9 Hidden Wonders in the Heart of Kansas City

Atlas Obscura

Explore the secret side of Kansas City with a trip to these local gems

To soak in the soul of Kansas City, you can sink your teeth into succulent brisket burnt-ends, bask in the melodies of live jazz at one of the city’s legendary venues, or catch a thrilling Chiefs game– and that’s just the beginning of uncovering its rich tapestry. But there’s another side to KC—under-the radar destinations that are packed with wonder and intrigue.

Peel back a layer, and Kansas City reveals unexplored magic: from a holy finger housed in a world-class museum and a 70-year-old lunch counter that still keeps lines out the door, to the historic social epicenter of Black jazz and an original private-collection Winston Churchill work of art – and there’s even more waiting to be explored. Here are nine hidden wonders of Kansas City.


1. Community Bookshelf

Giant, colorful book spines line the south wall of a parking garage in downtown Kansas City. From Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon” to Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” the 42 books featured in the Community Bookshelf represent some of literature’s most beloved titles.

The mural was conceived in 2004 by library trustee Jonathan Kemper. Residents submitted titles they wanted on the “shelf,” and by fall of that year, the project was completed. Since then, the mural’s location has evolved into a small community park, shaded by sycamore trees. 

Some of the spines, which are constructed of signboard mylar, represent books that have been challenged, burned, or banned. In 1928, Chicago Public Schools banned L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” for “depicting women in strong leadership roles.” Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” was banned in New Mexico in 2001 for promoting satanic behavior and witchcraft. 

Often mistaken for the library itself—the Central Library is located next door in a restored former bank building that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places—the bookshelf is located on 10th Street, between Wyandotte Street and Baltimore Avenue.


2. Arabia Steamboat Museum

In 1988, five treasure hunters embarked on a  years-long journey of discovery that culminated in the Arabia Steamboat Museum. 

The steamboat Arabia, built in Pennsylvania in 1853, powered its way along the mighty Missouri until it hit a snag and sank in the fall of 1856. While no passengers were lost, the boat’s entire cargo—along with a lone mule—plunged to the riverbed below. 

After learning of the boat’s ill-fated voyage from an eccentric customer, Bob Hawley and his two sons, who owned a heating and air company, were captivated. They recruited two more friends and started digging. Four months later, the Arabia had revealed a significant collection of stunningly preserved pre-Civil War artifacts. 

Stroll along the meticulously reconstructed main deck and observe the boat’s boiler, anchor, and in-motion stern wheel. Glass display cases exhibit rows of Wedgwood china, coffee kettles, clothes, pipes, shoes, and tools. Additionally, you’ll find clear-blue medicine bottles, tins still filled with pie fruit, and hundreds of other items that transport visitors to another time. 


3. Holy Finger of Kansas City

In an intimate gallery within the Renaissance wing of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, a softly illuminated corner shelters a holy relic. The gilded silver reliquary purportedly holds a finger bone of St. John the Baptist. Dating back to 1400, the relic was part of the Guelph Treasure—a collection of medieval and early Renaissance religious objects originally housed in the Cathedral of St. Blaise in Brunswick, Germany. During the 1930s, this collection toured the U.S., drawing record-breaking crowds. 

Just a short distance from the relic, explore the European Painting and Sculpture gallery and immerse yourself in Caravaggio’s 1604 masterpiece, “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness.” This painting portrays the Biblical giant as a young man set against a dark backdrop of oak trees.

The full version of this story can be found at Atlas Obscura.

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