Here’s a fun fact! Billy the Kid’s mother, Catherine McCarty, actually signed the petition to make Wichita, Kansas, a city back in 1870. The owner of a downtown laundry, she was also the only female entrepreneur to sign the document.
Billy the Kid, a figure straight from the Old West, lived in the city for a time. Wichita does have Old West roots, but today is the largest city in Kansas. As settlers streamed across the country, seeking adventure, new land to settle and economic opportunities, Wichita was in a prime location to serve these travelers. It began as a trading post on the Chisholm Trail in the 1860s, with so many cattle drives pouring into the area that it was called “Cowtown.” But the flat terrain and open skies gave way in the 1920s and 1930s to becoming a center for aviation - “The Air Capital of the World.”
Wichita is a lively, diverse metropolitan area of nearly 645,000 people located in the heart of the Midwest along the banks of the Arkansas River (and naturally, they say it Ar-KAN-sas) and is the state’s largest metro area and business hub.
Visitors can explore the history of the “Wild West” but will also enjoy terrific museums, great shopping and tasting craft beer at one of 11 breweries. A hipster vibe pulses in many neighborhoods, with bakeries, sports bars, patio coffee shops, street murals, lofts, renovated, lovely old buildings, farmers markets, and hundreds of locally owned restaurants.
Wichita features some nice boutique hotels and familiar chains like Hilton and Marriott. The DoubleTree by Hilton Wichita Airport just had a $ 2.7-million renovation and offers a free shuttle to and from the nearby airport, which makes for a very convenient base for a trip to Wichita.
Things to do
Wichita has five “districts” – each with its own flavor: the Delano District, which once housed bars and saloons for cowboys fresh from working cattle drives, now has more than 250 businesses; Downtown Wichita, home to more than 40 pieces of public art; Old Town, with brick-lined streets and more than 100 businesses; the Douglas Design District, with 300 locally owned businesses and the Frank Lloyd Wright Allen House Museum and Study Center; and the Museums on the River District, home to Botanica, Exploration Place, Mid-America All-Indian Center, Old Cowtown Museum, and the Wichita Art Museum. Near the Mid-America All-Indian Center is the iconic symbol of Wichita, the Keeper of the Plains.
Billy the Kid’s mom wasn’t the only strong woman to live in Wichita. While you may have thought the West was settled by fearsome men bucking their way through the untamed country, you might be surprised to know that Wichita also had some mighty powerful women creating community change. Visitors today are the recipients of the generosity of at least two who provided for art, music, gardens and more.
Jayne Milburn was the major donor of the Botanica and left nearly $7 million to the community organizations when she died, including the Wichita Art Museum, Wichita Children’s Home, and Wichita Symphony Society.
Louise Caldwell Murdock left a substantial bequest that initiated the Wichita Museum of Art. Her gift, in honor of her husband, the owner of the Wichita Eagle newspapers, led to one of the most distinguished collections of American art.
Downtown is home to the ICT Pop-Up Urban Park and Gallery Alley, a vibrant public space, complete with local art, a portable concert stage, a screen for outdoor movies, and outdoor seating. A few doors down is Old Mill Tasty Shop at 604 E. Douglas. The Tasty Shop is charming and the day we went, it was filled with families enjoying their famous ice cream sundaes and chicken salad sandwiches.
Visitors can catch a free ride on the Q-Line (wichitatransit.org/QLine) throughout the day all along Douglas Avenue from the Delano District all the way to Clifton Square where Q signs are posted. Stops are located approximately every other block and trolleys run about every 10 minutes.
Old Town District
Old Town is nestled in the heart of Wichita, just east of downtown, and it extends about 4 miles. Old Town has become a destination sought out for its restaurants, shops, clubs, theaters, galleries, museums and stores.
Museums on the River District
The Museums on the River include the Mid-America All-Indian Center, dedicated to the history and culture of Native Americans. The Wichita Art Museum, renovated in 2003, focuses on American artists. Botanica Wichita has several dozen themed gardens over 18 acres of stunning gardenscaping that features over 4,000 species of plants, both native and new to the region. Old Cowtown is a living history museum focusing on life in Wichita in 1865. Spread over 26 acres with more than 40 historical buildings, guests can watch carvers and blacksmiths, try an ice-cold sarsaparilla in the saloon, and pose for photos in old-timey clothing. Exploration Place is a science museum with hundreds of interactive exhibits that stimulate the mind and teach about science.
Located along Douglas Avenue on the west bank of the Arkansas River at the end of the Chisholm Trail, Delano was established during the days of the Chisholm Trail cattle drives as a place for the cowboys to blow off steam after months on the trail from Texas. They would spend their pay in its many saloons, gambling houses and brothels. Eventually incorporated into Wichita, Delano is now a thriving shopping district with over 250 businesses, including dining and shopping.
Douglas Design District
The Douglas Design District features a casual mix of businesses, retail and residential neighborhoods filled with bungalow homes renting for as little as $750 a month and for sale for as little as $100,000, and is home to the Frank Lloyd Wright Allen House Museum and Study Center. The Wright house was designed in 1915 for the owner of the Beacon Newspaper. It “reflects the horizonality of the prairie,” our distinguished guide said. Also in the area is Clifton Square, a collection of unique Victorian-era houses transformed into a shopping and dining village, which also has some of Wichita’s best patios to enjoy a meal and a drink.
There are murals throughout the area (visitors can download a map at avenueartdays.com/Maps). The Spice Merchant & Company is Wichita’s original gourmet coffee roaster. The Workroom is one of the top places to pick up Wichita-centric goods, including merchandise featuring the city’s flag, local art and artisan accessories. You will see a lot of ICT – the airport code for the local airport. The letters have become a fun symbol of pride for the locals.
There are more than 3,000 animals at the Sedgwick County Zoo, including lions, hippos and giraffes. Don’t Miss Hatman Jacks, a hat institution in Wichita that is a full-service hat shop. People come from all over the world to have a custom hat made in this shop, which also features cleaning, refurbishing and reblocking hats.
There are so many interesting, charming, locally owned places to dine – I doubt visitors will find a bad meal. Here are some to try: Chisholm’s American Beef and Ale House, inside the DoubleTree hotel, serves a great Kansas steak. Public at The Brickyard in the Old Town District is a funky live-music venue with a large menu of everyone’s favorites from burgers to tacos to pizza, all created by a former art professor-turned chef. Café Bel Ami in Downtown Wichita is a Wichita favorite. R Coffee House, also funky, is an eclectic coffee shop that offers direct-trade coffee, a full menu, pastries, live music and local art. Tanya’s Soup Kitchen in the Douglas Design District serves tasty hand-crafted soups, sandwiches and salads that are creative and delicious. Wine Dive is an innovative restaurant with a rustic feel serving small plates and entrees of upscale fusion bites.
By the way, people love living here, too! The chamber of commerce says Wichita is the best in the nation for first-time home buyers, the cost of living is 29 percent lower than the national average, and the average commute time to work is just 18 minutes!
For more information, go to visitwichita.com.