In the southeast of the Kansas City metro area, Shawnee is an ever-growing suburban city with historic origins as the religious and political center of the Shawnee Indians.
During the days of the westward expansion, branches of the Oregon, California and Santa Fe Trails ran through what is now Shawnee, while there was a ferry crossing on the Kansas River, which marks the city’s northern border.
Later Shawnee developed as a center for truck farming, and this period is recalled in rich detail at the Shawnee Town 1929 Museum.
These days, Shawnee is a cozy suburb with a historic core that has come through a dazzling renaissance in the last decade, with new local stores and eateries, and a summer farmers’ market.
1. Shawnee Town 1929 Museum
At Herman Laird Park on the east side of downtown Shawnee there’s an enlightening outdoor museum exploring the city’s historical roots.
What you get is an accurate depiction of a small farming community in Johnson County just before the Great Depression.
This is a vibrant living history museum, shining a light on many different aspects of daily life, and comprising kitchen gardens.
Reproduced buildings include a farmstead, post office, chapel, school, fire station and several everyday businesses. A tour begins at the visitor center, with the exhibit, Shawnee: Old Town – New City.
2. Mill Creek Streamway Park
Mill Creek weaves its way northwards through Shawnee on the way to its mouth on the Kansas River at Nelson Island.
The banks of the creek are blissfully free of development, and provide the perfect environment for a stunning linear park with around 17 miles of paved bike and pedestrian trails.
From the river junction in the north, the main trail runs all the way through Shawnee and into neighboring Lenexa, before concluding at 1700 Northgate St. in Olathe.
This is a wonderful way to get out and be active without ever leaving the metro area, as you travel across wooded and open areas, and residential neighborhoods. The system also features three miles of equestrian trails, as well as three park shelters.
3. Shawnee Mission Park
Integrated with the Mill Creek trail system is a marvelous, 1,600-acre park bursting with things to do all year. Shawnee Mission Park often tops lists of the best parks in Kansas, and contains a 120-acre lake.
In summertime the lake is a hotspot for water activities like fishing and boating, with pedal boats, canoes and fishing boats available for rental at the marina.
The lake is encircled by trails and has a beach on the north shore, and even a beach for dogs on the southwest side, part of an extensive off-leash dog area.
Among the vast amount of other amenities there’s an 18-hole disc golf course, 11 shelters, multiple picnic areas, mountain bike and equestrian trails and several playgrounds, including a new inclusive playground in the north Walnut Grove area.
Finally, the Theatre in the Park is a cherished outdoor community theater group, staging a season of musicals for all ages in Mission Park throughout the summer.
4. Downtown Shawnee
Although Shawnee is a modern and fast-expanding suburb, the nucleus of the city has a history going back to the mid-19th century.
And if you haven’t paid a visit to the Shawnee old downtown for a while, you’ll be amazed at the wonderful little business district that has now taken hold.
What you’ll find is a profusion of restaurants, breweries, cafes, bars and shops, all within a few steps of each other.
Out of nowhere, downtown Shawnee has become a place for shopping excursions, family outings, date nights and after-work drinks with coworkers.
And we haven’t even mentioned the Aztec Shawnee Theater, the farmer’s market or Moonlight Markets, which we’ll talk about in more detail below.
5. Aztec Shawnee Theater
This charming old movie palace opened in 1927 as the Mission Theater, and from the outside still has the appearance of a mission building, with its pinnacles and curving gable.
The theater changed its name to the Aztec in 1942 and remained an entertainment pillar for Shawnee until closing in 1975 and eventually becoming storage space.
That wrong was finally righted in 2020 when the theater was reborn as a 270-seat performing arts venue, after 15 years of stop-start renovations.
It’s heartwarming how much care and attention has gone into Aztec Shawnee Theater, and you have to see for yourself at a concert, comedy show, lecture or classic movie screening.
6. Moonlight Markets
On summer evenings, something special happens at the City Hall parking lot, right across the road from the Aztec Theater. On the third Thursday of the month, this is the setting for Shawnee’s Moonlight Markets.
These events run until 8:00pm, and combine a classic farmers’ market with live music by talented area performers.
These evenings also give you a perfect opportunity to experience the best of Shawnee’s flourishing downtown area. Of course, there’s also a regular farmers’ market at the same location on Saturday mornings, 7:00am to 12:00pm.
7. Medicine’s Hall of Fame Museum
The physician and medical missionary, Dr. Bruce Hodges, has traveled to all ends of the earth during a 55-year career.
In that time he has amassed an extraordinary collection of artifacts, with an emphasis on ethnography, medicine and the Christian faith.
These have found a permanent home in the building previously occupied by the Johnson County Museum.
The museum opened in 2020 and displays around three quarters of that 4,600-strong collection.
You’ll see traditional African carving, Egyptian and Chinese medical artifacts, an historic horse-drawn doctor’s buggy and an entire exhibit devoted to the half-forgotten polio epidemic that blighted the United States in the first decades of the 20th century.
8. Splash Cove
On the edge of downtown Shawnee is a family-friendly public water park, ideal for younger children. Splash Cove is open from Memorial Day weekend to mid-August, and has plenty of amenities for a carefree day out.
There’s an interactive water playground feature, a mini wave pool, a large instructional pool, a 125-foot body slide and concessions.
This isn’t the only water park to be run by the Shawnee parks department, as the Thomas A. Soetaert Aquatic Center is a few minutes west along Johnson Dr. in Veterans Park.
A little larger, this facility has a lazy river, 50-meter competition pool, a diving area, two 125-foot slides, a vortex ride and a totally-enclosed baby area with a water playground.
9. Clear Creek Trail
On the west side of Shawnee Clear Creek is a little watercourse that rises at Shawnee Golf and Country Club and wriggles eastwards through a densely wooded corridor to Mill Creek.
Open to walkers, joggers and bicyclists, the trail is just paved and is a little less than 3.5 miles in length.
You can pick it up on the north side of the golf course and travel in the shade of riparian forest to the junction of Mill Creek, where the trail connects with the Mill Creek Streamway Park.
10. Johnson County Museum
If you’re curious about the story of Johnson County, this top-notch museum is a matter of minutes away in Overland Park.
The signature exhibition here is “Becoming Johnson County”, which does a deep dive on the county’s past.
At its heart is the 1950s All-Electric House, exploring the modern suburban lifestyle that became attainable in Johnson County in the post-war years.
For younger minds there’s KidsScape, a fun, hands-on learning experience set at an 1870s farmstead, an urban market in the 1900s and the suburbs in the 1950s.
11. Grinter Place State Historic Site
Also in your orbit is this historic house perched above the opposite bank of the Kansas River, close to an old Indian Trail crossing.
Grinter Place goes back to 1831, and was established by one Moses Grinter, one of the first permanent settlers in the area.
He set up a ferry and trading post, and lived here with his half-Lenape wipe, “Windagamen” which translates to “Sweetness”. The current Colonial-style house at Grinter Place, constructed with home-fired bricks, dates to 1857 and is managed by the Kansas Historical Society.
Mid-April through October you can drop by to tour the house, learn about the lives of the Grinters and see some of their belongings, accompanied by period-appropriate furnishings.
12. Kansas City Ice Center and Pavilion
The top skating destination for the Kansas City area can be found right here in Shawnee.
This is a well-maintained, modern facility with a schedule that includes regular public skate sessions, freestyle skating, drop-in hockey, youth and adult hockey leagues and a host of classes, camps and clinics.
But in addition to all that there’s also a partially covered ice pavilion outside, allowing you to skate in the open air, without worrying about any precipitation. The pavilion is normally open until March.
13. Strawberry Hill Povitica Company
Right next door in Merriam you’ll find a one-of-a-kind bakery specializing in povitica, which is a nut roll originating from Slovenia and Croatia.
Traditional povitica is typically baked around the holiday season, and like, say, an Italian panettone is often given between families as a token of respect.
The Strawberry Hill Povitica Company is one of the last remaining bakeries that still uses an authentic recipe that has been in the family for generations.
These come with a choice of fillings, including blueberry cream cheese, apple cinnamon and English walnut and poppy seeds, to name just a few.
14. Black Hoof Park
This park is in Lenexa, within ten minutes of Shawnee’s Mission Park. Black Hoof Park is another place of real beauty, in this case surrounding Lake Lenexa, which was built in 2006.
The dam for this 35-acre reservoir can be found on the east side of the park, and has the most unique spillway you may ever see, blending art with engineering.
Make sure to check out the contemporary architectural details at the spillway before making the most of the park’s many other facilities, among which there’s a boat launch, fishing dock, shelters, a network of trails and a great playground for kids.
15. Zip KC
On the bluffs across the Kansas River in Bonner Springs is another great attraction to keep in mind. Zip KC is a gigantic adventure park embedded in a beautiful riverside forest.
Zip lines are a big part of the appeal, and there are nine in total, extending over almost 6,000 feet in total and featuring top speeds of 50mph.
Zip KC offers a big choice of tours to suit you, and even has glow-in-the-dark, nighttime zipping.
If you’ve ever wanted to test your skills on Ninja Warrior, there’s also a Ninja Training Obstacle Tour, with more than 30-obstacles on a two-mile course.