Compared with its surroundings, Lawrence, Kan., is one idiosyncratic city. Kansas is rural; Lawrence is a cosmopolitan college town. Kansas is flat; Lawrence, set in the Flint Hills, rises and falls like the South Dakotan High Plains.
But come here, and it all makes sense. Residents have taken the bounty of this tuck of the Farm Belt and refined it in artisan workshops and an excellent culinary scene. Massachusetts Street, the main drag, boasts dozens of locally owned and operated restaurants and shops, even an independent department store. Here is a city that has overcome destruction and racial injustice to be a picture of Middle America perseverance. The Good Life exists, and it is in Lawrence.
Lawrence is one of the few cities in the United States to have been the victim of a full-fledged sacking — not once but twice. An abolitionist stronghold, it was burned by slavery supporters during the pre-statehood, antebellum “Bleeding Kansas” era; then Confederate guerrillas massacred scores of townspeople in 1863. The Watkins Museum of History (1-785-841-4109) tells Lawrence’s story in a beautiful 1888 Richardsonian Romanesque building, including the 20th-century movements against local segregation and the Vietnam War.
The University of Kansas, perched on a ridge above the city, sprawls and defies uniform architectural classification, though rough, drab limestone is common. The recently renovated Spencer Museum of Art is brazenly of-the-moment, with changing exhibitions and permanent galleries that are organized thematically, not chronologically. Get on its wavelength, and you’ll lose track of time. (1-785-864-4710). The Natural History Museum (1-785-864-4450), part of KU’s Biodiversity Institute, is great for kids, with dioramas and taxidermied animals, a beehive and several living reptiles.
Another college, the Haskell Indian Nations University, is also in Lawrence. There is troubled history here: It was once an American Indian boarding school designed to stamp out students’ indigenous heritage (“kill the Indian, save the human”). Today, however, it is a federally run university with free tuition to Native Americans. Its Cultural Center and Museum (1-785-832-6686) is devoted to the history of the institution and Indian Country at large and the resiliency and promise of its students.
Around Labor Day, Grinter’s Sunflower Farm explodes in eponymous blooms and is just the place for Facebook or Instagram photos. Admission is free, though they charge a dollar on the honor system for each flower picked (1-785-749-1325). In fair weather, bike or run on the Lawrence River Trails through the wooded northern shore of the Kansas River.
Lawrence supports a lively arts and crafts scene. Visit Waxman Candles (1-785-843-8593), entirely house-made since 1970, for its special triple-strength candles and the ones with local wildflowers pressed into them. I am happy to report that their showroom doesn’t produce olfactory overload: I spoke with the son of founder Bob Werts, and he told me that his father takes pride in having candles that you don’t taste when you smell them. Hobbs, down the street, has midrange to high-end clothing, specializing in denim, and quirky luxury goods like handsome Laguiole pocket knives imported from France (1-785-331-4622). Phoenix Gallery has wares from more than 350 local and national artists with a great selection of ceramics, glass and jewelry (1-785-843-0080).
Where to eat and drink
Dispel the notion that Kansan fine dining equals only big steaks. But remember where you are: Meat here is very good and very local. Merchants Pub and Plate, housed in a repurposed bank, is an achievement in New American cuisine. Everything is homemade and seasonal — try the roasted parsnip dip with bacon-chili jam and the braised short ribs with ricotta potato gnocchi. The restaurant recently started serving a Sunday brunch buffet with half-price beer (1-785-843-4111). Way down the street is Hank Charcuterie, with the requisite preserved meats and cheeses, smartly served hearty fare — think risotto, baked polenta and cassoulet — and a thoughtfully curated aperitif and digestif menu (1-785-832-8688).
Leeway Franks, in a strip mall away from downtown, is a local sensation. Lee Meisel, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, came here after a stay in Austin, Texas, to attend Haskell, and he put down roots. His style is of the Plains, from the Dakotas to Texas, bratwurst to hot links. His frankfurter is the restaurant’s rock, and all his sausages are house-made, from parts butchered using whole sides with natural casings (1-785-856-0890).
Back around Mass Street, Terrebonne Po’ Boys transports you to the Crescent City with its colorful interior, array of hot sauces and namesake sandwiches (1-785-856-3287). Everything, from the bread to the gumbo, is homemade. Choose between a multitude of fillings, from fried shrimp and roast beef to alligator and meatloaf. Pour on the Frank’s hot sauce and cool off with a cold beer. At the Ladybird Cafe, the pies are showstoppers. They have funky flavors like ancho-cherry and blueberry-basil, but coconut cream is the consistent bestseller (1-785-856-5239).
For breakfast, the Roost has classic American fare and a slew of breakfast cocktails. Come early to beat the line (1-785-843-1110). It’s just by the Wheatfield Bakery, with excellent cinnamon rolls (1-785-841-5553).
There’s great coffee at the Bourgeois Pig (1-785-843-1001) — the owners recently started roasting their own — but at night they turn out modern cocktails alongside their massive collection of whiskeys. My advice? Get the best of both worlds with a “corrective coffee” like the Jackie Treehorn, a White Russian spiked with espresso. Abide. At the head of Mass Street, the Free State Brewery (1-785-843-4555) was the first craft brewery in Kansas. Their Ad Astra Ale, from the Kansan motto “To the Stars Through Difficulties,” is balanced and smooth. Lastly, the Replay Lounge is your standard college dive and the best live music venue in Lawrence (1-785-749-7676).
Where to stay
There are two independent hotels of note: The Eldridge (1-785-749-5011) is housed in a stately brick building with a prime location on Mass Street, while the Oread (1-785-843-1200), in a resolute limestone tower adjacent to campus, has a killer rooftop bar.
Getting there and around
Take Interstate 35 to Kansas City, then head west on the Kansas Turnpike to Lawrence. Or fly to Kansas City and take the GTS Shuttle (1-785-842-8294). If you don’t have a car, Lawrence is neatly packed and has decent public transit; otherwise, take Uber or rent from Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop (1-785-843-5000).
Aaron Gettinger is a graduate student at the University of Chicago, focusing on the sociology of the rural Midwest.