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Beyond the Gateway Arch: Must-See Sites of St. Louis and Kansas City
For the first-time visitor to Missouri, it can be hard to know where to begin. The state boasts exciting cities, picturesque small towns, pristine natural parks, and attractions for all ages. Much of the nation’s history played out here, at the crossroads of the country—and it’s remembered in history museums and celebrated with majestic monuments. And, yes, Missouri cuisine is reason enough to travel here: From Kansas City’s burnt ends to St. Louis’s frozen custard, the state’s culinary contributions are easy to love. Plus, the diverse communities in Missouri’s largest cities share their tempting dishes with flavors from around the world.  

This itinerary hits many of the state’s highlights in five days. You’ll spend two in St. Louis on the state’s eastern edge and two in Kansas City, in the west. During your stay, you’ll see iconic sites like the Gateway Arch and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, while staying in and dining at some of Missouri’s most exciting new hotels and restaurants. Bridging your visits to the big cities is a trip along America’s longest rail-trail, where you’ll experience the state’s bucolic countryside.
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    Day 1
    Arrive in the Gateway to the West
    The first stop on this tour of Missouri is The Last Hotel, your home in St. Louis for the next two nights. This 142-room boutique hotel, which opened in the summer of 2019, takes its name from a cobbler’s “last”—the form around which leather is fitted to create a pair of shoes. It’s an appropriate name, given the hotel’s location in a 1909 International Shoe Company building, located in the heart of the Garment District and close to the sites of downtown St. Louis. After checking in, get ready to put some miles on your own pair of shoes. First stop: the Gateway Arch National Park.  

    St. Louis’s most famous landmark, the soaring Gateway Arch, designed by architect Eero Saarinen, first opened in 1965. The park grounds reopened in 2018 after an extensive renovation and redesign of the museum, which covers the role of St. Louis as the starting point for countless pioneers headed west. The unique tram ride to the top of the 630-foot-tall arch ends with breathtaking views that extend for some 30 miles. 

    Then head  to City Museum. Don’t be misled by the name—it’s actually the world’s largest jungle gym! You’ll find spiral slides, enchanted caves and a Ferris wheel on its rooftop. Take in the magnificent views of the city you’ll get to know during your stay.  

    Having built up an appetite, head to one of St. Louis’s classic restaurants for lunch. At Bogart’s Smokehouse, you can order some of the city’s signature pulled pork or beef brisket. Crown Candy Kitchen serves sandwiches and franks, though it’s famous for its sundaes and other desserts. And McGurk’s is a celebration of Irish food and music, with 15,000 square feet of outdoor space if you want to eat alfresco.  

    In the afternoon, you’ll get an introduction to the long tradition of beer making in St. Louis with a visit to the iconic Anheuser-Busch Brewery, built in 1852. Visitors over 21 can sample the brewery’s products, and kids are also welcome—they’ll love seeing some of the famous Clydesdale horses that pull the brewery’s popular beer wagons.  

    After enjoying some downtime at The Last Hotel, you’ll dine tonight on The Hill. Italian immigrants first settled in this neighborhood in the late 19th century—today, about three-quarters of its residents are Italian-Americans. Popular favorites for Italian fare include Zia’s, Charlie Gitto’s, and Dominic’s.  

    Though a cannoli may be tempting, head to Ted Drewes Frozen Custard on Old Route 66, where the “concrete” shakes are so thick you can turn them upside down and they won’t pour out.  

    If you’re looking for stronger than frozen custard, dive into the St. Louis nightlife for an after-dinner drink. The Central West End is known for its beautiful Victorian buildings, as well as some 75 bars, restaurants, and other businesses. Ballpark Village, next to Busch Stadium, offers a selection of lively sports bars. The Grove, a mile-long stretch of Manchester Avenue, is a busy strip that includes a number of dining and drinking options catering to LGBTQ locals and visitors.
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    Day 2
    Explore More of St. Louis
    Start the day by seeing the city’s wilder side at the Saint Louis Zoo, home to more than 17,000 animals on 90 acres in Forest Park. Among the many different habitats recreated at the zoo is the Centene Grizzly Ridge, which opened in September 2017. Check out the northern cousins of the grizzlies at McDonnell Polar Bear Point, which offers underwater views of the great white bears. From primates and reptiles to birds soaring through the Flight Cage—which dates back to the 1904 World’s Fair—the zoo’s residents have come from every corner of the world. Even better, admission is free.  

    A short stroll from the zoo, the Boathouse at Forest Park serves generous appetizer platters and sandwiches in a waterfront setting. Before or after your meal, rent a paddle boat for a quick  trip around some of the park’s 22 acres of waterways.  

    Then explore more of this enormous park; at 1,293 acres, it’s 450 acres larger than New York City’s Central Park. (Hint: Hop on a scooter or bike to cover more ground.) And the zoo isn’t the only free attraction here. Stop into the Saint Louis Art Museum—an expansive  facility with galleries divided into 11 different areas. Don’t miss its Oceania and Mesoamerica collections, as well as its contemporary German works.  

    Then it’s time to delve deeper into local history. Founded in 1764, St. Louis is older than the United States itself. The Missouri History Museum covers the past 250 years, with engaging exhibitions on French trappers, the exploration of the Mississippi River, and even local baseball teams (not just the Cardinals, but also the St. Louis Browns, which became the Baltimore Orioles in 1953).  

    From agricultural sciences at the GROW Pavilion to paleontology at the Fossil Prep Lab, the Saint Louis Science Center is a must-visit for young scientists, regardless of which discipline interests them. While some attractions like the planetarium and the flight simulator charge admission, the museum and most of its 700 interactive experiences are free.  

    Not all of St. Louis’s museums are located in Forest Park. Music lovers will want to travel downtown to the National Blues Museum, which celebrates this uniquely American genre and its most famous musicians.  

    Continue your deep dive into the city’s culture through live music paired with Cajun specialties at Broadway Oyster Bar. If you have tickets to The Fabulous Fox Theatre or St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Bulrush is an ideal place for a pre- or post-show dinner of Ozark cuisine. Or take a break from culture and simply focus on the excellent French fare at Brassiere by Niche or Vin de Set.
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    Day 3
    Bike the Katy Trail
    Spanning 240 miles, the Katy Trail State Park is the country’s longest recreational rail trail, stretching across almost the entire width of Missouri, from Machens (north of St. Louis) to Clinton in the west. Cycling the entire length would take most people a week—you may want to add that journey to your upcoming vacation plans—but today you’ll get a taste of the trail by riding sections parallel to the Missouri River, between Augusta and Rocheport.  

    Surprisingly, this area is home to a number of wineries. The state’s wine industry can trace its roots back to German and Italian immigrants; the many wineries along the Missouri River led to the area being nicknamed the “Rhineland” of the Midwest. While Prohibition set area winemakers back, the industry has been expanding rapidly in recent decades. There are now more than 100 vineyards growing European and American varieties, as well as some unique hybrids. Many of these wineries have tasting rooms where you can sample their products (in moderation of course) before continuing your ride.  

    Along this stretch of the Missouri River, you’ll also find Jefferson City—the state capital since 1821, when Missouri gained statehood. The capitol building, the Missouri State Penitentiary (currently closed for repairs due to tornado damage), and the Missouri State Museum are all reasons to stop and explore. 

    After reaching your destination of Rocheport and exploring the quaint community, it’s a straight shot to Kansas City via Interstate 70.
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    Day 4
    Explore Kansas City
    You’ll spend the last two days of your introduction to Missouri on the opposite side of the state, in hip, happening Kansas City.  

    First established in the 1830s as a port near the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers, Kansas City has a long history, reflected in its monuments, museums, parks, and leafy boulevards—many of which date back to the peak of the City Beautiful Movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In recent years, Kansas City has emerged as one of the most exciting cultural destinations in the Midwest, with thriving arts and culinary communities.  

    Your base in Kansas City will be the 131-room Crossroads Hotel, which embodies the city’s appealing combination of historic riches and contemporary flair. The hotel opened in 2018 in the pre-Prohibition Pabst Brewing Depot. Along with guest rooms, you’ll find a rooftop beer garden, café, and an Italian restaurant, Lazia, serving fresh interpretations of classic dishes. An artist-in-residence program provides a connection to Kansas City’s current creative scene.  

    The next morning, head to Kansas City’s leading cultural institution and one of America’s outstanding art museums. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art boasts 40,000 works from every corner of the world and spans millennia—from ancient wonders to contemporary masterpieces. The iconic Shuttlecocks by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, set on the museum lawn, reflects the museum’s attitude: It’s a venerable institution with a decidedly playful side.  

    After your cultural outing, stop in at Boulevard Brewing Company, which has grown from its founding in 1989 to become one of the largest specialty brewers in the Midwest. A 45-minute tour (followed by a tasting) covers how Boulevard has brought Belgian brewing traditions to the banks of the Missouri River.  

    For lunch, you’ll have a wealth of choices at Country Club Plaza, a 15-block stretch of restaurants and stores. First opened in 1922, this suburban-style shopping district has a decidedly old-world feel, with monumental fountains and buildings inspired by the architecture of Seville, Spain.  

    Before dinner tonight, drop into some of the studios and galleries that have made the Crossroads Arts District the vibrant center of Kansas City’s art scene. Crossroads is also where you’ll find many of the city’s best restaurants. Popular favorites include The Rockhill Grille for updated classic American dishes; Grünauer, with its Austrian menu; and Novel, for its innovative (but never intimidating) dishes. Before or after dinner, stop by the 60,000-square-foot distillery J. Rieger & Co.; its Monogram Lounge serves small plates and drinks made with the company’s own gin, vodka, and whiskey. To dive deeper into Kansas City’s nightlife, continue on to the Power and Light District where more than 50 bars, lounges, restaurants, and other businesses fill an eight-block area between the Convention Center and the Sprint Center.
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    Day 5
    Jazz, Baseball and More
    Start your day with a caffeine kick at the four-level Messenger Coffee store, located in a historic 1919 building. Grab a cup to go or slowly sip a cappuccino while learning about the finer points of the drink from an informed barista.  

    Then head to City Market, which has been a gathering place since 1857. At that time, shoppers were pioneers buying provisions for their journeys west; today, they may well be gourmet chefs in search of hard-to-find specialty ingredients. If you can time your visit so that it falls on a weekend, the farmers market—the largest in the Midwest—features vendors selling the best produce from nearby farms.  

    In the afternoon, start your tour of Kansas City museums at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, America’s only museum dedicated to that conflict. The memorial itself, built in an Egyptian Revival style, first opened in 1926; another 80,000 square feet of exhibition space was dedicated in 2006. More than 330,000 objects and documents bring to life the years from 1914 to 1919 and the devastating impacts of the war.  

    One lighter moment during that dark period in world history took place in 1917, when the first jazz recording was produced. The American Jazz Museum, a 10-minute drive from the National World War I Museum, covers the entire history of this genre through films, memorabilia, and live performances.

    Next door, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum showcases the leagues’ stars and its history, from its establishment in 1920 through the 1960s. You can check out players’ uniforms and vintage films, as well as a documentary narrated by James Earl Jones.  

    Among America’s culinary contributions, Kansas City barbeque should appear near the top of anyone’s list. Spice rub, slow smoking, and thick barbeque sauce add up to an unforgettable meal—and the perfect way to mark the end of your Missouri vacation. While it’s hard to go wrong here, Jack Stack Barbecue in Country Club Plaza does an amazing job, serving up beef brisket, chicken, pulled pork, and other barbecue standards and sides in an upscale setting.  

    Later in the evening, grab drinks in Westport. One of Kansas City’s oldest neighborhoods, the area got its name as the westernmost point before pioneers headed out on their migration across the continent’s plains and deserts. 

    As you reflect on your trip across Missouri, keep in mind that you’re always welcome to return to see more of Kansas City, St. Louis, and all points in between.