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Wichita, Kansas: Big City With Small Town Charm

by Rachel L. Miller

A Mural painted on the outside of The River City Brewery
A mural painted on the outside of The River City Brewery in Wichita's Old Town. (c) 2001 RTM
The most important lesson you’ll learn while visiting Wichita for the first time is one in pronunciation. 

We all know how to pronounce the state Arkansas, right? Well, just throw that rule out the window when talking about the main river that runs through Wichita.

“It’s called the Ar-kansas River, not the Ar-kansaw River,” I was told within my first 30 minutes inside the city limits. And even after being corrected, I still had to clumsily stop, think and mentally remind myself every time I mentioned the river. After all, it’s near impossible to disregard years of states-and-capitals quizzes and references to Bill Clinton’s home state to adapt to this way-too-phonetical pronunciation. So after the first day, I just decided to make it simple and deemed the Arkansas River “the river” or “the water” or  “that thing over there.” 

After using such generic, user-friendly terms, my stress level plummeted dramatically and I was free to enjoy the great Midwestern city of Wichita, which I now will share in turn with you.

The atrium of The Hotel at Old Town
The atrium of The Hotel at Old Town.  (c) 2001 RTM
While driving around in the city, I was constantly struck by how such a large metropolitan area (the largest city in Kansas) could retain the charm of small town America.  This is evident in Wichita’s red-bricked Old Town, which is made up of over 60 restored buildings within an eight block area. In keeping with the small-town feel, Old Town hosts a farmer’s market every Saturday in its town square.  Down the area’s red-bricked streets and elevated boardwalks, you’ll discover unique shops, happening bars, nightclubs, restaurants and a gorgeous, historic hotel. 

The Hotel at Old Town, built in 1906 as a warehouse, was recently restored to become a tech-friendly lodging facility. The natural light filtering in through the hotel’s atrium drew me in to examine the elaborate, colorful flower arrangements situated on dark wood tables on each end of the room. There are plenty of cushy, padded seats if you just want to sit back, relax and gaze up at the four stories of rooms. (

A Mural painted on the outside of The River City Brewery
A mural painted on the outside of The River City Brewery in Wichita's Old Town. (c) 2001 RTM

Rumor has it that the piano bar in the hotel is also a pleasant place to unwind. But if you’re there on business, you won’t have much time to sit back and exhale, let alone relax, right? So it’s a good thing the Hotel at Old Town has suites with kitchens, executive-sized desks and two phone lines. Local phone calls are free, so you can connect to the Internet with a local access number without worrying about breaking the bank. 

Just a short walk from the Hotel at Old Town are a number of restaurants, including The Larkspur Restaurant & Grille, one of Wichita’s best restaurants. The restaurant, built in 1917, has an upscale, but comfortable atmosphere with dark brick walls and an outdoor patio decorated with colorful flowers. Judging from the clientele decked out in business attire, it’s the perfect place in Wichita to dine after a long day of meetings. If you like seafood, you’ll definitely find something to please on the menu…and if you don’t, there are chicken and steak dishes from which to choose.  And don’t skip past the appetizers…the hummus is absolutely delectable..and although I hate spinach, I really enjoyed the spinach dip with the accompanying tortilla chips.

The Century II Convention Center
The Century II Convention Center (foreground) is directly connected to the Hyatt. (c) 2001 RTM
Business travelers will be glad to learn that there are two fantastic lodging options just steps away from the blue-domed Century II Convention Center (which boasts 198,800 sq. feet of open meeting space).  Both have breathtaking views of the city and both cater to business travelers. Deciding between the Hyatt and the Broadview is like choosing between vintage designer clothing and modern couture – it’s all in what you prefer. You have to decide if you want a high-tech, fairly new hotel room or if you want to experience a grand hotel with more historical consequence. 

The Hyatt Regency Wichita, built in 1998, rises from the banks of the Arkansas as a clean, impressive presence on the city skyline. 

Inside, you’ll find a wide array of dining possibilities, a steamy indoor pool with a lovely view of the river and a fitness room. But what the Hyatt lacks is character – it reminded me of a fine-dressing financial adviser who gets the job done in a flash, but without any  spark of personality or witty conversation. Don’t get me wrong – the hotel is impressive and with its 17th floor set aside for business executives (including a center for your Internet, fax and phone needs), it definitely covers all the bases while still providing an air of luxury. 

Broadview Hotel
The historic Broadview Hotel, as seen from the 17th floor of the Hyatt. (c) 2001 RTM
But if it’s historic charm you’re looking for, check in to the Broadview, an 80-year-old brick hotel that also sits on the banks of the Arkansas (think “Ar-kansas” not “Arkansaw”).

The immense chandeliers dangling from the Broadview lobby ceiling, high above the marble floor, could easily pass for the chunky diamonds often seen hanging from Dame Elizabeth Taylor’s dainty lobes.  Most of the guest rooms are currently undergoing extensive renovations, so they will be updated while still retaining their unique appeal.

Of particular enjoyment were my elevator rides to and from the eighth floor, with the elevator’s soothing  computerized voice reminding me in which direction I was headed (what a helpful guy). And soon, according to Sales Manager Stephen Sackett, the rest of the hotel will be as technologically advanced. “We’re adding a 27-camera surveillance system and installing electronic door locks,” he quickly informed me. He added that the extra security measures will be fully functional within four months. 

The mosaic mural in the Broadview's ballroom
The mosaic mural in the Broadview's ballroom.
 (c) 2001 RTM
Stephen also introduced me to the largest mosaic mural in Kansas, located right in the Broadview’s ballroom. The small bright pieces of tile collectively form scenes from the Old West, such as covered wagons, horses and small town vignettes, making the room by far one of the most attractive places in which to hold a large meeting or gathering in Wichita.

An alternative to a hotel stay can be found at the Castle Inn Riverside, a historic B&B built in the late 1800s, modeled after a castle 30 miles south of Edinburgh, Scotland. I was simply blown away by the castle’s sprawling interior, especially the elaborate woodwork and impeccable décor of the 14 guest rooms. Containing a fireplace that is 650 years old and other numerous antiques (too many to mention), this B&B is nothing short of remarkable. 

Castle Inn Riverside
One of the best views of the city can be found from the turret of the Castle Inn Riverside. (c) 2001 RTM
The breakfast I sampled, consisting of a thick fruit smoothie, quiche on rice and a fruit salad, will serve as the perfect way to start your morning, with a long day of business stretching ahead.

But say you actually have a little free time on your hands…what should you do? Catch up on your sleep – I guess that goes without saying. But if you’re well-rested and ready to go, Wichita has many excellent attractions, some of which are within walking distance of downtown hotels.  As we all know, what to do often depends on your mood.

If you’re in an introspective, arty kind of mood, head on over to the Wichita Art Museum, where you can find to a nationally-renowned permanent collection of American art, including an array of art that depicts life in the American West.  Don’t be scared by the huge sculpture (depicting two people, one of whom is dismembered) greeting you in front of the building. As disturbing as it is initially, Dreamers Awake (by Tom Otterness) is an interesting piece to walk around and see from all angles. And what you’ll find inside is just as intriguing.

“Since the museum was founded by a woman, it was created with a woman’s perspective,” said Sara Kallenbach, public relations coordinator for Wichita Art Museum. “When you have a busy schedule and you’re running from meeting to meeting, it’s nice to have a place where you can get away and reflect.”

Just one of the many statues found throughout Botanica
Just one of the many statues found throughout Botanica (and the city). 
(c) 2001 RTM

If you’re still in a reflective state of mind, check out Botanica, the Wichita Gardens, where you can slowly stroll through paths surrounded by hundreds of different plants, flowers and herbs. The detailed sculptures located throughout the gardens (and others are located throughout the city, for that matter) are dazzling, especially paired with such greenery. Perhaps the most captivating part of the gardens is the Butterfly House, where hundreds of butterflies fly within a 2,800 square foot, net-covered enclosure. And according Botanica’s website, visitors can even watch as butterflies emerge from their cocoons and take their first tentative flights through the Butterfly House.

If you’re feeling playful, head to Exploration Place, which is part museum, part science center and completely hands-on and interactive. Sure, there are lots of kids at Exploration Place, but exhibits are built for people of all ages. And since you’re bigger, you won’t have a problem just pushing rugrats out of your way (only kidding).

massage chairs
Exploration Place visitors discover the wonderful world of massage chairs. (c) 2001 RTM
What I discovered at Exploration Place: I have no sense of balance (I took a test to determine how long I could stay balanced and did quite poorly), I’m stressed out (a great display made up of small fountains that test how relaxed you are – the more stressed you are, the smaller the stream of water from your fountain) and I’m a little out of shape (a display that measures your heartbeat before and after climbing a huge flight of stairs). But I, along with the other adults, finally stumbled across the best interactive part of Exploration Place: the super-luxurious massage chairs. As I sat in my cushy, vibrating chair, looking out over the river, I felt like I could conquer anything, even that pesky water fountain stress test.

In retrospect, I probably should’ve tried the stress test after my 15-minute massage chair experience. Women who did that, I was told, reported that their water fountain streams were the highest, even taller than those of the young kids. Hmm…was it just the massage chairs that de-stressed the women so much? Of course not. With a smile stretched across her face, a middle-aged brunette whispered that she had been thinking about sex. 

Does that mean all those fantasies about Russell Crowe’s bulging biceps are really bouncing around my mind just to eliminate anxiety? Hmm...chalk that up to yet another lesson learned in Wichita.

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Begin your journey to Wichita by exploring the following websites:

Old Town
The Hotel at Old Town

Hyatt Regency Wichita

Castle Inn Riverside
Wichita Art Museum

Botanica

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