknown

Today this entire district of historic industrial architecture still stands, and antique markets have filled old warehouses with the leftovers of a bygone era. On first Fridays, they all open up, and it’s quite a scene.

industrial architecture of kansas city travel
Another cool building in the West Bottoms. Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese

2. A real-deal farmer culture

In Chicago, we certainly would like to have more connection to the origins of our food. But a couple things get in the way. For one, we are in an area with minimal agricultural diversity. Thank you Michigan and Wisconsin for providing a little of that. And we have a short summer, so there’s an even shorter season to get fresh foods. Plus the surrounding areas really are much more industrialized than that area smack-dab in the middle of the country where KC is.

What this means is A) one of the largest farmers markets in the country. And I’m talking the real thing, with farmers wearing overalls and dirt still caked on your potatoes. It’s called City Market, and here you’ll find anything from Hmong families selling bitter melon, to Lebanese women with baba ganoug, to long-time locals baking plain and simple treats at Bloom Baking Company. Before you wander for some great people-watching and the smells of spices, pick up some carefully crafted yet non-hipster coffee at the City Market Coffeehouse, around since 1997.

spices kansas "city market"
Spices at the City Market. Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese

And B) An abundance of farm-to-table restaurants, like Westside Local, Genessee Royale, Novel or Rye, where you can get not only fresh vegetables but also meat that hasn’t traveled very far either.

burger bbq kansas city travel
One of the best burgers of my life was at West Side Local. Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese

3. BBQ

I’m not going to attempt to tackle such a huge topic here. Put simply, Kansas City is known for “burnt ends,” which are the fattier, somewhat charred edges of beef brisket. Famous spots are Oklahoma Joe’s and Arthur Bryant’s.

Jazz history club 18th vine district kansas city
18th & Vine Historic District. Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese

4. Jazz District

This area has retained its character from the 1930s and 1940s. The 18th and Vine Historic District has an okay jazz museum, an awesome Black Archives, and more importantly it’s just cool to stroll down this street, to appreciate the vintage jazz club signs, and to imagine the buzz on these streets during their heyday.

Visit Kansas City. Trust us – it’s cool. Especially now with the Google presence there now, too.

— Amanda Scotese, Chicago Detours Executive Director

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