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