Sitting on the southeast side of the Kansas City metro area, Olathe is the seat of Johnson County and has the fourth highest population in the state.
Olathe is much more than a suburb, with a first-class arts scene, captivating attractions and sprawling parks that have lakes with marinas and beaches.
The city has a special place in history, beginning with a stagecoach stop on the Santa Fe Trail, now preserved as a historic farmhouse with regular living history demonstrations.
Railroads brought an end to the stagecoach days, but since the 1980s Olathe gained new status as a fast-growing city with a high quality of life.
1. Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop & Farm Historic Site
If ever there were a house with some stories to tell, it’s the J. B. Mahaffie House. Built in 1857, this was an important stop along the Westport Route of the Santa Fe, Oregon and California Trails, serving numerous long-distance travelers from 1858 onwards.
Coaches on the Barlow and Sanders Stage Line used the farm Mahaffie Farm as an official stop from 1864 to 1870, and hungry travelers would be fed at the kitchen and dining hall built in the farmhouse’s basement.
The farmstead was purchased by Olathe in 1979, and preserves three 19th-century buildings and several later outbuildings including a massive heritage livestock barn.
Check the calendar for the special Living History days when the farm bursts into life with farming activities, craft demonstrations, stagecoach rides and more.
2. Kansas City Automotive Museum
The Kansas City metro area has a rich automobile heritage, which makes it all the more curious that it has only recently gotten an automotive museum.
In 12,000 square feet, this attraction has a fine collection of cars, but also goes into depth on different aspects of local automobile history.
So there’s an exhibit on Kansas City-born Masten Gregory (1932-1985), who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1965, as well as Greenlease Cadillac and the Ford Winchester Plant.
There’s also a fantastic drive-in area, dedicated to a different vehicle category each month. This might be anything from military vehicles to Ferraris, Corvettes and Mustangs.
3. Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead
In Olathe you’re a short hop from one of the top family days out in the Kansas City area, recreating a Kansas family farm at the start of the 20th century.
A seasonal attraction, the Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead is a rural idyll, with tons of activities for children and parents.
You’ve got a petting zoo with friendly goats, pony rides, horse-drawn wagon rides, playgrounds, a full-scale one-room schoolhouse, a fishing pond, show gardens and a display for the Kanza Native Americans.
There are also small shops representing the kind of commerce you’d have found in a rural settlement in Kansas, including an ice cream parlor, bank, general store, blacksmith and barber shop.
For the past decade, the farmstead has opened during the holiday season with a beautiful Christmas light display.
4. Olathe Farmers’ Market
Almost everything on sale at Olathe’s excellent farmers’ market is sourced within 250 miles of the Kansas City area.
The market takes place on Saturday mornings, May through October, and on Wednesday mornings, May through September. There are two locations to choose from: Stagecoach Park and Black Bob Park.
On an average week, each location will be packed with vendors for fresh produce, plants, farm-raised meats, flowers, baked goods, kettle corn, honey, preserves, clothing, pet treats, organic cosmetics and a variety of crafts.
5. Public Art in Olathe
Over the last decade or so, Olathe has committed to enhancing its public spaces with eye-opening works of contemporary sculpture.
On one hand you’ve got the Permanent Sculpture Exhibit, with 23 sculptures throughout Olathe, three of which can be found by the Olathe Community Center.
But there’s also the juried Rotating Downtown Outdoor Sculpture Exhibit, with each work on display for up to two years.
These works have been loaned directly from the artists via a stipend. You can access an interactive and up-to-date map of all of Olathe’s public sculptures on the city’s website.
6. Lake Olathe
Sitting within a 258-acre park, Lake Olathe is on Olathe’s western edge and a prime spot for outdoor recreation and entertainment in the summer.
There’s a marina here where you can rent kayaks, canoes, paddle boards and pedal boats, as well as a swim beach equipped with a floating obstacle course, outdoor showers and locker rooms.
Among the many other amenities in the park there’s a disc golf course, spray ground, nature playground, trails, three large shelters and an amphitheater with a capacity for 1,500. Try to be here late in the day, when you can watch the sun go down over the water.
7. Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art
In 2007 Johnson County Community College unveiled the largest contemporary art museum in the four-state region.
This is all in line with a campus geared towards the arts, with sculpture, painting, ceramic art and photography integrated throughout the college grounds.
On two levels, the sleek museum building was designed by South Korean architect Kyu Sung Woo, and houses ten galleries on two levels.
Here you can check out important traveling exhibits and selections from the museum’s rich collection of contemporary art, anchored in the Kansas City area and American Indian Art.
8. Ernie Miller Park & Nature Center
This park gives you a snapshot of the area’s natural habitats, preserving 116 acres of bottomland forest, upland meadows, tallgrass prairie and riparian environments on the banks of a pretty stream.
On the trails at Ernie Miller Park you can inform yourself about the land’s natural species as well as its human history. There are three miles of trails in total, as well as picnic shelters and an amphitheater for 80 people.
Make sure to head inside the Nature Center, which has interpretive displays and live animal exhibits such as a stream aquarium.
On the center’s grounds is a delightful bird-feeder court with butterfly and hummingbird gardens.
9. Heritage Park
Dedicated in 1981, this park is a massive outdoor escape close to the Johnson County Executive Airport.
Heritage Park covers more than 1,200 acres and has no fewer than ten shelters for parties and family reunions.
There’s also a 40-acre lake with a marina, a 30-acre off-leash dog area and a comprehensive array of sports facilities.
These include the 18-hole Heritage Park Golf Course, an 18-hole disc golf course, baseball/softball fields and a soccer field.
Look out for herons and turtles around the lake in the warmer months, while close to the marina is an ADA-compliant playground.
10. Ensor Park & Museum
This seasonal museum in the south of Olathe is a National Historic Site where you can find out about the fascinating life of the craftsman, industrial arts teacher and amateur radio operator Marshall Ensor (1899-1970).
He was born on this farm to Jacob and Ida Ensor, and the museum preserves the 1890 two-story farmhouse, adjacent peg barn and the 90-foot radio tower that Marshall built.
On an hour-long, docent-led tour you’ll get an intimate glimpse of the Ensors’ lives, perusing home furnishings, historic teaching materials, farm equipment, radio transmitters, needlework and tons more.
11. Chestnut Fine Arts Center
If you’d like to take the pulse of the local arts scene, you find out what’s going on at the Chestnut Fine Arts Center.
Set in a converted residence, this performing arts center has been renovated several times since it opened in 1998, adding a technical booth, more seating, a lobby area and dressing rooms.
Now, the Chestnut hosts a season of six plays or musicals each year, complemented by talent shows, children’s workshops, concerts and Christmas performances by Olathe’s Dickens Carolers.
12. Kill Creek Park
Out in open country west of Olathe is a county park on land donated by the couple, Russell and Helen Means in the 1980s.
Kill Creek Park covers almost 900 acres, some of which is made up of a lake with a swimming beach and marina.
The lake is stocked with rainbow trout and is ringed by a multi-use trail, part of a 12-mile system extending throughout the park.
In the summer you can rent canoes, kayaks, paddle boards and pedal boats at the marina, while the beach is open Thursday to Sunday throughout the school summer break.
A new arrival on the trail system is the Russell and Helen Means Observation Tower, 58 ft. tall and opened near the entrance in 2020.
13. Coffee Creek Trail
At Heritage Park, by shelters 9 and 10, you can set off on a short trip into nature along the banks of Coffee Creek.
Open to cyclists and pedestrians, Coffee Creek Trail makes its way across open fields and through shaded riparian woodlands of oak, hickory and sycamore.
The first phase, 3.4 miles long, opened in 2017, and when we made this list there were plans to extend the trail a further 1.5 miles to the junction of Coffee Creek and the Blue River.
14. Stone Pillar Vineyard & Winery
On an historic family owned farm, Stone Pillar planted its first vines in 2007, adding more varieties and acres down the years.
At the time of writing the vineyard produced Cayuga, Melody, Vignoles, Riesling, Steuben, Chambourcin, Crimson Cabernet, Catawba and Zinthiana, and sourced additional varieties from local growers.
These give rise to a range of varietal and blended wines, from Chardonnay to Merlot to Pink Catawba rosé.
The winery is in charming grounds, with views of the vineyards, and a selection of wines, hard ciders and slushies that can be enjoyed inside, on the patio or to go. Look out for live music in the summer, as well as food trucks and scheduled events like yoga classes and bingo.
15. Olathe Live!
Music fans are spoiled in Olathe thanks to a series of free concerts at Stagecoach Park. Olathe Live! Has been going for more than 20 years now, and brings performances from local, regional and national artists.
A few big names from recent years are Ruthie Foster, Laith Al-Saadi and Sam Bush.
You can catch performances on Fridays throughout June and July, with a crowd-pleasing variety of tribute acts and established artists, for every genre from blues to soul to classic pop.
In winter you can also catch occasional free shows, inside at the Olathe Community Center.