Established in 1821 as a trading post on a bend in the Missouri River, it soon became a hub of commerce for goods moving west. When the founders met to christen their town, it’s said they knocked around names like Rabbitville and Possum Trot—not the type of trivia that helps Kansas City overcome its backwoods reputation. Fortunately, they ultimately adopted their moniker from the Kansa Indians who inhabited the region. Kansas City has since grown to straddle two states. The Missouri side remains the urban core, while the Kansas portion is distinctly more suburban. But residents cross back and forth day to day with nary a thought to the state line.

 

Though it’s divided east and west, it was split by north and south during the Civil War (Kansas joined the Union, while Missouri remained neutral and supplied troops to both armies). Kansas City continued to grow after the war, shaped and scarred by dubious political schemes during the early 1900s, decades of organized crime, and court-ordered school desegregation in the 1970s. But then, all families have their skeletons in the closet. And since its founding, committed citizens have been donating land and funds to create the area’s great buildings and public parks.

 

One such leader was William Rockhill Nelson, who started the Kansas City Star newspaper in 1880. He provided the bequest that established the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, a cultural nexus noted for both its top-notch exhibitions and the largest, and perhaps finest, collection of Chinese paintings outside Asia. The museum recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, and two years ago debuted a new wing designed by Steven Holl. The architect had a vision of lenses scattered on the museum’s sweeping lawn, and the glass building, a stunning addition to the Beaux Arts façade, glows at night like jewels on velvet. The Nelson-Atkins’s director, Marc Wilson, a 38-year resident, says, “Kansas City is a place where you can get a lot accomplished and exercise a lot of creativity. There’s not much negativity here.”

 

If the Nelson-Atkins is the grande dame of the cultural community, she is surrounded by swirling ingenues. Within walking distance of her halls is the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, a sleek modern structure by Gunnar Birkerts that opened in 1994; the Kemper’s collection, dating from 1913 on, features well-known and up-and-coming artists. And a short drive north is the burgeoning Crossroads arts district.

 

In the early 1990s, the Crossroads district began to gentrify as artists and gallery owners moved here, revitalizing it and the adjacent downtown business area, which, like that of many of America’s cities, had fallen nearly silent during the ’70s and ’80s. Now First Fridays, a gallery walk held each month, presents a sampling of the cultural offerings and the lively street scene that have emerged. Don’t miss the Belger Arts Center, the Byron C. Cohen Gallery, the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, and Blue Gallery. The Crossroads has also enjoyed a rebirth of restaurants and retailers. For dinner, one of the best places is 1924 Main, along with Michael Smith and its sister eatery, Extra Virgin, which offer engaging menus and an animated atmosphere. And with the completion nearly two years ago of the futuristic black-glass-sheathed Sprint Center for sports and entertainment events, and the development of the eight-block Power & Light district, full of restaurants and nightlife, downtown has once again become a round-the-clock destination.

 

While it was led by creative types, the rejuvenation has been aided by civic leaders as well. The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts—a dream of Muriel McBrien Kauffman being realized by her daughter Julia Irene Kauffman—will open in the fall of 2011. The center, designed by acclaimed architect Moshe Safdie, will serve as the home of the Kansas City Ballet, the Kansas City Symphony, and the Lyric Opera. Nearby, the city’s oldest surviving schoolhouse has been transformed by philanthropist Shirley Bush Helzberg into Webster House, a stunning antiques shop with an elegant restaurant. This combination of renovation and innovative new construction and public benefactors and private entrepreneurship has been instrumental in defining the city since its beginning.

In fact, J. C. Nichols, a developer who was a major force in shaping Kansas City during the first half of the 20th century, is now considered something of a visionary by many urban planners. Nichols dreamed of the town as a collection of neighborhoods in parklike settings with graceful boulevards studded with numerous fountains and statues. He usually included shopping areas as well, and one of his developments, Crestwood, south of the Nelson-Atkins, now contains some of the most sophisticated retailers in the city. Charlecote, which carries museum-worthy 18th- and 19th-century English antiques, is an education in itself, and Pear Tree Antiques and Decorative Arts, with its Continental pieces, garden furniture, and delightful gifts, is charming. George Terbovich’s shop, George, at the center of the block, features hard-to-find items from the Paris flea markets plus chic linens and tabletop accessories.

Country Club Plaza, about a mile northwest, is Nichols’s other triumph of planning. Opened in the early 1920s, it was America’s first outdoor shopping center, and its 15 blocks of Spanish-style architecture remain chock-full of retailers such as Burberry and Tiffany & Co., as well as hotels and restaurants. The Plaza (pronouncing it with a short, elided a demonstrates you are in the know—this is the Midwest and one does not put on airs) is also home to the department store Halls, opened in 1913 by Hallmark Cards founder Joyce C. Hall. The store’s current president, Kelly Cole, moved to Kansas City after managing the Beverly Hills Neiman Marcus.

 

Cole’s is not an unusual story. Entrepreneurs Emily and Matt Baldwin began their careers in California before opening their fashion-forward Standard Style Boutique in 2003. “We settled here after living in several cities,” Emily says. “Kansas City has an outstanding community of people who are cultured, well traveled, and supportive of local business.” Decorator David Jimenez arrived four years ago, having tried both New York and San Francisco. “Coming here has been one of the most rewarding decisions I’ve ever made,” says Jimenez, who also serves as vice president of visual merchandising and store design for Hallmark Cards. “Kansas City has so much to offer—world-class museums, vibrant arts, chic restaurants, and great thrift-store shopping. It’s an undiscovered gem with a wonderful heartbeat, where people are welcoming and neighbors still bring fresh-baked cookies to your door as the moving trucks pull away.”

The real center of the city’s well-established antiques community is 45th Street and State Line. Standouts include Christopher Filley & Rich Hoffman Antiques, stocked with unique decorative accessories and architectural salvage; Parrin & Co., a small boutique full of Continental objects, many with an ecclesiastical slant; and Morning Glory Antiques, which specializes in furniture. A few blocks away is the shop of Linda Pearce, whose legendary eye for elegant and large-scale European pieces has made her a favorite with decorators on both coasts.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about Kansas City and not mention barbecue, the area’s classic cuisine. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to try as many different kinds as you can. Every local has a shortlist of favored spots:

“Gates, Oklahoma Joe’s, and Arthur Bryant’s.”

“Oklahoma Joe’s, LC’s, and Jack Stack.”

“Hands down, Rosedale. Period.”

If you like your sauce mild and sweet, start with Gates. Spicy and rich? That would be Arthur Bryant’s. But Kansas City does not live on pulled pork and burnt ends alone; fine dining is thriving. Megan Garrelts is half of a husband-and-wife team that serves some of the town’s most innovative cuisine at Bluestem. “We worked in Chicago, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles,” she says, “but our roots were in the Midwest, and we were seeing a huge change in the restaurant scene here.” Her husband, Colby, a native who has been nominated three times for the James Beard Foundation’s best chef of the Midwest award, adds, “There’s everything you need here. The value is unbelievable.”

Hotel options are plentiful, and many locals will tell you anywhere on the Plaza would provide a convenient home base. The InterContinental Kansas City and the Raphael Hotel are the most stylish choices, though the Courtyard by Marriott has done a solid renovation of the Park Lane Apartments, a 1920s residential hotel that is on the National Register of Historic Places. If you prefer to stay downtown, Hotel Phillips is a top choice. This Art Deco landmark has recently catered to Alicia Keys, Eric Clapton, and Jennifer Hudson.

 

You can’t anticipate Kansas City’s charms by looking at a map. It has all the elements that create a rich urban experience, coupled with a gracious, small-town intimacy that ensures an easy stay—for a weekend or a lifetime