Keeper of the Plains by Kiowa-Comanche artist Blackbear Bosin
Photo Courtesy of Visit Wichita/Merrill Thomas
At the juncture of the Big and Little Arkansas Rivers in Wichita, Kansas, on land where the Wichita tribe once lived, stands a 44-foot-tall weathering steel figure of an American Indian in full headdress. He raises his face skyward and holds his arms high in supplication to the Great Spirit. Crafted and donated by Kiowa-Comanche artist Blackbear Bosin, Keeper of the Plains has become this city’s most famous icon.
I visited one evening as fire leapt from braziers surrounding the 30-foot-tall rock pedestal on which the Keeper stands. Lit for 15 minutes each night, these enormous braziers create intense heat and a ring of fire that surrounds the pedestal, enhancing the regular nightly illumination of the statue. On this particular evening, dozens of people photographed the stunning figure from an adjacent footbridge as the Keeper’s reflection shimmered on calm waters.
The next morning as I strolled through Old Town Wichita, I noticed a recurring symbol in several gift shops. Broad red swaths on a white background with a stylized white sun inside a blue circle characterized the design. A shop owner proudly told me this is Wichita’s recently revived 1937 city flag. Its individual elements represent freedom, happiness and contentment. The logo’s center is also an Indian symbol for “hogan,” or permanent home.
Locals have embraced the symbol. Logoed flags fly in yards and on public grounds; flag murals decorate buildings; and T-shirts emblazoned with the iconic symbol quickly disappear off shelves. Ranked the sixth-best U.S. city flag design by the North American Vexillological Association, Wichita’s flag honors the city’s past and celebrates its present.
Old Town Plaza
Photo Courtesy of Visit Wichita/Merrill Thomas
From Bronze Sculptures to Modern Flavors
Old Town, one of Wichita’s oldest neighborhoods, wraps contemporary businesses inside antique structures. Vintage buildings line brick streets, and life-sized bronze sculptures decorate sidewalks and pocket parks. From a block away, sculpted foxes look real, and a bronze cowboy serenades a dog with his guitar.
A massive sculpture stopped me in my tracks. It depicted a man, a woman and a young child sitting at the Dockum Drug Store counter in 1958, when this then-Wichita business first served African Americans following a weeks’-long sit-in held there.
Sculpture commemorating 1958 Dockum Drug Store sit-in
Photo Courtesy of Lisa Waterman Gray
At a speakeasy-themed bar called Dockum (its name honors the Dockum Drug Store event) in the basement of Ambassador Hotel Wichita—the state’s only AAA Four Diamond hotel—customers quaffed blackberry margaritas and Manhattans made with barrel-aged whiskey.
Upstairs, there’s a Wine Spectator-recognized wine list at Siena Tuscan Steakhouse, Ambassador Hotel Wichita’s signature restaurant. It features wines by the glass, plus dozens of bottle-only offerings. The magazine touts the quality of the restaurant’s Italian and California wine selections and its reasonable prices.
My meal at Siena Tuscan Steakhouse began with smoky and savory grilled Caesar salad that featured anchovy slivers, followed by delectable chick-pea sticks and large, perfectly prepared scallops. Live acoustic guitar music, dark wood, studded leather chairs and linen napkins created an old-school, clubby feel as sunlight waned through walls of tall windows.
Lovers of farm-to-table fare should also check out the award-winning Public at the Brickyard. This cozy basement pub is known for craft beers and unusual pizza flavors such as Thai Pie—made with smoked chicken, sweet chile sauce and crushed peanuts—and Red Lamborghini, featuring ground lamb, two cheeses, pickled jalapeños and marinara. Hefty Reuben sandwiches are filled with Kansas City corned beef. Operating since 1910, the restaurant is adjacent to the Brickyard, a popular outdoor concert venue.
Museums, Movies and More
A visitor to Wichita could easily spend the day at Old Town’s Museum of World Treasures, which fills three stories of a former paper warehouse with permanent and rotating exhibits. In the light-filled lobby, the world’s most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, Ivan, overlooks three smaller dinosaur skeletons. Here, you’ll also find Egyptian mummies; life-sized marble Buddha statues; documents showcasing signatures of former U.S. presidents; and displays depicting major wars fought by U.S. soldiers.
Museum of World Treasures
Photo Courtesy of Visit Wichita/Steve Crecelius
The Old Town neighborhood is home to several diverse entertainment venues, too. If you love old-fashioned theater, enjoy a performance at Mosley Street Melodrama. It’s housed deep inside a 1940s brick building, along a quiet, narrow street. During performances, the audience sighs appreciatively for heroines, cheers for heroes, and hisses or boos the villain. Evening shows deliver rowdy, laugh-inducing entertainment from a brilliant-hued stage, with barbecue dinners available from Pig In! Pig Out! BBQ for an additional charge. Seven shows, with runs of up to six weeks, compose the 2017 season.
Another neighborhood entertainment venue, Warren Old Town 7 is the state’s only all-digital movie theater. Sip cocktails with Southwestern Egg Rolls or Garlic Alfredo Pasta while watching a movie from a luxurious high-back rocking chair.
A River Runs Near it
Over the past four decades, multiple museums and an impressive botanical garden have come to Wichita’s river district, in the western area of downtown Wichita. Although it opened in 1935, the 115,000-square-foot Wichita Art Museum (the largest art museum in the state) moved to its current location beside the Arkansas River during the 1970s and further expanded in 2003. From a second-floor footbridge, you can admire the bright colors of a three-dimensional 600-piece glass installation, crafted by renowned artist Dale Chihuly. Crossing the glass-topped footbridge in stocking feet is an unusual “must do.”
Full of brilliant-hued orbs and tendrils, another massive Chihuly piece hangs between entrances to the museum store, Muse Café and temporary exhibit space. Downstairs, The Charles M. Russell Gallery is a visitor favorite that features Russell’s paintings of western landscapes, wildlife and horses as well as cowboys and Indians during the late 1800s. Russell’s tabletop bronze sculptures and bronzes by Frederic Remington depict similar themes.
Chinese Garden of Friendship at Botanica Wichita
Photo Courtesy of Lisa Waterman Gray
Another attraction near the river, Botanica Wichita opened in 1987. You can tour 30 themed gardens and exhibits encompassing more than 18 acres, including the new Chinese Garden of Friendship, which honors Wichita’s sister-city relationship with Kaifeng, China. Lion sculptures greet you at the entrance to the garden, beneath a Chinese tile roof. Lilies fill rock-edged ponds, and a long tile dragon straddles the entire length of a plaster wall. The Shakespeare Garden emulates planting styles from the author’s lifetime, while dozens of gorgeous creatures flit through the Butterfly Garden, particularly during summer and fall. In summertime, when the air is thick with humidity, a stroll through the tree-canopied Woodland Walk provides a cool respite.
In spring 2000, Exploration Place opened, with beautiful waterfront views. Renowned architect Moshe Safdie designed the building, housing what is part science center and part children’s museum. Inside, a glittering two-story wall provides the backdrop for “Design Build Fly,” a completely renovated aviation exhibit opening this December. It will feature dozens of hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities for children related to designing and building airplanes. This interactive display reflects Wichita’s long history of building aircraft, including Boeing, Beech Aircraft, Cessna and Learjet.
Photo Courtesy of Visit Wichita
During my visit to Exploration Place, I marveled at a 1,500-square-foot miniature train display that depicts Kansas in the 1950s using more than 125 buildings, 200 vehicles and 1,000 figures of people. Elsewhere in the museum, elementary school-age kids clamored through a small, bi-level Renaissance castle. Inside the “Kansas Kids Connect” exhibit, preschoolers learned to plant a garden and filled a cloud with water before watching it rain.
Whether you’re traveling with children or enjoying a long weekend with friends, this city in the heart of Kansas offers plenty of laid-back charm and modern style.
For more information and tips for planning your Wichita getaway, go to visitwichita.com.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of AAA World.