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Each week, KCUR's Adventure! newsletter brings you a new way to explore the Kansas City region.

Road trip: Lawrence, Kansas, is full of weird and wonderful things to do, and not just around KU

The Brass Mob Brass Band performs outside the Unmistakably Lawrence storefront.
eXplore Lawrence
The Brass Mob Brass Band performs outside the Unmistakably Lawrence storefront.

From its abolitionist roots to its reputation as a progressive college town, Lawrence is a destination for dining, nature, shopping, history and sports, just a 45 minutes drive from Kansas City.

This story was first published in KCUR's Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.

You’d be forgiven for thinking Lawrence, Kansas, is a fully sports-focused town. To some, it surely is — it’s home to the rules of basketball, after all, as well as the 2022 national championship-winning Jayhawks.

But to those who call Lawrence home as well as those who visit often, KU sports are just a Jayhawk feather in the cap of a vibrant, diverse, and historically rich community.

So, what's that Jayhawk all about?

Fans screaming with outstretched arms.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
KU fans at Allen Fieldhouse in April 2022, when the basketball team won the NCAA men's championship.

If you want to know Lawrence itself, you have to know its history. Founded in 1854 by the New England Emigrant Aid Society in an effort to ensure the Kansas Territory would become a free and not slave state, Lawrence has activist progressivism in its roots.

Some other essential facts to know:

  • The town sits between the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails, and is on the ancestral land of many Native American tribes, including the Kansa, Osage, Wichita, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Comanche, Pawnee, Cheyenne, and Arapaho.
  • The town has been home to literary genius: Langston Hughes grew up here, and edgy beatnick William S. Burroughs hung his hat here, too.
  • Dr. James Naismith, the father of basketball, did coach KU’s team — and is the only coach with a losing record. He is buried in town.

But, perhaps one of the more interesting ways to get to know Lawrence is through that wily KU mascot, the Jayhawk, which descends at least in name from the term Jayhawker.

It’s not clear exactly when the terms Jayhawk and Jayhawker were born, but they emerged before the Civil War in the 1850s, during a period of unrest that became known as Bleeding Kansas.

The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act opened the then-Kansas Territory to settlers, specifying that popular vote would determine whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free or slave state. And, although Kansas adopted an anti-slavery constitution in 1861, the Civil War kept the argument alive until 1865.

The argument itself was not only conducted by word and letter, but also through overt and extremely bloody violence. A defining event in Lawrence’s psyche was Quantrill’s Raid of Aug. 21, 1863.

The culmination of clashes between pro- and anti-slavery forces, the raid resulted in the murder of approximately 200 men and boys by pro-slavery William Quantrill and his guerillas, as well as the burning of a sizable percentage of the town.

You can guide yourself on a tour of the historic sites of Quantrill’s Raid via the Explore Lawrence website. Stops include several Lawrence parks, Mass Street addresses, and historic homes.

For more on the raid and much else, you can also visit the architecturally unique Watkins History Museum, located at 1047 Massachusetts St. and open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (Admission is free, though donations are appreciated.)

Perhaps emblematic of Lawrence’s resurrection after the raid, the beautiful Watkins Museum was constructed in 1888 and in some ways serves as a historic southern anchor to Massachusetts Street, the social and commercial heart of the town.

Architecture lovers will also find it worthwhile to make a quick visit to the Douglas County Courthouse the use of which began in January 1905. Just opposite the museum, at 1100 Massachusetts Street., the courthouse’s richly wood paneled and marbled central foyer alone will captivate and inspire any visitor.

But for those who want to browse a truly one-of-a-kind downtown experience, the approximately one-mile stretch of Mass Street has even more to explore.

Shop and dine your way up Mass Street

Pedestrians walk along Mass Street holding shopping bags and looking in windows.
Haines Eason
Massachusetts Street is Lawrence's center for dining and shopping.

America’s best bookstore? That’s on Mass Street. Stores with candies and sodas from bygone times? Those are there, too.

An old-style movie hall that plays art films and hosts national bands? Yep. And, of course, award-winning cuisine and nouveau noshes, vintage clothing, art and decor, and much else besides.

First, a quick disclaimer. There are so many outstanding businesses across this iconic town that one article just can’t contain them all. These are just a few recommendations from longtime locals, offering an introduction but not a complete guide.

The award-winning Italian bistro 715 is one of Lawrence’s go-to fine dining restaurants. It offers a rotating seasonal menu that pulls as much as it can from surrounding farms, butchers, cheesemongers, even florists for its always-inspiring decor. Small plates, big plates, homemade pastas, a huge wine, beer, and spirits selection — 715 always impresses. The chorizo date starter and penne ragu main are particular favorites.

715 Massachusetts St., Tuesday and Wednesday 3 to 9 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 3 to 10 p.m. 

For the plant-curious and the plant-obsessed, Jungle House is Lawrence’s home base greenery space. This writer’s wife has bought many green friends here, and she notes the health and vigor of her purchases surpases most other sellers’ offerings. Jungle House leans into many plant parents’ desire for care advice, and they host events that draw good attendance. Past offerings have included terrarium workshops, tree decorating, and even painting classes.

6 East 7th St., Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

If you don’t mind a potentially long line, Ladybird Diner is a throwback-ish spot that does breakfast, lunch, and pie so right. Open since 2014, locals love the food — the avocado toast is one of the best going, the chicken fried steak is legendary, and the pie cannot be beat (notice it’s mentioned twice). But locals also love the activist, no-B.S. spirit of the place. Owner Meg Heriford made headlines during the height of the pandemic when she used her diner as a way to ensure others without work could count on a simple meal.

721 Massachusetts St., Wednesday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The Raven Book Store's new location on Massachusetts Street features large display windows filling the store with natural light.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Raven Book Store's new location on Massachusetts Street features large display windows filling the store with natural light.

Yes, Lawrence really is home to the nation’s best bookstore. The Raven, beloved and community-focused, is a bibliophile’s paradise and was crowned in 2022 by Publisher’s Weekly, in part for its big-hearted efforts to “support authors and books during the pandemic.”

Originally a purveyor of mysteries, the Raven now offers a full catalog, sponsors and hosts events, and will even deliver orders to local customers.

809 Massachusetts St., Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday 12 to 5 p.m. 

Lawrence has a fiercely dedicated biking/cycling community (more on that below), and that community’s epicenter is arguably Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop.

Sunflower hosts rides and classes (on topics beyond cycling, too) and offers repair services, a cafe with a surprisingly excellent breakfast sandwich, a full outdoor adventure retail shop, space for events, and more.

804 Massachusetts St., Hours vary by service type, so check the website.

Excellent cajun and creole faire in Kansas? Yessir, at Terrebonne Po’ Boys. This shop’s recent move to a large Mass St. footprint from a small Vermont Street storefront should tell you how popular it is. And it is popular for the right reasons: A shrimp po’ boy will run you $9, and don’t skimp on the side of hushpuppies

845 Massachusetts St., 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

“Wonders never cease” at Wonder Fair, now one of Lawrence’s more beloved art shops. Small batch art, stationery, artmaking supplies, curios and keepsakes, stickers, calendars — this is one of those places you enter without a plan to buy anything and you leave with a bagful for forever-finds.

And don’t forget to pay your respects to Dave, the orange shop cat whose image is emblazoned on merch across the store, and stop into the “famous” Haunted Bathroom.

841 Massachusetts St., Monday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

If you come to town with a sweet tooth in tow, you’ll be happy to know that in the Mass St. area, there is an encyclopedic soda store, a top-shelf ice creamery, and a candy store with maybe every brand … ever.

Bundling together visits to Mass St. Soda, Squishington’s Candy Shop, and Sylas and Maddy’s Homemade Ice Cream would be a worthy, if-coma-inducing, trip unto itself, but this writer’s not sure he can legally advise the consumption of that much sugar in one go.

Nature to explore around Lawrence

A view of Baker Wetlands at dusk, with three ducks in silhouette on the water and a flock of birds above the tree line.
Haines Eason
The Baker/Haskell Wetlands, south of Lawrence, supports nearly 500 plant species, 400 vertebrates, and 300 birds.

A great town is in part defined by how it treats the natural world it impacts. Lawrence is studded with a diversity of green spaces that cater to a wide array of interests.

There are numerous water features, including a wading pool, splash pad, and community pool. There are also ample playgrounds, fitness centers, trails — the list is truly long, and you can learn more on the city’s parks and trails page.

When the weather is nice, the city’s first park, South Park, is a true gem. Large, with mature trees and something for everyone — playground, wading pool, birdlife, picnic tables, beautiful plantings, historic bandshell gazebo — this one’s right on Mass St., making it easy to check off along the way downtown.

1141 Massachusetts St. All city parks are open by ordinance from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Burcham Park is open from 5 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Rock Chalk Park is the way to go for both nature access with trails and world-class fitness and sports facilities in one stop. This compound is a cooperative between the City of Lawrence and the University of Kansas and is open to the public.

100 Rock Chalk Lane, Monday through Friday: 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday, 1 to 9 p.m.

Its portfolio of parks aside, Lawrence has some very special tracts of land nearby, including wetlands, large lakes, and a majestic river that feeds the Missouri. Each attraction could consume a day or more of your time and be worth a trip in its own right.

Situated on the south edge of town and bisected by K-10 are wetlands that have been called some of the most beautiful acres in Kansas. The Baker Haskell Wetlands, with Baker University overseeing the portion south of the trafficway and Haskell University the portion to the north, are a network of low-water ponds, marshes, fields, and woods that are criss-crossed by well-maintained trails.

The Baker Haskell Wetlands history is a convoluted one, but Baker University can trace the management of its portion to 1968. Since that time, the acreage has come to support a nature center and is now known to be home to nearly 500 plant species, 400 vertebrates, and 300 birds.

The Baker Wetlands are located at 1365 N 1250 Rd. and are generally open from dawn to dusk. The nature center is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m. The Haskell Wetlands are located at 2300 Barker Ave. and are generally also open from dawn to dusk.

A boy wearing black shorts casts his line in a pond while fishing.
Haines Eason
KCUR 89.3
A boy hauls back and casts his line at Henry's Trout Pond above Clinton Lake Marina.

To the west of town is the approximately 15,000-acre Clinton Lake, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-maintained waterbody that supports fantastic fishing and boating. The area as a whole is a popular destination for camping, hiking, mountain biking and cycling, wildlife viewing, and even disc golf and model airplane flying.

It’s adjoined by Clinton State Park (fee required to enter) and several other public-use areas, and it features two sandy public-use swim beaches: Bloomington and a beach attached to the state park.

The lake and parks can be accessed at several points and at different hours, so be sure to check the links above and conduct your own searches.

At roughly 18 miles with a planned completion distance of about 22, the Lawrence Loop approximately encircles the town and passes through urban and suburban locales, and contains portions in woods and prairie, too.

Being roughly twice the width of traditional sidewalks and concrete, the trail can easily accommodate bikers and walkers and is largely ADA friendly. For the athletic, the loop is a memorable way to see a lot of Lawrence in a short amount of time.

Walk around KU and these Lawrence neighborhoods

Students head to class at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.
KCUR 89.3
Students at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.

For those not quite up to biking around the town in a day, picking a neighborhood for a stroll is a great next choice. For a view to the heart of KU, a stroll down Jayhawk Boulevard at sunrise or sunset is unforgettable. This route sees limited traffic and parking on campus is free on weekends.

With about 18,000 undergraduatesand another 4,500 grad students, the University of Kansas is a nationally recognized R1 research institution that can claim top-tier academic and athletic status.

Founded a year after the Civil War’s end in 1866, KU was originally a dual- gender preparatory school, one of the first such public institutions in the country. It began offering college classes in 1869, and it celebrated its first college graduates in 1873. For the history buffs out there, this page provides a great rundown.

Everyone knows the basketball team — which plays at the iconic Allen Fieldhouse — is aces, and a smaller but proud crowd would want you to know the football team is making big strides. The university is currently building a massive new football stadium districtthat’s expected to transform much of campus when it opens in 2025.

But not enough folks know that KU has one of the most celebrated debate teams in the country. With a history dating back to 1885, this program has won six National Debate Tournament National Championships, a record bettered only by Dartmouth, Harvard, and Northwestern.

Near to KU and with a history connected to the school, the Oread neighborhood between 9th and 17th streets and roughly Mass to Mississippi is a hilly and history-filled walk. Anchored by the Oread Hotel, the neighborhood encompasses notable-if-notorious college bars (The Wagon Wheel, Bullwinkles) and many a romantically aged house-turned-dorm.

The northern edge of Oread at 9th street is home to a handful of restaurants, including the must-visit Burrito King (must-visit for those who crave homey, mostly hand-holdable, fast-serve Mexican fare early or late). For those wanting table service, the nearby Big Mill has become a neighborhood go-to for pizza, wings, burgers — basically nouveau Americana.

Exterior view of a historic home with a brick lower level and elaborately painted in yellow and pink with green trim.
Tom Harper
Lawrence has walkable, historic neighborhoods with beautiful homes, including Old West Lawrence.

Down the hill and just to the north, one encounters maybe Lawrence’s most picture postcard-esque neighborhood: Old West Lawrence. Strollers here will have a view to broad covered porches, turrets, fine woodwork and modest floor plans, mansions and bungalows, slate roofs, wrought iron, hand-laid stone, and much else.

Across the river, and perhaps back in time from the Lawrence of today, North Lawrence is a different vibe entirely. With the magnificently preserved Union Pacific Depot at its southwestern corner, North Lawrence is more organically eclectic and intentionally-if-geographically removed from the main body of the town.

A fun evening here could include dinner at Mexican establishment La Tropicana and drinks and a bluegrass or Americana show at Northside Social.

From North Lawrence, a visitor can also take a stroll on the Lawrence Levee Trail, which gives the best view to the Kaw River and runs for approximately nine miles. The trail also connects with good river access points that allow for explorations of the waters edge and the launching of boats.

Even more Lawrence places to visit

This last blitz may overwhelm, but the following are truly must-include spots for Lawrence visitors and locals alike

Life without pets? No thanks! Pet lovers have a home in Lawrence, especially cat lovers who find themselves at Espurresso Cat Cafe at 1014 Massachusetts St.

Here you can grab a cat-named cafe beverage (see francochino or pouncer’s latte) and donate some cash to give the many furry friends here the love they crave. If the feeling’s mutual, you can even arrange to take a special kitty home.

Across town in the Indian Hills neighborhood is the locals-favorite Pet World, a standalone pet shop that is all about the free visits and advice, and which sells some of the most-loved furry, scaly, and feathered friends around.

In business since 1988, this critter-loving institution hosts storytimes (Saturdays at 11 a.m.) and a weekly “creature feature,” or educational session, Sundays at 3 p.m. This mission-driven establishment puts the proper homing of both responsibly sourced and rescued animals first, and it’s been voted Lawrence’s top pet store since “Best of Lawrence” began in 1994.

Perhaps the heart of Lawrence itself, the Lawrence Public Library is another literary and cultural epicenter. It’s also pleasing to the eye, having been dubbed one of America's most attractive book homes.

A huge collection, tech available for checkout, all the movies, rooms for meetings and homework doing, even a professional-grade sound and video studio — this library will astound.

Ryan Waggoner
Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas
The Spencer Museum of Art is located on the campus of the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.

Maybe one of Lawrence and KU’s best-kept secrets are its museums — specifically the Natural History Museum and the Spencer Museum of Art. The secret keys to these attractions? They are free (though donations are encouraged), and so is parking on the weekends.

A visitor who dodges a home big five sporting event can easily park and access a wealth of fossils, taxidermy, paintings, photography, and even sculpture.

A worthy end to such a long rundown: kickball and gravel cycling. The first is likely a surprise, but it must be said that Lawrence, Kansas, is a kickball town. The Kaw Valley Kickball League makes sure of that, and brings the league championship to Hobbs Park Municipal Stadium in East Lawrence. Jello shooters may or may not make an appearance along with numerous grills and lots of cheering and good times.

Gravel cycling may leave you scratching your head, but it makes sense when you consider that biking is all about using one’s own power to experience the great outdoors — Kansas is a free state, after all! — and gravel cycling puts you in tune with the rugged and rural farm country that is home to Lawrence itself.

The gravel cycling scene in Lawrence is a close-knit and fiery one, and the town and scene are host to what claims to be “the greatest gravel / unroad course in America”: The Belgian Waffle Ride Kansas. This 120-, 80-, or 30-mile gravel bike race wends the north hills of Lawrence, cutting through the woods, along water, down muddy trails, and, of course, along rolling gravel roads (To be clear, this beast of a course is almost exclusively blacktop-free.)

But, whether interested in this level of competition or not, a drive in the area will demonstrate the love that locals have for their bikes and the open road.

Time to head out

Lawrence, Kansas is a town chock full of creative, gritty, inventive, adventurous spirits who’ve made it a place worth many visits.

Plan a day trip or come for a week — whatever your itinerary, by the end, you’ll find you still have more on your list.

And, if your head’s spinning and you don’t know what to see first, give the folks at Explore Lawrence a call or email. Or, just browse their Plan Your Visit page. There you’ll find a downloadable visitors guide and much more.

Want even more college towns to explore around Kansas City? Check out these other Adventures from KCUR.

Longtime Lawrence residents Tom Harper, Suzie Johannes, and Jesse Lee were interviewed for this story.

Corrected: January 23, 2024 at 3:32 PM CST
This story previously misstated where Langston Hughes was born. That has been corrected.
Haines Eason is presently the owner of startup media agency Freelance Kansas. He went into business for himself after a stint as a managing editor on the content marketing team at A Place for Mom. He has worked as a communications professional at KU, as a journalist with bylines in places like The Guardian, The Pitch, KANSAS! Magazine, and as a teacher, guidance counselor, and more. Learn about him and Freelance Kansas on LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter.
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