20 Top Things to Do 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.
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.
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.
Related: Top Things to Do in St. Louis
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), 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.
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 Katy Trail will link to city and county bike paths to Kansas City, making it possible to pedal across all of Missouri.
Related: A Getaway on the Katy Trail
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. A fully reimagined history museum in the base of the arch was part of a multi-year $380 million renovation, as were new green spaces surrounding the arch.
Related: Top Things to Do in St. Louis
Kansas City barbecue
For slow-smoked bliss, no city tops the Missouri River metropolis of Kansas City, where every meat is on the menu. Sample the city's signature 'cue (burnt ends) at dozens of joints. A few of our favorites to whet your appetite: Arthur Bryant's, BB's Lawnside BBQ, Char Bar, Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue, Gates Bar-B-Q, Q39 and Woodyard Bar-B-Que.
Related: Top Things to Do in Kansas City
While many visitors come to the Branson area to enjoy water adventures on Table Rock Lake, Branson has plenty to entertain on the land as well.
Neon marquees light the night sky of Branson, where theaters stage splashy, family-friendly shows. Families also enjoy hourly fire-and-water shows at the Branson Landing outdoor shopping center as well as visits to The Titanic Museum Attraction.
Within a 10- to 30-minute drive of the city, major area attractions include Silver Dollar City, with amusement park rides, traditional hill-country crafts and Ozarks foods; Top of the Rock (pictured), where sunsets look glorious from a blufftop destination with multiple attractions; and Branson Zipline at Wolfe Mountain, with zips, suspension bridges and scenery.
Related: Branson Area Trip Guide
Elephant Rocks State Park
Visitors can't resist this 129-acre preserve's billion-year-old, house-size humps of smooth granite. Youngsters crawl and scramble over the boulders. Trails penetrate surrounding woods, and a small lake, once a rock quarry, attracts anglers. A self-guiding Braille trail for the visually impaired winds through the state park, which also includes an easy paved trail with gentle slopes that attracts walkers of all ages.
St. Louis' Citygarden
Art mixes with play at St. Louis' 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.
Related: St. Louis Trip Guide
Kansas City museums
Kansas City's rich museum offerings include top-notch art centers, the nation's only World War I museum and a museum dedicated to cargo from a sunken steamboat.
The free Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art packs a lot into a relatively small space, while at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (pictured), a 22-acre sculpture park acts as prelude to the global collection. Exhibits at the National World War I Museum and Memorial reveal the high cost of a war often overshadowed by World War II. Visitors to the Arabia Steamboat Museum can see well-preserved cargo recovered from a steamboat that sank in 1856. At the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, peer at tiny masterpieces and vintage toys among the 72,000 objects collected by the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum gives insight into racial segregation's effect on America's pastime and also celebrates the talented players.
Related: Top Spots in Kansas City
Mark Twain in Hannibal
The tales of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn began in this riverfront town, where local son Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) grew up.
At the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, explore the Hannibal of Clemens' childhood. 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). On the Mark Twain Riverboat, cruise the Mississippi River on an old-fashioned paddle wheeler. Actor Richard Garey (pictured) performs his show, Mark Twain Himself, throughout the summer at Hannibal's Planters Barn Theater.
Related: Top Spots in Hannibal
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.
Springfield's renewed energy
Just an hour north of Branson, Springfield—home to Missouri State University—is being reinvigorated with businesses such as the Hotel Vandivort (pictured), which brings upscale accommodations to a former Masonic temple downtown; Askinosie Chocolate, which makes its treats with pure sugar and cocoa beans direct from the farmers; and Golden Girl Rum Club, which promises the finest in mixology craftsmanship. Area attractions include the Springfield Art Museum's 10,000-piece collection; Fantastic Caverns, where trams carry guests past lit caverns, curtains of stone and ponds; and Mizumoto Japanese Stroll Garden, created in cooperation with Springfield's sister city, Isesaki, Japan.
Related: Top Things to Do in Springfield
Missouri Botanical Garden
More than 75 acres of formal gardens, greenhouses and woodlands flourish in the heart of the St. Louis, surrounded by the Tower Grove neighborhood. Do visit the Japanese strolling garden, one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Come early in the morning and you might have the Missouri Botanical Garden nearly to yourself, save for a few photographers.
Related: Top Attractions in St. Louis
St. Charles' small-town charm
A cobblestone Main Street lined with shops and cafes shows off the steeped-in-history side of St. Charles. Just beyond, take in the sweep of the Missouri River from the Lewis and Clark Boat House and Nature Center, devoted to chronicling the famous expedition's departure in 1804. Rent a bike or pedal car from Bike Stop Cafe for a cruise along the Katy Trail adjacent to Frontier Park. Tours of the First State Capitol building illuminate the state's early development.
University of Missouri
As the first university established west of the Mississippi, "Mizzou" in Columbia 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.
History in St. Joseph
St. Joseph 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. 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.
Truman in Independence
Independence celebrates hometown hero Harry Truman with a variety of sites and tours. At the Truman Presidential Museum and Library (pictured), permanent displays examine Truman's life and presidency, while temporary exhibits highlight political and historical themes. Visitors can also tour the Truman Home where Truman lived before and after his presidency. Independence's website details other Truman-related buildings and offers a Truman walking trail.
Related: Two-Day Getaway in Independence
Powell Gardens outside Kansas City features eight gardens, including the Heartland Harvest Garden celebrating Midwest agriculture with some 2,000 varieties of fruits and vegetables. Other places to explore include the Fountain Garden, Perennial Garden, David T. Beals III Woodland and Stream Garden and Children's Garden. Special events throughout the year include a butterfly festival, harvest days and holiday festival of lights.
Meramec State Park
Every summer, thousands of people canoe near Mark Twain National Forest on the Meramec River (pictured), 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.