A center for trade at the intersection of the I-70 and I-135 in Central Kansas, the city of Salina is in the middle of one of the largest wheat-growing areas in the world.
Downtown Salina has the dynamism of a big city, with a top-notch history museum, a regional performance venue and award-winning community arts organizations.
The streetscape has also just been renewed, making this a pedestrian-friendly kind of place enriched with a constantly growing display of public art.
There’s never any shortage of things to do in Salina, with a zoo, one of the best public water parks in the country, endless events in the summer and some 30 public parks, including Indian Rock Park which has waterfalls.
1. Stiefel Theatre for the Performing Arts
A striking Art Deco landmark downtown, the Stiefel Theatre opened in 1931 as the Fox Watson Theatre, and eventually closed down in the 90s.
Soon after, a non-profit group raised close to $3 million to restore the building and turn it into a regional, high-tech performing arts venue that opened in 2003.
The building is a masterpiece from the outside for its ornate terracotta details, while the elegant auditorium, able to seat 1,265, is endowed with the latest sound and lighting equipment.
In the glittering roster of past performers are Al Green, B. B. King, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Chris Cornell and Peter Frampton.
2. Smoky Hill Museum
The Saline County Historical Society was founded in 1879 by the town founders, and built up an awesome collection of 30,000+ artifacts relating to the Smoky Hills Region.
This is the basis for the fantastic Smoky Hill Museum, which moved into the former Post Office building downtown in 1986.
This attraction is loved for its interactive, custom-built special exhibits. These are biannual, and dedicated to a different strand of local history, running alongside the permanent galleries that are constantly refreshed so there’s always something new to check out.
The museum is prominent in local life, staging a popular First Thursday lecture series and taking part in events like the Street Fair on the fourth Saturday in September, with live music and historic demonstrators.
3. Downtown Salina
In the last decade Salina’s historic commercial district has come through a series of public and privately funded makeovers.
Most recently, the transformation to the streetscape along Santa Fe Avenue has been staggering, with widened sidewalks, imposing gateways, new lighting and beds with flowers and native grasses.
These projects have coincided with a lot of construction, furnishing Salina with a Hilton hotel, family entertainment center (more later) and the Salina Fieldhouse, a state-of-the-art sports facility.
Amid all this development, the historic center of the city, noted for its terracotta facades, has held onto its unique character.
You can pick up a leaflet for a self-guided tour from the Salina Downtown Inc. HQ and the Chamber of Commerce, both downtown
4. Salina Community Theatre
Salina has a national award-winning community theater company that was founded way back in 1960.
Within a decade the Salina Community Theatre had begun to raise funds for its own purpose-built facility, and this opened its doors in 1973.
This continues to be a non-profit organization, putting on wide-ranging, professional standard productions to enrich the cultural experience of people in Salina and the surrounding region.
Recent seasons have featured shows like the Music Man, Sunday in the Park with George, Beauty and the Beast, Annie, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Mamma Mia.
5. SculptureTour Salina
Salina has a creative way of enticing people to visit the historic downtown area. For more than a decade there has been an annual exhibition of up to 25 works of contemporary sculpture that you can check out on a self-guided tour.
These pieces are all carefully selected and positioned, and as part of the tour you can vote for your favorite.
The sculpture with the most votes will be purchased by the City of Salina, while others in the exhibition are also for sale. To date, over 40 sculptures have been sold.
The season begins with the UnWrap Party in May, when the works are unveiled with live music and entertainment.
6. Indian Rock Park
Arguably the most scenic spot in Salina, Indian Rock is on a dramatic stretch of the Smoky Hill River.
Here the river flows between bluffs rising to 30 feet, and you can scramble up to some spectacular viewpoints along the trails.
There’s a pair of waterfalls on the river, with relatively small drops, although the lower falls have an impressive horseshoe shape.
Indian Rock Park is also imbued with compelling history as the site of the Battle of Indian Rock (1857), which was the last significant confrontation between the Kansa, Delaware and Potawatomi Indian nations.
7. Oakdale Park
Entered via a ceremonious gateway on Oakdale Dr, this park has a history going back to the early 1880s.
This is a very pretty place for a walk or picnic, with pathways next to formal gardens with shrubs, flowerbeds, and with ample cover provided by tall old hardwood trees.
Oakdale Park is the refined backdrop for the Smoky Hill River Festival in early June, and there’s also plenty going on around the Fourth of July.
There’s a performance stage for these events, while other facilities include a fishing pond, ADA playground, tennis courts, five rental shelters and five first come-first served shelters.
8. Kenwood Cove Aquatic Park
After a $15 million investment to replace the 52-year-old city pool, Salina now has one of the largest and best municipal water parks in the country.
This facility is designed to offer something for swimmers of all abilities and ages. An incomplete list of attractions includes a variety of water slides, a wave pool, a lazy river, a lap pool, a leisure pool with zero-depth entry and extensive kiddie pool areas.
On top of all that there are also spray & play fountains, interactive water play features, a water obstacle course, water basketball, all complemented by ample shade and rental cabanas.
9. Rolling Hills Zoo
This acclaimed attraction is just off the I-70 a few minutes west of Salina, and combines a traditional zoo with a wildlife museum.
Among the 100+ species at Rolling Hills Zoo are big cats like Amur tigers, African lions and snow leopards, as well as rhinoceroses, kangaroos, lemurs, tamarins, ostriches, chimpanzees and a wide variety of reptiles, from pythons to quince monitors.
The museum showcases one of the world’s largest displays of full mount animals, with some 500 mounts from 200 different species from six different continents.
These are shown in highly detailed exhibits, populated by animatronic human robots adding extra context.
10. Salina Art Center
Another cornerstone of Salina’s cultural scene is this multidisciplinary art center downtown.
The center’s wonderful, community-oriented programming includes exhibitions by regional and national artists, independent film screenings and a comprehensive array of educational programs from private lessons to open studios.
Among the recurring exhibitions there’s the Salina Biennial (springtime in even years) and the Sunflower Biennial (springtime in odd years).
The center has three different locations: Galleries (242 South Santa Fe), Cinema (150 South Santa Fe) and The Warehouse (149 South 4th).
11. Yesteryear Museum
Out in the countryside north of Salina, this agricultural museum was set up in 1980 to “Acquire, Preserve and Restore” farming machinery and tools specific to the Great Plains region.
Awaiting you at the Yesteryear Museum is an absorbing inventory of steam engines, tractors and other implements, as well as appliances and everyday objects from a different time.
A real highlight is a vintage OMC tractor, developed and manufactured here in Salina. The museum also preserves a sawmill from 1860, a gas station from the 1930s, a Methodist church dating to 1901 and a one-room schoolhouse from 1927.
12. Lakewood Park
A couple of blocks north of Indian Rock Park is another inviting public space, set on a former sandpit. Several trails meander through Lakewood Park, for a restorative walk in woodland, prairie and past a lake in the north of the park.
The wooded habitats are home to white-tailed deer, raccoons and fox squirrels, while nest boxes have been constructed for passerine birds, screech owls and bats.
For more background on Lakewood Park’s ecosystems you can visit the Discovery Center, which has interesting interpretive displays and live animals including turtles, owls, snakes and several native freshwater fish species.
13. The Alley
Just a block or two east of the City – County Building you’ll find this giant new family entertainment center, with a range of attractions under one roof.
The big draw is of course the bowling alley, with 28 lanes, as well as an additional eight lanes at the Back Alley bowling lounge.
In addition there’s a laser tag arena, open to anyone over the age of 6, as well as a cutting-edge VR game, an arcade with new game cabinets and redemption machines and a sports bar/grill famed for its 29″ Superdome Pizza.
14. Ad Astra Books & Coffee
A downtown mainstay for more than a decade, Ad Astra Books & Coffee combines a bookstore with a coffee house, but is much more than just a comfy place to read and enjoy a good cup of coffee.
For one thing, you can pick up vinyl, comics and handmade gifts. And there’s a calendar packed with events, from talks to author readings to film screenings, children’s theater spoken word and live music performances.
The upshot is a kind of intimate cultural center, with programming designed to reach as large an audience as possible.
15. Smoky Hill River Festival
One event not to be missed in Salina is this four-day music festival, presenting an amazing diversity of performers and style.
These range from classical to jazz, country, blues, fusion and reggae, across four different stages. On a typical year the Smoky Hill River Festival has more than 150 performers and has a small army of 2,500 volunteers to help everything go smoothly.
Beyond that, there are roving, pop-up performances throughout the event, as well as an art & craft show with more than 130 artists from across the country, and delicious food choices from more than 30 vendors.