This is a belated apology to Kansas City: Sorry it took me so long. I get it now. My wife and I arrived in Kansas City, Mo., knowing little of its history or cultural attractions. We’d driven through it, mostly on our way to other destinations and stopping only to sample barbecue. So we were astonished — and a little embarrassed — to discover this clean, livable Missouri city as a treasure trove of great food, fine museums and musical and artistic delights. Here are just a few reasons why you should love Kansas City:

 

Because it’s a down-to-earth, friendly town that offers the planet’s best barbecue, a world-class art museum that is free, and you can park almost anywhere for little or nothing.

Because it’s a city of surprising beauty, culture and history, where the unexpected seems ridiculously commonplace. Beautiful buildings and impressive monuments seem to leap out of the prairie and beckon visitors with alluring attractions.

Because its citizens actually believe in civility and welcome strangers with open arms. There’s a strong sense of civic pride in this big Midwestern metropolis that beats with a small-town heart.

Because it’s the home of the only World War I museum in the United States, with great exhibits, a wide display of weapons, uniforms, trenches and amazing historical facts.

Because it boasts more fountains than any world city but Rome. Fountains are ingrained in the city’s identity and offer gurgling oases throughout the city. The more than 200 fountains feature statuary, waterfalls and color and light displays.

Because it is home to both the American Jazz Museum and the Negro Baseball Leagues Museum, which share space in the Lincoln Building in the historic 18th & Vine neighborhood, a center of black culture through the 1960s. That area, which produced jazz giants such as Count Basie and Charlie Parker, is home to many jazz clubs even today. The neighborhood also hosts the annual 18th & Vine Jazz & Blues Festival.

Memorable museums

The American Jazz Museum includes rare films of early jazz stars and exhibits on jazz giants, as well as historic recordings, posters, photos and interviews. A connected performance venue, the Blue Room, is named after a legendary jazz club of the 1930s and ’40s that was across the street. The museum harks back to a time when jazz was king and Kansas City was one of its capitals.

At the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, fans are transported to the days before blacks were allowed to play in the major leagues, with stars such as Ernie Banks, Josh Gibson, Willie Mays, Saturnino “Minnie” Minoso, John “Buck” O’Neil, Leroy “Satchel” Paige and Jackie Robinson. Kansas City hosted the Monarchs, a storied franchise. The museum explores the history of the leagues and the lives of team founders, players and coaches, as well as films and oral histories. The museum preserves the history of the leagues and reveals how brave athletes triumphed over racism.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art features a diverse collection of modern, ancient, American Indian and international art spanning 5,000 years. While special exhibitions charge a fee, admission to the museum is always free. Collections include Impressionists such as Monet, Gauguin and Van Gogh and artists as varied as Caravaggio, De Kooning and Moore. An outdoor sculpture garden includes Claes Oldenburg’s famous “Shuttlecock.”

You don’t have to be a Jayhawks fan to appreciate “The College Basketball Experience” at the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame inside the Sprint Center. Not only does the showplace delve into college hoops throughout the decades, but it also allows fans to work up a sweat and compete on free throws, game-winning shots and more. It’s a decidedly different kind of museum experience.

The National World War I Museum & Memorial is located on a grassy stretch beneath the Liberty Memorial, an imposing tower that offers a grand view of Kansas City from its 217-foot observation deck. Through news reports and eyewitness accounts, visitors can immerse themselves in the lives of soldiers fighting the war, with re-creations of trenches and displays of original weaponry. Accompanying the well-conceived displays, films and interviews are the perspectives of soldiers, generals and politicians. Touring this vast museum is a remarkable and insightful experience.

Neighborhood gems

The old Power & Light District downtown is full of architecturally significant buildings, theaters and restaurants. In the historic City Market area, the Steamboat Arabia, “The Titanic of the Missouri River,” which sank in 1856, is now restored as a museum.

The Crossroads Arts & Design District features art galleries, nightclubs and the soaring arches of the Moshe Safdie-designed Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, and Westport, site of a Civil War battle and the city’s original entertainment district.

Of course, the barbecue

Barbecue is a religion here. Besides classic joints such as Arthur Bryant’s and Gates Bar-B-Q, and newer eateries such as Plowboy’s BBQ and Q 39, there are barbecue tour buses and outdoor competitions throughout much of the year. And as part of the monthslong annual livestock competition and rodeo, the 116-year-old American Royal, the city also hosts the World Series of Barbecue and the Barbecue Hall of Fame.

But there’s more to eat in KC than barbecue. Since its stockyards made the city a center for the livestock trade, meat has been a Kansas City staple and fine steakhouses abound. The growing Hispanic population has spawned some fine Mexican restaurants, and visitors will enjoy sushi and pan-Asian offerings to complement a handful of old-school German spots.

If you go

A great place to start planning a trip is Visit KC (visitkc.com). There you can find updated listings covering art, sports, entertainment, shopping and tours. The site also lists attractions with free admission, as well as restaurants, hotels and deals. The stylish new Visit KC office is at 1321 Baltimore Av.; 1-800-767-7700.