The most populated state in the Plains, Missouri likes to mix things up, serving visitors ample portions of both sophisticated city life and down-home country sights. St Louis and Kansas City are the region's most interesting cities, and each is a destination in its own right. But, with more forest and less farm field than neighboring states, Missouri also cradles plenty of wild places and wide-open spaces, most notably the rolling Ozark Mountains, where the winding valleys invite adventurous exploration or just some laid-back meandering behind the steering wheel. Maybe you'll find an adventure worthy of Hannibal native Mark Twain as you wander the state.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Missouri.
As a symbol for St Louis, the Gateway Arch has soared above any expectations its backers could have had in 1965 when it opened. Now the centerpiece of its own recently christened national park, the silvery, shimmering Arch is the Great Plains' own Eiffel Tower. It stands 630ft high and symbolizes St Louis' historical role as 'Gateway to the West.' It's the design of the legendary Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen (1910–1961).
New York City may have Central Park, but St Louis has the bigger (by 528 acres) Forest Park. The superb, 1371-acre spread was the setting of the 1904 World's Fair. It's a beautiful place to escape to and is dotted with attractions, many free. Two walkable neighborhoods, the Loop and Central West End, are close. The Visitor & Education Center is in an old streetcar pavilion and has a cafe. Free walking tours leave from here, or you can borrow an audio tour.
America's longest rail-to-trail walking and biking route starts in Machens near St Louis and St Charles and ends in Clinton, 70 miles southwest of Kansas City. Its 240 miles span the state from east to west and pass through some bucolic, sylvan countryside and atmospheric small towns. Built on an abandoned line of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (known as the Katy), the trail has very gentle slopes, wide curves and a smooth gravel surface, making it suitable for almost everyone.
Enter this impressive modern museum on a glass walkway over a field of red poppies, the symbol of remembrance of WWI. Through detailed and engaging displays, learn about a war that is almost forgotten by many Americans. The only quibble is that military hardware and uniforms take precedence over the horrible toll of the trench fighting. The museum is crowned by the historic Liberty Memorial, which has sweeping views over the city.
See the simple life Harry (1884–1972) and Bess (1885–1982) lived in this basic but charming wood house. It's furnished with their original belongings and you fully expect the couple to wander out and say hello. The former president lived here from 1919 to 1972 and in retirement entertained visiting dignitaries in his strictly pedestrian front room. He's said to have hoped none of the callers would linger more than 30 minutes. Tour tickets are distributed at the visitor center.
Two wild rivers, the Current and the Jacks Fork, wind through 80,000 acres of raw Ozark beauty in this area managed by the National Park Service. There are myriad natural pursuits here, with canoeing being a top activity along with river floating. Numerous natural springs feed the river, the most famous being Big Spring. Hiking is popular, especially along the Ozark Trail, which runs for more than 350 miles in 13 sections.
The number is incomprehensible: 286 million gallons a day flows from this aptly named spring. The resulting pool feels more like a mysterious Game of Thrones location than a mere spot in southern Missouri. It's one of the three largest springs in the US and carries at least 70 tons of dissolved limestone up and out of the caverns below daily. There is good hiking in the lands around the vast pool, as well as camping and a lodge.
Many Missouri state parks cater to fun and games like fishing and tubing. Not this one. You can scale the state's highest peak, Taum Sauk Mountain (1772ft) and cool off under one of the state's tallest waterfalls, 132ft Mina Sauk Falls. Both are reached by trails through rocky, raw forest that are just challenging enough to make it interesting. The view of the Ozarks from the summit – especially in fall – is sublime.
Possibly the wildest highlight of any visit to St Louis is this frivolous, frilly fun house in a vast old shoe factory. The Museum of Mirth, Mystery & Mayhem sets the tone. Run, jump and explore all manner of exhibits, including a seven-story slide. The summer-only rooftop offers all manner of weird and wonderful fun, including a flamboyant Ferris wheel and a wild slide.