by Jerry L. Peerson -
SGN A&E Writer
Every city has its heyday, and now it's Kansas City's! Referred to by locals as KC, this Midwest metropolis has seen over $1.5 billion of investment in arts and culture over the past decade, helping it to be less affected by the recession than other parts of the country. Visitors to KC can tour world-class museums, dine at a diverse selection of top-notch and innovative restaurants, and experience a burgeoning Gay scene. For sports fans, a variety of competitions take place throughout the year, from college basketball tournaments to Chiefs football games. KC is also known as the City of Fountains, and visitors will enjoy strolling past the abundant water features - even Kauffman Stadium, home of the Royals and host to the 2012 MLB All-Star Game, has a fountain in the outfield. History likewise abounds in the 18th and Vine district, where some of America's deepest jazz roots were planted; the emotive music still reverberates in the area nightly. This flurry of cultural activity and advents in architectural design are helping KC redefine itself as a premier American destination, placing it as the only U.S. city on Frommer's list of Top Destinations of 2012. Now with the recent inauguration of direct flights on Alaska Airlines from Seattle, it's easier than ever for Northwesterners to see all that this city has to offer!
At the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers, downtown KC is about 20 minutes by cab from the airport and immediately captivates visitors with its art deco skyscrapers rising high out of the hilly, tree-lined terrain. Right in the center of this mini-Manhattan is historic Hotel Phillips (hotelphillips.com). This 20-floor, 217-room hotel recently underwent a multi-million-dollar renovation to preserve its beautiful art deco and art nouveau facades as well as update the rooms with 21st-century traveler comforts and modern art. The lobby itself is a work of art, featuring marble floors, a suspended chandelier, walnut and wrought iron accents, a communal area for meeting, reading, or having coffee, and an elegantly carpeted grand staircase leading up to a gilded statue of Dawn, goddess of the breaking light. Classy wingback chairs line the mezzanine, where frequent live jazz performances bring visitors back to the hotel's 1930s roots. Don't let all the history fool you - Hotel Phillips is forward-thinking and offers a Pride Package for same-sex couples starting at $179. Packages feature valet parking, a one night stay, locally made bath products, breakfast for two at 12 Baltimore (the hotel's restaurant), and complimentary cocktails at Bistro 303, an upscale Gay lounge bar in KC's Westport neighborhood.
Walkable Westport, aptly named for being the gateway into the western frontier over 150 years ago, could today be considered KC's Gayest district. Bistro 303 (bistro303.com) is the watering hole of choice for KC's more trendy Gays. The mirrored walls accentuate the openness of the space and offer patrons a chance to survey their peers on the sly. In addition to Bistro 303, Missie B's (missiebs.com), the biggest Gay club in the city, is only a few blocks away from the heart of this historic neighborhood. The venue is a combination dance club, sex shop, sports bar, and drag theater that brings together a wildly diverse group of people, especially on Friday nights. At Missie B's, bears, twinks, Lesbians, and straight boys and girls of every age and ethnicity party together. Whether dancing, playing pool, or sipping surprisingly cheap drinks at any of the club's five bars, patrons come to Missie B's for its accepting, come-as-you-are attitude. Also nearby are Buddies (3715 Main Street), a cruisy dive bar, and Sidekicks (3707 Main Street), for those who like to channel their country-western side. Though not strictly a Gay area, the new Power & Light District in downtown KC is a unique focal point for the city's nightlife. Centered around KC Live!, an open-air plaza with year-'round live entertainment and surrounded by two levels of bars, clubs and restaurants, the area is protected from the elements by an enormous canopy roof. Law even permits people to take drinks from one bar to another across the plaza. Bars on the Missouri side of KC (the city straddles the Kansas-Missouri border) stay open until 3 a.m., giving late-night revelers an extra hour to party.
Aside from all the debauchery, something important and inspiring has recently broken ground just outside of Westport. Chely Wright, the first openly Gay country music star and a KC native, opened the LikeMe Lighthouse LGBT community center in Kansas City over the weekend of March 9-11. The celebrations included a community open house and ribbon cutting, plus a special benefit concert at the University of Missouri KC campus. Wright performed several songs, including her biggest hit 'Single White Female,' changing the word 'man' to 'girl' in the lyric 'A single white female is looking for a girl like you,' to hoots and hollers from the crowd. A local Lesbian ER doctor gave an incredibly moving speech explaining how the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy affected her life as a soldier and med student. Comedian Hal Sparks flew in for the show and received the most uproarious laughter of the night. Rounding out the evening, Scottish actor Alan Cumming delivered his unique comedic song and story-telling routine. All profits from the event went directly to the LikeMe Lighthouse (likemelighthouse.org), the first, much needed, brick-and-mortar LGBT community center in Kansas City.
Though groundbreaking evenings like LikeMe's opening don't happen everyday, KC has bountiful museums, exhibits, and historical sights to visit on any given day. The new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts (kauffmancenter.org) adds an illustrious modern architectural perspective to the art deco skyline. The building - shaped like two shell-like gramophones joined together by a space-age white and glass enclosed lobby - has become the city's hub for cultural performances from Philip Glass to Aretha Franklin. A little further from downtown are two of the city's most important historical monuments and museums. Union Station, a still active railway station, is the second largest in the U.S. and is currently hosting an experiential Titanic artifacts exhibit for the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking through September. Up the hill is the National World War I Museum of Liberty Memorial, the only U.S. museum strictly dedicated to WWI. For a different perspective on history, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (www.nelson-atkins.org) has a wealth of European, Asian, and African art on display, including one of only seven paintings by Caravaggio held by museums. The gorgeous, tree-lined grounds are home to an interactive sculpture garden whose centerpiece is a work of giant shuttlecocks strewn about as if they'd been shot over the museum. Across the street is the KC Art Institute, where Walt Disney took classes as a boy. Completing this nucleus of art is the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (kemperart.org), featuring rotating displays from both local and national artists. Visitors come to the Kemper Museum as much for the art as they do for the food. Café Sebastienne, one of KC's top restaurants, is set amongst an instillation of 110 paintings by Frederick James Brown called 'The History of Art.' Each piece imitates a different artist or style and provides an evocative setting for brunch at the four-star restaurant with a new menu each week based on the choicest in-season ingredients. Absolutely, one of the best meals in Kansas City!
KC's most well-known attraction is the Country Club Plaza, America's first outdoor shopping mall built in 1922 and modeled after the Spanish city of Seville. Some of KC's finest shopping and dining can be found in this area, including award winning Café Trio (cafetriokc.com), owned by Gay couple Tai Nguyen and Chris Youngers. The cocktail bar and restaurant has a covered patio with views of the plaza and gorgeous J.C. Nichols Fountain where diners can relax on warm summer evenings. In addition to their steak, seafood, and pasta dishes, they have special vegetarian and gluten-free menus, a welcome touch for those with special diet restrictions. A couple vegetarian/vegan eateries, Blue Bird Bistro and FÜD, are found up the hill from the Kauffman Center on 18th and Summit. FÜD (eatfud.com) features a green jackfruit barbecue sandwich so herbivores can still taste a take on KC's most famous meal. For the traditionalist, no-frills Arthur Bryant's (arthurbryantsbbq.com) on the opposite side of town at 18th and Brookline is one of the birthplaces of KC's slow-smoked BBQ. In 2008, John McCain and Sarah Palin chowed down here on the campaign trail. Under humorous photos of the duo and other celebrities who have come through, you can enjoy sloppy sandwiches the size of a small pig. Fiorella's Jack Stack is the upscale barbecue choice, and Oklahoma Joe's is another cherished favorite. Tucked under a freeway overpass, La Bodega (labodegakc.com) on Southwestern Boulevard serves KC's best Spanish tapas. Delicately fried calamari, baked goat cheese, and roasted mushrooms in garlic, white wine, and parsley sauce are a few of the delicious small plates available, in addition to a vast menu of Spanish entrees. For an afternoon dessert, Glacé Artisan Ice Cream (glaceicecream.com) near Country Club Plaza has an array of innovative flavor combos from local chocolatier Christopher Elbow. Try the chocolate bourbon cherry, or get wild and dive into the basil lime sorbet. Westport also has a number of popular restaurants, but The Beer Kitchen (beerkitchenkc.com) stands out for its wide array of craft beers and fancy treats like cheese fries with shiitake mushroom gravy.
Whether it's day or night, winter or summer, whether you're a sports junkie or arts enthusiast, vegetarian or BBQ purist, with its welcoming sensibilities and multitude of events and activities, there's only one question visitors should have upon arriving in Kansas City: Where do I begin?
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