Your first impression of these Mississippi River towns depends a lot on the direction from which you arrive. Drive south along the 33-mile Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Byway, and you’ll wonder why you waited this long to let your car hug these great curves. Approach from the south, and the initial view looks fairly industrial.
Either way, a weekend here is about much more than scenery. Just 20 minutes north of St. Louis, Alton, Illinois, boasts amazing antiques shopping, zippy Segway tours and a self-guided Civil War trail.
Eleven miles north, quiet sibling Elsah hides behind towering limestone bluffs, its 650 residents carefully tending houses with flower-stuffed window boxes and a simple white-steepled church.
And at the byway’s northern end, Grafton offers an interesting mix: a state park, a reportedly haunted historic hotel, a comfort-food restaurant in a Queen Anne home and a laid-back riverside bar. The best experiences include a little bit of each, so here’s what you need to get started.
Trip guide: Where to shop
Alton Antique Center Heavy, painted wood barn doors summon shoppers to this 10,000-square-foot trove of beautifully arranged treasures. (618) 463-0888
Alton Stained Glass Works Colorful art glass pieces range from beads and jewelry to windows and wall hangings. (618) 462-4145; altonartglass.com 
Grafton Winery and Brewhaus Sample fruit and dessert wines, including the chocolatey Raspberry Kiss, on the second floor of this family-run favorite. (618) 786-3001; thegraftonwinery.com 
Mississippi Mud Pottery We love the locally made stoneware—and the affordable prices—at this cheery shop in Alton. (618) 462-7573; mississippimudpottery.com 
Trip guide: Where to explore
Audubon Center at Riverlands Scope out some of the nearly 400 bird species that have been spotted at this center, which opened last year near the confluence of the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers in West Alton, Missouri. (636) 899-0090; riverlands.audubon.org 
Grafton Zipline Adventures Zoom across pretty Mississippi River bluffs with fun, highly trained guides. The 2,000-foot-long Soaring Eagle is a fun option among the nine thrilling zips (618) 786-8439; graftonzipline.com 
Lincoln and Civil War Legacy Trail Pick up a brochure at the Alton visitors center before taking the self-guided tour through town. Don’t miss the bronze sculptures of Lincoln and Douglas at the site of their final debate. (618) 465-6676; visitalton.com/lincoln 
National Great Rivers Museum Once you’ve explored the hands-on exhibits and toured the lock and dam, cruise the riverfront via Segway for unique perspectives on Alton’s history and ecology. (877) 462-6979; mtrf.org 
Pere Marquette State Park In addition to the pretty 8,000-acre park, a classy dining lodge serves delicious, hearty breakfasts as well as lunch and dinner. Renovated lodge rooms start at $149. (618) 786-3323; dnr.illinois.gov 
Principia College Sign in at the guard house and take a winding drive through the lush, idyllic campus of Elsah’s college. Enjoy breathtaking views of the Mississippi from a scenic overlook. (618) 374-2131; principia.edu 
Trip guide: Where to eat
Gentelin’s on Broadway Locals frequent Alton’s fine-dining restaurant for its creative dinner menu and reasonable prices. (618) 465-6080; gentelinsonbroadway.com 
The Loading Dock The seasonal open-air bar along the Mississippi offers a place to unwind and enjoy standard pub fare in Grafton. (618) 786-3494; graftonloadingdock.com 
State Street Market Generous salads, soups and sandwiches satisfy at lunchtime in a historic Alton building. (618) 462-8800
Mississippi Half Step Dive into seafood dishes and homemade desserts at an 1885 mansion in Grafton. (618) 786-2722; mississippihalfstep.com 
My Just Desserts Keep an eye on the chalkboard at this Alton gem, where servers erase each variety as it runs out. It’s better to order dessert first, especially the Mrs. Ledbetter’s Chocolate Pie, topped with coconut and pecans. (618) 462-5881; myjustdesserts.org 
Trip guide: Where to sleep
Beall Mansion Don’t be surprised when you’re greeted by a butler in a tux; it’s all part of the experience at this elegant turn-of-the-century mansion in Alton. Raspberry torte caps an incredible five-course breakfast. From $159. (618) 474-9100; beallmansion.com 
Ruebel Hotel Though the building retains its 1879 charm, guest rooms offer 21st-century comforts, including Bath and Body Works products. Relax at the beautiful restored oak counter from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Some guests say this Grafton place is haunted. From $105. (618) 786-2315; ruebelhotel.com 
Tara Point Inn and Cottages The views alone are worth a stay at this property perched on a high bluff in Grafton. Choose between one of the main-house rooms or a cottage suite with private deck. From $168, including a Continental breakfast. (618) 786-3555; tarapoint.com 
For information: Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau (618) 465-6676; visitalton.com 
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® September/October 2012.)