Don’t call them flyover cities: Why you should visit Kansas City, Indianapolis and Oklahoma City
By Kate Donnelly
The vast, middle of our country, known as “America’s Heartland,” appears as an endless patchwork of farmland and snaking rivers, punctuated by the occasional city that often seems so small and inconsequential—especially from an airplane window. To coastal dwellers, these “flyover cities,” a slightly disparaging term, refer mostly to the swath of land making up states like Illinois, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Missouri. Beyond the well-traversed Windy City of Chicago, a few smaller Midwestern cities are luring travelers with their creative cuisine, live tunes, new museums, and serious laid-back charm. Here, a guide to three cities worth landing, and lingering, in.
Long known for its stockyards, jazz, and famed barbecue, Kansas City is also said to have more fountains than Rome and more boulevards than Paris—thus its honorary title, “Paris of the Plains.” Conjuring up a few days in this friendly, easy-to-zip-around city includes a robust dose of art, shopping, music, and of course, indulging in some classic Midwestern fare.
Where to Shop
Explore Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, an outdoor shopping destination that includes terra-cotta and stucco design influenced by KC’s sister city of Seville, Spain, which makes for a lovely architectural stroll. Pop inside Matt Baldwin’s (a 2015 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist) Standard Style and Baldwin KC (where you’ll find the designer’s KC hat that often appears on homegrown actors Jason Sudeikis and Paul Rudd). The world headquarters of Hallmark has its own boutique department store, Halls, which—believe it or not—houses labels like Prada and Rag & Bone. Check out smaller shops like the sweet home-goods store Golden & Pine, or the Cali-cool Dear Society, stocked with vintage Jordache and woven wall hangings. For intimates, the long-standing Birdies in the Crossroads sells lacey lingerie along with artist Peregrine Honig’s whimsical sketches. A slice of vintage Americana (think perfectly worn Pendleton and faded Levi’s) lives at Cable and Company. And in the East Bottoms, the general store Urban Provisions has leather satchels, boho wares, and, of course, kitchen essentials.
Where to Eat and Drink
The small, chic champagne bar Ça Va is the spot for bubbles and bites. Sip potent margaritas at the buzzy Port Fonda or nab a seat at craft whiskey bar Julep. The patio of Gram & Dun has a lively happy hour of polished cocktails and snacks. A James Beard–worthy dinner can be found at Bluestem (chef Colby Garrelts was awarded Best Chef Midwest in 2013), while the hip Rieger serves Kansas City strip steaks and libations. For Neapolitan pizzas, try Il Lazzarone, and for adventurous Scandinavian bites, head to Klubbkrokstrom. For that famed BBQ, visit the well-traversed, Paul Rudd–endorsed Joe’s Kansas City or the industrial-meets-rustic Q39 where wood-fired meats match with local brews. Serious coffee enthusiasts frequent Oddly Correct.
What to Do
The Moshe Safdie–designed Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, revered for its spectacular acoustics, hosts the resident Kansas City Symphony and a variety of operatic and ballet productions. And there’s no shortage of art—the 1933 neoclassical Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art contains a renowned Asian art collection and a dramatic glass block structure that houses contemporary works, including a tranquil Isamu Noguchi sculpture court. The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art features a giant lawn spider, courtesy of 20th-century artist Louise Bourgeois, and a private collection of artists, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Damien Hirst. Later, drop by an old fire station housing artist Tom Corbin’s elegant, statuesque bronze work and rest in the tranquil courtyard. Live music aficionados will appreciate the moody, red-hued Green Lady Lounge, with its retro cocktail lounge twist, or the more casual, nightly jazz venue at the Majestic.
Where to Stay
Rest your head at the sleek, mod Hotel Sorella, with minimalist rooms dressed in blue, white, and charcoal. The rooftop features a pool and its snappy Bar Rosso makes for a nice pre-cocktail stop before dinner. More central and old school, the Raphael Hotel offers beautiful views of the Spanish-tinged Country Club Plaza. Downtown, the Ambassador retains a bustling hotel bar and rooms with boutique amenities.
Indianapolis is already known for it’s Hoosier hospitality, but this highly walkable city is also in the midst of a progressive, creative culinary movement (and already features some first-class museums and big-city shopping destinations). Plus, thanks to its super-modern, highly touted airport, flying into Indianapolis is a breeze.
Where to Eat and Drink
Indy’s chefs have embraced the heartland bounty with their serious farm-to-table movement. The wildly creative, daytime-only Milktooth is ideal for Indiana heirloom tomatoes and cottage cheese alongside sour cream biscuits with yellow plum butter and local buckwheat honey. Diners pause for a sandwich at Wildwood Market (they rotate one delicious option each day) along with grab-and-go pantry provisions and fresh blooms. Author Kurt Vonnegut grew up in town, so stop for a visit at the aptly named Bluebeard, which serves can’t-miss baked-on-site bread, a warm kale salad, and salmon with red radish, shishito, peas, and cabbage in a brown butter sauce. If you’re looking to dine alfresco, grab a seasonal veggie dish like squash noodles “pad Thai” at Tinker Street. Meanwhile, the old downtown bastion St. Elmo Steak House remains a champ for martinis, jumbo shrimp cocktails, and yes, steaks. Nearby, the recently unveiled Vida offers some standout salads plucked from the restaurant’s leafy hydroponic wall. Check in for late-night live music at Thunderbird where inked bartenders serve a whiskey sour–style drink housed in a classic honey bear plastic bottle (straw included).
Where to Shop
The progressive fashion set flocks to 8 Fifteen, and for vintage finds, Society of Salvage and the aptly titled Vintage 54 Collective both quell the itch for the art of the hunt. For stylish clothes you might find in New York or Los Angeles, Profyle indeed fits the profile. For (mostly) all things local, drop in to Homespun, stocking a bevy of cute children’s toys, art prints, and home decor. The pop-up Pattern is a fashion workspace where indie makers create and later sell their works. Pick up the latest in fashion literature at Printtext, a space sourcing hard-to-find periodicals that also doubles as a print shop. With plush, textural home pieces, Haus Love is ideal for a one-of-a-kind treasure including the homegrown essential oil line Ambre Blends. Supporting adult literacy, nab an old classic at Indy Reads Books (with well-stocked Vonnegut titles), which also hosts a stand-up mix of author events.
What to Do
For art, the wow moment happens at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which offers an abundant selection of African art; contemporary design objects from Alessi, Michael Graves, and Philippe Starke; and two crown jewels: one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, and the colossal Angel of the Resurrection, a magnificent Tiffany Studios window. Outside, stroll past Robert Indiana’s iconic Love sculpture and follow the path to 100 Acres—a nature park of, yes, 100 acres, that also includes a 35-acre lake and rotating contemporary pieces. For kids, the highly touted Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is a massive structure of interactive exhibits, a stunning Dale Chihuly sculpture dangling five stories, and an antique carousel. Go for a long stroll or hop on a bicycle (Indy has a stellar bike rental program) and pedal the accessible eight-mile Cultural Trail, which connects various neighborhoods. Alternatively, stroll along the Monon, a stretch of old railway tracks. Reward yourself at the chef-owned Locally Grown Gardens for a slice of honey crisp apple pie, and for brightly colored healthy plates, don’t miss a patio spread at Public Greens Urban Kitchen.
Where to Stay
Drop your bags at The Alexander, a design-focused hotel with walls covered in art installations and a cocktail bar, Plat 99, that’s definitely worth a visit. Le Méridien has a cozy hotel “library” for working and sipping. And for a truly unique experience, check into the dreamy Surrealism Suite at the Conrad Indianapolis, where above the bed, a floating Dalí-esque cloudscape painting beckons slumber.
Conjuring Nashville’s dusty, honky-tonk charm, Memphis’s true grit, and splashes of Chicago-style Art Deco architecture, Oklahoma City shares a mixed heritage that feels both sublimely Midwest and Southern. And, thanks to revitalized urban pockets, the city is experiencing a golden moment.
Where to Eat and Drink
For delicious pizza, Mary Eddy’s uses a stone hearth oven for their perfectly charred pies. Meanwhile, the healthy comfort food haven of Cheever’s Café whips up ancient grain salads using farro alongside a delicious shrimp and grits plate. For sips and nibbles, the brick-exposed Oak & Ore doles out rotating craft brews. If you’re in the mood for potent java drinks, nab a seat at the minimalist Elemental Coffee, or drop by District House for drip, cold brews, and espressos (and later, for its on-point beer and wine). Grab a drink at R&J Lounge and Supper Club, which, with its vintage ’50s cocktail lounge feel, doubles as a local brunch favorite. The cheery Kitchen No. 324 serves craft bakery goods, fresh-pressed juices, and dishes (local, organic, and sustainably farmed) like fried-chicken potpie and a cauliflower steak. Squeeze in seasonal rooftop cocktails at Packard’s. And, with its rustic farm-to-table ethos, Ludivine, helmed by chef Jonathon Stranger and Russ Johnson, has a fresh menu that changes daily. Craving something sweet? Pie Junkie has rotating slices including an airy coconut cream.
Where to Shop
Plenty Mercantile offers a well-curated assortment of local, handcrafted home goods and grooming items. Drop by the chic Sara Kate Studios for Eliza Gran pom-pom baskets, Turkish beach towels, and Savon soaps. The snug modern home store Perch’d has museum-shop worthy gifts, and both Verdigris and Mockingbird Manor stock a great mix of vintage and new furniture. The art of letter writing prevails at Chirps & Cheers, a stationery shop that also offers calligraphy lessons. Appealing to the inner cowgirl, Western outfitters like the locally owned Little Joe’s Boots and the venerable Langston’s are emporiums stocked for days with boots, shirts, and jeans. For hand-tooled saddles, the equestrian set should visit National Saddlery and the historic stockyards district, while turquoise jewelry reigns at the Native American owned Oklahoma Native Art & Jewelry.
What to Do
Uncover a highly comprehensive collection of Dale Chihuly works at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, where a floor-to-ceiling 55-foot glass sculpture swirls, wraps, and spirals to the sky. The Flaming Lips native frontman Wayne Coyne opened the psychedelic Womb gallery for rotating art installations and music performances. Equally compelling, the colorful Paseo Arts District is home to more than 20 galleries and studios. In the mood for a concert? Check the live music schedule at the new Criterion Music Hall. At night, a visit to the somber and ruminative Oklahoma City National Memorial yields a reflecting pool and 168 empty bronze chairs, one for each victim of the 1995 bombing. The 17-acre downtown urban park, The Myriad Botanical Gardens, features a glass-domed tropical conservatory and botanical garden from architect I.M. Pei. The peaceful Lake Hefner makes for a nice sunny walk, but if you want something more active, the Boathouse District’s new Riversport Rapids offers white-water rafting and kayaking.
Where to Stay
Just on the edge of downtown, unwind at the art-forward 21c Museum Hotel, formerly a Ford Motor Company assembly plant that now offers guests soaring ceilings, leather bed frames, and crisp white linens. For a more traditional experience, try the old grand dame Skirvin Hilton, built in 1911.