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Planning a road trip, an adventurous spring break or a laid-back staycation in the heart of The Great Plains? Topeka, Kansas should definitely be on your radar. Kansas’ capital city located in Shawnee County attracts thousands of visitors each year due to its unmistakable character, lively cultural ambiance, historical landmarks, and relaxing natural parks.
Moreover, thanks to its mild continental climate, Topeka is a great destination year-round – and there’s always a lot to do, too. To make your planning easier, we’ve hand-picked 25 best Topeka, KS activities and sites you should not miss while in the town.
A Little About Topeka, Kansas – What is Topeka Known For?
In the language of native tribes, ‘Topeka’ means “a place to dig out the potatoes”. Aside from the apparent reference to the town’s agricultural character, founding fathers of the town also chose this name simply because it sounded great. And it still does, doesn’t it?
Topeka with its 128-thousand inhabitants is one of the country’s smaller capital cities. It still maintains some of its traditional rural character, and just a short ride away from the center will take you right into the open country of the Plains.
But for those who seek, Topeka’s cultural and social life is very much alive and kicking too. Whether you prefer exploring historical sites or contemporary attractions, relaxing in gorgeous city parks or strolling on natural trails, Topeka will keep you busy and entertained. Here are our top tips for spending an unforgettable time in the City of Topeka:
1. Visit majestic Kansas State Capitol Building
Topeka is Kansas’ capital city, which means that it houses most of the governmental buildings in the state. The most important and interesting of them is Kansas State Capitol, also known as Kansas Statehouse, located on the SW 8th & SW Van Buren.
This majestic building constructed between 1866 and 1903 can be seen from afar thanks to its imposant dome – one of the very few US capitol domes you can actually visit – if you dare climbing its 296 steps, of course.
Taking a historic tour in the building is free and can be done without prior reservation, just make sure to check the scheduled tour times on the web before you go. The interior spreads over fifth floors and houses numerous beautiful murals, statues and other art pieces. If you’re lucky, you might be able to catch some of the temporary exhibits or special events held in this magnificent venue.
2. Discover the Old Prairie Town at Ward-Meade Historic Site
Old Prairie Town at Ward-Meade Historic Site is an open-air museum, park and historic site spreading over the 5.5-acre estate on the 124 SW Fillmore Street. Dating back to 1870, the Ward-Meade house is considered to be the very first mansion built in Topeka. It served as a homestead to Anthony A. Ward and his family – some of the first settlers in the area.
As a regular visitor, you will be able to discover various parts of this historical site: There’s a botanical garden, the neatly restored mansion itself, an old schoolhouse and church, plus some other interesting structures. There are some seasonal events going on too: End of June sees the Wheatstock music festival here, and a popular food + crafts event known as Apple Festival is held every October.
3. Head to the Great Overland Station for a Railroad-Themed Fun
Great Overland Station is a gem for anyone interested in the colorful history of transportation. Trains, tracks, stations, everything a real railroad fan can relate to. But rest assured this is no ‘Nerds Only’ activity – this exciting and interactive site has something for everyone.
The Great Overland Station, built-in 1925-27, is of a nationwide historical significance. Thanks to its beautiful architecture, in 2002 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
It’s also documenting many important stories of the wider area: The birth of the Santa Fe Railway; the race to build the first transcontinental railroad; the role of railroads in development of the American West; the heritage of African-Americans, Hispanics and European immigrants who worked on the railroads; the troop trains in both World Wars and many more.
4. Enjoy water activities on Lake Shawnee
Repeatedly cited by the tourism industry as a top destination in the whole state, Lake Shawnee sees more than 1 million visitors a year. Some of them come for the multiple festivals, tournaments and other seasonal events, others enjoy serenity of this man-made body of water while boating, fishing or camping on its shores.
If you come to Topeka during the warm season and want to enjoy some leisure activities by the water, there’s no better place to do it. Shawnee lake offers kayaking, paddle boarding, canoeing, and there are even some water tricycles for rent. But, more importantly, there are also several lovely swimming spots including a “baby pool” and a newly renovated beach with many exciting features.
5. Honor local heroes in Museum of the Kansas National Guard
Museum of the Kansas National Guard is dedicated to preserving the heritage and honoring the memories of all the brave volunteers, who have served Kansas in national guards’ uniforms over the past two centuries.
From the early days when Kansas was still a territory, through the Civil War, and all the way to the modern War on Terrorism, this educative site explains a history of citizen-guardsmen of this state. Aside from many historical pictures and documents, there are also numerous military artifacts on display.
There’s also an extensive research library, where you can study the subject in your own pace. But the best way to learn about it is to attend some of the events organized on the grounds of the museum throughout the year, including some battle reenactments and guards reunions.
6. Kick off a kart race in the Topeca Sports Center
Topeka Sports Center is a family-oriented outdoor venue featuring numerous fun-packed activities, including two mini-golf courses, game arcade, baseball and softball playground, a play volcano and igloo, and, most importantly, great Go-Karts for both adults and kids.
If you want to enjoy a thrilling afternoon with your loved ones, you can’t go wrong with this place. Large high-speed karts for experienced racers, safe mini-karts for the smallest drivers, and two-passenger karts for teams are available, so that all generations of your family can race together. Once you get hungry, you can take advantage of local food facilities.
7. Tour Cedar Crest, the official residence of Kansas governors
Cedar Crest is a gorgeous French-Norman style house built in 1928, which currently serves as an official residence of Kansas governors. But originally, this building was owned and decorated by family of a famous publisher, Frank Pitts MacLennan. MacLennan’s passion for printing and also his Scottish heritage are still present in many intriguing details of the building’s interior. In 1982, Cedar Crest was enlisted in the National Register of Historic Places.
Quite paradoxically, although being the smallest governor residence in the whole country, it also stands on the largest estate (244-acre). As a visitor, you’ll be able to explore both interior and exterior of this place, just keep in mind that official tours currently run only on Mondays.
8. Unwind while admiring Kansas flora at Ted Ensley Gardens
When the moment is right, all of us like to slow down and spend our time just relaxing and contemplating under the sun in the magical environment of artistically maintained gardens. Topeka’s Ted Ensley Gardens is definitely one of the most beautiful flower parks in the state.
The 37-acre garden spreads on the west shore of scenic Lake Shawnee, which enhances the whole experience with panoramic views of the lake and its surroundings. Nicely meandering paths will lead you from one facility to another: There’s an exotic Pagoda, water and rock parks, arboretum, and almost 2,000 varieties of trees, perennials, annuals, shrubs, and roses to admire.
Each April, an event called Tulip Time takes place in the gardens, encouraging volunteers to help with planting some 100,000 tulips in the park.
10. Explore the past in the Kansas Museum of History
Kansas Museum of a History is an award-winning institution that tells the story of the Kansas people throughout the times. Among the countless artifacts on display, there’s the Santa Fe’s oldest surviving locomotive from 1880, an airplane in which A. K. Longren made the first successful flight in Kansas in 1911, and many many more.
One of the most important and interesting part is the section dedicated to the history of Native Americans in this area. It also includes a full-sized tipi in the Southern Cheyenne style. Bring along your kids and let them learn about the history in a hands-on area full of interactive activities. Don’t forget to look out for some exciting temporary exhibits too.
10. Wrap your head around the obscure Truckhenge
Ever been to English Stonehenge? Well, here’s its modernist American version. Truckhenge is a grassroots art exhibit located in the area of Lessman’s Farm & Catfish Pond, halfway between Topeka and Tecumseh.
Mister Ron Lessman began creating his obscure Truckhenge in 2000, using numerous old trucks and a bus he collected over many years. Each vehicle on display is anchored into the ground with 23 tons of concrete, and is decorated with quotes by the Truckhende’s founder himself.
It’s a bit creepy and totally cool. The place also boasts a stage for occasional music gigs and other events.
11. Let your little ones off the leash in the Children’s Discovery Center
If you’re traveling to Topeka, Kansas with kids, Children’s Discovery Center is a must. This interactive playground-slash-museum is full of educational and fun activities for kids of all ages. And adults won’t get bored too!
The center spreads over 15,000 square feet indoors and 4.5-acre outdoor area. It hosts various hands-on exhibitions focusing on science, arts, careers, building and other interesting topics. There’s also a designated playground for the smallest ones. You’ll find the center on 4400 SW 10th Avenue, and it’s open on some holidays too.
12. Learn about the history of aviation in the Combat Air Museum
If you ‘re interested in military and aviation, Combat Air Museum located directly on the Topeka airport is a place you shouldn’t miss. The museum displays 36 aircraft, most of them serving military purposes and built in the U.S.The oldest exhibited pieces represent military aviation from World War I., while some of the newest ones are from the category of unmanned military drones. Several dozens of engines are on display too.
13. Admire local arts in the Mulvane Arts Museum
Kansas may be renowned as a state of cowboys, railwaymen and miners, but many great artists were born here too throughout the history. If you never say no to a visit to an interesting art collection, check out the Topeka’s Mulvane Arts Museum on the compounds of Washburn University.
This dynamic institution features exhibits by local artists, an interactive art lab, and various classes for students and public alike. If you’re visiting Topeka with kids, you’ll be surely pleased to learn that children of all ages are welcome and encouraged to participate in artistic experiments and creative games.
Being curated and maintained mostly by local students, Mulvane Arts Museum is totally a hip, cool and fun experience for all.
14. Take a selfie in front of the Topeka’s Great Wall
If you’re a fan of street art, don’t miss an opportunity to admire Topeka’s “Great Wall” murals on the 1969 SW Western. This community-designated attraction was established in 2007.
Artworks depicting the rich history of local people are being painted each spring and summer, and everyone is welcome to participate in the process. The goal is to make Topeka’s mural the greatest and largest in the whole of Kansas.
15. Evel Knievel Museum
Robert Craig Knievel (1938 – 2007), better known as Evel Knievel, was a famous American stunt performer who attempted more than 75 incredibly dangerous ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps during his prolific career. This exciting museum documents the huge success and fame Evel Knievel achieved during 1960’s and 1970’s, but also many drastic injuries and sacrifices that came along.
Prepare to meet several of Knievel’s original motorcycles, including his famous red, white, and blue rocket cycle. The museum is a part of The Harley Davidson building, which provides some related exhibitions too.
16. Relax among the roses in the Gage Park
Gage Park is a beautiful city park of 210 acres established in 1899. It’s one of the largest parks in Topeka, and probably one of the most exciting too, thanks to the vast amount of attractions and features it hosts.
There’s a historic mini-train and a lovely vintage carousel, a loop trail for fitness jogging or nordic walking, an aquatic park and a theater – and there’s also a historic Reinisch Rose Garden for those who can appreciate the gracious beauty of these magnificent plants.
Need to unwind and relax? Strolling in lovely company of some 5,500 rose bushes can take all the troubles away pretty much effortlessly.
17. Spend a Family Day in Topeka Zoological Park
Once you’ve had enough of flora’s static beauty in Gage park rose garden, head to the nearby Topeka Zoological Park for some dynamic fun with fauna. This zoo might not be the biggest or the most record-breaking institution of its kind in the country, but it boasts a friendly atmosphere and colorful collection of animal inhabitants. It also has one of the first indoor rainforests in the U.S.
Among the 250+ animals living in the Zoo, some of the most exotic species include Sumatran tigers, Giraffes, American alligator, African and Asian elephants, lions and many others. If you’re lucky, you might even catch some of the thematic social events such as the Roar & Purr Wine Fest.
18. Book your seats for the show in Topeka Performing Arts Center
If you’re a fan of performing arts, you’ll be pleased to know that Topeka’s scene is very lively and productive. There’s no better place to explore this than renovated art deco multi-venue Topeka Performing Arts Center, which is hosting most of the music, dance and theater events in the town.
When it comes to locals, the most popular genre is stage musical, so if you plan to see the likes of Buddy or Bye, bye Birdie, make sure to book your tickets well in advance.
19. Learn About the history of segregation at Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site
Brown v. Board of Education (1954) is one of the most important legal cases in the socio-political history of the United States. In short, it’s a story of one Afro-American family who fought for their kid’s right to study in an all-white school in the neighborhood.
The decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court changed segregation stereotypes across the country once and for all. This important historic site will help you understand all of the details and consequences, but it’s also providing a complex insight into this topic, going far beyond this single case. The site can be found on 1515 SE Monroe Street and admission is always free.
20. See Topeka from above on the Skyline Park Trail
Topeka has a lot to offer, except for one thing: There are really no proper mountains to climb on, so if the demanding hikes are your thing, you might feel a bit frustrated by the never-ending plains around you. However, there is still one place you can go to enjoy some nice leg stretch: It’s called Skyline Park, and you will find it right in the middle of the city, on the borders of Southeast and Southwest Topeka.
There are several interconnected trails you can use to explore this hilly greenery. For the best views of the city from above, use the Summit Trails. The elevation will hardly surpass 200 feet, so this lovely little hike can be enjoyed by (almost) anyone.
21. Dare to explore the chilling history of Topeka State Hospital asylum
Fancy real-life horror stories? And can you imagine a more horrific place than an abandoned asylum with a history of abuse and torture? Topeka State Hospital is exactly that place, and although it’s long-closed now, the site still sends chills down the spines of its curious visitors.
The Topeka asylum was opened in 1872 to treat habitual criminals and the mentally ill. From the very start, this institution was known to be quite relaxed about who and why it treats. Many patients reportedly ended here just because someone wanted them out of their way, with no real medical indication.
Stories about torture, rape, neglect, forced sterilization, and even tragic deaths of its poor inhabitants can come alive in your imagination when you stroll on the compounds. Many abandoned buildings and even a cemetery with hundreds of unnamed graves still stand here today.
22. Visit the mysterious grave of Little Carrie
Once you’re in the spooky mood, you can explore another morbid legend of the City of Topeka: The grave of little Carrie Frances Kiene located in the Topeka’s Mount Hope Cemetery.
The five years old girl tragically died back in 1885, and soon after that, her mourning parents erected a statue of a child on her grave to commemorate her young lost life. As years went by, little Carrie wasn’t much more than a faded memory. But that has changed in the 1990’s, when a mysterious person started sneaking into the cemetery at nights to dress her statue on the grave into some seasonal apparel. Three decades later, this moving tradition still goes on. Check it out for yourself!
23. Feast on some of the Kansas’ traditional delights
Kansas state might not have its mark on the culinary map of the world yet, but once you’re there, you’ll find out that people here really know what a delicious meal should look and taste like.
And what’s their culinary niche? Here in Topeka, it’s all about the grilled pork chops and juicy baby back ribs, and there are countless restaurants and pubs that know how to get the best out of these traditional meals. Kansas cuisine is also heavily affected by the culinary traditions of its European ancestors. You can spot some Irish, Norwegian, French or German influence on every corner. Don’t waste the chance to spoil your taste buds with these lovely treats.
24. Visit the Historic John and Mary Jane Ritchie house
When John Ritchie (born 1817) from Ohio first visited the Kansas Territory, Topeka was a free-state community advocating the prohibition of slavery. He settled here with his wife Mary Jane and their two children, completing their two-story home in late 1855.
Both Ritchie and his wife were extremely active and selfless in their service to the community. The couple even turned their home into an underground station for fugitive slaves, while also finding enough energy and resources to build a whole block of brick structures in their rapidly developing town.
If you want to learn more about these great figures who helped to form the Topeka’s community and character, don’t miss an opportunity to tour their nicely maintained house on the 1116 SE Madison Street.
25. Attend the Cider Days Fall Festival
Great meals, lots of shopping opportunities, live music, and gallons of freshly pressed apple cider directly from the most famous local makers. If you’re blessed to visit Topeka in the fall, you must attend the famous Cider Days Fall Festival at all costs.
The event has a 39-years long tradition and attracts thousands of visitors from all over the country. There’s even an apple-pie eating contest for those who can’t get enough of this traditional yummy treat.
FAQ About Topeka, Kansas
Although Topeka has two airports (Topeka regional and Philip Billard Municipal), its operation is limited. Most of the travelers who prefer flying land in the nearby Kansas City and use shuttle service for the rest of the trip. A train connection is provided by Amtrak with daily service on the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief line. Greyhound Bus Lines connect Topeka with other cities by road. Of course, traveling by car is the easiest way to reach the town. Topeka is connected to Highway 24, I-70, Highway 75, I-335, and I-70.
The city of Topeka offers a wide range of accommodation options for every budget and taste. For the most luxurious and boutique hotels, head to the Downtown. Numerous high-quality accommodations are also located in the western part of the city, which provides great access to many of the town’s attractions.
Topeka has a typical continental climate with clearly distinct seasons. The summers are hot and wet and the winters are cold, dry, and relatively windy. Temperature over the year typically ranges from 22°F to 90°F.
In comparison with the national averages, Topeka is relatively cheap in most things regarding groceries, housing and transportation. As a tourist, you will be pleased to discover that many of Topeka’s attractions can be visited for free, others have only a small admission fee with various discounts for kids, seniors or groups.
While you’re here…
Is your visit to Topeka just one part of a larger itinerary? Check out our useful tips on Top Things to Do in Iowa City, or our inspirational Guide to Yuma, Arizona. For some practical information on the best travel gear, continue by reading our A to Z Guide to finding the Best Luggage for your trip.