In east-central Kansas, this college town is set on upland prairie by the Flint Hills, a long range running through much of the state.
For some 160 years, the city has been home to Emporia State University, the third-oldest public university in Kansas, and long associated with the teaching profession.
One person who raised Emporia’s profile in the early 20th century was the journalist William Allen White, the Sage of Emporia, who became a voice for Middle America during his 30 years in the city.
White played host to five different presidents at Red Rocks, his home, which is now preserved as a museum. He was also the benefactor of Peter Pan Park, a delightful public park with a moving backstory.
1. Downtown Emporia Historic District
Where Commercial Street crosses 6th Avenue, downtown Emporia is a joy to experience on foot, with plenty of buildings dating back to the 1860s, just a few years after the city was founded.
On roughly 18 blocks, downtown Emporia is a U.S. Historic District with some 115 contributing buildings.
And while the district is steeped with history it’s also in great health, packed full of interesting shops, restaurants for a whole range of cuisines, along with cafes, an excellent history museum and cultural venues like the stately Granada Theatre.
Downtown is the natural venue for a slew of annual events, from parades and block parties to Unbound Gravel, an epic bike race across the Flint Hills in spring, starting and ending in Emporia.
2. Emporia State University
At the north end of Commercial Street you’ll come to the campus for Emporia State University, which was founded in 1863.
Since that time, this institution has been associated with teacher training, and the Teachers College here is one of just four post-secondary institutions in the country rated as an Exemplary Model Teacher Education program.
This makes it a fitting place for the National Teachers Hall of Fame, which we’ll talk about below.
Give yourself enough time for a leisurely walk around the green campus, furnished with public art, fountains, a pond and a handful of small but captivating museums.
The acclaimed theatre department produces shows all year, and other things to keep in mind are the Eppink & Gilson Art Galleries, the Peterson Planetarium, and the museums in the Science Hall, which we’ll cover in more detail later.
3. William Allen White House State Historic Site
Red Rocks, the home of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Progressive journalist, William Allen White (1868-1944) is preserved just a few blocks east of Commercial Street.
In the care of the Kansas Historical Society, Red Rocks is a National Historic Landmark, built in 1887 in the Tudor Revival style.
After moving here in 1915, William and his wife Sallie received five different presidents at this residence, including, mostly notably, Theodore Roosevelt.
In his first years at Red Rocks, White approached Frank Lloyd Wright to design a renovation, and although a different architect completed the project, the final design kept many of Wright’s plans.
On a tour you’ll learn all about the last three decades of White’s life in the city, when he was known as the Sage of Emporia. You’ll see the bed in which Theodore Roosevelt slept, as well as photos with T. R. Albert Einstein and Herbert Hoover.
4. The Flint Hills
Emporia is on the east flank of a long hill range, extending north to south through east-central Kansas. The inspiring Flint Hills were formed by the deposits from a giant inland sea that covered Kansas more than 250 million years ago.
These hardened flint shelves remained after the softer shales were eroded, and are renowned for the amazing diversity of their plant life, with more than 40 grass species and hundreds of different wildflowers.
The rugged land has made plowing difficult, so the tallgrass prairie looks much as it did many centuries ago when the Kaw, Osage and other Native American tribes lived here.
In Emporia you’re right on the edge of the very heart of the Flint Hills and have plenty of ways to discover the range. For long-distance adventure you’ve got an exciting itinerary along the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway and the 117-mile Flint Hills National Trail.
5. David Traylor Zoo
Soden’s Grove Park is the setting for one of the smallest AZA-accredited zoos in the United States.
Still, there are more than 400 animals here, from around 80 species, all in landscaped parkland noted for its wonderful botanical displays. Some of the residents include bison, prairie dogs, Cinereous vultures, red foxes, mule deer, elk, cougars and cotton-top tamarins.
The zoo is free to enter, but accepts donations, and is constantly adding new exhibits. Try to time your visit for one of the many annual events, like the Zoo Lights in the holidays season or Boo in the Zoo at Halloween.
For families, there’s also a miniature train operating at set times on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays in the summer months.
6. Peter Pan Park
Emporia’s favorite park is in the south of the city, on the north bank of the Cottonwood River, and just upstream from the David Traylor Zoo.
Peter Pan Park came about in the late 1920s: The land was donated by William Allen White after his daughter Mary died in 1927 in a horse riding accident. White called her a “Peter Pan who refused to grow up.”
You can find a memorial bust and a plaque telling Mary’s story on the southeast side of the park’s pond.
Dotted with historic WPA structures from the 1930s, Peter Pan Park is on more than 50 acres and has a fishing pond, two shelters, trails, an 18-hole disc golf course, a splash pad, a playground, beautiful mature trees and lots of picnic tables in the shade.
7. Lyon County History Center
The Lyon County Historical Society was founded in 1937 and has a fantastic museum in a spacious historic building on Commercial Street.
The museum moved here in 2016 from the Carnegie Library building, and has enthralling displays drawing from a collection of more than 150,000 artifacts.
The eight core themes here are Natural History, Native Americans, Immigration, Transportation, Farming, Ranching, Business & Industry and Military/Veterans Day.
So on your visit you’ll find out about local cowboy life, the impact railroads made on settlement and industry, Native American tools and culture and how agriculture has evolved since the pioneer days.
8. Granada Theatre
One sight sure to grab you on Commercial Street downtown is this magnificent Spanish Revival theater. When it opened in 1929, the Granada Theatre had a capacity of 1,400, making it one of the largest movie palaces in the state.
In a familiar story, the building was threatened with demolition in the 1990s, before being acquired by a consortium, renovated and reopened as a multipurpose performing arts venue, seating 823.
If you’re passing by, take a second to appreciate the dainty terra cotta moldings on the facade.
The auditorium is also stunning for the coffered ceiling and the gilded plasterwork trim on the doorways, proscenium arch, balconies and the alcoves set into the walls.
Check the Granada’s website for upcoming shows by major touring recording artists, tribute acts, dance groups, comedians and much more.
9. Johnston Geology Museum
In the ESU Cram Science Hall is a great geology museum, named for its founder, Professor Paul Johnston, who was at ESU for almost 40 years.
Mostly discovered in Kansas, the impressive collection includes petrified tree stumps, a remarkably intact mosasaur skeleton, a pteranodon wing, a mastodon tusk, a giant ground sloth, numerous other fossil specimens, spectacular minerals and a wealth of Native American artifacts; 45 displays in total,
The museum is open during normal hours Monday to Friday, and on Saturday mornings.
10. Schmidt Museum of Natural History
You can stay on-theme with a visit to this museum, mostly featuring zoological specimens, at Science Hall Room 043.
If you’re a keen bird spotter, the Schmidt Museum of Natural History is an important reference for Kansas birdlife, with hundreds of mounts of birds native to the state.
These are accompanied by taxidermied mammals, reptiles and fish, all carefully labeled. This collection was established by Richard H. Schmidt (1909-2000) who had a long career as an amateur taxidermist until he was hired full-time by the university in 1956.
11. C of E Park
To the northwest of downtown, the presbytarian College of Emporia was founded in 1882 and lasted until 1974.
The old campus was eventually broken up for development, but just over six acres were donated to the city to be turned into a park.
So what you get at C of E Park is a real dose of history to go with the verdant lakeside setting. Kenyon Hall (1929), the college’s Tudor Gothic administration building is still here, as is the Anderson Memorial Library (1901), and both can be admired along the C of E Park’s walking trail.
12. Emporia Farmers’ Market
As the largest city for some 60 miles, Emporia has an outstanding farmers’ market, now running for more than 40 years.
This takes place in the parking lot at 7th & Merchant on Saturday mornings (May-Oct) and Wednesday afternoons (June-Sept), and is attended by multiple producers and artisans from the area.
Normally there’s fresh produce, honey, herbs, eggs, quality meat cuts, locally roasted coffee, fresh baked breads, pastries and a lot more. November through April there’s also an indoor market at Waters Hardware (2727 W Hwy 50) on the first and third Saturdays.
13. National Teachers Hall of Fame
On the Emporia State University Campus you’ll find the National Teachers Hall of Fame, honoring exceptional school teachers.
This non-profit organization was founded in 1989 and has named more than 130 inductees to date. You can find out about their remarkable achievements at the hall of fame’s museum in Visser Hall.
A short walk away stands the poignant National Memorial to Fallen Educators, the roots of which go back to the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012.
Designated a national memorial in 2018, this monument has more than 110 names, the earliest from 1763, and you can visit the memorial’s website for a writeup about each one.
Finally, the memorial stands next to the One Room Schoolhouse, originally raised some 50 miles away in Marion County in 1873, and relocated to the campus as a museum in 1969.
14. Jones Aquatic Center
Near the intersection of the Kansas Turnpike and I-35 in the northwest of Emporia is the city’s public water park.
On a large site, the Jones Aquatic Center is loaded with attractions including a 50-meter, eight-lane pool, two waterslides (one tube, one body), a lazy river with a vortex pool, a diving area, a splash playground, sand volleyball court and a concessions/patio area.
The main pool also has a zero-depth entry area on one side, which is ideal for children and less assured swimmers. The season starts on Memorial Day weekend, and unlike many public pools, this center is open every day of the week through mid-August.
15. Emporia Family Fun Center
This spot, just off the Monarch Hwy, is open March through November and has a variety of attractions to keep those long summer days more entertaining for kids.
Previously part of the Putt-Putt chain, the Emporia Family Fun Center has two great miniature golf courses, without any gimmicks like windmills and giant gorillas.
Also here are batting cages, a go-karting track and a small arcade. The center also shares a building with a branch of the Kansas fast food chain, Goodcents, known for its 16” hot and cold subs.