20 Top Things to Do in Missouri
Top attractions in Missouri
The iconic Gateway Arch recalls Missouri's historic role as jumping-off point to the West. Today, big-city attractions in Kansas City and St. Louis, natural beauty in the Ozarks and rollicking shows in Branson make the Show-Me State a destination in its own right.
Click ahead to read out about 20 of our favorite experiences in Missouri.
Lake of the Ozarks
Missouri's largest lake has 1,150 miles of shoreline—and just about as many ways to get out and enjoy it. Lake of the Ozarks was formed in 1931, with the completion of Bagnell Dam. Since then, Bagnell Dam Boulevard, known as "the Strip," has evolved into a colorful kitsch-central, with fudge shops, old-time photo studios and souvenir shops.
But the lake is still the biggest draw, and fishing here is fabulous. Hire a guide to show you the best spots, or head out on your own for a little lake-style lounging on the water. Nearly 50 full-service marinas can hook you up with boat rentals. (800) 386-5253; funlake.com
The wine scene in Missouri long predates the current fad for vineyard tours. German winemakers arrived in the region around Hermann (about 80 miles west of St. Louis; population 2,700), on the banks of the Missouri River, in the 1800s.
Today, Missouri has 80-plus vineyards and wineries throughout the state. But because Hermann's wine tradition reaches back almost 175 years, its wine trail offers activities you won't find elsewhere, like being able to tour underground wine cellars that were dug by hand before the Civil War. hermannwinetrail.com
St. Louis' Forest Park
Larger than New York's Central Park and chock-full of activities, this sprawling 1,293 acres is full of free and inexpensive attractions. Tour the park by foot, bicycle, paddleboat or even Segway. Spend a day— or more—at the park's Missouri History Museum, Saint Louis Art Museum (pictured), Saint Louis Science Center, and Saint Louis Zoo. For general information on Forest Park as well as links to its attractions, visit the Forest Park website. (314) 289-5300; stlouis-mo.gov
Ha Ha Tonka State Park
Most visitors head straight for the stone ruins that overlook Lake of the Ozarks. And with good reason—no other state park has skeletal remains of a bluff-top mansion. But Ha Ha Tonka (80 miles northeast of Springfield) also has wonderfully varied nature trails, which snake along a hilltop, along a spring-fed river and under a natural bridge. (573) 346-2986; mostateparks.com
The nation's longest rails-to-trails bike path starts northwest of St. Louis in St. Charles and loosely follows the Missouri River west for 225 miles, through small towns, farmland, prairie and wine country. Ultimately, the 20-year-old Katy Trail will link to city and county bike paths to Kansas City, making it possible to pedal across all of Missouri. (573) 449-7402; mostateparks.com
The 630-foot Gateway Arch soars above downtown St. Louis, reflecting sunlight and glowing different colors depending on the time of day. Visitors can take a four-minute tram ride up the hollow arch legs to get a panoramic view from the top. Look for renovation of the arch area to be completed in 2017. gatewayarch.com
- Photo Courtesy of Citygarden
St. Louis' Citygarden
Art mixes with play at St. Louis' new downtown sculpture garden, where kids and adults clamber on sculptures, jump through fountains or just chill. This massive urban playground has 235 trees and more than 4,000 perennials. Citygarden feels fresh, fun—and worth a couple of hours in a city that has plenty of cool places to play. citygardenstl.org
Mark Twain in Hannibal
The tales of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn began in this riverfront town (population 17,500), where local son Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) grew up.
At the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, explore the Hannibal of Clemens' childhood. (573) 221-9010; marktwainmuseum.org
The Mark Twain Cave Complex lets visitors climb through the underground passages where Clemens played as a boy (and which were later immortalized in his books). (573) 221-1656; marktwaincave.com
On the Mark Twain Riverboat, cruise the Mississippi River on an old-fashioned paddle wheeler. (573) 221-3222; marktwainriverboat.com
Actor Richard Garey (left) performs his show, Mark Twain Himself, throughout the summer at Hannibal's Planters Barn Theater. (573) 231-0021; heritagestage.com
Kansas City's Arabia Steamboat Museum
When this 1856 steamboat was discovered buried in field a half-mile from the Missouri River—with more than 200 tons of cargo intact—its rescuers sensed a unique opportunity. More than $1 million later, the Arabia Steamboat Museum is a must-see for history and transportation buffs.
Work began on the boat in the field where it was found and later moved (along with 12 preserved feet of the original vessel) to the museum at the edge of City Market. Restoration work on the ship's contents continues to this day and can be observed as part of the tour. See a full-sized reproduction of the main deck; sundry items like dishes, pickles (still edible!), and sewing notions; and a skeleton of the only casualty—a mule. Allow time for the gift shop, which sells a unique perfume re-created from a scent found on the ship. (816) 471-1856; 1856.com
Dogwood Canyon Nature Park
Waterfalls, trout streams, and large herds of buffalo and elk dot the rolling terrain at Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, a 2,200-acre area straddling the Missouri-Arkansas border, about 30 minutes southwest of Branson. A covered bridge made by Amish artisans is also one of many attractions at the park. Explore by foot, bike, horseback, kayak, tram or private Jeep tours. (417) 779-5983; dogwoodcanyon.org
Silver Dollar City
Take your pick of a colorful mix of attractions: amusement park rides, traditional hill-country crafts or a big plate of Ozark succotash at this Branson-area theme park. Special events at Silver Dollar City include a bluegrass festival in the spring, harvest festival in the fall and a sparkly holiday celebrations (complete with 4 million lights) in November and December. (800) 475-9370; silverdollarcity.com
Neon marquees light the night sky of Branson (population 7,600), where more than 50 theaters stage 100 different splashy, family-friendly shows. Performers work hard to make sure all ages go away surprised and humming. The biggest draw on the Strip is the Shoji Tabuchi Show. shoji.com
60-Second Video: Ozarks
Tour one of the top vacation regions in the Midwest: Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks. Take a peek at Ha Ha Tonka State Park, the Eagle’s Nest Resort, The Lodge of the Four Seasons and some of the popular water activities.
- Photo Courtesy of Powell Gardens
Heartland Harvest Garden
This addition to Kingsville, Missouri's, Powell Gardens celebrates Midwest agriculture with some 2,000 varieties of fruits and vegetables planted on 12 scenic acres outside Kansas City. It's considered the largest edible garden in the country. Visitors can sample seasonal produce at tasting stations in the garden or in salads, wraps and soups at the cafe. (816) 697-2600; powellgardens.org
- Photo Courtesy of the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association
Hallmark Visitors Center and Kaleidoscope
Hallmark Cards started in Kansas City and employs 4,300 there. At the free Hallmark Visitors Center, you'll find vintage cards, works by Grandma Moses and Winston Churchill, Christmas ornaments and clips from Hallmark Hall of Fame TV programs and company commercials. (816) 274-3613; hallmarkvisitorscenter.com
Next door, kids get to create their own free art with leftover items from Hallmark at the Kaleidoscope playland. (816) 274-8300; hallmarkkaleidoscope.com
Meramec State Park
Every summer, thousands of people canoe near Mark Twain National Forest on the Meramec River (left), but most never realize they've entered one of the Midwest's most diverse river ecosystems. (There are 45 varieties of freshwater mussels alone!) In addition to canoe rentals, Meramec State Park (70 miles southwest of St. Louis) has a good nature center, nicely spaced cabins and guided cave tours. (573) 468-6072; mostateparks.com
Louisiana's small-town charm
Perhaps it's the Mississippi River that gives such an aura of permanence to Louisiana, Missouri (population 3,800; 83 miles northwest of St. Louis). Its thoroughfares have been called some of the most intact Victorian streetscapes in the state, and its antebellum-style Georgia Street Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Spending time in Louisiana might mean fishing or boating on the river, strolling the streets to see the 20 murals around town, cruising the 50 Miles of Art corridor; 50milesofart.com, or visiting the ASL Pewter Foundry (left), which gained acclaim for the 500-plus authentic pewter articles it produced for the HBO biopic John Adams. (573) 754-3435; aslpewter.com
The Great River Road Scenic Byway links Louisiana to Clarksville (population 500) and other Mississippi River communities. fhwa.dot.gov
- Photo Courtesy Mizzou Botanic Garden
University of Missouri
As the first university established west of the Mississippi, "Mizzou" in Columbia (population 100,000) has a distinctly historic feel, with 18 of its buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. The University of Missouri's grounds are also a designated botanic garden, with more than 6,500 trees. The gardens and buildings (including The Residence) around the David R. Francis Quadrangle should not be missed. Free, guided tours last an hour (800/856-2181; missouri.edu).
Truman in Independence
Independence (population 112,000) celebrates hometown hero Harry Truman with a variety of sites and tours. At the Truman Presidential Museum and Library, permanent displays examine Truman's life and presidency, while temporary exhibits highlight political and historical themes; (800) 833-1225, trumanlibrary.org. Visitors can also tour the Truman Home (left) where Truman lived before and after his presidency; (816) 254-9929, nps.gov. Independence's website details other Truman-related buildings and offers a Truman walking trail brochure.
- Photo Courtesy of Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Sam A. Baker State Park
This park in the St. Francois Mountains (125 miles southwest of St. Louis) stands out as much for its homey atmosphere as its verdant landscape. Friendly staff and great amenities (free sports equipment, nicely spaced cabins and campsites, a well-stocked store and a noticeably pleasant laundry room) make Sam A. Baker a camper's dream. Most people rent canoes for leisurely float trips along the St. Francois River; (573) 856-4411, mostateparks.com.
- Photo Courtesy of St. Joseph Visitors Bureau/ www.stjomo.com
History in St. Joseph
St. Joseph (population 76,000) has great history: Jesse James, Pony Express and, more recently, birthplace of Walter Cronkite.
At the Pony Express Stables, much of the building where the horses were stabled is original. The little museum has an interactive map of the route and saddles you can sit on; (816) 279-5059, ponyexpress.org. The Jesse James Home Museum is the house where the outlaw was shot and killed; (816) 232-8206. At the Patee House Museum, you can climb on an 1860 train and see what the streets of St. Joseph looked like from the 1860s to 1880s; ponyexpressjessejames.com.