Essential KC experiences for college students

Walking on the Nelson-Atkins lawn is an essential part to the Kansas City experience for a college student. (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art – Kansas City)

Thomas White

Whether you are an international student, from out-of-state or a local, welcome to the Paris of the Plains. When it comes to lively happenings, Kansas City punches outside its weight class. 

Rodgers and Hammerstein were right when they said everything is up-to-date in Kansas City. KC showcases high-brow offerings from opera performance to modern art, and world class dancers to James Beard Award winning chefs

Many cash-strapped college students are more interested in dive bars and greasy spoons than five-star dining, and Kansas City has just about anything you are looking for, so long as you know where to look. The following is a good start to fulfilling a college student’s wanderlust in Kansas City on a budget. 

Have a Picnic on the Nelson-Atkins Lawn

Few things are more classically Kansas City than the manicured lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which features a sculpture garden and giant shuttlecocks. The lawn is open to the public and free of charge. Pick out a nice day to roll out a blanket, unpack a basket and enjoy an urban oasis. 

Admission to the museum itself is also free, sans the occasional traveling exhibit. The Nelson was ranked in the top 5 best free museums in the country by USA Today this year. Free and convenient, Nelson-Atkins is located just north of UMKC’s Volker Campus. 

Ride the Streetcar

Kansas City built a light-rail streetcar that debuted to great civic pride and fanfare in 2016. The route runs a north and south loop on Main Street from Union Station to the River Market. Construction is underway to extend the streetcar to UMKC’s Volker Campus in the coming years.

The streetcar is free, nifty, and features Wi-Fi, but its true appeal is what’s along the route: Crown Center, the Power & Light District, the Crossroads Arts District and locally-owned downtown shops, eateries and watering holes. 

My ideal streetcar day trip starts with coffee at Union Station while admiring the beautiful 107-year-old building. Follow this by hopping on the streetcar to the KC Central Library and exploring the literal vaults of KC history. From there we go to City Market and grab lunch at Pigwich

After that, head south on the streetcar to Tom’s Town Distillery for a cocktail and a tour that features some of KC’s most infamous characters. Take the streetcar a final time to return to Union Station, where we walk across the street to Liberty Memorial – the only World War One museum in the US – and spend a few hours exploring before calling it a day. 

For other streetcar day ideas, check out their website or this video

See and Be Seen at First Fridays in the Crossroads

On the first Friday of every month, the Crossroads Arts District transforms into a festival-like experience celebrating the arts. Food trucks, art galleries, pop-up bars and music fill the streets. While the art is not free (and often out of student budgets) soaking in atmosphere, culture and music is free of charge. 

Take Yourself Out to the Ball Game

If sports are more your thing, KC delivers with professional teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, Royals and Sporting KC. Tickets can get pricey, but the Royals have a student night featuring $10 tickets on Wednesdays if you bring your student ID. Kansas City NWSL is our professional women’s soccer team, and the Kansas City Monarchs are our professional minor league baseball team, both of which feature specials and affordable tickets

All UMKC basketball, soccer, volleyball and softball home games are free for students. Show your student ID at the box office for free admission.   

Stand on the Corner of 18th and Vine

The 18th and Vine jazz district is filled with history. The legendary Count Basie and Charlie Parker performed in the neighborhood’s nightclubs, making it the center of the jazz world for a time.

Burnt ends – Kansas City’s most celebrated culinary contribution – were invented and first served at Arthur Bryant’s, where you can still sample them today. Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil and the rest of the famous Kansas City Monarchs played right around the corner from where the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum resides today. It’s immediately adjacent to the American Jazz Museum

Present day live jazz performances in the district can be seen at the GEM Theater, the Blue Room and the Mutual Musician’s Foundation where you can take in jazz literally until the sun comes up.

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