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History & Good Food: The Best Of Mass Street In Lawrence

Years ago, I saw an excellent concert at a venue on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence, Kansas. One quick glance and I could tell this was an area that deserved more exploring. I returned recently and finally got the chance to check out the charming shops, great restaurants and historic sites along the street. It’s worth planning a visit yourself!

Disclosure: I was hosted by Unmistakably Lawrence. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own. This post may contain affiliate links.

The Free State Brewing Co. in downtown Lawrence, Kansas

Lawrence is a college town brimming with charm and character. At the heart of its downtown area is Massachusetts Street, or better known as Mass Street. The vibrant thoroughfare has some of the city’s best shops and restaurants, a top-notch brewery, and a trove of history to explore.

History and significance of Mass Street

Stepping foot onto the storied Mass Street means immersing yourself in the echoes of the past. Dating back to the mid-19th century, Mass Street witnessed pivotal moments that shaped the city and the nation.

Bob, the tour guide for Dr. Bob's Lawrence History Tours, a walking tour in downtown Lawrence

One notable chapter of Mass Street’s history is its connection to the Civil War. Lawrence, being a hotbed of anti-slavery sentiment, faced a violent episode in 1856 known as the Sacking of Lawrence. Pro-slavery forces attacked the city, looting and burning buildings along Mass Street. This event, though devastating, demonstrated the resilience and determination of the town’s residents, who rebuilt their beloved street, transforming it into a symbol of strength and unity.

You can learn about this moment in the city’s history at Watkins Museum of History or by taking a walking tour by Dr. Bob’s Lawrence History Tours. The walking tours are $15 per person, and I’d recommend them for ages 13 and older. The content isn’t a problem, it’s just a lot of walking and more history talk than I’m sure most kids will enjoy.

The Watkins is a good stop for families, though. There are family guides available with a scavenger hunt for little ones, and the second floor has an antique playhouse that kids can play in still. There are interactive exhibits next to the playhouse, including a telephone switchboard and shoe shine stand for pretend play.

An antique car inside Watkins Museum of History

Beyond its Civil War heritage, Mass Street is intertwined with the rich academic life of Lawrence. The city is home to the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University. Today, Mass Street’s historical facades and plaques are a nod to the city’s past. 

Dining on Mass Street

One of my favorite ways to get to know a city is to explore the culinary scene. If you’re the same, you’ll enjoy exploring Lawrence. I only had about 24 hours to try some food, but here’s where I went and what I liked about each spot:

Slices of pie at Ladybird Diner on Mass Street in downtown Lawrence

The quirky cafe, Ladybird Diner, is a fantastic choice for breakfast. While you wait for your meal (I had potatoes bravos), you can’t help but marvel at the colorful decor. Lady Bird is known for its pie, and so if you have room after your meal (even breakfast), do yourself a favor and order a slice. Give the Salted Honey Pie a try.

If you’re hungry for a sandwich, order one at Latchkey Deli. Filling sandwiches range from the Latchkey Italian topped with roast beef, pastrami, salami, house-smoked ham and provolone, and the Hot Beef Louise on a hoagie. Be sure to order one of their house-made Italian sodas. Add cream to the soda for a true treat. 

Latchkey Deli sandwich with a potato salad in the background

A popular restaurant for lunch or dinner – or just a happy hour drink – is actually a brewery. The Free State Brewing Co. is more of a brew-pub with an impressive lineup of beer (try the flagship, the delicious amber ale, Ad Astra) and equally tasty food. Though the brewery opened in 1989, it was the first legal brewery to open in Kansas in over 100 years. 

Tip: Free State Brewing Co. is family-friendly! There’s a kid’s menu available. 

Lawrence is also home to Wheatfields, located a short distance from Mass Street. It’s been named one of the top 10 great bakeries in the US, and it happens to be included on my Kansas Bucket List.

Shopping on Mass Street

Locally-owned shops are scattered throughout Mass Street, ranging from bookstores and clothing boutiques to a toy store and record shop. I browsed quite a few shops, so here are my favorites:

Interior of Ruff House Paperie located in Massachusetts Street in downtown Lawrence
  • Wonder Fair and Ruff House Paperie for notebooks, stationary, and gifts
  • The Raven Book Store and the used bookstore, The Dusty Bookshelf
  • The Toy Store (for all-things-kids, obviously)
  • Music lovers will like Love Sea & Sky Institute (you can’t miss it – there’s a giant squid in window) 

Where to stay on Lawrence’s Mass Street

If the city’s Civil War history intrigues you, check out the Eldridge Hotel located on Mass Street. It’s been rebuilt a few times, most notably when it was burned down during Quantrill’s Raid in 1863. The lobby of the hotel is tastefully decorated, as are the rooms. I enjoyed the spacious accommodations of the suite. There’s a restaurant in the lobby. 

The lobby of the Eldridge Hotel in downtown Lawrence

One of the drawbacks of the hotel is the lack of parking, since it’s located downtown. There is metered parking in front of the hotel, at least, as well as a parking garage a couple blocks away. 

Tip: Metered parking is monitored Mondays through Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in Lawrence.

Day trips from downtown Lawrence

Lawrence is located between Topeka and Kansas City, which are both larger cities with more than a day’s worth of things to see and do. I’m most familiar with the Kansas-side of KC, and would recommend a day trip just for the barbecue there.

Interior of the Democratic Headquarters in Lecompton, Kansas

One smaller town you might not be familiar with is Lecompton, proudly declared as the birthplace of the Civil War. The Lecompton Constitution was written at Constitution Hall in the town, which led to the split of the national Democratic Party and the eventual election of President Abraham Lincoln. You can visit Constitution Hall today. 

Other historic sites in Lecompton include the Kansas Territorial Democratic Headquarters and the Territorial Capital Museum. The museum building was originally intended to be the capital building of the state. Tours are available. If you get the chance, attend a performance of “The Bleeding Kansas Play” at the museum.

Don’t skip a quick stop to downtown Lecompton. For lunch, head to Aunt Mutter’s or if you’re looking for a refreshing drink, head to Empty Nester’s Winery for a wine slushee or a flight of sweet wines. There are a few shops in town, including the eclectic boutique, Claymama’s.

Bottles of wine at Empty Nester's Winery in Lecompton, Kansas

From its rich history and Civil War connections to its shops and culinary delights, a visit to Mass Street in Lawrence is a memorable experience. As a first-time visitor to Lawrence, this enchanting street serves as the perfect introduction to the city’s character, warmth, and community spirit.

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