Looking for an activity that will kick your Missouri vacation up a notch? This list of the best day trips from Kansas City is exactly what you need to add a little “je ne sais quoi” to your itinerary! After all, anyone can book a flight and explore the inner city, but only travelers who are in the know will dare venture a little further out and explore all the hidden gems in the area.
Kansas City is the land of smooth jazz, smoky barbeque, and dazzling fountains. With so much to see & do at your doorstep, you could easily fill your itinerary with thrills without ever leaving your immediate neighborhood. But if you do happen to carve out some time for a little exploration, you won’t regret it.
Spanning across three different states and less than 3 hours in any direction, there are plenty of top destinations nearby that would be a major highlight of your itinerary. Don’t waste an opportunity to explore the likes of cities like Topeka, KS, and Columbia, MO, while you have the chance.
Ready to make your Kansas City vacation unforgettable? Choose one (or more) of these top-rated Kansas City side trips to plan the perfect Missouri holiday!
Looking for more ideas? Check out all our other day trip guides and our Missouri Travel Guide for more ideas on where to go, when to visit & what to do!
Top-rated Kansas City side trips
Start things off with a bang by driving over to Carthage, MO, also known as “America’s Maple Leaf City.” Around two and a quarter hours down Route 66, this historic area is brimming with original landmarks like a gas station, a jaw-dropping stone courthouse, and hundreds of Victorian homes. Better yet, everything in Carthage is dripping in whimsy, making it an excellent choice if you’re traveling with kids.
If you want to truly embrace the vintage feel of Carthage, catch a flick at the old-school 66 Drive-In Theatre. Hit the concession stand for popcorn and nachos and then cozy up for a screening of old-Hollywood classics or new blockbuster releaser.
Believe it or not, one of the most highly recommended things to do in Carthage is to share a meal with your friends and family. Dining options range from old-fashioned cafés to five-star fine dining establishments.
Our recommendation? Have a quirky midday meal at the Red Oak Streetcar Diner and then later indulge in dinner and a show at Stone’s Throw Dinner Theatre.
Not sure you want to head that far afield? Not to worry: Atchison, KS, is a top destination just over the Kansas border, popular for lovers of all things planes, trains, and automobiles. Just 57 minutes away, this road trip presents a quick and easy way to build out your afternoon plans.
Did you know that Atchison was the hometown of none other than the first female pilot to fly solo across the Pacific and overall powerhouse Amelia Earhart? These days, the entire city of Atchison has rallied to celebrate her honor with attractions like the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum and the Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum, which will thrill aviation fanatics and feminists alike.
As for the trains and automobiles, be sure to take the streetcar shuttle on a Daily Trolley Tour to look at historical landmarks and heritage homes and visit the Rail Museum to get up close to some retired beauties.
Excelsior Springs, MO
A trip to Excelsior Springs is a quick and classy chance for some R&R, and luckily, it’s only 34 minutes from the heart of Kansas City. This sweet escape is particularly well suited to couples, whether that’s a group traveling together or a romantic getaway for two.
Excelsior Springs is surrounded by tons of luscious green space, boasting over 120 acres of parks, so the perfect way to start your day in a pretty stroll, hand-in-hand. After getting yourself acquainted, you may want to check out the 18-hole golf course, where you can test out your swing or embrace your inner “ladies who lunch” with a meal at the brand-new clubhouse.
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Perhaps the most attractive feature of Excelsior Springs is the vast selection of vineyards. Spend your afternoon wine tasting at the likes of the Fence Stile Vineyards and Winery or Four Horses and a Dog, and then head back to the Elms Resort and Spa for a couples massage or a cozy night’s stay.
This one is for the traveler with almost no time to spare who still craves a little adventure. You can arrive in Independence, one of Missouri’s best cities, in just 20 minutes.
As the former residence of President Truman, Independence is a sweet spot for history buffs. If this sounds like you, you’ll want to target the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site, the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum, and maybe even the National Frontier Trails Museum.
Of course, there’s still plenty to do in Independence, even if history isn’t your jam. The Independence Center is an iconic (and massive) mall if you want to get your shopping spree on, and Waterfall Park is home to one of the best fishing lakes in the region.
Need a good meal to refuel before heading back to Kansas City? V’s Italiano Ristorante is known for having the best Italian food around.
Louisburg, KS, is the perfect destination for the mixed-bag tourist who likes to do a little bit of everything and may not have any particular attractions in mind when they set out.
A mere 40 minutes outside of K.C., the cozy little city of Louisburg boasts leisurely, small-town-vibe attractions and a quaint historic downtown. While you won’t find busy streets or bright lights here, what you will find is a range of activities that suit the niche interests of everyone in your travel crew.
One of the stables of Louisburg tourism is slow-paced outdoor activities, so you can enjoy the sunshine without working up a sweat. Marvel at big cats up close and support a good cause at the Cedar Cove Feline Conservatory and Education Center, or explore a 640-acre oasis of towering trees, bright blooms, and peaceful greenspace at the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.
RELATED: Best Hotels & Areas to Stay in Kansas City
Need to wet your whistle before heading back to K.C.? Head to the farm at the Louisburg Cider Mill for fresh apple cider and warm doughnuts. Yum!
Perched on the Missouri river’s west bank, Leavenworth, also known as the “First City of Kansas,” is a great choice for road trippers with an interest in local history. Plus, it’s only 40 minutes away from Kansas City, so you should be able to fit it into the tightest timelines or in tandem with another road trip on this list. Even if you only have an afternoon to spare, you can make it to Leavenworth.
The small but shining star of tourism in Leavenworth is the C.W. Parker Carousel Museum. For just $5, you can explore the history of these extravagant festival rides and browse a collection of creative carousel seats by top craftsman C.W. Parker.
The museum is also home to the oldest carousel in America. And, of course, no visit to the C.W. Parker Carousel Museum would be complete without a musical carousel ride. Mount your favorite pastel pony and lose yourself in the magic of being a kid again!
History buffs visiting Leavenworth should be sure to make time to visit the Wadsworth Old Soldiers’ Home, while art lovers should focus their attention on the Art Walk on Shawnee Street. Can’t decide? Do both!
Another brilliant Kansas City road trip with a low time commitment, the town of Weston is just 35 minutes away by car. It’s so close you could even arrange a bus ride or splurge for a taxicab to save yourself the headache of driving.
The historic town of Weston is known for its boutique shopping, indie restaurants, and quaint bed and breakfasts. But if you’re looking for some more concrete attractions, you’ll still find plenty to do here.
A hallmark of Weston tourism is, well, drinking, with a handful of wineries and craft distilleries around town. The 21+ crowd will love bouncing between venues like McCormick’s Distilling Company and the Weston Wine Company. (Just remember: Happy hour can be any hour as long as you have a DD!)
Prefer to spend some time in the great outdoors? Lace up your hiking shoes and hit the trails at the Weston Bend State Park, or get an adrenaline high by tubing at Snow Creek.
Want a blend of mind-expanding and mind-clearing experiences? Head to Columbia, MO. Just shy of two hours from Kansas City, this college town is lively, youthful, and chalked full of trendy things to do.
Obviously, part of the appeal of a place like Columbia is the academic vibe. Besides a walk around campus, you’ll want to indulge your intellectual side at attractions like the Museum of Art and Archaeology or the Ragtag Cinema, where you can view niche indie films that’ll impress all your friends back home.
Up for some outdoor tourism? Embark on a hike to the Devil’s Icebox at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. People come from near and far to explore these caves and rock formations; it’s practically a right of passage in these parts!
Why not visit the capital city of Kansas when it’s oh so close? The road trip to Topeka, KS, clocks in at exactly one hour, meaning it should fit neatly into almost any gap in your itinerary. Full of western influence, rich history, and top attractions, it’s a win-win-win!
Above all else, Topeka is known for Heartland Motorsports Park, which is a famous moto-racing track. In fact, its quarter-mile drag strip is record-breaking!
Be sure to check if there are any races or special events during your Heartland Motorsports Park visit because this is sure to be an experience you’ll never forget. It’s also home to the 3-day Country Stampede music festival, which is basically a western Coachella.
Furthermore, Topeka is a city of many parks with gorgeous gardens, trails, and urban greenspaces around every corner. To get you started, be sure to check out Ward Meade Park and the Ted Ensley Gardens at Lake Shawnee.
St. Joseph, MO
St. Joseph, Missouri, is the optimal destination for museum lovers, and it’s less than an hour from K.C. If you give yourself the whole day to explore the weird and the wonderful, you’ll be surprised at how much you can learn about niche subjects, local history, and the world around you.
From specialty subject deep-dives at the Pony Express Museum and the Glore Psychiatric Museum to gorgeous collections at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, the museums of St. Joseph are sure to keep you enchanted from sunrise to sunset.
In addition to all the incredible museums, you have to make time at the end of your visit to take in a performance at the Missouri Theater. This infamous local landmark, dating back to 1928, not only has bragging rights over its stunning architecture but also hosts brilliant plays, traveling symphonies, and so much more.
Des Moines, IA
For a change of pace, why not head on over to Iowa? Des Moines, the state’s capital, is perfect for travelers who want to go city-hopping. At a grand two hours and 53 minutes from Kansas City, it’s the longest day trip on this list. You might want to take this one as an overnight stay or even an entire weekend. That said, it’s well worth the drive.
Iowa’s capital has all the metropolitan amenities you love about the “big city”—and the top tourist attractions in Des Moines show it. Take advantage of the nightlife, eat at renowned restaurants, or head to the theater for a live concert.
Willing to throw some cash around to make this the best holiday ever? Ride the coasters at Adventureland Resort, ride a hot air balloon at the National Balloon Classic, or score some tickets to a sports game. Des Moines is home to Minor League Baseball, NBA G League, and American Hockey league teams; no matter what sport you love, you’ll find a home team to cheer for!