And there is no good reason to skip over this attraction. Topeka offers several entertainment venues, family spots and historical locations to create an enjoyable destination for the entire family. Interested in trails and rails? Check. Small-batch beer and Evel Knievel gear? Check. Delicious spreads and historical threads? Check. Here’s an extended weekend itinerary to familiarize you with the museums, meals, parks and other natural and man-made perks that make exploring Topeka a treat.
8 a.m. Start with coffee and kolaches with fillings like s’mores or jalapeño sausage at the charming Josey Baking Co. in Westboro Mart. Scones, frosted cinnamon rolls and soft cookies the size of a sunflower’s center are satisfying sweet options.
9 a.m. Stop by the Evel Knievel Museum housed at Historic Harley-Davidson of Topeka. The museum showcases the daredevil’s memorabilia, including costumes, rigs and the helmet that saved his life in a crash following a jump over Caesar’s Palace in 1967. Interactive exhibits highlight the 433 broken bones he sustained and explain the physics involved in executing a jump. A movie theater plays clips of his famous stunts. For an additional fee, visitors 8 and older can experience a 4D virtual-reality jump.
10:30 a.m. Head to the heart of Topeka, the historic downtown and Capitol square. Even if it is winter, venture out a bit for a stroll down Kansas Avenue between 10th and 8th streets to enjoy the new art-themed pocket parks. Check out the medallions embedded in Kansas Avenue sidewalks depicting state symbols like the barred tiger salamander and harney loam silt (the official Kansas state soil).
While it may be too cold to sit for long in one of the downtown pocket parks, you can still ring the bell and sound the train whistle at the BNSF station, push the button on the oversized pencil to create a light display at the Bartlett & West park or pose with a limestone buffalo at the Security Benefit section, which also features Chief II, a kinetic sculpture made by the same artist who created the cauldron for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. You can also take your picture with one or all of the statues of influential Topekans populating the avenue, including Harry Colmery, father of the G.I. Bill of Rights, which expanded education and mortgage benefits for veterans; Ichabod Washburn, whose donation made Washburn University’s continuation possible; and Charles Curtis, former vice president of the United States and the highest ranking Native American to serve in public office.
Before you leave, grab a fun-flavored latte and snack at Juli’s Coffee & Bistro in the restored 1800s Crane Building with mismatched furnishings reminiscent of vintage kitchens. Prairie Glass Art Studio, located below, is worth a peek and a purchase with whimsical glass art made into everything from earrings and ornaments to home décor and kitchenware.
11:30 a.m. Walk two blocks to the Kansas Capitol. Take in the splendor of the restored House and Senate chambers, artistic tributes to the state’s agrarian past, gleaming brass and copper railings and John Steuart Curry murals, including the iconic depiction of abolitionist John Brown wielding a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other in Tragic Prelude. Ride the hand-operated cage elevator installed in 1923. If you’re not afraid of heights, climb 296 steps to the top of the Capitol dome and squeeze outside for a windswept selfie and a spectacular 10-mile view of the city 300 feet above the statehouse grounds.
1:30 p.m. Time for a short jaunt to C.W. Porubsky’s Deli and Tavern in Little Russia for hot chili and cold sandwiches, a Topeka tradition since 1947. The paneled walls are adorned with photos of politicians, priests and local dignitaries, and the establishment’s legendary hot pickles are a menu must. Timeless décor and Styrofoam bowls and plates hark back to a simpler time. The February 2008 issue of Gourmet magazine declared Porubsky’s a must stop “for the committed chilihead … a destination in itself.”
2:30 p.m. Just a few blocks away is the Great Overland Station, the beautifully refurbished former Union Pacific depot. Learn about the city’s railroad heritage, including the birth and growth of the Santa Fe Railway. In addition to artifacts, photographs and a display of Kansas trains dating back to 1932, the museum houses the Kansas Hall of Fame. Inductees include Amelia Earhart, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Clark Kent/Superman, James Naismith, Bob Dole and James Arness.
3:30 p.m. The adjacent NOTO Arts District offers a thriving mix of locally owned businesses and galleries occupying repurposed historic buildings, prompting coverage in the New York Times and a visit by the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in 2012. The festive year-round First Friday Art Walk brings crowds of more than 3,000 people. Shop the eclectic merchandise available at Pinkadilly, the Open Window and antique stores where you’re sure to find something to pique your interest. NOTO is also home to Norsemen Brewing Company, which serves a variety of rotating and seasonal beers such as Macadamia Nut Pale Ale and Rudy’s Irish Red.
5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.—With Kids The Blue Moose provides diverse dining with fireplace ambience. Alternatively, you can grab dinner at the Palette Restaurant at TrampoLazerRockBall Park before or after enjoying trampolines, laser tag, arcade games, a rock wall for climbing and more. The inviting restaurant features kid-friendly favorites, including a fried PB&J rolled in Frosted Flakes, along with steaks, salads, soups and pasta dishes prepared with palate-pleasing flourishes.
If your winter weekend is during the holidays, cap the night with a drive through Winter Wonderland at Lake Shawnee where a light show unfolds to holiday music on your radio and proceeds benefit TARC, a local charity. In January 2017, Expedia named Lake Shawnee the best place to visit in Kansas in an online article highlighting gems from each state. The 416-acre lake, arboretum and Ted Ensley Gardens are particularly popular during warmer months, but even in winter bikers and walkers fill paved pathways to recharge in the calming environment.
5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.—Without Kids The RowHouse Restaurant, a block from the Capitol, begins seating at 5:30 p.m. and requires reservations. A set menu features five perfectly portioned courses exquisitely prepared with locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. Diners are seated in small rooms spread over the townhouse floors.
The White Linen, a new upscale restaurant that opened in November, is located in the historic Columbian building where Carrie Nation once fled out the back door to avoid an angry mob during a saloon-smashing visit in 1901. Reservations are required to savor a changing menu of delectable appetizers, soups, salads, desserts and four or five gourmet entrees from which to choose.
After dinner, go to Uncle Bo’s Blues Bar at the Ramada Topeka Downtown Hotel and Convention Center for live music performed by renowned regional and national acts.
7:30 a.m. Early riser? Get your blood circulating with a brisk pre-brunch walk through MacLennan Park by the Governor’s Mansion. This 244-acre park features woodland hiking and biking trails, fishing ponds and even an ice-skating pond if you’re so inclined and weather conditions allow it.
9 a.m. Housed in the former Monroe Elementary School, the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site commemorates the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared it unconstitutional to have separate schools for black and white children. Civil rights efforts are chronicled on a timeline spanning two classrooms of exhibits in which large photographs and audio and video recordings replicate the struggle for integration. A 25-minute film broken into five-minute segments is shown in the school’s former auditorium. Find out why former first lady Michelle Obama listed this as one of her top-five picks among 417 national parks and historic sites during her stint as guest editor for More magazine in 2015.
11 a.m. The Wheel Barrel is known for creatively crafted grilled cheese sandwiches, cocktails and soft pretzels paired with queso or sprinkled in cinnamon and sugar and served with a side of marshmallow fluff. Sunday brunch features build-your-own Bloody Mary and mimosa bars. The Monte Cristo is a top pick.
1:30 p.m. Walk off brunch with a trip to the Topeka Zoo to see orangutans, elephants, bears, tigers, giraffes and more. Duck into the tropical rain forest for a welcome winter respite amidst flowering plants and various birds and reptiles. Rather be inside the whole time? Visit the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center, a premier museum with plenty of hands-on opportunities.
3 p.m. The Ward-Meade Historic Site situated on the Oregon Trail gives visitors a glimpse into 19th-century living through tours of a mansion (once the largest home in Topeka), log cabin, one-room schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, train depot and more. Save the Potwin Drug Store for last and order a dish of ice cream or a cherry phosphate.
4 p.m. Explore Kansas Museum of History collections spanning prehistoric eras to modern times. Native-American history, the state’s Bleeding Kansas contributions and westward expansion along the Oregon and Santa Fe trails are chronicled. An 1880 Santa Fe locomotive, a 1950s diner and a Recent Past exhibit showcasing toys, household items and pop culture memorabilia from the 1940s through the 1980s highlight how lifestyles evolve.
5:30 p.m. End the day with an early dinner at the Blind Tiger Brewery and Restaurant, which offers a full-service menu and six flagship brews daily along with seasonal selections. The establishment takes its name from a Prohibition-era practice of placing a stuffed or china tiger in the window to signal the availability of alcoholic beverages within. The brewery has garnered 21 national and world medals for its beers.
Where to Stay
Topeka has numerous hotels with different amenities and price points, whether you’re seeking a suite or a swimming pool. For a uniquely Topeka lodging experience, stay at The Woodward Inns on Fillmore, named Best of the Midwest by Midwest Living Travel Magazine and a frequent Best of Topeka honoree. Seven inns in the same block offer accommodations for couples and families, including breakfasts featuring oven-puffed pancakes or stuffed French toast and a luscious chef’s choice dessert each night.
Check out www.visittopeka.com, the city’s official travel center, ahead of your visit for special events. Look for stirring performances by the Topeka Symphony Orchestra, national acts arriving on stage at the Topeka Performing Arts Center, special sporting and concert events at Kansas Expocentre, great local theater at Topeka Civic Theatre and more.