Like seemingly every other town, Topeka, Kansas has its own unique history. The town’s roots can be traced to it being a site for ferries to transport wagons heading west across the Kansas River. The town was founded in 1854 and given a Native American name – thought to mean something along the lines of “a good place to grow potatoes.”
Topeka became the capital of Kansas in 1866. It’s practically a right of passage for every elementary school student across the state of Kansas to file onto a bus and make the trek to their state’s capitol building. Most will leave yawning, perhaps never to return again.
It is not uncommon for people to think of Topeka as a soul-crushing, decrepit and crime ridden place – if they think of it at all. There may be some truth to these criticisms, as even the city’s natives are often found taking refuge in visits to more vibrant towns like Lawrence and Kansas City, but Topeka has some true gems if you know where to look.
North Topeka, affectionately called NOTO, was a declining part of town until it was revitalized as an Arts District in 2011. Now the district is home to local businesses instead of bars. On the first Friday of every month NOTO hosts the Artwalk, which routinely draws over 3,000 people to its murals, antiques and boutiques.
Truckhenge, arguably Topeka’s best art gallery, is mostly marketed by word of mouth and is home to the most interesting tour known to man. Visitors are encouraged to personally call the artist, Ron Lessman, who created his own Stonehenge out of trucks the county ordered him to pick up – a message he took literally. Lessman’s various sculptures convey messages such as “Rome Didn’t Kill Jesus Bureaucrats Did” and “Freedum Isn’t Lost.”
No visit to Topeka would be complete without a tour of its crown jewel – the Kansas State Capitol. Recent restoration has returned the building’s dome to its original copper finish, and visitors have the opportunity to climb the 296 steps to the top. The exercise is worth stepping outside and enjoying a breathtaking aerial view of the city.
The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site commemorates the 1954 Supreme Court decision that ended racial segregation in public schools. The museum is located at Monroe Elementary School – a formerly segregated elementary school where the case partly originated.
Though a little rough around the edges, The Pad is a great place to grab a cheap burger. The space-themed restaurant also boasts the best onion rings in town. The Pad has been locally owned since 1961 and quickly established itself as a Topeka staple.
Topeka isn’t known for fine dining, but Chez Yasu is a must-eat for those seeking a more upscale setting. The French restaurant is both delicious, charming and one of the few places brave enough to serve seafood besides Red Lobster.
The Pennant is fairly new to Topeka, but is already a trendy spot thanks to their classic arcade games and extravagant milkshakes. I recommend permanently clogging your arteries with the $12 Over the Rainbow shake that contains “Vanilla, Chocolate, or Strawberry ice-cream piled into a waffle cone with coconut cotton candy, sprinkles, and whipped cream,” according to The Pennant’s menu.
Rees Fruit Farm is family owned and famous for their cider donuts and slushes. Visitors can actually see the produce growing behind the store.
Hazel Hill is located in the heart of downtown and is the best place to go if you’re craving something sweet. While the chocolatier has classic caramel apples and dipped pretzels, my personal favorites are the “things” – really just different flavors of cake pops without the stick.
One of the places that makes me glad to be a Topekan is the Equality House. Painted in the rainbow colors of the gay pride flag, the house is directly across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church, an anti-LGBT hate group famous for picketing soldiers’ funerals. Along with the Transgender House, the Equality house serves as a visible reminder of Topeka’s support for these communities in spite of Westboro’s actions.
Yes, Topeka is home to great places like the Kansas History and Combat Air Museums, but they pale in comparison to the Evel Knievel Museum. Relive the iconic daredevil’s extreme feats, view his authentic bikes and leathers and experience a jump for yourself on the 4D simulator.
Topeka, Kansas is thoroughly cemented in the collective mind as a mediocre Midwestern town, but it is a truly unique place filled with equally unique people.
My personal suggestion is to pay Topeka a visit if you haven’t already, and give it a second chance if you have. It’s only an hour and a half from Liberty. Look beyond the stereotype and, heeding Robert Frost’s advice, take the road less traveled by.