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Going to Kansas City

  • CHICAGO TRIBUNE

    The National World War I Museum and Memorial offers a grand view of Kansas City from its 217-foot observation deck,

  • CHICAGO TRIBUNE

    A dinner platter from Q39, just one of the many Kansas City restaurants that pays homage to the city’s illustrious reputation for great barbecue.

  • CHICAGO TRIBUNE

    Claes Oldenburg’s famous Shuttlecock sculpture can be viewed on the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art through another installation, Magdalena Abakanowicz’s “Standing Figures.”

This is a belated apology to Kansas City: Sorry that it took me so long.

I get it now.

My wife and I arrived in Kansas City, Mo., knowing little of its history or cultural attractions and expecting even less. We’d driven through it, mostly on our way to other destinations and stopping only to sample barbecue.

So we were astonished — and a little embarrassed — to discover this clean, livable western Missouri city as a treasure trove of great food, fine museums and musical and artistic delights.

Here are just a few reasons why you should love Kansas City:

>> Because it’s a down-to-earth, friendly town that offers the planet’s best barbecue, a world-class art museum that is free, and you can park almost anywhere for little or nothing.

>> Because it’s a city of surprising beauty, culture and history, where the unexpected seems ridiculously commonplace. Beautiful buildings and impressive monuments seem to leap out of the prairie and beckon visitors with alluring attractions.

>> Because its citizens actually believe in civility and welcome strangers with open arms. There’s a strong sense of civic pride in this big Midwestern metropolis that beats with a small-town heart.

>> Because it’s the home of the only World War I museum in the United States, with great exhibits and a wide display of weapons, uniforms, trenches and amazing historical facts.

>> Because it boasts more fountains than any world city but Rome. Fountains are ingrained in the city’s identity and offer gurgling oases throughout the city. The more than 200 fountains feature statuary, waterfalls and color and light displays.

>> Because it is home to both the American Jazz Museum and the Negro Baseball Leagues Museum, which share space in the Lincoln Building in the historic 18th and Vine neighborhood, a center of black culture and entertainment through the 1960s. That area, which produced jazz giants such as Count Basie and Charlie Parker, is home to many jazz clubs even today. The neighborhood also hosts the annual 18th & Vine Jazz & Blues Festival.

Memorable museums

The American Jazz Museum includes rare films of early jazz stars and exhibits on jazz giants, as well as historic recordings, posters, photos and interviews. A connected performance venue, The Blue Room, offers live jazz acts; it is named after a legendary local jazz club of the 1930s and ’40s that was located across the street. The museum harks back to a time when jazz was king and Kansas City was one of its capitals.

At the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, fans are transported to the days before blacks were allowed to play in the major leagues, when most U.S. cities with sizable African-American populations fielded teams boasting stars such as Ernie Banks, Josh Gibson, Willie Mays, Saturnino “Minnie” Minoso, John “Buck” O’Neil, Leroy “Satchel” Paige and Jackie Robinson. Some went on to become major league All-Stars, while others played in relative anonymity, unknown outside of their community. Kansas City hosted the Monarchs, a storied franchise that was the pride of the black community. The museum explores the history of the leagues and the lives of team founders, players and coaches, as well as films, oral histories and a smaller mock-up of the Field of Legends baseball diamond. The museum preserves the history of the leagues and reveals how brave athletes triumphed over racism.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art features a diverse collection of modern, ancient, Native American and international art spanning 5,000 years. While special exhibitions, such as the recent display of American muralist Thomas Hart Benton, charge a fee, admission to the museum is always free. Collections include Impressionists such as Monet, Gauguin and van Gogh and artists as varied as Caravaggio, de Kooning and Moore. The museum also features an outdoor sculpture garden that includes Claes Oldenburg’s famous Shuttlecock, a modern wing and the original neoclassical structure that opened in 1933.

Kansas has long been represented in college basketball’s Final Four, but you don’t have to be a Jayhawks fan to appreciate “The College Basketball Experience” at the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame inside the Sprint Center. It’s an interactive experience that celebrates men’s college basketball. Not only does the showplace delve into college hoops throughout the decades and honor the star players and coaches, but it also allows fans to work up a sweat and compete on free throws, game-winning shots and more at activity stations. It’s a decidedly different kind of museum experience.

The National World War I Museum and Memorial pays homage to the doughboys who fought the “War to End All Wars.” The museum is on a grassy stretch beneath the Liberty Memorial, an imposing tower that offers a grand view of Kansas City from its 217-foot observation deck. Through news reports and eyewitness accounts, visitors can immerse themselves in the lives of all soldiers fighting the war, with re-creations of trenches and displays of original weaponry. Accompanying the well-conceived displays, films and interviews are chronologies of the war and the perspectives of soldiers, generals and politicians of the time. Touring this vast museum is a remarkable and insightful experience that puts historic events in digestible context.

Neighborhood gems

Kansas City also boasts some fascinating neighborhoods, including the old Power & Light District downtown with its architecturally significant buildings, theaters and restaurants and the historic City Market area, where the resurrected Steamboat Arabia, “The Titanic of the Missouri River,” sank in 1856 and is now restored as a museum.

There’s also the Crossroads Arts & Design District, featuring art galleries, nightclubs and the soaring arches of the Moshe Safdie-designed Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, and Westport, site of a Civil War battle and the city’s original entertainment district.

The barbecue

Barbecue is a religion here, and besides classic joints such as Arthur Bryant’s and Gates Bar-B-Q, and newer eateries such as Plowboys BBQ and Q39, there are barbecue tour buses and outdoor competitions throughout much of the year. Kansas City is the headquarters of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, the premier barbecue event-sanctioning organization. And as part of its monthslong annual livestock competition and rodeo, the 116-year-old American Royal, the city also hosts the World Series of Barbecue and the Barbecue Hall of Fame.

But there’s more to eat in KC than just barbecue. Since its stockyards made the city a center for livestock transport and processing, meat has been a Kansas City staple, and fine steakhouses abound. The area’s growing Latino population has spawned some fine Mexican restaurants, and visitors will enjoy sushi and pan-Asian offerings to complement a handful of old-school German spots.

So if you’re making Midwest travel plans, consider KC. It will surprise you.

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