While Lawrence, Kansas is likely not at the top of many travel bucket lists, occasionally, the opportunity arises to head to the heart of the Midwest and visit a place I’ve called home for my entire life. Lawrence is the home of the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University, and we’re a little blue oasis in a sea of red (politically speaking). We bleed crimson and blue and “Rock Chalk” our way through college basketball season, always chasing the elusive March Madness. But, we’re not just about basketball and watching planes fly over. Lawrence is so, so much more. If you’ve ever got the opportunity to pass through, and spend some time, there are a few things I recommend to all my friends before they leave town.
Where to Stay
The first thing you’ll need to do is decide where you want to stay. Lawrence isn’t huge, but there’s a definite lack of hotel space within the city, especially if you’re here during a popular event (basically ALL of May, with graduations from both Universities and both high schools). If you’re planning to be here during a big event, your best option may be Airbnb, otherwise you can probably find a room at one of the Downtown Lawrence hotels.
My favorite Downtown Lawrence hotel is the Eldridge. It’s a hotel with a colorful history and absolutely worth checking out, even if you just head inside to walk around the lobby or grab a drink at the newly remodeled restaurant on the main floor. According to the hotel’s website, it was originally opened as the “Free State Hotel” in 1855. Just one year later, in 1856, the hotel was burned to the ground by sheriff Sam Jones, who was part of a pro-slavery movement. The hotel was rebuilt by Colonel Shalor Eldridge and operated until 1863, when it was, again, burned to the ground. The 1863 raid was orchestrated and carried out by William Quantrill and his men. Quantrill was a notorious pro-slavery evangelist and this same raid destroyed much of the city of Lawrence, killing over 150 people.
The hotel was rebuilt again and named Hotel Eldridge, operating in that capacity until 1925, when a group of businessmen took over the deteriorating hotel, demolishing it, and building the structure, still standing on the corner of 7th & Massachusetts Street, today. It is truly one of the most beautiful buildings in Lawrence, and I recommend staying there if you have the opportunity. Who knows. . . you may even run into the rumored Eldridge Ghost while you’re there!
If historic, possibly haunted, hotels aren’t your thing, another Downtown hotel I recommend is the new (2016) TownePlace Suites. This hotel is located just off Mass Street, but still close enough to the heart of Downtown Lawrence to feel like you’re a part of the action. The hotel has an underground parking garage, so you won’t have to worry about finding a place to park or feeding a meter during parking enforcement hours (9:30am – 6pm, Monday through Saturday).
The rooms are modern and have views of New Hampshire Street, on one side, and the hotel patio and adjoining neighborhood, on the other.
While Airbnb isn’t everyone’s first choice for accommodations when traveling, Josh and I prefer it to staying in hotels. We’ve found that staying in hotels is prescribed and impersonal and we avoid it, when we can, unless we’re staying in a place for one night (and can use credit card points to stay for free) or if staying in an Airbnb could be difficult (when short-term rentals are banned, or when traveling to a location like China, where all tourists have to check in with the local police department, unless they are staying at a licensed hotel – who does that for you).
In Lawrence, Airbnbs tend to be available more during football and basketball season, for fans who may be traveling in from out of town, but you can find homes to rent year-round.
If you want to try Airbnb for the first time and you use MY REFERRAL LINK, you’ll get $40 off your first booking and I’ll get a $20 credit when you complete your trip.
What to Do
Lawrence definitely isn’t lacking in things to do. Whether you’re interested in art, music, history, or the great outdoors, there’s something here for you!
If art is your thing, the art museum at the University of Kansas is a spectacular collection of pieces from all over the world. The museum has been known to house controversial exhibits, in addition to the 45,000 items in its permanent collection. The museum, itself, went through a major renovation in the last several years and the building is beautiful, with one of the very best views of the Campanile and the KU Football stadium. Check it out if you’re craving some creativity.
Lawrence’s art scene isn’t limited to art museums. Lawrence is home to some of the most creative folks in Kansas and local art abounds. One of the best areas to find local art in Lawrence is the Warehouse Arts District (WAD). The WAD is a fantastic pocket of the East Lawrence neighborhood that houses many galleries, artist studios, and public art installations.
If you happen to be visiting on the last Friday of any month, throughout the year, you’re definitely going to want to make sure this area makes your “to-do” list. Final Fridays is a monthly celebration where art show openings and community events take over. Thousands of locals and visitors take to the streets of Downtown Lawrence and the Warehouse Arts District for the evening, eating amazing food, taking in eclectic art, and celebrating something Unmistakably Lawrence.
Just a few blocks from the Warehouse Arts District lies the crown jewel of the city. Downtown Lawrence is home to one of the most quintessential Downtown areas in the Midwest. I would certainly rank it as the best in Kansas, hands-down. Downtown Lawrence is a 5-block long by 3-block wide grid surrounding Massachusetts Street with local and national retailers and restaurants, art galleries, music venues, event spaces, and businesses that rivals similar areas across the country.
I like to claim that you can find just about any kind of cuisine on Mass Street, from some of the best Pad Thai I’ve ever had to a Jamaican Beef Patty that’s been written about in the New York Times. Whatever you’re hungry for, you can find it on Mass Street.
But, food isn’t the only reason to visit Downtown Lawrence. The area is known for its music venues too. Because Lawrence is located in the middle of the US, right on a major interstate highway (I-70), smaller bands tend to make Lawrence a stop on their tours because we are located between two of their larger tour stops (typically St. Louis or Kansas City and Denver). With venues like The Granada, The Bottleneck, and Liberty Hall, it’s difficult to find a night during the year that some sort of music performance isn’t being held Downtown.
Downtown Lawrence is also known as a shopping district, with a large concentration of local retailers selling a wide variety of items you won’t find anywhere else in Lawrence. From over 1,000 different kinds of soda at Mass Street Soda, to unique handmade gifts at MADE, Essential Goods, and the Phoenix Underground, and t-shirt designs that will make you laugh out loud at ACME, there’s no doubt you’ll be able to find something unique and interesting to take home with you.
If history is more your thing, you can capture some of that in Downtown Lawrence too! Make a visit to The Watkins Museum of History and learn more about Quantrill’s raid that brought down the Eldridge Hotel and other significant events that have shaped the history and story of Lawrence and Kansas.
One of the most beautiful areas of Lawrence is the University of Kansas Campus, perched atop Mount Oread. The University’s campus features beautiful green spaces, a sanctuary of academia, and hallowed ground for basketball fans from across the world. If you’re one of the millions of basketball fans who exist, you’d be remiss if you left Lawrence without visiting Allen Fieldhouse, the home of Kansas Jayhawk Basketball, and the namesake of Forrest “Phog” Allen, the father of basketball coaching. In addition to being one of the most difficult places to play a game as a visitor in the country, Allen Fieldhouse is home to the Booth Family Hall of Athletics, and is adjacent to the DeBruce Center, which, thanks to a very generous KU Alum (David Booth – of the Booth Family Hall of Athletics), houses the original rules of basketball, written by Dr. James A. Naismith, when he invented the game in 1891. In addition to being the Father of Basketball, Dr. Naismith also happens to have been the very first Jayhawk Basketball coach, making Kansas the birthplace of basketball.
While you’re on campus, be sure to stop by the Campanile, a World War II Memorial Carillon standing 120 feet tall, and overlooking KU’s Memorial Stadium. The carillon’s 53 bells play regularly, so stick around a bit to listen to a lovely and unique experience. Legend says that any Jayhawk who passes through the Campanile before their graduation day will either not graduate on time, or not graduate from the University at all.
If you’re a fan of the outdoors, Lawrence has you covered there too! From the fantastic views of Wells Overlook, just south of the city to the Kansas River and Clinton Lake trails, you can capture a piece of the beauty of Kansas and learn that all you’ve heard about Kansas being “flat as a pancake” is a myth. Kansas, particularly northeast Kansas, and Lawrence, in particular, is beautiful, and hilly, and lushly green (when you catch us after a reasonable amount of rain).
If you’re in Lawrence in the late winter or early spring, you may be lucky enough to catch the bald eagles nesting at the Kansas River. The best spot for catching them is the promenade behind the SpringHill Suites Hotel, or the deck of Abe & Jake’s Landing. Typically, the eagles are just perched in the trees, right along the river and you can get an up-close and personal view of them. In past years, there have been as many as 20-30 eagles in the trees at one time and it’s certainly a spectacular sight to behold.
Where to Eat
After you’ve seen all there is to be seen in Lawrence, you’re going to be hungry. Now, I talked a little bit about the food in Lawrence earlier, but now I want to give you some specific recommendations about places and dishes you should definitely try while you’re in town.
Pizza at Limestone has the potential to ruin all other pizza for you. I’m not talking about the kind of pizza you think about when you think about Pizza Hut or Domino’s. Chef Rick Martin takes pizza to a whole other level with thin, flame-kissed crust from a 1,000 pound, wood-burning oven, lovingly named Maggie. With unique pizzas like The Spud (local thinly sliced potatoes, onions, crème fraiche, bacon and rosemary), Farmer (house-recipe bacon, gruyere, local egg and greens), and Summer (local cream corn, fresh corn, cherry tomatoes, bacon, cheddar & parsley), your tastebuds will be in for the ride of their lives.
The chef at Lawrence Beer Company, Ken Baker, formerly owned and operated another Lawrence restaurant institution, Pachamama’s. After Pachamama’s closed, Lawrence spent several years longing for Ken’s unmistakable touch. Luckily, Ken and several partners have opened Lawrence Beer Company (in 2017) and Lawrencians, myself included, have been singing his praises ever since.
Lawrence Beer Company is a fully operational brewery, in addition to being a full-service restaurant. It is nestled in the Warehouse Arts District, in a building that used to be a seed warehouse. The space is huge and open, and the building even has several apartments (and an Airbnb property) on it’s upper floors where you can order food from the restaurant any time they’re open.
Dishes to try here include the Rice Fried “Chick-arrones” appetizer and the Cubano sandwich. The Cubano isn’t offered all the time, but if you see it on the menu, don’t hesitate to order it. It is, hands-down, the best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever had. The pork melts in your mouth and I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.
Also in the Warehouse Arts District, you’ll find an adorable spot called Bon Bon. Bon Bon is owned by Simon and Codi Bates, who also own The Burger Stand, which I’ll talk more about below. Bon Bon means “Good, Good” and is a great spot for outdoor dining and for an intimate, indoor meal. The building is pretty small – so small that there’s no kitchen inside. All of the food that is made at Bon Bon comes from a full kitchen packed into a food truck, permanently parked on the property.
The food is super unique and is all inspired by Simon’s international travels. Some of my personal favorite menu items include the Kimchi Fried Rice, Katsu Bun, and French Onion Tots. Their menu changes seasonally, and is always filled with things you won’t find elsewhere in Lawrence. It’s all amazing, so you can’t go wrong!
In the mood for a drink? I’ve long made the claim that Bon Bon has the best cocktail menu in town. Order a painkiller and settle in for an evening playing bags on the patio, listening to trains roll down the neighboring track. It has all the makings of a very East Lawrence evening!
Also owned by the Bateses, is the Burger Stand, near the corner of 8th & Mass. Whether you’re a die-hard meat eater or you prefer vegetarian options, the Burger Stand has something for you. is your place. Located in the old Casbah building, the Burger Stand offers one of the most expansive burger menus in Lawrence. You can get a more traditional burger, topped with white cheddar and seasonal greens (“The Classic”) or a more adventurous burger topped with avocado and a habanero-cactus jam (“Fire”).
Veggie burgers at the Burger Stand are made from ingredients like cauliflower, black beans, shiitake and crimini mushrooms, and garbanzo beans. They even sell the Impossible burger. If burgers aren’t your thing, they have hot dogs, corn dogs, salads, and the best fries in Lawrence.
My go-to at the Burger Stand is the Smoke Burger, topped with applewood-smoked bacon, gouda cheese, and chipotle-cocoa ketchup, but if you see something on the specials menu that interests you, I recommend ordering that. The specials at the Burger Stand never disappoint!
Back in the East Lawrence Neighborhood lies Culinaria. The restaurant has come a long way from its catering-only operation and now serves some of the very best Mediterranean food in town. The space is small (only seating around 30-40 guests) but the food and service are mighty!
When planning your trip, keep in mind that Culinaria is currently only open Thursday through Saturday from 3:30-9pm. I recommend going with a group of friends and ordering several small plates to share. If you hit them at the right time of day (3:30-5:30pm), you can catch one of the best happy hour values around, with $5 cocktails, $2 off wine by the glass, and $1 – $5 small plates. You won’t find an undesirable dish on the menu, but be sure to try the Fried Cauliflower with Labneh, Burnt Eggplant Dip, Jerusalem Hummus, and Mushroom Ragout.
If you have a sweet tooth and you’re a fan of ice cream, try the very best ice cream in Lawarence, at Sylas & Maddy’s. All of the ice cream is made in-house and flavors range from simple sorbets to more elaborate flavors (with unique names) like “Da Bomb” and “Rock Chocolate Jayhawk”.
My favorite thing to do at Sylas & Maddy’s is to order the 5-Flavor Sampler. You get 5 mini scoops of ice cream, so you can try a variety. Helpful Hint though – if you plan on continuing a walk down Mass Street while eating your ice cream, make sure it’s not July, or your 5-Flavor Sampler will become one soupy flavor that may or may not work out well.
If you love sweets but you’re looking for something that may take fewer sets in the gym to work off, try Luckyberry. Here, you can find homemade soft serve that’s made with local ingredients in really eclectic flavors that you may never have thought of as ice cream before. You can serve yourself in the back of the store, so you can try a variety of flavors if you’d like. You’re charged by the weight of the ice cream you dispense, so be careful not to go nuts. The menu changes often, but if you see chocolate cherry on the menu, I can definitely recommend that flavor.
Luckyberry also serves fresh-pressed juices, coffee, fresh-made sushi, and a local salad bar. Pop in for a refreshing juice, grab a sushi roll, salad, and soft serve and have a complete picnic to take to one of the parks surrounding Downtown Lawrence.
Are you a fellow Lawrencian? Did I miss one of your favorites? Leave a comment and let me know what I should add to this list!
Whatever brings you to Lawrence, I hope you enjoy your time exploring our unique little LFK and that you long to return again! Rock Chalk!
If you enjoyed this post, check out my other “What Not to Miss” and Travel Recommendation posts:
- What Not to Miss: Austin, TX
- What Not to Miss: Vancouver, BC
- How to Experience New Orleans Like a Local