Quick! What comes to mind when you think of Kansas? Amber grains of wheat, deadly tornados, Dorothy and Toto and that’s often the extent of it. After returning from an all-to-brief, thoroughly delightful trip there, I’m making it my mission to promote Wichita, Kansas, as one of the underrated cultural gems in the US. I will now present my case as to why Wichita is so worthy of your attention.
1. Everything is so much easier, nicer, and less expensive here, so if you’re looking for affordable splurges, this would be the spot. Every time I left my stunning, 1,600 sq ft Rock Star Suite at the Ambassador Hotel, a contemporary, upscale boutique property located in the impeccably renovated Union National Bank Building, I was surprised that there wasn’t a throng of paparazzi awaiting my appearance. Thoughtful in-suite comforts include sophisticated custom furnishings, a fireplace, dining room, bar, an oversized tile shower plus a soaking tub, plush robes and delectable room service provided by the hotel’s Sienna Tuscan Steakhouse Restaurant.
Inside tip: There is also a complimentary local shuttle to take you to the airport or anywhere in a 5-miles radius. However, in keeping with my “Rock Star” image, I preferred being driven around by Bobby, the outgoing owner of Triple B’s Express, who squired me around in a white stretch limo.
2. Who knew, other than Wichitans, that the city has such a rich cultural scene, offering unparalleled performances at their professional opera, symphony and ballet and dozens of live theaters, such as The Theater League which presents B’way touring productions, or the renown Musical Theater Wichita, now in its 45th season, which proudly claims that almost every Broadway production features one of their alumni!
Inside tip: Wichita loves hosting a party, presenting a multitude of special events year round, so be sure to check out their festival calendar. Luckily I was there during the “Stubbornly Independent” Tallgrass Film Festival, offering the same high-caliber of films as Sundance without the inflated ticket prices or mass of humanity jockeying for a seat. The five-day festival screens close to 200 films including features, docs and shorts from all over the world. Many of the filmmakers I met said this is their favorite festival because it’s the “most fun”!
3. Another “who knew” is that Wichita has a whopping 33 world-class museums to explore. Museums on the River, a group of museums clustered along the scenic Arkansas River for easy-peasy viewing, is comprised of Botanica, where you can stroll through 25 themed display gardens spread over nine acres, Exploration Place, Mid-America All-Indian Center, Old Cowtown Museum, a living history museum located off the Chisholm Trail where you’ll experience life in an 1870’s Midwestern cattle town and the Wichita Art Museum, home to a premiere collection of American art‚ including works by Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keefe, and Edward Hopper. When I went I was the only visitor there, so I had the rare opportunity of standing in silence, absorbing the colorful beauty of Dale Chihuly’s “Persian Seaform Ceiling”.
Inside tip: FLW fans can take a docent-led tour of the painstakingly restored, Frank Lloyd Wright Allen House, filled with much of the original furniture including clothing and books. Designed in 1915, Wright considered this Prairie house “among my best.”
4. If the above inspires you to buy a piece of art, Wichita has about 30 galleries, many filled with original works by local artists. You can easily spend an afternoon shopping in historic Old Town District, where turn-of-the-century, red brick warehouses have morphed into eclectic galleries, unique gift shops, brewpubs, and restaurants creating a unique, cool vibe. Don’t miss the Tessera Fine Art Gallery; filled with working artist studios where you can find affordable works by over 40 Kansas artists creating everything from steampunk sculptures to exquisite origami creations. For the perfect gift, check out Lucinda’s which is full of quirky items including hysterical Wichita t-shirts, gorgeous handmade jewelry, and, of course, a counter devoted to Wizard of Oz collectibles.
Inside tip: Their Final Friday art crawl (obviously, the last Friday of the month) a free after-hours event, is when art lovers (and partiers) gather at local galleries, museums, and eateries for the latest unveilings, live music, receptions, and a chance to meet-the-artist. Afterward, refuel at Oeno Wine Bar for tapas and a glass of vino or head over to Mort’s Cigar Bar Martinis, with over 160 martinis and live music. No worries about where to park, simply hop on the free Q-line trolley.
Insider tip: Wichita believes in taking art to the streets. Grab a copy of the Downtown Wichita Public Art Guide for three DIY walking tours filled with statues, fountains, and fascinating bronze sculptures, such as Georgia Gerber’s Soda Fountain, that commemorates one of the nation’s first sit-ins in 1958.
5. An absolute must-see is the iconic, 44-foot Keeper of the Plains steel sculpture found at the confluence of the Arkansas and the Little Arkansas Rivers magnificently framed by two bow & arrow inspired cable bridges. The Keeper pays tribute to the elements of life: water, fire, earth and wind.
Inside tip: The Keeper is even more awe-inspiring when viewed at night during the dramatic “Ring of Fire” ceremony when the fire pits are lighted to illuminate the statue and the river.
6. You’re probably thinking, “OK, this all sounds great but is the food any good?” Would you believe that Livability.com listed Wichita as a “Top 10 Foodie City”? There are over 1,000 restaurants to choose from with virtually every nationality represented as well as local cuisine ranging from fast-food favorite, NuWay, which has been serving its crumbly loose hamburgers and homemade root beer since 1930 to many fine dining options such as AVI Seabar & Chophouse, the city’s premier destination for freshly prepared Sterling Silver steaks and perfect for date night, although the couple next to me nearly came to blows over who got the last bite of Lobster, Spinach, and Artichoke Dip.
Bradley Fair is an open-air, specialty shopping district surrounded by colorful walking paths, fountains, and ponds. It’s also home to some of the best restaurants in Wichita. For a fabulous day of food, I started with lunch at Bella Luna Café, featuring scrumptious salads and Mediterranean specialties. It has received numerous awards including “Best Greek Restaurant in Wichita” and it gets my vote for “Best Hummus Ever!”
Following a full afternoon of power shopping, I had just enough time for some quality relaxing at the Healing Waters Spa where my talented masseur, Bobby, managed to un-kink all my sore back muscles left over from the previous day’s flight. After a delightful little nap in their relaxation room overlooking the peaceful lake, lo and behold, I managed to work up an appetite for my dinner at YaYa’s Euro Bistro. Not only did I receive stellar service from my waiter, Rob, (I later found out that all the locals love Rob, so much so that the restaurant owners bought him a Harley for his 15th anniversary working there) but everything I tried (a garden fresh beet and goat cheese salad, a light, arugula topped oak-fired pizza and a perfectly cooked, al dente truffled risotto) was fantastic, which was quite surprising since the new chef, Jason Stever, who has a stellar background working at top restos in California, had just started that week.
There is no sweeter ending to a decadent day than nabbing a seat in the chocolate lounge at Cocoa Dolce Artisan Chocolates, where you can sample exquisite handcrafted chocolates, paired with wine, or specialty coffee drinks.
Inside tip: If your shoulders are aching from carrying all those shopping bags (or even if not) take a break in between meals, for some quality relaxing at the Healing Waters Spa. My talented masseur, Bobby, managed to un-kink all my sore back muscles left over from the previous day’s flight.