Topeka, known to locals as either Top City or T-Town, is the capital city of Kansas and is currently experiencing a tourism boom. Taking its name from the phrase “place we dug potatoes from” in the Kansa-Osage language, potato farms are somewhat scarce in Topeka these days – instead you’ll find a city benefiting greatly from recent monument restorations and a bustling arts and dining scene.
Being home to an iconic Civil Rights decision, a gold award-winning beer at the World Beer Cup and the only Native American to serve as Vice President of the U.S.A is pretty impressive for a city housing 125,000 people – below we feature the highlights of Topeka and why it’s earned the moniker The Golden City.
Interactive Map of 25 Things to Do in Topeka (KS)
1. Evel Knievel Museum
The Godfather of Extreme Sports may have originally hailed from Butte, MO, and become synonymous with Las Vegas, NV, but he became the daredevil we know today after viewing Joie Chitworth’s Thrill Show in Topeka as an eight-year-old.
Featuring his stunt motorcycles, battered helmets and the fully restored Mack truck and trailer that were Knievel’s living quarters, the highlight of the Evel Knievel Museum is The Jump – a 4D virtual reality experience that will have you launch your motorbike over 16 police cars in downtown Topeka. BYO Jumpsuit and cape. Evel Knievel Museum.
2. Brown vs Board of Education National Historic Site
As many around us are initiating dialogue and demanding action regarding our relationship and attitude towards race, now is a poignant time to visit the Brown vs Board of Education National Historic Site. The focal point of the Civil Rights movement back in 1954, it was the decision of Brown vs Board of Education which deemed the racial segregation in public schools to be illegal.
A vital stop for anyone visiting Topeka, this site will resonate with everyone touched by America’s fight for equality and the stories of everyday people who had the courage to change history.
3. Topeka Zoo & Conservation Center
Located within Gage Park, Topeka Zoo offers visitors the opportunity to learn about wildlife and environment conservation. Featuring fauna and flora from all parts of the globe, it was the first in the US to house a glass aviary for its indoor Tropical Rainforest exhibit.
Get close and personal with the Hoffman’s two-toed sloth, the Nile River Hippopotamus and the Four-toed hedgehog. Other must-visit exhibits include Hill’s Black Bear Woods, Jungle Cats, Discovering Apes, Camp Cowabunga and the Children’s Zoo.
4. Gage Park
Incorporating 160 acres of parkland, Gage Park has been the chosen wedding and event location for Topekans for over 120 years. Featuring must-see landmarks such as the Topeka Zoo, the Kansas Children’s Discovery Centre and the Blaisdell Family Aquatic Centre, horticultural lovers will want to visit the Reinisch Rose Garden, the Doran Rock Garden and the Von Rohr Victorian Garden.
Shelters and grill areas are available for hire for those who wish to hone their BBQ skills and The Helen Hocker Theatre and an amphitheatre are available for visitors to enjoy Topeka’s performing artists. Stephen King fans take note – Gage Park features in his fourth Dark Towers novel Wizard and Glass (1997).
5. Kansas Children’s Discovery Centre
Located within Gage Park, this non-profit museum encourages children to get active, learn to take risks and develop social skills. The 4.5 acre outdoor exhibit features a treehouse, zipline, music garden, rock climbing area, rope course and obstacle course, whilst the 15,000 sq ft indoor area features an art space, construction area, career exploration and Moneyville for our future spenders and savers.
The facility was built to pique the minds of children to explore engineering, art, science and nature concepts. Earning recognition as a Certified Nature Explore Classroom from the National Explore Program, there are also dedicated programs for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, young Medical Warriors and regular community free nights to ensure that finances are never a barrier to a child’s education via their KCDC Cares initiative.
6. Kansas Museum of History
Operated by the Kansas Historical Society, the Kansas Museum of History encourages visitors to “piece together the past” on its 80-acre site close to the Potawatomi Mission in west Topeka. Must-visit artefacts include an 1880’s locomotive, a 1914 Longren biplane, George A. Custer’s riding boots, Prohibition figure Carrie Nation’s hammer, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s World War II field jacket and Southern Cheyenne style Tipis/Teepees.
For those who cannot wait until their museum visit, the museum’s website features all the materials needed for your inner Robert Langdon including a Scavenger Hunt and an “Inventors Advice” worksheet, complete with code cracking! Even if you feel rushed for time and wish to learn more about Kansas’ history, the KSHS also produce the ever-fascinating Cool Things Podcast.
7. Lake Shawnee
The man-made Lake Shawnee has been in the heart of Topekans since 1939 and sees more than one million visitors to its grounds every year. The list of activities here are numerous – there’s paddle boats, water trikes, canoes and kayaks available for rent at Adventure Cove; additionally fishing, sailing, swimming, water skiing and even eagle watching can all be enjoyed within the grounds.
1,100 acres of parkland allow for various foot trails, a golf course, tennis courts, shelter houses, playgrounds and a baseball field. Visitors keen on bringing their tents or RV’s can take advantage of the well-kept campgrounds featuring up to 140 sites, featuring both 30- and 50-amp stations with accessible water-filling and dumping stations.
8. NOTO Arts District
Formerly a thriving business district in the 1940’s, the North Topeka (NOTO) area was left economically devastated after the moving of the Kansas Avenue bridge in the 1960’s and the Kansas River floods of 1951. A Heartland Visioning Process survey in 2010 asking the Topekan community what they wanted most in their city revealed that an arts district was the most popular option and so NOTO was born.
Join 3,000 others for the ArtsConnect First Friday Artwalk every month featuring food trucks, glass blowing and live music, or visit one of over 50 local businesses year-round showcasing the creativity of the capital through their art, food, drink, studios, services and more.
9. Kansas State Capitol Visitor Center
Home to the executive and legislative branches of the government of Kansas since 1903, the Kansas State Capitol is often seen as the crown jewel of Topeka. A place of work for many in the city, here you can view sessions in House or Senate public galleries, view the dome chandelier and the John Steuart Curry murals. Make sure you have your walking shoes on as this is one of only two State Capitols in the country where you can climb to the peak of the dome and experience an outside view – the highest point in Topeka.
At 296 steps, uneven and single file with no elevator, accessing the top of the rotunda is certainly not for the faint hearted, and those who suffer from a fear of heights or any health issues are not advised to climb the dome. Those who do are not only treated to a view of Topeka but also of Richard Bergen’s 4,420lb bronze depiction of a Kansa Warrior titled “Ad Astra.”
10. The Lessman Farm & Truckhenge
Started by Ron Lessman in May 2000 as a grassroots protest art exhibit, Truckhenge features numerous monoliths of recycled pick-up trucks perched on a total of 42,000 pounds of concrete. Call ahead to ensure Ron himself is your tour guide of the farmland his family have owned since 1879. His bureaucratic skirmishes with Shawnee County officials have become so notorious that the site now also houses Beer-bottle City, Boathenge, roaming Indian Peacocks, designated grounds to fish, camp and a shooting range to cater to visitors.
Having previously hosted concerts, a charity ride by William Shatner and a nudist gathering, Truckhenge is so notorious it has now been recognised as part of the Kaw Region Art Park by the Association of Shawnee County Recycling and Preservation.
11. PT’s Coffee Roasting Facility
Born in 1993, the accolades that PT’s have achieved in the specialty coffee realm are certainly worth taking notice of. 2009’s Macro Roaster of the Year by Roast Magazine. 2013 Good Food Awards winner. 2013 Thrillist “Top Ten Roasters in the Nation” and a 2020 Good Food Awards finalist. Try out their Flying Monkey Espresso Blend and John Brown Signature Roast, or from the single origin range the Colombian Tres Dragones or Cerol Azul Gesha variety, both from the same farmer.
For those that just want to have a playful experience with their morning brew, there’s Espresso Tonic and Nitro Cold Brew on the menu as well as the popular milk-based options, perfect to fuel your body for a day of Topekan sightseeing.
12. Kaw River State Park
The only urban type state park in Kansas, Kaw River State Park features 76 acres of sprawling trails and is situated on the south bank of the Kaw River. Consisting of trails that were originally developed and owned by the psychiatry-pioneering Menninger Family, the oak/hickory park was under development since Kansas State acquired them in 2005.
The trails are most suited to both hiking and biking and nature watchers should look out for deer, turkey, eagles and waterfowl, whilst those with tired legs can try out the kayaking, canoeing and paddle boarding facilities.
13. Heartland Motorsports Park
For those of you who can’t get enough of the sound of a V12 engine, Heartland Motorsports Park features a quarter mile long drag strip, 3/8 mile clay oval track, 22 acre drift pad and a 2.5 mile championship road course. Also known as the House of Speed, this complex is host to adrenaline-filled events such as NHRA Drag Racing Nationals, demolition derbies, motocross meets and car shows; it also fills its calendar with some of the most sought-after music concerts in Kansas.
Used as a common venue for NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series’ races, the clear favorites of Topekans are the Top Fuel hot rod drag racers – the current drag strip track record is an astonishing 0:3.676 seconds!
14. Mulvane Art Museum
Established in 1924 before Topeka’s resurgence as the art-focused city we see now, the Mulvane Art Museum features a permanent collection that is both national and international in scope, choosing to focus on artists from Kansas and the Midwest. As the oldest accredited art museum west of the Mississippi River, it features over 9,000 square feet of exhibition space, over 5000 works of art, 2 sculpture gardens and 4 art classrooms.
The most popular feature amongst Topekans is the ArtLab – a hands on activity centre for all ages to introduce visitors and future artists to techniques, interpretation, design, and the use of colour, construction and texture in artistic concepts.
15. Combat Air Museum
Kansas has a notable relationship with Aviation and with manufacturing giants such as Cessna, Learjet and Bombardier all establishing roots within the state, the public fascination with mechanical flight and the majesty of jets warrants several tributes to the discipline. With the Combat Air Museum only 6 miles south of central Topeka, it couldn’t be easier to discover Kansan’s fascination with flight and the aircraft manufacturing boom it experienced during the 1920’s and 1930’s.
The museum opened in 1976 and focuses almost entirely on military aircraft. Members of the general public are encouraged to get up close to Bell, Hiller and Sikorsky Helicopters, a replica Airco de Havilland-2 and Fokker Dr1 Triplane from World War I and modern fighter jets including the McDonnel F101B Voodoo. Housing 41 aircraft in total and more than 50 paintings, prints, models and artifacts, this is the premier place to learn more about the significance of the United States Air Force’s role in sustaining America’s freedom and safety.
16. Charles Curtis House Museum
Upon his selection by President Hoover to run as Vice President during his 1928 election campaign, Hoover’s win stamped Charles Curtis’ name into the history books – both as the first Kansan to hold the position of Vice President, but perhaps more notably, as the first Native American to hold such office. A proud member of the Kaw River people and possessing ancestry from the Osage and Potawatomi tribes, Curtis was a key influence in passing legislation concerning agriculture and Native American rights during his term and was one of the first supporters of the female suffrage movement.
The Curtis house, now listed on the National and State Register of historical places, overlooks the Kansas State Capitol. Designed by Seymour Davis in 1879 and converted into a museum in 1993, the eclectic housing features intricate parquet flooring, several original chandeliers and ornate stained and jewelled glass windows considered Avant Garde for it’s time.
17. Old Prairie Town at Ward-Meade Park and Botanical Gardens
Located along Topeka’s Oregon trail, this six-acre historical site was originally purchased by one of the earliest settlers and the self-styled ‘Mother of Topeka” Mary Jane Ward in 1854. Sold to the State of Topeka in 1961, the park features both Old Prairie Town and the 2.5-acre botanical gardens and since its acquisition by the state it has emerged as an attraction for visitors who wish to see vintage décor and antiques of the mid-1800 era.
Old Prairie Town Square features buildings such as the Mulvane General Store, Potwins Drug Store, the Everest Church Building and the Santa Fe Train Depot. Each building allows visitors to get a taste of yesteryear, through vintage-era candy, an old-fashioned soda fountain, brown bread ice cream, cherry phosphates, a Wurlitzer Jukebox and hearth cooking demonstrations with tools from the 1800’s.
18. Great Mural Wall of Topeka
The most striking thing for new tourists to Topeka is the sheer onslaught of colour – with over 30 public murals dotted around the capital this will likely be the most photogenic city you’ll visit in the Midwest.
Depicting interpretations of historical moments such as the Brown vs Board of Education decision and abolitionist John Brown’s “Tragic Prelude” before the commencement of the Civil War, you can also find murals featuring elephants, beehives, Latin culture, sunflowers and the “Greetings from Topeka” postcard. The main draw however is the Great Mural Wall of Topeka, located in Chesney park and provides viewers a complete history of Topeka as interpreted by muralist David Lowenstein.
Complete list of murals can be found at https://artstopeka.org/murals.
19. Try out Top City’s Best Brews
Since the start of the Tap That Beer Festival in 2012, craft breweries have been their own tourist attraction in Topeka and a bar hop between the several breweries in the capital is a great way to mix with locals, try out some solid froths and make a nice post-hike or post-tour stop.
Housing top breweries such as The Blind Tiger (2014 Champion Brewery at the World Beer Cup and a Bronze in the 2018 Great American Beer Festival), Norsemen Brewing Company (Named Topeka’s 2016 Small Business of the Year), Happy Basset Brewing Company, Barristers Brewing Inc. and Iron Rail Brewing are known as the ‘Big Five’ of beer in Topeka, and usually find themselves flocked by various Food Trucks for hungry T-Town locals during the weekend or holidays.
Want to try some quality brews without the long distance? Iron Rail, Brew Bank, and pub-grub haunts including The Pennant and The Celtic Fox are all within 3 city blocks of each other and a short stroll from Kansas State Capitol.
20. Tour the Antique and Vintage hubs of Topeka
Shopping for fridge magnets, pens and keychains can lose their excitement to the well-travelled of us after a while, so why not explore the numerous antique stores around Topeka for a unique Kansan souvenir? Bargain hunters descend on two destinations in Top City – Owl’s Nest Antique Mall and Flea Market and the 14,000 sq ft Giving Tree Thrift Store.
Even if you can’t fit a stunning 1960’s-era dresser in your suitcase, there’s plenty of beautiful and intricate items for sale including silver photo frames, rare green Jasperware, China dolls, hand blown glassware, porcelain ring dishes and costume jewellery all looking for a new home.
21. Great Overland Station
Considered “one of the largest and finest stations west of the Missouri River” at its grand opening in 1927, Great Overland Station has now been converted into a railroad heritage museum. Having seen its last passenger service in 1971 and damaged by fire in 1992, the station formerly known as the Union Pacific Railroad Passenger Depot was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 2002.
Featuring two simulators as well as various exhibits, old photographs and costumes of its launch era, younger visitors can interact with the “Big Red Caboose” – presenting them an opportunity to operate the hand breaks, controls, buttons, tables, chairs and play the role of UPC’s Train Conductor for a day.
22. Cedar Crest
Built in 1928, Cedar Crest has been the official home of Kansas governors since the 1950’s. Originally designed by William D. Wight in 1928 for the then-editor of newspaper publisher Frank P. MacLennan, the property is adorned with elements representative of MacLennan’s Scottish heritage, including thistle carvings in both the front door and the library’s fireplace mantle.
Cedar Crest was built to emulate the French Normandy style that was popular during its time, and when MacLennan passed away in 1933, followed by his widow Madge in 1955, the mansion was bequeathed to the state of Kansas. Whilst it holds the honour as the smallest governor’s residence in the country at 6,000 square feet, it also resides on the largest plot of land at 244 acres, and whilst it is currently in use as a residence, guided tours are available on a weekly basis.
23. Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library
Founded in 1870, the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library aims to “Spark curiosity and connect our community through literacy and learning.” The library building is unmistakable; topped with a rust red cylindrical dome and featuring stained glass windows throughout, it’s been a beloved meeting point for Topekans looking to seek solace through the writings of others. It also features the Alice C. Sabatini Gallery, host of 2 national art competitions and an annual art showcase for children, as well as the Teen Art Club, where kids can learn about screen printing, design and interpretation.
Accessible to non-Kansas residents via a guest pass and housing the Millennium Café, Chandler Boutique and with free WiFi available, find out why the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library was awarded the nation’s 2016 Library of the Year by Library Journal.
24. Ted Ensley Gardens
Located within Lake Shawnee, the Ted Ensley Gardens feature 37.5 acres of meticulously curated garden beds, a world-class Arboretum and the best panoramic view of Lake Shawnee. A favorite of Topekans for an afternoon picnic or the occasional wedding party, the garden comes alive during the spring when over 50 varieties of Tulips and 300 varieties of annuals, roses, trees and shrubs are in bloom.
The gardens also feature a Pagoda, Pergola and Gazebo as well as a Meditation Garden, Water and Rock Gardens and the Dick & Dotty Hanger Nature Preserve, all linked via paved walking trails and an ADA accessible deck. When horticulturists and volunteers plant a whopping 100,000 bulbs to showcase Topeka’s Tulip Time, you’d better not leave your camera back at your accommodation.
25. Hiking Topeka’s World Class Trails
With the preservation of walking trails undertaken since the 1910’s, Topeka is one of the best cities for beginners to test out their hiking abilities. What the city lacks in altitude it makes up for in its stunning scenery, and hikers have a choice of eight established trails of varying difficulty and length.
For those that are short on time, both the Iliff Commons Hiking Trail and the Green Memorial Wildlife Area Nature Trail take only 45 minutes to complete. But what’s considered the favorite trail for Topekans? Cedar Crest Yellow and Red Trails, at 4.8 miles is pet-friendly, well-marked, full of wildflowers and excellent for birdwatching.