Last week, I ventured to the capital of Kansas, Topeka. A beautiful area with a long, varied history, Topeka was founded in 1852 by a group of anti-slavery activists and incorporated on February 14, 1857. Many of the sites in the area are related to the Oregon Trail that passed through the town as well as social activism.
We went on a Wednesday and began our tour around 10 a.m. This tour is doable in five hours, depending on how long you spend at each location. We spent longer at the Museum of History than at some of the other sites (it was very warm).
Heading west from the Kansas City area, I mapped out several of the best destinations in Topeka from east to west and then circled back. Depending upon the direction you are coming from, your itinerary may vary.
It was in Topeka on May 17, 1954, that the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” This decision paved the way for integration in the public-school systems. Monroe Elementary School was one of the four segregated schools in Topeka and today serves as a symbol of the importance of equal educational opportunities. You can visit the school from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. year-round except for holidays. One word of note: the parking is in a field in front of the school, and you do have to walk to the front of the school (wear comfortable shoes). Accessible parking is available in back.
The Kansas State Capitol Building is in downtown Topeka at 10th and Jackson streets. Self-guided tours are available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can visit the chambers of the House of Representatives and Senate, the governor’s office, the Kansas Supreme Courtroom, and the Kansas State Library. We found that the easiest way to enter was to park on the street and walk down the front steps to the visitor’s center. You can also park in the free visitor’s parking in the underground garage on the north side of the building. We parked on the street in metered parking near the steps to the visitor’s center, but either way will work. I’ve been to the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., and it has a very similar feel to that building. The tour is free, and the architecture alone is worth a trip.
Built in 1925, Great Overland Station is a former Union Pacific Railroad Passenger Depot. Today, the renovated station houses a museum that showcases where passengers used to wait for trains in the area. The details on the murals, the clocks, and in the building itself make the trip worthwhile. Directly across the parking lot from the station is BNSF Memorial Plaza and the All Veterans Memorial. The statute is a very sharp, modern design that I honestly wouldn’t mind a smaller version of it on my mantle.
Old Prairie Town at Ward-Meade Historic Site is an outdoor park and living history museum that sits on 5.5 acres. The Anthony Ward family settled on the site in the 1850s. A restored 1874 log cabin and the Ward-Meade Mansion are on the site. The site also has a 2 and a half acre botanical gardens, and a town square called Prairie Crossings Town Square.
Go back to nature after visiting the more industrial downtown by stopping to visit Gage Park in Topeka. The 160-acre park, established in 1899, has an abundance of trees and grassy areas for picnics and just relaxing. The Topeka Zoo, Kansas Children’s Discovery Center, an outdoor theater, miniature train, and rose garden are also in the park for further exploration. Build in more time if you wish to visit any of these exhibits, but we were there mainly to see the landscape.
Bring your walking shoes (and maybe your compass) for a tour of the Kansas Museum of History. The museum has about 30,000 square feet of exhibits and a beautiful walking trail where you can see many of Kansas’s natural flora and fauna. My recommendation is to get the map of the displays before walking through the museum as the timeline can be confusing at times; one moment you may be learning about Osage history and the next you may be standing next to Amelia Earhart followed by a trip back to the 1850s with Bleeding Kansas. Admission to the nature trail is free, but the museum exhibit is $10, so plan to spend more time there.
On the west side of Lake Shawnee is the 37.5-acre Ted Ensley Gardens. The gardens have a gazebo, pergola, and pagoda with a meditation garden along with multiple varieties of perennials and annual flowers, roses, trees, and shrubs. It’s a great place to break away from a long walk through historical exhibits and have a picnic. The panoramic view of the lake is also spectacular as is the nearby Dick & Dotty Hanger Nature Preserver. The best entrance is located just north of 37th street and West Edge Road.
Built in 1939, Lake Shawnee is just off the edge of town and is a beautiful place to walk, ride a bike, boat, or take a brief hike. A 1,100-acre park surrounds the lake and features an arboretum and gardens. We stopped there to walk down to the side of the lake and relax as it neared 4 p.m. One word of caution if you use Siri; it kept taking us to the yacht club and golf course; ignore it. Follow the SE West Edge Rd around to Leisure Lane, and you will find an entrance where you can stop and park. I need that sign on my car that lights up and says, “It’s not me, it’s Siri” for when I suddenly veer left.
After Lake Shawnee, we wound up our down and traveled back to Kansas City. This tour took us through the good parts and the bad parts (which weren’t really that bad) of Topeka.
You can explore a lot more of the city by ignoring your smartphone and taking a detour from the Museum of History to the Gardens. From the Museum, taking 470 down to the Ted Ensley gardens is the fastest route, but you can also get on 10th Avenue and drive over to Washburn Ave/SW Burlingame Rd. Take the road South to where it hits up with 470, and you can see more of the “every day” Topeka.
The best way to see any city is by exploring all of it. Lake Shawnee ensured that the last impression was the best impression!
Need more information? Visit TripAdvisor’s Topeka Page
How to get there (Map)