Wichita, Kansas, was born to trade. Jesse Chisholm lived near present-day Wichita during the Civil War. After the war, his associate James R. Mead established a trading post on the Chisholm Trail. The camp stood on an abandoned Wichita Indian village. Chisholm had planned his trail to transport goods. By the time he died in 1868, it had become the main route for Texas cattle to reach the railroads in Kansas. The swarming herds gave Wichita a nickname, “Cowtown.”
From its small trading-post start, the city has become the Kansas’ largest. Wichita is the “Air Capital of the World.” However, the Air Capital isn’t just about commerce. Let’s celebrate some of its cultural activities. We’ll start with the Old Cowtown Museum.
Visit Wichita hosted me, but all opinions are my own.
Related: Read another set of top things to do in Wichita.
1. Old Cowtown Museum, Wichita
The Old Cowtown Museum returns guests to Wichita’s earliest days. Wichita’s Beginnings shows the future city as a gathering place for the local tribes. The Heller Cabin provides a window into early trading history.
The open-air museum’s exhibits show Wichita’s progress from a frontier town to an industrial and manufacturing hub. Its collection contains over 12,000 artifacts from several eras. Examples include pieces of farm wagons and teaspoons. Visitors can see various live animals, including Percheron horses, a short-horned Durham milk cow, sheep, a goat, and chickens. In addition, the Old Cowtown experience includes acting performances, activities and a year-round schedule full of unique events and activities for everyone.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Look for the First Presbyterian Church, Cowtown’s first building. The Wichita Eagle staff decided to save it. The church and three other buildings became Old Cowtown’s nucleus.
2. Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum
Housed in Wichita’s 1890 original ornate city hall, the Wichita and Sedgwick County Historical Museum has amassed an extensive collection of artifacts from the region from the 1800s to the present. From the Wichita Indians to the cowboys, to the dawn of aviation, and the Air Capital of the World, explore Wichita’s origins and its current charms.
Two exhibits show surprising lessons about Wichita’s history.
World’s first electric guitar performance in Wichita
Did you know that Wichitans heard the first electric guitar performance? In 1932, Wichitan Gage Brewer gave the world’s first public performance on an electric guitar. The electric status confused people. They thought it was something like a player piano. “What songs does it play?” they asked. The exhibit displays that groundbreaking instrument plus others from Wichitans like Lowell Kiesel of Carvin Guitars and Milo Wiley, the first Fender dealer east of California. Joe Walsh of the Eagles and jazz great Jerry Hahn’s guitars are also displayed.
Did you know that a Wichitan invented Mentholatum? Albert Alexander Hyde came to Wichita to sell real estate, but a recession ended his plan. Instead, he concocted various potions in his kitchen. Finally, he created Mentholatum from menthol and petroleum jelly in 1894. Unlike many of the era’s patent medicines, Mentholatum did what it promised. Hyde built a factory in Wichita, but he eventually moved his operation to Buffalo, New York. Look for Mentholatum packages and signs in the museum’s drug store exhibit.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: The Spice Merchant sells coffees, teas, and spices in Wichita’s former Mentholatum factory.
Visitors can look at Wichita’s early industry and entrepreneurial spirit at a replica garage. This garage features a 1916 Jones Six automobile built by Wichitan John Jones. Jones, who was once a Ford dealer, wanted to create better cars than Henry Ford.
The museum’s auditorium houses an acclaimed collection of Victorian silver-plated ware drawn from America’s social elite in late 19th century America.
In “A Wichita Cottage,” authentic 19th-century details from Wichita are re-imagined to resemble life in the city at that time.
3. Sedgwick County Zoo
The Sedgwick County Zoo is home to over 3,000 animals of nearly 400 species. Every year the 247-acre zoo attracts over 6 million people. Here’s why you should join them.
My favorite zoo exhibit is the Cessna Stingray Cove, where you can pet the sea creatures. The smaller cow nose stingrays were soft, while the mantas were bonier. We got to feed the rays with small fish.
Roxie’s reliable report: Visitors pay an extra fee to enter Stingray Cove, and feeding them also costs extra. Read the zoo’s tips before visiting the cove.
The Humboldt penguins fly through the water in Penguin Cove. But, while the penguins are eye-catching and fun, guests also should look upward. The Inca terns nest in the exhibit walls. You’ll know them by their red beaks and feather mustaches. Primates take center stage in the Koch Orangutan and Chimpanzee Habitat and the Downing Gorilla Forest. We enjoyed seeing the creativity our nearest relatives display, and we fell in love with Lily, the baby orangutan.
At the Pride of the Plains, follow the trail past the lions, red river hogs, and two meerkat exhibits. The African Veldt is home to reticulated giraffes, African bush elephants, grévy’s zebras, and eastern black rhinos.
Visitors also may spot Amur tigers, Malayan tigers, red pandas, and more at the Tiger Trek Exhibit.
4. Tanganyika Wildlife Park
Family-owned and operated, Tanganyika Wildlife Park in Goddard offers guests an intimate experience with some of the world’s most beautiful animals. Tanganyika is home to over 400 animals, including okapi, rhinos, giraffes, and more. This park is a great place to learn about conservation and see fantastic creatures.
The park is the only location in the US that allows you to take on face-to-face encounters with one of the rarest animals in the world. Tanganyika offers visitors the chance to hand-feed animals like lemurs, rhinos, pygmy hippos, and giraffes.
Visitors can see kangaroos and enjoy touching them while drinking nectar from a cup. At the African penguin exhibit, watch the animals splash and enjoy themselves.
Tanganyika Falls is a must-see. The 5,000-square-foot animal-themed aquatic amusement park features water slides, water tipping buckets, slides, climbing structures, iconic animals, and a water-spouting giraffe.
5. Great Plains Nature Center
In the heart of Wichita, Great Plains Nature Center offers visitors a unique opportunity to experience North America’s wild beauty.
The center’s diverse landscape includes prairies, riparian habitats, wetlands, and lakes. Some exhibits focus on wildlife, ecology, and geology. The center’s collection features more than 15,000 specimens from all over North America. Observe them at Chisholm Creek Park (named for Jesse Chisholm). The park has 2.5 miles of walking trails, the perfect way to view varieties of flowers and fauna that thrive in that area.
The center’s Koch Habitat Hall teaches visitors about the Great Plains’ climate and natural history. The museum has interactive displays that allow visitors to learn more about these topics. Enjoy watching wildlife from climate-controlled comfort in the Bob Gress Wildlife Observatory. Feeders attract birds and larger species to the observation window.
In addition to the museum, the center also has a 2,200-gallon aquarium that teaches about life underwater.
Roxie’s reliable report: Admission is free.
6. Wichita Art Museum
The Wichita Art Museum (WAM) is one of the city’s oldest museums, founded in 1915. The museum has a wide variety of artworks, from traditional to contemporary, and offers exhibits throughout the year.
The “Confetti Chandelier,” a spectacular Dale Chihuly piece, hangs in the museum’s atrium. The light from the atrium’s windows illuminates different aspects of the artwork throughout the day.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Use your phone’s camera timer and raise it on your selfie stick as high as you can. Before you take the picture, walk around for the best view. Then put away your stick because it’s banned in the exhibit halls.
WAM features art from American painters, potters, sculptors, and textile weavers. In addition, the museum has art from renowned artists such as Robert Feke, Albert Pinkham, Thomas Eakins, and many more. The museum is always welcoming new exhibits and events. Check out their website or social media pages for updates.
Roxie’s reliable report: WAM is more relaxed about guests’ proximity to art than some other museums. We were able to examine the works closely. WAM only enforced viewing distances from a few pieces.
7. Mid-America All-Indian Museum, Wichita
Established in 1976, Mid-America All-Indian Museum stands beside the Arkansas River. It joins WAM and Old Cowtown as one of the five Museums on the River.
In the center, visitors can learn about the culture and history of the Native Americans through exhibits and interactive displays. I enjoyed learning about the Native contribution to the Air Capital. Beyond the Air Capital, Wichita’s symbol is the Keeper of the Plains. Blackbear Bosin created the Keeper, and the museum introduces guests to the sculptor.
The museum has an excellent collection of traditional artifacts, including clothing, tools, and weapons. However, the museum also features several impressive contemporary pieces that portray American Indian cultures. Whatever the medium, each piece tells its own story.
In the “Gallery of Nations,” the museum’s event space, explore the collection of tribal flags.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Play the drum collection. I couldn’t resist experimenting with the various drums. Try drumming with the sticks and your hands. Don’t limit your music to the drum top, but try the sides, too.
Do more at the All-Indian Museum
The museum also offers educational programs for students of all ages and special events such as powwows held in the Gallery of Nations. So whether you are interested in learning about the origins of these unique people or just want to enjoy their culture on display, Mid-America All-Indian Museum is a great place to visit.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Visit the museum near the end of visiting hours, then walk the Arkansas River Trail. Make sure to return in time for the Keeper of the Plains’ lighting ceremony, held each night when the weather allows.
8. Arkansas River Trail
The Arkansas River Trail runs for over 10.5 miles through Wichita. The trail is a beautiful scenic route that takes visitors through rolling countryside and forests.
The trail is considered moderately strenuous; the entire journey takes an average of 3 hours and 13 minutes to complete. This trail is a hot spot for road biking, running, and walking. Dog lovers may bring their faithful companions on a leash. It also offers hikers and cyclists a unique opportunity to explore the city’s many attractions, including museums, parks, and historical sites. The trail is also a great way to get some exercise and enjoy the stunning natural scenery of the Arkansas River.
Since the trail runs through Wichita, it’s easy to explore the trail in sections.
Roxie’s reliable report: In Wichita, the river’s name is Ar-KAN-zus, not AR-kan-saw.
9. Paramount Antique Mall
Paramount Antique Mall is one of Wichita’s most famous antique and vintage stores. With over 96,000 sq ft of space, Paramount is a treasure trove of vintage finds. With three stores spread across Wichita, visitors can find everything from affordable furniture to rare antiques. The inventory is constantly changing, so something new is always ready to discover. So whether you’re looking for an antique chair or a vintage dress, the stores have everything you need.
The staff is knowledgeable and patient, and they’re always happy to help shoppers find the perfect piece.
Where to eat and stay
Wichita features any cuisine you might wish to enjoy, but here are a few options.
HomeGrown Wichita has three locations. Its downtown restaurant is next to Nafziger Park and is near the Great Plains Transportation Museum. You’ll love the patio dining option.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Make a reservation via Yelp.
Related: HomeGrown Bradley Fair is one of Wichita’s best places to eat.
You may think that the Doo-dah Diner obtains its name from the song “Camptown Races.” However, that’s not the case. A sign explains that Do-dah is somehow Wichita’s nickname. You don’t need to worry about the name, though; just enjoy their diner classics. While you’re eating, look for Wichita State University sports memorabilia.
Doma is a new small bites eatery and the city’s first with a shared-plate concept. Doma’s menu changes weekly, so you’ll always have a new adventure when you visit.
The Anchor is a relaxed classic gastropub and neighborhood bar. Pick your favorite of 59 beers on tap.
Tour Europe’s cuisines at Vora on the Douglas Design District’s east end. The Milan-born chef serves mainly French- and Italian-influenced dishes, but German, Greek, and Spanish influences find their places.
Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Before visiting Vora, prime your palate at Alzavino Wine Tavern. Choose and pour your selections from 16 taps.
The Fairfield Inn Inn & Suites Wichita Downtown backs up to the Arkansas River Trail. After a long day of exploring, the trail is a perfect way to unwind. RVers should stay at K&R RV Park.
The last word
Wichita always offers something to keep you entertained, from enjoying the local parks and museums to shopping at the local boutiques or grocery stores. And explore Wichita’s famous food scene!
Wichita has it all.