All it takes is hearing a few notes of the familiar greeting-card jingle to get older visitors reminiscing at Kansas City’s Hallmark Visitor Center. They perk up with memories of favorite commercials and family nights gathered around the television for “Hallmark Hall of Fame” movies.

This time of year, families rank the Hallmark Channel’s Christmas movies, alongside frothy mugs of cocoa and cookie overloads, among their most cherished and sugary traditions. And Kansas City feels like the Midwest’s epicenter for sentimental celebrations.

The city’s opulent architecture, sprawling toy museum, free attractions, jazz and barbecue add fresh twists to a Christmas getaway. That’s in addition to the usual holiday fun: Santas, skating, towering trees and lighting galore.

Start at Crown Center, where the Hallmark Visitors Center details the company’s humble beginnings, when a teenage J.C. Hall began selling postcards from a shoe box. Exhibits reflect popular culture as decades of Keepsake ornaments bring together snowmen, “Star Wars” characters and Charlie Brown. Visitors line up to crank the handle of a machine that folds shiny red ribbon into crisp gift-box bows.

Some of the best fun can be found in Kaleidoscope, a whimsically designed workshop that encourages creativity in free 50-minute sessions. Kids with adults are let loose to make cards, decorate with curly ribbon, and create gifts with puzzle-making machines and glow-in-the-dark paint.

Outside, skaters glide and spin within view of illuminated trees and fountains, including the 100-foot Mayor’s Christmas Tree. After each holiday, the mayor’s tree is made into wooden ornaments and sold to fund city charities.

Hallmark anchors Crown Center, a mini Mall of America with its mix of 40 stores and restaurants, the Sea Life Aquarium and the Legoland Discovery Center, where visitors build race cars from bricks, hop aboard rides and admire masterfully built replicas of Kansas City landmarks.

The city’s most iconic landmark, the 1914 Union Station, sits a short stroll from Crown Center. It draws visitors into its Grand Hall, where they stop to stare at the 95-foot ceiling, light pouring in from arched windows and three 3,500-pound chandeliers. The city’s tallest indoor Christmas tree, wreaths and lights add glitz to the historic elegance of the nation’s second-largest working train station.

A miniature train takes kids under 4 feet tall on holiday rides. Kansas City Southern’s Polar Express Train rolls in with Santa Dec. 18-22. A free exhibit of 18 model trains chugs along 800 feet of track, and choral songs flow throughout December.

Regular attractions at Union Square’s 850,000-square-foot complex include a planetarium, a 3-D movie theater, touring exhibits (“Genghis Khan: Bringing the Legend to Life” runs through April) and Science City, with hands-on activities from illusions to pedaling a Sky Bike on a high wire (1-816-460-2020;

Union Station’s Swingin’ New Year’s Eve event will fill the Grand Hall with big band music, harking back to 1945, when an estimated 678,000 passengers streamed through the station. Back then, greeting cards and letters kept people connected. These days, minus the wartime urgency and bustle of travelers, it’s left with a historic grandeur that feels ready-made for a streaming Christmas movie. One that ends with a kiss.

Lights, art and toys

Kansas City celebrated its biggest annual lighting ceremony at Country Club Plaza on Nov. 28. Holiday lights outline the 15-block shopping district’s distinctive towers, courtyards, fountains, decorative tiles and domes that were inspired by Seville, Spain, when it was built in 1923. The nearly 100 shops include familiar brands (Tiffany & Co., Warby Parker) and local favorites (Made in KC Marketplace, with goods from 200 artists and makers). Listen for the clip-clop of Cinderella-esque carriage rides (countryclubpla­

Not far from Country Club Plaza, fans of classic art (and eclectic museum-shop gifts) wander the richly hued halls of the free Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Paintings by Monet, Rembrandt and Caravaggio blend with furniture, jewelry and artifacts. The modern Bloch Building houses contemporary sculpture, African art, photography and traveling exhibitions. Drive by after dark to see the Bloch glow like a gigantic paper lantern (1-816-751-1278;

The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures displays one of the world’s largest collections of fine-scale miniatures. Victorian dollhouses are filled with deftly crafted grandfather clocks, musical instruments and cradles. Upper-level exhibits blend toy soldiers, teddy bears, kids’ sewing machines, Barbie, GI Joe, Hot Wheels, My Little Pony and Power Rangers into a fun nostalgia fest (1-816-235-8000;

If the toy museum’s marble collection sparks an interest, continue to Moon Marble Co. on the metro area’s western edge. Visitors to this groovy toy store can catch artists making funky glass marbles — think clear globes swirled with rainbows, tiny ham and eggs, or eyeballs — on Fridays and Saturdays. In addition to a free marble museum, the shop sells traditional toys that range from puzzles and gag gifts to whimsical kites perfect for windy days on frozen lakes (1-913-441-1432; moonmarblecompany).

Where to stay

The Aladdin Holiday Inn (1-816-421-8888; features vivid boutique decor and some rooms facing the kinetic light show running across the 22-story Kansas City Marriott Downtown. Lights blink, flash and dance into pictures of snowmen, Santa and his sleigh like fireworks on a billboard (1-816-421-6800; The Westin Kansas City at Crown Center sits within walking distance of Union Station, Hallmark and the skating terrace (1-816-474-4400; The Intercontinental Kansas City at the Plaza boasts the city’s best view of Country Club Plaza (1-816-756-1500; kansas­

Where to eat

At Raphael Hotel, Chaz on the Plaza serves a Sunday jazz brunch and mixes up Hazy Haydens, a bourbon-based drink in a smoke-infused glass, in a nod to Kansas City’s barbecue heritage ( Jack Stack Barbecue draws special-occasion diners with burnt ends, brisket, cheesy potato bake and smoked apple Manhattans. Two popular locations are at Country Club Plaza and in a historic freight house near the Crossroads Art District (

Getting there

It’s a 450-mile, 6½-hour drive south on Interstate 35 to reach Kansas City, or a 90-minute flight from MSP.

More info

Kansas City Tourism: 1-816-691-3800 or

Lisa Meyers McClintick ( has written for Travel since 2001 and was recently named travel writer of the year by the Midwest Travel Journalists Association.