Late this summer my kids and I went on an action-packed road trip to KANSAS! We wanted an affordable road trip to a midwest destination that we’ve never been to but has many hidden gems – and we discovered many in Kansas!
Kansas is just a few states away from Minnesota, but you can get there from the Twin Cities in one day’s drive. What’s great is that it’s pretty direct taking I-35 straight to Kansas City, then I-70 west from there to Topeka.
We chose to take two days to get down there – we made the 4-hour drive from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area to Des Moines for one night, and then drove to Topeka the next day, where we arrived by about 1pm.
There’s actually a TON of stuff to do throughout the state of Kansas, which would surprise many people because Kansas is often thought of just a flat state or “flyover country.” Even to me, growing up in the midwest myself, Kansas didn’t seem like as much of a destination, but more of a place to stop on the way “to” somewhere. But after actually spending 5 very busy days there, just in one part of the state, and going to a media event showcasing all of what Kansas has to offer, I can tell you for certain: PUT KANSAS ON YOUR BUCKET LIST! I’m so glad we did, because my kids and I had a BLAST.
In fact, because there’s so much to see in Kansas, we had to narrow our trip just to the northeast area, on and around I-70, which is closest to our home state of Minnesota. We visited four cities: Topeka, Wamego, Manhattan, and Abilene, which are all not far from each other. And to be honest – we had an action-packed trip, and had one full day in each city, but even then, barely saw as much as we wanted to! Still, I’m excited to share with you our epic trip to northeast (and part of northcentral) Kansas, and I hope can you plan a similar trip with your family!
Note: My kids at the time of this trip were 14 and 11, and everything we did on this trip was perfect for their ages. There are places like children’s museums and great playgrounds in these cities as well, if you have younger kids.
Our first stop: Topeka!
Topeka is the capitol city of Kansas, and is just west of Kansas City about one hour.
Here we enjoyed:
Lions, tigers and bears, oh my! (Hint – that’s from a movie we explored next on our trip!) The Topeka Zoo is a great, affordable zoo with plenty to fill a day. There are many areas including Hill’s Black Bear Woods, a Tropical Rainforest, Kansas Carnivores, and a Children’s Zoo. My kids especially loved the Lorikeet Aviary where you can feed the colorful birds! And they have fun events during the year like “Boo at the Zoo” and “Zoo Lights.”
Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka Historical Site
In the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. This case combined 5 cases across the country, including here in Topeka. To commemorate this decision, a Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park was established in Topeka, which includes Monroe Elementary School and the adjacent grounds. Monroe Elementary School was one of the four segregated elementary schools for African American children in Topeka. While it’s no longer a school, the building is used for educational exhibits about this important part of history.
Now you can walk through the halls and classrooms to learn about Brown v. Board of Education, including the famous Clark Doll Test, which played a key role in the ruling.
I remember learning about this in school but it makes such a difference to visit a place like this.
This site is FREE to visit and well worth it.
Kansas Museum of History
Here, the history of the people of Kansas comes to life. Inside this building you can find a locomotive from 1880, automobiles, a historic schoolhouse, exhibits about historical figures, businesses and more. (As of September 2022 this museum is closed temporarily for renovations.)
NOTO Arts District
NOTO is short for “North Topeka Arts District” and is definitely artistic with over 40 outdoor public art murals and sculptures! There are also many businesses here including unique shops and restaurants.
We enjoyed dinner at “The Wheel Barrel” restaurant which specializes in grilled cheese sandwiches, salads and cocktails.
Topeka State Capitol
Of course, the Topeka State Capitol Building is a great stop to make. There are guided dome tours, and self-guided tours at the visitor center throughout the week.
There’s more to Topeka of course – there’s also the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center, the Evil Knievel Museum, and many other sites worth visiting in this “Top City.”
Go to the Visit Topeka website for more info about all of these places and to plan your visit.
Our Hotel Recommendation: Where to Stay in Topeka
We recommend staying at Springhill Suites by Marriott in Topeka. Our hotel room was the BIGGEST room we’ve ever had! It was huge! It had a living area, a huge bathroom, and tons of space. The hotel had a great fitness center, pool and a fabulous buffet breakfast included with the room. We felt spoiled here!
Part 2: Wamego, land of The Wizard of Oz!
Wamego is the city to visit for all things OZ!
Did you know this existed? It’s a museum all about the movie! It has real artifacts from the film and memorabilia galore. You can spend as much time as you like here, and they even have the movie “The Wizard of Oz” playing in a theatre inside the museum all day long. The stories about the movie and the people who made the movie, as well as all the movies and plays that were written afterward are fascinating (including Return to Oz, which I loved growing up). There are photo opportunities inside, and a fun gift shop at the end.
Wamego Historical Museum and Prairie Village
Here there are TONS of artifacts from the area’s history, and even authentic buildings from the 1800s that you can tour (with a guide) like a schoolhouse and a jail. Admission and guided tours are just $1 – 5 per person.
Yes, this is a super-popular winery with oz-inspired wines made here including Squished Witch and Wine of a Different Color (those are my favorite two – I tried a wine flight for $8!). You can enjoy drinking wine here at the winery, as well as a cheese and cracker plate, chocolates and other snacks, or just buy bottles of wine. Plus they have souvenirs (I bought a t-shirt!).
That’s not all the OZ you’ll find here. You can walk a themed Yellow Brick Road here, and search for Totos all over town! It’s super fun for the kids! (And free)
Part 3: Feeding Bison by hand!!!
We had an awesome experience at Lazy Heart D Bison Ranch just north of Wamego, Kansas! Owner, Ed Dillinger, taught us so much about Bison, geography and geology of the area, and a lot more – and gave us a hayride out to his Bison field where we hand-fed the Bison! Baby Bison, too.
And the best part – it’s completely FREE! (Yes – no cost, unless you want to make a donation, which is totally optional.) Just check out his Facebook page or website and contact him to set up a visit if you’re in the area!
For places to eat in Wamego, I know Toto’s Tacos is popular and OZ-themed, but unfortunately was closed when we were in the area. There’s also the Friendship House, a lovely restaurant started by 4 women. It is actually a 2-story old home with oak furniture, right by the Yellow Brick Road in the middle of town.
Learn about all these places and more things to do on the Visit Wamego website!
Our Hotel Recommendation: Where to Stay in Wamego
Wamego has a few lodging options but we stayed at the centrally located Wamego Inn & Suites. It was really nice and included a free breakfast, fitness center access (offsite) and an outdoor pool.
Part 4: Manhattan, Kansas!
Manhattan is like a big city in a small town! It’s actually a great city to visit – with SO much to do! I was surprised how much is packed into this small but bustling college city.
Here are some highlights from our visit:
Flight Crew Coffee
This is a NEW airplane-themed coffee shop with everything from flight-themed coffee drinks to “lavatories” to the servers dressed as flight crew members! I couldn’t get enough of it and we went here twice!
Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art
This art museum has beautiful art galleries, from artists both local and beyond, and my kids got to make paper during an event they had here. Check them out in advance for special events.
There were many places to get treats in town, but Varsity Donuts is famous for their unique donuts (like with bubblegum!) and because it’s in a building that used to be an old-fashioned drugstore – and still looks that way.
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Flint Hills Discovery Center
This is a MUST-SEE when you’re in Manhattan, especially if you have kids. It was recently redesigned and is full of interactive and fascinating exhibits for kids and adults alike. They have an exhibit area with rotating exhibits (it was all about baseball when we visited), and they have a 4-D theater about the Flint Hills with snow that falls on you!
NOTE: You can get free admission if you have a membership to a museum that participates in its reciprocity program, including the Minnesota Children’s Museum!
Another zoo worth exploring, the Sunset Zoo has a new area “Expedition Asia” and many other animals like hyenas and wolves and even sloth bears!
Part 5: Ziplining in the famous Flint Hills!
At Wildwood Adventure Park in Manhattan, Kansas, you can go ziplining in the beautiful Flint Hills.
There are 7 ziplines that get higher and longer, and one free fall at the end! My kids LOVED this- it was one of their favorite parts of this trip. Mine too, even though it was about 100 degrees! The wind as you fly through the trees helped, and the views were amazing.
This isn’t even all of it – Manhattan is a college city with great restaurants and shops and art. Be sure to walk around Aggieville – the oldest shopping district in Kansas, and abundant in variety. We easily could have filled a few more days here.
We also recommend some other places we ate including The Chef, and Kite’s Aggieville Draft House.
Check it all out at the Visit Manhattan, Kansas website!
Our Hotel Recommendation: Where to Stay in Manhattan
The Hilton Garden Inn is located in downtown Manhattan, Kansas, and has amenities including an indoor pool and fitness center (I had a great workout here). Parking is $10 in their ramp, but you can park right on the street for free – we had no problem finding a parking spot.
Part 6: Abilene, Kansas!
Abilene is a must-see if you’re in Kansas! It’s like stepping back in time to the old west and is so educational. Here’s what we saw:
Old Abilene Town
In Old Abilene Town, the Old West comes to life here with real cattle drive simulations, reenactors and lots of buildings to explore. We watched actors everywhere. You can even enjoy stagecoach rides here.
Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad
Here you can ride a real 1919 steam engine locomotive! It’s one of only 3 operational former Sante Fe locomotives. We did a short but fun and informative ride from Old Abilene Town.
Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum
This is an amazingly well done, recently updated museum all about Eisenhower’s life, who is from Abilene. My daughter loved his wife’s dresses. I especially loved the immersive table that told the history of World War 2 with spotlights, videos and sounds. This really is a place to spend hours of your time and I think I learned more about World War 2 than I have from any other source in my life. There’s also his Boyhood Home and the Place of Meditation, where you can visit the graves of Eisenhower, his wife, and their firstborn child, who died at age 3.
The Brookville Hotel at Abilene has served fried chicken dinners since 1915! It closed during COVID but recently opened again and we got to try the delicious food. You will not leave hungry here! Note: They only take reservations right now.
Plus we explored other unique sites like the Seelye Mansion and Greyhound Hall of Fame museum. There is also so much more here – check them out! Abilene is right off I-70 which connects directly to Kansas City.
Learn more about Abilene on their website here.
Hotel Recommendation: Where to Stay in Abilene
We enjoyed our stay at the Holiday Inn in Abilene, which is located right off of I-70 and close to all the attractions we visited. The free breakfast was probably our favorite part, with many yummy items to choose from including several hot foods.
You have to take this trip!
There you have it! This was our four city Kansas trip.
After we were done in Abilene, we did stay in Kansas City for one night. Did you know that there is a Kansas City, Kansas, AND a Kansas City, Missouri? We stayed in Missouri one night, and then drove home the next day from there. It worked out perfectly.
Thank you to Travel Kansas for hosting us for this wonderful trip!
Our Itinerary (we went from a Friday to a Thursday):
Here was our day to day itinerary:
Leave for Des Moines in afternoon, Iowa (4 hour drive).
Leave for Topeka, arrive 1pm.
2:00 PM – 3:30 PM – Kansas Museum of History | 6425 SW 6th Ave, Topeka, KS 66615
4:00 PM – 5:00 PM – Brown Vs. Board of Education | 1515 SE Monroe St, Topeka, KS 66612
5:30 PM – 6:30 PM – Dinner at The Wheel Barrel | 925 N Kansas Ave, Topeka, KS 66608
6:30 PM – 7:30 PM – Explore NOTO and Downtown Topeka
9:00 AM – 12:00 PM – Topeka Zoo | 635 SW Gage Blvd, Topeka, KS 66606
12:00 PM – Explore the Kansas State Capitol grounds | SW 8th & SW Van Buren St, Topeka, KS 66612
12:30 PM – Drive to Wamego, KS
1:00 – 6:00PM Historical Museum, Oz Museum, Oz Winery
Evening: Explore Yellow Brick Road, parks, enjoy hotel pool
9:30 AM – 11:30 AM Bison Experience, Lazy Heart D Bison Ranch, 17455 Pauling Run Road Westmoreland, Kansas.
12:00 PM Drive to Manhattan, Kansas
12:30 PM Lunch at The Chef Restaurant, 111 S. 4th, Manhattan, KS
2:30 PM Wildwood Adventure Park (ziplining), 375 Johnson Rd. Manhattan, KS
6:00 PM Dinner at Kite’s /Aggieville Steak House, 617 N 12th St., Manhattan, KS.
Mural scavenger hunt in evening.
9:00 AM Coffee & Scones at Flight Crew (airplane-themed coffee shop), 423 Poyntz Ave., Manhattan
10:00 AM Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Kansas State University, 701 Beach Lane, Manhattan, KS
11:30 AM Flint Hills Discovery Center, 315 S. 3rd St., Manhattan, KS
1:00 PM Lunch
More of mural hunt, then drive to Abilene, Kansas.
Enjoy Old Abilene Town and Smoky Valley Railroad in afternoon.
9:00 AM – 3:00 PM Eisenhower Museum, Seelye Mansion and Greyhound Hall of Fame museum
Lunch at Brookville Hotel.
Explore Abilene – murals, art around town.
Drive to Kansas City, Missouri.