When Frontier Airlines decided to cancel my flight from Kansas City to New York for no reason, I was pissed.

“We can rebook you on a flight that leaves at 8am in the morning,” the airline representative told me. “Or we can rebook you on something that leaves the next day.”

Neither of those options really worked out for me, and on top of it, the airline refused to pay for a hotel, even though it was their fault my flight was magically canceled. Furious as I was, I decided to make the best of it. I called up a friend who lived over the boarder in Arkansas, to see if he wanted to hang out. “I’m tired of being in Missouri. What’s there to do in the Midwest?”

“Well,” he replied. “I guess we could go to Lawrence.”

I was giving a talk at a conference that morning. He picked me up after, and we headed to Lawrence – the coolest town in Kansas.

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College Town, Youthful Culture

Eastern Kansas is very different from the rest of Kansas most people think to know from the movies. There are no sweeping prairies, there are no tornadoes dropping houses on witches with ruby slippers. It’s very green, and there are lots of hills and lakes.

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Lawrence was a quick 40 minute ride from Kansas City. Stacy and I caught up – we hadn’t seen each other since studying abroad in London in 2006 – and by the time we were exchanging new stories, we were in town.

Home to the University of Kansas, the largest and oldest university of that state, Lawrence contains a constant, youthful vibe. People are always walking around, smiling and laughing, and happy to help recommend cool places to go if you’re looking for a bar, restaurant, or show.

A Must for Music Lovers

What probably impressed me the most about Lawrence, was its music scene. I had no idea a place so remote from any sort of metropolis, and dead center in the middle of the United States, could have one of the coolest musical vibes I’d ever seen. Even coming from New York, where there is a guy playing a guitar on every corner, Lawrence just gave me a super chill feeling where the musicians were skilled and passionate, and the listeners embodied this culture fully.

Lawrence’s love for music extends into the entire city. Most shops and restaurants you go to play local artists on their loudspeakers, and many sell records, CDs and instruments as well.

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We passed by The Granada, the town’s concert hall that hosts everything from local artists, to big name bands and singers such as The Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, and Ingrid Michaelson. I love how the area preserves its retro-funkiness; the Granada’s marquis was restored in the 1990s and looks like something straight out of an episode of Mad Men.

The Replay Lounge is a bar that looks dingy and divey on the outside, and while the inside pretty much lives up to that, its diveyness is deliberate I think. Bands set up on stages inside the bar, or outside in the patio area that is decorated with recycled materials and local art.

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I was charged $1.50 for a can of beer, a price virtually unheard of where I came from. It was awesome. If you are averse to smoking, it might be a place to avoid, as many people come here to hang out and smoke while at a bar, and listen to the live music.

All Kinds of Eats and Drinks

Whatever your hunger craving, Lawrence has a restaurant for you. There are small, quaint places like Wheatfields Bakery, and there are high-end, fish-flown-in-daily-from-Hawaii eateries like Café Beautiful. I was surprised by the culinary diversity represented. Sometimes places outside of NYC feel somewhat provincial to me, so it was cool to see such a small town offer several kinds of restaurants, not just American food.

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We settled on Thai food at a funky, cool place called Zen Zero. I liked the earthy, wooden interiors, that had a chic bistro feel without coming off as too trendy. They give you these awesome shrimp chips instead of a bread basket. We got some green Thai curry and Phad Sae Eaw, and green tea martinis.

But the real party starts when you’re ready to bar hop around town. The college kids and other residents begin filling up Massachusetts Street; if you’re unsure where to start, just follow the crowd, they will lead you to the good spots.

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The Replay Lounge is a good place to start, to enjoy the patio and quietness before the bands begin to play. In the evening you will hear them echoing throughout the town, so you won’t miss too much if you aren’t there later.

We tried out the Red Lyon Tavern, a bar themed around British sports. There were some bros playing darts, but it’s a good place to grab a Guinness or a cider, and enjoy their free popcorn machine. According to a special poster they have, I’m not supposed to tell people about this place, but oh well!

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We ended our evening at The Bourgeois Pig, which has quickly become a favorite for the locals. I enjoyed their selection of homemade infused vodkas and gins, I could have spent all night trying them. They had a back patio that was also a nice place to relax and chat with people from the area, who were very friendly and happy to talk with us.

How to get there and where to stay

The closest airport is in Kansas City, Missouri. From there you will have to rent a car and drive; it is possible to arrive by Amtrak train, or Greyhound Bus, but it might result in a very long journey.

Lawrence is a very small town and can be easily walked once you are there. Massachusetts Street is the main drag, where you’ll find all the best shops and dining. The campus is nearby as well, for times when you want to get that university feel once more, or for watching a sports game (they are big into basketball there).

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There are many hotels in the area, most of the chain ones (Days Inn, Marriott, etc.) along Route 59 which is further from the town center, but offers generic, affordable options. The Eldridge Hotel is closer to the action and definitely has some cool design elements, as well as a decades-old ghost story associated with some of the rooms. If you’re looking to meet and hang out with locals, Airbnb is a great option. Lots of residents live in turn-of-the-century homes, and the quirky spirit of the area carries over into their interiors as well.

Lawrence was a pleasant surprise after coming off of what was otherwise a stressful, uneventful trip to Kansas City. Had I not been forced on an adventure, I may never have even known it existed. Now I’m more open to visiting unexpected areas of the Midwest, because who knows what kinds of awesome people, places and things they could be hiding there?

Have you ever found a similar unexpected gem? Let us know your stories in the comments!