Lawrence, Kansas, known as “LFK” among locals (you’ll have to guess what the “F” stands for), is a hidden gem tucked into the gently rolling hills of eastern Kansas—though word about this progressive university town of around 90,000 residents seems to be getting out.
Routinely topping “best of” lists, Lawrence has one eye on the past and one on the future, with a rich history. Encompassing everything from Civil War raids to the invention of basketball, Lawrence also has a young, vibrant culture thanks to students from both the University of Kansas (UK) and Haskell Indian Nations University.
Visit Lawrence and you’ll quickly discover a friendly town with inventive restaurants, impressive museums, unique local shops, and plenty of outdoor activities. Soon enough you’ll be the one singing Lawrence’s praises to those unacquainted with its charms. Here are our favorite stops on a trip through eastern Kansas.
1. Clinton State Park
Clinton State Park, just 15 minutes from downtown Lawrence, features the area’s nicest RV camping facilities, with more than 200 sites offering water and electric hookups. The 1,500-acre park sits on the north shore of Clinton Lake, a 7,000-acre reservoir built in 1975.
Even if you’re not camping, Clinton Lake offers plentiful outdoor activities, including 16 boat ramps, a full-service marina, and a beach, as well as separate areas for windsurfers and jet skis. Those who prefer to stay dry can take advantage of 15 miles of easy hiking and cross-country skiing trails, where you can spot nesting bald eagles (in season) and a glorious wildflower prairie bloom from spring to fall, featuring prairie violets, Missouri evening primrose, lead plant, and butterfly milkweed. Bobcats, beavers, foxes, and coyotes also call this park home.
2. Booth Family Hall of Athletics
If there’s one thing most people know about Lawrence, it’s that Lawrence knows basketball. Spend any time here and the University of Kansas chant “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk” will remain lodged in your memory forever. The town’s love affair with basketball is well earned, as it’s here that the sport’s inventor, James Naismith, founded KU’s storied program in 1898 while serving as the school’s athletic director and coach. The best place to learn about KU’s athletics programs is the family-friendly Booth Family Hall of Athletics museum.
Adjacent to the east side of Allen Field House—named for Phog Allen, another legendary basketball coach—Booth Family Hall opened in 2006 and underwent an expansion in 2009 and renovation in 2015. Visitors will find almost 20,000 square feet of space stuffed full of fun, interactive exhibits, including a basketball floor for the kids to practice jump shots, and historical exhibits for adult fans. Admission is free.
3. Free State Brewing Company
You know you’re in for a treat during a visit to Free State Brewing Company when you find out the brewpub’s founder, Chuck Magerl, literally helped change the state’s liquor laws to open the first legal brewery in Kansas after Prohibition. When Free State opened in an abandoned bus depot on the north end of Massachusetts Street in 1989, there was nothing like it—and there still isn’t.
The brewery offers seven flagship brews, as well as a menu of seasonal and limited-release beers. Make an afternoon of it and join a free brewery tour, offered on the second Saturday of each month, followed by a late lunch in the brewery’s fantastic restaurant. Order the beer-cheese soup and a prairie-raised bison burger, and wash it down with a pint of Ad Astra Amber Ale.
4. Massachusetts Street
The beating heart of Lawrence, downtown’s Massachusetts Street is a must-stroll. The 600 through 1200 blocks of Mass St., as it’s known locally, are listed on the National Register of Historical Places, with most of the buildings dating from 1856 to the early 1950s. Today, they’re filled with locally-owned shops and restaurants.
Start your exploration at the south end of the street at the Watkins Museum of History to learn about the history of Lawrence and eastern Kansas, including exhibits about abolitionist John Brown and how the state got the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.”
Grab all your Kansas sports teams’ gear a few blocks north at Kansas Sampler; pop into the longstanding independent Raven Book Store for something new to read; and grab a bite at Alchemy Coffee & Bake House or the Burger Stand at the Casbah. A stop at Waxman Candles on the far north end rounds out a day on Mass. St.
Just two blocks east of Mass St. on E 8th Street sits the Sandbar, one of Lawrence’s favorite watering holes. Here you can immerse yourself in all things Jimmy Buffett and Key West while downing a Shark Attack, the bar’s signature drink, which comes with a toy shark full of “blood” (sweet cherry juice).
5. The University of Kansas
Far from being flat and featureless, the grounds of the University of Kansas campus are leafy and green and winds sinuously atop Mount Oread, where the university was founded in 1865. Start a self-guided walking tour at the Chi Omega fountain by heading east on Jayhawk Boulevard. Along the way you’ll pass Fraser Hall, the KU Natural History Museum, and the Memorial Union.
Make your way down Memorial Drive behind the Union to visit the marvelous Spencer Museum of Art, tucked into the top corner of Marvin Grove Park. This university art museum offers free admission and has more than 45,000 objects, including a large collection of pieces by Japanese-American artist Roger Shimomura. A former KU professor, Shimomura was incarcerated as a child with his family at an internment camp during WWII. Much of his pop art-inspired work focuses on this time, as well as stereotypical images of Asian Americans. Note that the museum is currently in the midst of renovations and a reinstallation of its permanent galleries, which will continue into 2022.
6. Wells Overlook Park
For a lovely view of Douglas County and Lawrence to the north, head about 3 miles south of town to Wells Overlook Park on County Road 458. Here you’ll find a two-story wooden observation tower and small park, as well as a 0.25-mile nature trail and picnic area.
Thanks to a state grant and the efforts of local accessibility advocates, the ADA-accessible Passerine Pavilion was completed in summer 2021. Giving everyone a chance to enjoy the view, the photogenic new pavilion was designed to look like a grassland bird poised to leap from the slope.
7. Haskell Indian Nations University
Established in 1884 as a primary school for Native Americans, Haskell Indian Junior College began offering a baccalaureate preparatory curriculum in 1970, and became Haskell Indian Nations University in 1993. Today, the 2-year college serves more than 1,000 students from federally-recognized tribes each semester.
The university has organized an informative walking tour for prospective students and visitors alike, which offers a glimpse of life on the campus. Stop in at Hiawatha Hall, built in 1898 and named for the Native American leader and orator who was integral in the formation of the Iroquois League.