The capital city of Kansas has set the scene for some monumental events in the nation’s history. Top of the list has to be Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which marked the death knell of “Separate but Equal”.
This pivotal milestone in civil rights history is remembered by a National Historic Site at one of Topka’s segregated elementary schools.
Around a century before, Topeka was on the Oregon Trail, and at the Kansas Museum of History you can put yourself in the shoes of emigrants on that epic journey.
If you come to Topeka in the summer, you’re sure to spend some time in Gage Park, which is home to the city’s zoo and a whole patchwork of other attractions including an enchanting carousel from 1908.
1. Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site
The Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education originated in Topeka in 1951, when the public school system refused to enroll the daughter of African-American resident Oliver Brown at the school closest to her home.
After a unanimous decision, the court unanimously declared in 1954 that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” violating the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees all citizens “equal protection of the laws.”
This landmark in American history is commemorated at the former Monroe Elementary School, one of the city’s four segregated schools, acquired by the National Park Service and reopened in 2004 as a civil rights interpretive center and National History Site.
Here you can get to know the ordinary people who stepped up for that long fight for justice, trace more than a century of Kansas civil rights battles, beginning with abolitionist John Brown, and discover the legacy of the case. There’s also a former kindergarten room restored to its 1954 appearance.
2. Kansas State Capitol
A must-see in Topeka, the Kansas Statehouse had a 37-year construction period between 1866 and 1903.
At 304 feet, the copper-clad dome is even taller than the United States Capitol dome, and this is one of the few state capitols in the country offering tours that take you right up into the dome, which is 296 steps from the fifth floor to the top.
And when you finally make it, the panorama of Topeka will make you forget the climb. The building recently completed a 13-year renovation project in 2014, modernizing the building but also bringing it in line with the architect’s original vision.
Tours are completely free and take place Monday through Saturday.
3. Gage Park
This lovely 160-acre park has delighted Topeka residents since 1899 and continues to be a cherished day out, especially for families.
Within Gage Park’s boundaries are a couple of other attractions on this list, like the Topeka Zoo and the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center, but there’s yet more to enjoy.
If you’re in the mood of a gentle walk, you could not pick a prettier backdrop than the Reinisch Rose Gardens, planted with over 400 rose varieties.
Topeka’s creative side shines through at the Helen Hocker Theater, for community performances with exceptional production values.
Another draw in summer is the Blaisdell Family Aquatic Center, which has a 50-meter pool. Younger children will be thrilled with the Carousel in the Park, handmade in 1908 and fitted with a Wurlitzer organ, while there’s also a mini-train that has been rattling through the park for more than half a century now.
4. Kansas Museum of History
In the west of Topeka is a world-class museum owned by the Kansas Historical Society, which was founded as long ago as 1875.
Once located in the Kansas State Capitol, this history museum tackles the state’s past from many different angles.
On a chronological journey you’ll find out about the region’s Native American peoples, the days of the Emigrant Trails, the Civil War, life on the frontier, the railroads and urbanization, the early 20th century and the recent history of the Sunflower State.
Adding depth are plenty of artifacts, like the pike of abolitionist John Brown, Custer’s riding boots, the Santa Fe’s oldest surviving locomotive (1880), William Allen White’s printing press and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s WWII field jacket.
There are also enthralling replicas and scenarios, like a Cheyenne tipi, an Oregon Trail wagon and a 1950s diner.
5. Lake Shawnee
A Works Progress Administration Project (WPA), the recreation lake on the southeast side of Topeka opened in 1939. Today Lake Shawnee is visited by more than a million people each year, and is the star attraction at a 1,100-acre park.
There’s a lot going on at Lake Shawnee, especially in the summer, but we’ll try to outline the highlights.
One is Adventure Cove, which opens Memorial Day weekend, and has a sandy beach, paddle board and paddle boat rentals, sand volleyball courts and concessions.
Also at the lake is a campground (140 sites), family sports complex, heated fishing dock, a boat and ski garden, formal gardens, a yacht club and the Topeka Rowing Association.
6. Evel Knievel Museum
A major attraction, the Evel Knievel Museum is officially approved by the world-famous daredevil’s estate, and has the world’s largest collection of authentic Evel Knievel (1938-2007) memorabilia.
If you’re wondering why the museum should be located in Topeka, it’s partly because his famous Mack Truck, “Big Red”, was restored here. In the enormous inventory are jump bikes, leathers and helmets, all enhanced by detailed and visually striking accounts of his death-defying feats.
The exhibits are arranged in chronological order and feature some 1,000 artifacts, many showing crash damage, while you can see the incredible physical toll on his body via the interactive X-ray exhibit.
7. Old Prairie Town at Ward-Meade Historic Site and Botanical Garden
At this superb historical attraction you can get a sense of Topeka from its beginnings as a stop on the Oregon Trail.
The Ward-Meade Historic Site preserves a fine mansion built in 1870, for one Anthony Ward. A wheelwright by trade, he had settled here some two decades before, and made his fortune through sand rights on the Kansas River.
The house and its five-acre grounds were purchased by the city in the 1960s, and are now home to a stunning 2.5-acre botanical garden and a recreated turn-of-the-century settlement, Old Prairie Town.
Clustered around a charming square you’ll find a collection of relocated old buildings, among them the 1891 Victor Schoolhouse, the 1800 Everest Church, a railroad depot, caboose, general store, drugstore and the preserved study of Social Gospel movement leader, Charles Sheldon (1857-1946).
8. Topeka Zoo & Conservation Center
Gage Park has had a zoo since 1933, and since the early 2000s this has come through a modernization process with excellent new exhibits and numerous successful births.
There are close to 400 animals from all ends of the Earth at Topeka Zoo, and a few of the immersive exhibits include Jungle Cats (Sumatran tigers), a sensational indoor Tropical Rainforest, Waterbird Lagoon, Hill Black Bear Woods and Kansas Carnivores, home to river otters and cougars.
Particularly special are Lianas Forest, with its Bornean orangutans, and Camp Cowabunga, keeping lions, painted dogs and Patas monkeys, the latter sharing a spacious enclosure with guineafowl, dik-diks and leopard tortoises.
For kids you’ve got the Children’s Zoo, home to goats and sheep that can be fed, and an excellent playground.
9. NOTO Arts & Entertainment District
In recent years the historic North Topeka business district, across the Kansas River from downtown Topeka, has emerged as a dynamic neighborhood with a lot of artistic flair.
NOTO, as it’s known, is sprinkled with public art, in the form of an ever-changing sculpture collection and high-impact murals.
You’ve also got a growing assortment of studios and galleries, all complemented by boutiques, restaurants for all tastes and Redbud Park, which is a performance art venue in summer.
In essence, it’s a compact, walkable district, bubbling with life, particularly on summer evenings during the First Fridays Art Walk, which we’ll go into later.
10. Kansas Children’s Discovery Center
Near Topeka Zoo at Gage Park is another excellent pick for parents with younger children.
The Kansas Children’s Discovery Center is an attraction where little ones can learn, create and explore through play, with more than 15,000 square feet of indoor exhibits introducing children to the arts, science, careers, commerce, finance and engineering.
This means shopping in a grocery store, building a city from scratch, racing miniature cars on a magnetic track, experimenting with color and light to make a masterpiece and owning a restaurant.
Outside you’ve also got a 4.5-acre Nature Explore Playground, with a treehouse, climbable pirate ship, zipline, enormous sandbox, butterfly garden, musical instruments and much more.
11. Mulvane Art Museum
The Washburn University campus is proud home to the oldest accredited art museum west of the Mississippi.
The Mulvane Art Museum (1924) has an international collection extending to 5,000 pieces, with an accent on 20th-century art from Kansas and the Mountain-Plains region.
There’s 9,000 square feet of galleries here, as well as two outdoor sculpture gardens, four classrooms and an interactive art lab for younger visitors.
There are over ten exhibitions a year, including high-quality solo and themed shows, selections from the collection and juried art shows for Washburn students.
12. Combat Air Museum
In hangar #602 at Forbes Field (now Topeka Regional Airport) there’s a wonderful aviation museum with more than 40 military aircraft on display.
These machines date from World War I to the present day and are accompanied by all kinds of related exhibits including engines, missiles, recreated environments and other military vehicles.
Among the most iconic aircraft there are three Cold War-era MiGs, two Bell Huey helicopters and a Lockheed EC-121T-LO Warning Star that can be entered.
Topeka Regional Airport is a joint civil-military facility, so there’s a good chance you’ll see some contemporary military aircraft in operation when you visit.
13. Ted Ensley Gardens
In a dreamy spot on the west shore of Lake Shawnee there’s a sumptuous garden with a high reputation in the horticultural world.
Ted Ensley Gardens covers almost 20 acres and is a joy, spring through fall when you amble along the winding paths and admire the pagoda and gazebo.
The beds here are intricately planted with some 1,200 perennials and 300 varieties of shrubs, roses, trees and annuals.
Some of the 87 tree varieties are rare to Kansas, making up a fantastic arboretum with more than 450 individual trees. In April, this is one of three venues in Shawnee County for Tulip Time, when some 100,000 tulips are in bloom.
14. Heartland Motorsports Park
Topeka is also on the map in the motorsports world, thanks to this facility just south of the airport.
The Heartland Motorsports Park opened in 1989 and is a versatile track made up of a road-race course with four possible configurations, a ⅜-mile clay oval, an off-road course and a ¼-mile drag strip.
This breadth of facilities ensures a packed schedule, April through October, and the road course has previously hosted a long list of CCA National Runoffs, NASCAR, ARCA and IMSA events.
In mid-July the park becomes the stage for the Heartland Stampede Music Festival, an ever-popular Country Music and camping event.
15. First Friday Artwalk
The most convenient way to get acquainted with Topeka’s effervescent arts scene is via the monthly First Friday Artwalk.
In the artwalk tradition, this is a welcoming and sociable time to be in the city, mixing art, music, food and commerce on a self-guided tour downtown and NOTO.
Each stop on the tour, be it a gallery, studio, restaurant, bar or store, will host its own unique event, all in the spirit of creative expression and community engagement. You can check out the ArtsConnect website for an interactive map and shopping guide.