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The top 10 things to do in Northeast Kansas

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Kansas’s most famous daughter, Amelia Earhart, leads the list of the top 10 things to do in Northeast Kansas. No one has solved the enduring mystery of what happened to her and her navigator Fred Noonan, but Atchison preserves her memory.

In Merriam, sink your teeth into buttery Strawberry Hill poviticas. In Olathe, return to the Santa Fe Trail days at Olathe’s Mahaffie Stage Stop, meet a Black overcomer at the Kansas City Automotive Museum. Celebrate the Original Rules of Basket Ball and explore Mass Street in Lawrence. Unlock the army’s stories at Fort Leavenworth. Follow Abraham Lincoln’s footsteps from Troy to Leavenworth, and visit the most elaborate memorial in Kansas in Hiawatha.

I visited some of these sites as part of hosted tours, but, as always, all opinions are my own.

Related: Kansas City (KCK) has its own top 10. Explore KCK’s best things to do.

Amelia Earhart Birthplace, one of the top 10 things to do in Northeast Kansas
Amelia Earhart, the famed aviator, grew up in Atchison, Kansas.
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1. Amelia Earhart in Atchison

When Amelia Earhart was young, she and her little sister Muriel lived with their grandparents, Alfred and Amelia Otis, in Atchison. Earhart spent more time in her birthplace than anywhere else. The house is now the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum. Earhart’s continued fame makes her No. 1 in the top 10 things to do in Northeast Kansas.

She was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, and the first to fly it solo. But her enduring fame comes from her mysterious disappearance.In 1937, she attempted to circumnavigate the globe at the equator. On July 2, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from Lae, Papua New Guinea. No one ever saw them again. Ever since they disappeared, people have speculated about and searched for their fate. Despite numerous searches, their disappearance remains a mystery.

Related: Earhart is one of our noteworthy Kansas women. In 1988, the Kansas Aviation Hall of Fame inducted her. The hall resides in the Kansas Aviation Museum, one of our top 11 things to do in Wichita.

Amelia Earhart in the Atchison County Historical Society
Apple Computer acknowledged Earhart’s achievements in its “Think Different” ad campaign, preserved in the Atchison County Historical Society Museum.

How Atchison honors Earhart

Atchison is full of Earhart-themed attractions. Visit Atchison lists all the numerous ways Earhart’s hometown honors her.

Related: Join us at our 100 Things to Do in Kansas Before You Die book signing at the depot on Dec. 4, 2021.

Where to eat and stay in Atchison

Stay in George Washington Glick’s mansion, now the Tuck U Inn. Glick was Kansas’ ninth governor. His law partner was Earhart’s grandfather.

Eat at Paolucci’s. Try Atchison’s hometown spirits at High Plains Distillery, home of Most Wanted Vodka.

Pro tip: Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Joe Tinker lived in Muscotah, half an hour west of Atchison, from birth until age 4. In 2013, Muscotah created “The World’s Largest Baseball,” and Joe Tinker Field’s concession stand received a mural. Muscotah’s baseball is one of 18 Kansas world record holders.

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Strawberry Hill poviticas are generously stuffed with filling.

2. Strawberry Hill Povitica, a top 10 thing to do in Northeast Kansas

What is a povitica (poh-vah-TEET-za)? It’s a Croatian pastry made from a family recipe. The handmade dough’s texture is more like cake batter than pastry dough. The pastry chef rolls the dough until it’s thin enough to read a newspaper while looking through it. Then the baker rolls the dough around the filling. Finally, the chef folds the povi into an “S” shape and bakes it. Unlike some bakeries, Strawberry Hill Povitica provides generous filling, three times more filling than pastry. If you only take one food tour in Kansas, this is the one to choose.

Pro tip: Before you cut a pastry, turn it upside down first. It will squish less.

K.C. Strings Violin Shop instruments
K.C. Strings’ exquisite instruments are a joy to see.

Bonus: Tour Merriam’s K.C. Strings

Karen sometimes brought gorgeous instruments from K.C. Strings Violin Shop, and that company is No. 32 in the 100 Things to Do in Kansas Before You Die book. The place is this music lover and photographer’s dream.

Mahaffie Stage Stop, one of the top 10 things to do in Northeast Kansas
At Mahaffie Stage Stop in Olathe, ride the stagecoach and join living history demonstrations. (City of Olathe)

3. Mahaffie Stage Stop, a top 10 thing to do in Northeast Kansas

Imagine the hustle of three overland trails that ran through Olathe. The Mahaffie Stage Stop stood next to the Westport Route that joined the Santa Fe, Oregon, and California trails. If you were going west, you passed the Mahaffie farm first. When the railroad came, the trails became obsolete, and the stage stops began to disappear. The Olathe station is the only one preserved for public visits.

The activities vary seasonally. Join wheat or fall harvest 1860s style, play and watch vintage games, pet the animals, watch and sometimes participate in living history demonstrations like blacksmithing or laundering. You’ll appreciate your conveniences more, but maybe you’ll get a twinge of nostalgia for a simpler time, too. Mahaffie is No. 81 in the 100 Things to Do in Kansas book.

Pro tip: To enjoy more living history, visit the National Agricultural Center & Hall of Fame, Bonner Springs. Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead in Overland Park is all about the animals.

4. The Original Rules of Basketball, a top thing to do in Northeast Kansas

In December 1891, James Naismith was teaching in Springfield, Mass., when his boss asked him to invent an “athletic distraction.” Naismith devised 13 rules. Then he nailed two peach baskets to opposite ends of the court and told his students that the winning team would be the one that tossed the soccer ball into the basket. At its invention, the game’s name was “basket ball.”

Later, Naismith taught and coaching at the University of Kansas for three years. Ironically, Naismith is KU’s only basketball coach with a losing record. When Naismith retired, his student Forrest “Phog” Allen succeeded him. Allen became the Father of Basketball Coaching. When Allen retired 40 years later, he was the winningest college basketball coach.

KU’s traditions inspired alumnus David Booth to buy the rules document for $4.3 million at a Sotheby’s auction in 2010. KU built a separate building, the DeBruce Center, to house the rules. The rules rest in a special case in the Rules Gallery. Push a button, and the case’s front glass becomes a screen. Then Naismith explains how he invented basketball. An experience like that deserves to be in the top 10 things to do in Northeast Kansas.

Pro tip: To meet more KU greats, take the concourse through Allen Fieldhouse to the Booth Family Hall of Athletics.

Essex and Ford in the Kansas City Automotive Museum, one of the top 10 things to do in Northeast Kansas
Homer Roberts’ status as a Black car dealer enabled him to sell numerous brands such as these two vehicles.

5. Kansas City Automotive Museum

At the Kansas City Automotive Museum, learn about vanished Kansas City car brands and view delightful vintage automobiles. But the vintage vehicles aren’t the museum’s best story.

Homer Roberts is the best story. Even without the vintage cars, Roberts’ story makes the museum one of the top 10 things to do in Northeast Kansas.

After World War I, Roberts became the first Black auto dealer in America. At first, Roberts sold cars on a street corner. His advertising reached the Black community, and he sold 60 cars by the end of 1919. By 1923, he had done well enough to build a dealership at 19th and Vine in Kansas City, Missouri. Roberts’ success continued throughout the Roaring Twenties, but the Great Depression forced him to close. The exhibit includes car models that Roberts’ dealership had sold.

Pro tip: The museum changes its automotive exhibits monthly, so the exhibits are always fresh. Check the monthly theme calendar. Enter the museum’s driving simulator to test your skills. Learn about early KC-metro stock car racing.

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Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site
The plaintiff’s daughter in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Linda Brown, dedicated her life to promoting integration in education.

6. Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka celebrates the end of legal segregation. It is a reminder of both how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go to achieve equal rights for all.

The Oliver Brown family lived closer to Sumner Elementary than to Monroe Elementary, allocated to Black children. Because attending Sumner would be easier, Brown attempted to enroll his daughter Linda in their neighborhood school. The principal rejected her enrollment. Brown joined a dozen other parents to sue the Topeka school board. They wanted equal access for their children. Eventually, the Supreme Court overturned segregation in Brown v. Board. The national historic site is in the former Monroe Elementary.

Ironically, Topeka originally built Sumner as a school for Black children. They named it for Sen. Charles Sumner, who ardently promoted equal rights.

Related: Brown v. Board is one of our 23 top Kansas civil rights sites. It’s also No. 80 in our book 100 Things to Do in Kansas Before You Die.

Iron Rail Brewing, Topeka
Iron Rail Brewing has good food and gorgeous murals.

Where to eat and stay in Topeka

Topeka is full of marvelous restaurants, but North Star Steakhouse is my favorite. I love their luscious steaks and cocktails. I chose it as No. 13 in the 100 Things to Do in Kansas Before You Die book. Reservations aren’t required, but you should make them.

Stay at the Cyrus Hotel, named for Cyrus K. Holliday, Topeka’s founder. Walk across the street for lunch at The Pennant, and ask to sit by the second-floor windows for a great view. After you eat, play some vintage arcade games. Iron Rail Brewing is a block to the north. Inside, look for the ATSF-themed artwork.

Kansas State Capitol, one of the top 10 things to do in Northeast Kansas
The copper on the Kansas State Capitol’s dome would make 2.3 million pure copper pennies. Buy Capitol Copper jewelry in the gift shop.

7. Kansas State Capitol, a top 10 thing to do in Northeast Kansas

With a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other, John Brown strides confidently through a war-torn, burning, tornado-struck landscape. John Steuart Curry’s mural Tragic Prelude on the Kansas State Capitol’s third floor is the most famous artwork in Kansas. Despite the mural’s current fame, Curry’s mural was scandalous when he created it. In protest, he quit and never signed his artworks in the capitol.

Kansas is the only state capitol to allow people to climb the stairs to the top of the dome. The climb requires 296 steps. The 304-foot high dome is taller than the 288-foot US Capitol dome but is only half the diameter. Tours require about 40 minutes.

Pro tip: Before you go, read the capitol’s visitor information. While touring the capitol, look for numerous other fascinating artifacts.

Buffalo Soldiers Monument, Fort Leavenworth
The Buffalo Soldiers Monument is the centerpiece of the Buffalo Soldiers Commemorative Area at Fort Leavenworth.

8. Fort Leavenworth

In 1827, then-Col. Henry Leavenworth established a small fort on the Missouri River. Nearly 200 years later, it’s the oldest fort west of Washington, D.C., that remains in continuous operation. For nearly 30 years, the fort was the only legal settlement in present-day Kansas. The fort offers numerous reasons to visit, like the Buffalo Soldiers, the Frontier Army Museum, the Berlin Wall, and the national cemetery. The fort’s effect on American history makes it one of the top 10 things to do in Northeast Kansas.

Fort Leavenworth is No. 82 in the 100 Things to Do in Kansas Before You Die book. Melissa Etheridge grew up in Leavenworth. Her hometown tour is No. 31.

Pro tip: Before you visit the fort, prepare for the Visitor Control Center.

Where to eat and stay in Leavenworth

Eat at The Depot, where you’re surrounded by fascinating architecture and artifacts. The Metropolitan Steakhouse offers delicious food across the street from The Big House. Stay at the Fairfield Inn & Suites.

Free State Brewing Co., a top 10 thing to do in Northeast Kansas
Fish and chips at Free State Brewing Company, the state’s first post-prohibition brewery.

9. Lawrence’s Mass Street, one of the top 10 things to do in Northeast Kansas

Lawrence’s tagline is “Unmistakably Lawrence.” The heart of the unmistakable is Massachusetts Street, a/k/a Mass Street, in Downtown Lawrence. Mass Street offers numerous options for clothing, sporting goods, pet supplies, and more.

The real treat is Downtown Lawrence’s event slate. Our favorite? The Lawrence Busker Festival. When life is too much, join the Lawrence Zombie Walk. Buy the freshest produce available at the Lawrence Farmers Market.

Because shopping makes you hungry, satisfy your cravings at Free State Brewing Company, Wheatfields Bakery & Café, the Mad Greek Restaurant, Mass Street Soda, The Roost, and Torched Goodness Food Truck.

Related: Stay in the historic Eldridge Hotel.

Where to stay in Lawrence

Stay in the TownePlace Suites Lawrence Downtown or camp at Kansas City West/Lawrence KOA

A beardless Abraham Lincoln in Leavenworth. The Kansas Lincoln Trail is one of the top 10 things to do in Northeast Kansas
A beardless Abraham Lincoln stands on the Leavenworth City Hall lawn. Lincoln spoke at the Planter’s Hotel in Leavenworth in December 1859.

10. The Kansas Lincoln Trail, one of the top 10 things to do in Northeast Kansas

A beardless Abraham Lincoln boarded a steamboat in St. Joseph, Missouri, on Dec. 1, 1859, for his only trip to Kansas. Lincoln’s Kansas visit was the final step to prepare him for the national stage. When Lincoln, blue with cold, spoke in Troy, he allegedly visited Sidney Tennant in a home a few feet away. Doniphan County preserves the site and has erected a recycled-brick plaza where Lincoln spoke. The house and plaza are part of the Doniphan County Courthouse Square Historic District.

This top 10 thing to do in Northeast Kansas is not well-known, but Lincoln’s visit had large consequences. Lincoln tested his future speeches on his Kansas audiences, leading to popular acclaim later. He gave the Kansas-tested speech at the Cooper Union in New York City. Because of the speech, he toured New England. From New England, he won the Republican Party’s nomination in Chicago, and became President.

The 2021 C-SPAN historians’ poll listed Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, as the best President. The worst President, James Buchanan, preceded him. The second-worst, Andrew Johnson, succeeded him. The third-worst, Franklin Pierce, preceded Buchanan. Imagine someone like those three leading the country through its worst crisis. As Kansans, let’s be grateful that Lincoln honed his skills in our state.

Related: Follow Lincoln’s footsteps on the Kansas Lincoln Trail. North of White Cloud, the Cast Iron Monument marks the boundary between Kansas and Nebraska.

The Davis Memorial
John and Sarah Davis near the time of her death, as depicted in the Davis Memorial.

Bonus: Davis Memorial

Hiawatha citizens weren’t sure what to think after Sarah Davis died in 1930. John and Sarah Davis had always been careful with money, but John had started to spend wildly. And so frivolously, the community thought. He had removed their simple “Davis” headstone from Mount Hope Cemetery. Instead, he had started installing expensive Italian marble statues of Sarah and himself by her side. When he finally stopped, he had crammed a dozen sculptures into their plot. He even installed a canopy and a granite wall to protect it.

The cemetery is open from dawn to dusk. The elaborate Davis Memorial deserves to be an addition to the top 10 things to do in Northeast Kansas.

Pro tip: Eat at Hiawatha’s Bread Bowl. They have the best chef’s salad I’ve ever eaten, and the dinner rolls are top-notch. You should also walk Windmill Lane at the Brown County Ag Museum.

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