Nicknamed the Little Apple, Manhattan is home to Kansas State University, which dates back to 1863 and was founded by the same free-staters who founded the city.
The university and city are intrinsically connected, and nowhere sums this up better than Aggieville, a fun-loving district that took shape at the turn of the 20th century.
Manhattan is also the largest town in the Flint Hills, the last great stand of tallgrass prairie in North America, taking up a vast area from north-south of eastern Kansas down to northern Oklahoma.
The hills’ rocky soil made cultivation impossible, giving the region a history and character distinct from neighboring plains.
1. Flint Hills Discovery Center
This modern heritage and science center opened in Manhattan in 2012, and tells you all you could want to know about the Flint Hills ecoregion.
The interactive, multimedia permanent exhibits on the first floor explore the unique ecology and character of this unusual part of the world.
You’ll see the deep, living roots of the tallgrass prairie species, and discover ranchers’ close relationship with the land, using controlled burns to renew the grasses for grazing.
“Where the Air is so Pure” is a bittersweet account of European immigration in the 19th century, and Native American displacement.
On the second level is the hands-on Prairie Playscape for wee ones, as well as the Tallgrass Gallery for exciting temporary shows.
On the edge of the KSU campus, this adorable commercial district cropped up at the turn of the century as a place for students to buy books and supplies.
Even the name, Aggieville, has a vintage feel, as it refers to the university’s previous mascot, in the days when it was an agricultural college.
Squeezed into six blocks by six are more than 100 local businesses, and to make things even more accommodating the district has free public Wi-Fi.
There are more places to eat and drink than you could possibly squeeze into five trips, let alone one, and the district always has some kind of event going on.
The big one is the Little Apple New Year’s Eve” when the streets are filled with revelers to see the illuminated apple dropping from the marquee of Rally House (previously Varney’s Bookstore).
3. Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art
Right by Aggieville in the southeastern nook of the KSU campus is the museum for the university’s sizable art collection.
The Beach Museum of Art first opened in 1996 and added a new wing a decade later. In the wide-ranging collection is a wealth of paintings, prints, sculpture, photography, drawings, decorative arts, ceramics and historical artifacts, mostly related to Kansas in some way.
At the time of writing, there were sensational photography exhibitions with the work of Gordon Parks and the local photographer Doug Barrett.
The museum is engaged in the Manhattan community, with classes, workshops, tours, lectures and more. On the grounds you can also visit the Hummel Family Meadow, a native plant garden used for STEAM programs.
4. Bill Snyder Family Stadium
The Kansas State Wildcats football team plays their home games at this 50,000-seater stadium that hosted its inaugural season in 1968.
The Wildcats compete in the Big 12 Conference and enjoyed their most successful period under the man whose name now adorns the stadium.
From the 1990s through the 2010s, Bill Snyder led the team to an undefeated regular season in 1998, and one of the longest AP Poll streaks in college football history.
The Sunflower Showdown against the University of Kansas is always a raucous occasion. And for many KSU is the best tailgating experience out of the Big 12, with an almost fevered atmosphere around Aggieville on and just before game days.
5. Sunset Zoo
Manhattan has had a zoo since the early 1930s and this remains a year-round attraction, with some 100,000 visitors a year.
At the most recent count there are 330+ animals from more than 100 species at Sunset Zoo, kept in large and humane habitats, and with peacocks roaming free throughout the park.
Among the zoo’s various zones there’s the African Trail, with chimpanzees and cheetahs, Australian Walkabout, home to wallabies and emus, South American Trail for peccaries, anteaters and flamingos.
To get acquainted with local wildlife, Kansas Plains has bobcats, prairie dogs and more, while the Asian Trail has sloth bears and tigers. Woven into the parkland are five exquisite garden spaces, attracting hummingbirds and butterflies.
6. Riley County Historical Museum
Founded in 1914, the Riley County Historical Society manages five important historical sites, as well as an excellent museum just west of the Kansas State University campus. The museum has enthralling and deeply researched exhibits that are updated every so often.
When we compiled this list, the main exhibits covered 19th-century settlement and the Kansa Indians, and a display with interesting picks from the society’s collection, including seats from the old Wareham Opera House and a penny farthing bicycle belonging to Guy Varney, whose bookstore in Aggieville remained in business for 126 years up to 2016.
The museum sits next door to Goodnow House (1861), the preserved home of abolitionist and co-founder of Manhattan and KSU, Isaac Goodnow (1814-1894).
7. Linear Trail
On the south and east sides of Manhattan you can walk, cycle and jog along the banks of the Kansas and Big Blue Rivers for more than nine miles.
Also following a portion of Wildcat Creek, the Linear Trail is composed of paved and crushed limestone sections, and you may be surprised just how much wildlife you can see so close to downtown Manhattan. Geese in particular are almost ever-present.
It’s easy to get started, as there are eight different trailheads to choose from. The most scenic part has to be the outlook at the confluence of the two main rivers.
8. Tuttle Creek State Park
Directly north of Manhattan sits Tuttle Creek Lake, which is the second-largest reservoir in the state at 12,500 acres and with 100 miles of shoreline. Tuttle Creek State Park is on more than 1,200 acres at four different units around the lakeshore.
The closest to Manhattan is River Pond, by the dam. Here you can go fishing, rent canoes and kayaks and hike or mountain bike along some of the 20+ miles of trails.
There’s also an 18-hole disc golf course, an archery range and a campground with 350+ campsites (159 water/electric, 8 electric/water/sewer, 200 primitive).
9. Konza Prairie
Kansas State University manages this giant sweep of the Flint Hills just outside of Manhattan. Over 13 square miles, Konza Prairie is a former cattle ranch, now a preserve for the research of native tallgrass prairie.
The landscape is gently rolling hills, with limestone outcrops visible throughout. There’s plentiful wildlife, and a herd of some 200 bison that graze a portion of the prairie.
Because of the landscape’s importance, public access is restricted, but you can visit via three loops, roughly 2.6, 4.5, and 6 miles in length. There’s also a lookout point with an idyllic view just off the K-177.
10. Manhattan Town Center
Much of downtown Manhattan’s commerce can be found at this mall that opened in 1987. Something to love about Manhattan Town Center is that it connects with Poyntz Avenue, so unlike most malls it feels integrated with downtown.
Some of the famous retailers here are JCPenney, Dillard’s, H&M, Foot Locker, Kay Jewelers and Victoria’s Secret, while there’s an AMC Dine-In IMAX movie theater with 13 screens.
The east end of Poyntz Avenue is lined with restaurants, bars, cafes and interesting local stores, for homewares, antiques, jewelry, games, shoes, fabrics and more.
11. Kansas State University Gardens
The 19 acres of botanical gardens on the KSU campus are simultaneously an educational resource, living laboratory and a delightful public attraction, open during daylight hours, March through November.
The gardens are a long-term work in progress, with the aim of becoming a world-class botanical facility. For now, they’re a treat to explore in spring and summer, with impressive collections of roses, irises, peonies and daylilies.
You can also discover three specialty gardens: An Adaptive/Native garden with Kansas species, the cute Cottage Garden and the Butterfly Garden with hundreds of native butterflies on calm summer days.
12. Kansas State University Insect Zoo
For something completely out of the ordinary there’s an “insect zoo” at the Kansas State University Gardens.
Awaiting you in an historic Dairy Barn are thousands of live, preserved and fossil insects. You can pore over volumes of captivating details about these creatures’ lifecycles, diets and role in their ecosystems.
You can see straight into a beehive and watch leafcutter ants going about their work. If you have a strong disposition there’s also a replica kitchen teeming with cockroaches.
For extra context you can sign up for a guided tour from an expert entomologist. The gift shop is also something special, with baby pet tarantulas for sale.
13. Midwest Dream Car Collection
In 2019 the local couple, Ward and Brenda Morgan put their glittering automobile collection on permanent display.
This is the Midwest Dream Car Collection, counting almost 70 vehicles from 1907 to the present day. In terms of prestige, few collections in the region come close, and there’s a lot of diversity too, with classic cars, muscle cars, exotic cars and custom cars.
As you browse these vehicles, you can make use of the self-serve wine and beer wall, which is the first of its kind in the state. Also here is a wonderful kids’ room, with games, puzzles, LEGO and much more to keep younger visitors engaged.
14. CiCo Park
This park in the west of Manhattan was established by three different bodies—the city, the county and a local school district—all of which are responsible for a different part of the park.
In terms of facilities, you’ve got the county fairgrounds, a rodeo arena, fairgrounds and the Pottorf Hall meeting facility. If you’re here for everyday recreation, there are ballfields, tennis courts, a swimming pool, trails, a skate park and playgrounds for youngsters.
CiCo Park is the setting for the Riley County Fair in late July, coinciding with the Kaw Valley Rodeo.
15. Wildwood Adventure Park
Another way to experience the full beauty of the Flint Hills is on a zipline high above the forest canopy.
Wildwood Adventure Park, just outside of Manhattan, has no fewer than seven ziplines on a course that will take around two hours to complete, with hikes in between.
On the way you’ll also pick up enlightening details about the Flint Hills and their woods, grasslands, wildlife and rich geology.
The park’s base camp has picnic tables, games and a campfire, and you’re free to bring everything you need for s’mores, hot dogs and the like.