Nestled in the Midwest region, Missouri is one of only two states, the other being Tennessee, that shares borders with eight US states. A historic icon and naturally beautiful, the state is most famous for its landmark Gateway Arch, the Ozarks, and barbecue.
Nicknamed the “Show Me State”, Missouri will certainly allure you with its myriad of attractions that range in theme from historic to cultural, natural landscapes and hearty food. Perfectly balanced between urban and natural, there are plenty of big cities to explore, as well as smaller towns and vast landscapes that beckon tourists.
Visitors who want to explore more of the Midwest region should start their trip in Missouri. Friendly to all ages, the nearly endless list of attractions and activities ensures that any trip to this unique state will be memorable.
History of the “Show-Me State”
Human habitation in Missouri has existed for over 12,000 years. However, the state’s famous past is mostly tied to the 1800s, when the United States began its westward expansion in earnest. Two major events that occurred were the Lewis and Clark Expedition, as well as the beginning of the Westward Expansion.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition began in 1804 at Camp River Dubois, which is believed to be in present-day Missouri. Using the Missouri River to travel, they gathered more men in St. Louis before moving westward through various territories. The expedition accomplished mapping much of the land that was bought by the US during the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. With maps, the Lewis and Clark team helped prompt settlers to move West.
Another nickname that the state has earned is “Mother of the West” and Missouri’s role in the expansion has been memorialized in Saint Louis by the Gateway Arch. As settlers began to move towards the West Coast, they used a series of trails to make their journey.
Famous trails including the Oregon, Santa Fe, and California Trails all began in the state, as did the Pony Express. Vital to the success of the US, it is estimated that by 1870, about 400,000 settlers had used the trails to move West. Although many settlers were American born, thousands of German and Irish immigrants also moved to the area.
Overlapping with the Westward Expansion was the American Civil War. Technically a border state, which means that they did not secede from the Union, Missouri did use slave labor. Ultimately, the state would be contested by both the Union and Confederate Armies and each had their own sympathizers. Throughout the war, there were more than 1,000 battles, which makes Missouri the third most fought-over-state.
Capital City of Jefferson City
Supporting a population of 43,228 people as of 2020, Jefferson City is the capital of Missouri. Sometimes shortened to “Jeff City”, this metropolitan area is second largest in the state by population. Located in Mid-Missouri, the city sits on the Ozark Plateau near the Missouri River. One of the best features of the cityscape are the gorgeous tree-lined bluffs.
A noteworthy tourist destination, Jefferson City is filled with history, culture, art, and upbeat nightlife. Many visitors are also interested in seeing the local architecture in areas like Downtown and the State Capitol. Filled with hidden gems, this state capital is a great place to head for a weekend away.
Noteworthy attractions include the Governor’s Mansion, Binder Park, Jefferson Landing State Historic Site, Missouri River Pedestrian Bike Bridge, Missouri State Penitentiary, and Capital Arts Gallery. For shopping and dining, the best place to go is the Downtown area, which is also acclaimed for its architectural features.
Kansas City, “Heart of America”
Not to be confused with Kansas City, Kansas, Missouri’s Kansas City is the largest city in the state with a population of 508,090 as of 2020. Sitting close to the border of Missouri and Kansas, the city is most famous for its barbecue, fountains, and music. All around there are beautiful landmarks, world-class museums, manicured parks, and picturesque neighborhoods.
For travelers that find themselves out on the dry, Great Plains, Kansas City, nicknamed “KC”, is like an oasis. Filled with bright lights, good food and dozens of attractions, there are so many things to do. It’s easy to get carried away and you may find yourself wanting to stay for an extended vacation. Whether you’re young or old, you may fall in love with this captivating city.
A few of the most noteworthy attractions in KC are the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City Zoo, Science City, National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, American Jazz Museum, World War I Museum, Sea Life Kansas, Union Station, the Money Museum, and the Kauffman Memorial Garden.
Not a single destination, but as a whole, Kansas City is world-famous for their barbecue. Setting it apart from other styles are the burnt ends. Sometimes called Kansas City burnt ends, these pieces of BBQ use every piece of meat, which are then burnt to perfection by the chef. Restaurants all over the city serve BBQ, but some of the most famous establishments are Arthur Bryant’s and Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que.
St. Louis, “The Gateway City”
An icon of the American West, St. Louis is the second largest city in the state with 301,578 residents as of 2020. The city is most famous for its Gateway Arch, which pays tribute to the city’s role in the Westward Expansion of the 19th century. The arch stands at 630 feet tall and its stainless steel structure stands out from the city’s skyline. Visitors can see the arch and book a tour to venture inside the structure.
While the Gateway Arch is certainly eye-catching, there are plenty of places left on the list of “things to do in St. Louis”. Additional attractions that visitors love are the Saint Louis Art Museum, Old Courthouse, Missouri Botanical Garden, Soulard Farmers Market, Forest Park, Saint Louis Zoo, Market Street, Grant’s Farm, and the Laumeier Sculpture Park.
Food lovers will rejoice because St. Louis is also famous for their cuisine. Simply called “St. Louis style”, dining in the city is fun and tasty. Inspired by gastronomy all over the world, a few favorites are St. Louis style BBQ and pizza. Visitors should also try toasted ravioli, gooey butter cake, St. Louis sandwiches, and Levee High apple pie.
Columbia, “College Town”
With 126,254 people as of 2020, Columbia is one of the fastest growing cities in the state. Famously home to the University of Missouri (Mizzou), its nickname is the “College Town”. Part of the allure of this city is its progressive ideology in regards to politics, journalism and art. More and more young people are moving to the area to go to school or they are choosing to stay after graduation.
Aside from the university, the city has an excellent balance of urban and natural. Just outside of the downtown area, there are numerous wide open spaces for locals and visitors to enjoy the great outdoors. The greenery of Columbia is spread throughout parks and gardens, as well as nature and conservation areas too.
Some of the best things to see in Columbia are the University of Missouri’s David R. Francis Quadrangle, the Museum of Art and Archeology, and Columbia Art League. The most beautiful natural spots are Stephens Lake Park, the Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, Shelter Gardens, Grindstone Nature Area, Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, and the Finger Lakes State Park.
Lake of the Ozarks
The Ozarks are a large physiographic region that is spread throughout Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and a small portion of Kansas. In Missouri, the most famous part of this region is the Lake of the Ozarks. Located in the central region of the state, the lake is formed by a reservoir on the Osage River. It has been nicknamed “The Missouri Dragon” because of its serpentine shape.
Protected as a state park, the Lake of the Ozarks has become a major resort destination for Missouri. There are more than 1,100 miles of shorelines for visitors to explore with major activities being boating, hiking, camping, golfing, touring, and vacationing. Attractions near the lake include water parks and swinging bridges.
One of the most popular places to stay overnight at Lake of the Ozarks is the Historic Willmore Lodge. Built with a wood log design, the lodge was originally constructed in 1930 by Union Electric. Turned into a resort, the facility also features the Lake of the Ozarks Visitors Center, which is open year-round.
Ha Ha Tonka State Park
Another area within the Lake of the Ozarks is the Ha Ha Tonka State Park. One of the most gorgeous places to visit in Missouri’s Ozarks, this state park’s main feature is the Ha Ha Tonka Spring. The landscape also features caves, bluffs, sinkholes, and natural bridges.
Throughout the park, trails take visitors to its geologic features and the historic castle. In some areas, a series of boardwalks make trails more accessible to park guests. With fantastic views of the area, lake and spring, visitors are encouraged to enjoy one of the many picnic sites that have been established along the trails.
Originally a part of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, the Katy Trail stretches for 237.7 miles between Clinton and Machens, Missouri. Divided into segments, visitors can begin their journey at any of the 26 trailheads. Along the way, four railroad depots have been fully restored.
For those that are also chasing Lewis and Clark, the section of the Katy Trail between Cooper County and St. Charles County has been designated as a part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.
Hermann Wine Trail
Tracing back to the roots of early German immigrants is the Hermann Wine Trail. Beginning in the small city of Hermann, the trail takes visitors through some of the best wineries in the state. Altogether, there are seven, family-owned wineries that produce about ⅓ of Missouri’s wine.
Passing through gorgeous scenery, visitors should take their time to complete the trail. Weekends are busiest, as are the summer months. Guests are encouraged to pre-plan their trip to avoid being overcrowded. Throughout the year, the wineries often host special events to promote their vineyards and products.
Hidden Valley Ski Resort
Not your typical winter destination, Missouri actually has two ski resorts. The most popular of the two is the Hidden Valley Ski Resort, which is just 29.8 miles outside of St. Louis. Typically relying heavily on artificial snow, this ski resort is spread over 65 acres on two peaks. Altogether, there are 17 trails and 9 lifts. Visitors can also go tubing on certain hills within the resort.
Within the resort, lodging is available, but many choose to stay in the nearby town of Wildwood. The close proximity to St. Louis also makes Hidden Valley a popular day destination for city dwellers. Winter is peak season for the resort, but summer can get quite busy too. One of the newest summer additions is a zip line that runs down the mountains.
Silver Dollar City
Another family-friendly attraction is the Silver Dollar City amusement park. Close to the city of Branson, this park is themed to the 1880s and it features thrilling rides like the Fire in the Hole, Marvel Cave, Flooded Mine, and Outlaw Run. In addition to the rides, there are live shows, shops, and restaurants. Special events include Christmas displays, summer concerts, and firework celebrations.
For Midwest adventures, there’s no better place than Missouri. With plenty to show, visitors may already know some of the local iconography like the Gateway Arch. However, there is always something new to see and this state has a never-ending list of amazing places to see. Whether you’re traveling to St. Louis, want to see the Ozarks or even enjoy the snow, this state is a fun destination all year-round.