The Best Side Trips from Missouri’s Big Cities

There’s a whole lot more to the Show-Me State than Kansas City and St. Louis, from a 25-mile wine trail to a 350,000-square-foot wildlife museum and aquarium. Outdoor enthusiasts will love the blue-green waters of Table Rock Lake, while families can find entertainment in theme parks, kitschy attractions, and historic sites like the Mark Twain Boyhood Home.

1 Hospital Dr, Columbia, MO 65212, USA
The University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology could easily get overlooked amid the myriad restaurants and bars of surrounding Columbia—but it shouldn’t. The fascinating museum boasts works from over 6,000 years of human history, plus a collection of more than 15,000 historical objects. The Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern artifacts are particularly impressive, as are the holdings from ancient Egypt and Byzantium. Also worth checking out are the Asian, African, American, and European artworks, dating from the 15th century to the present. After touring the museum, take a spin around Mizzou’s scenic campus, which is particularly pretty in the fall when the leaves start to change colors.
5957 State Hwy ZZ, Cuba, MO 65453, USA
Historic Route 66 snakes through the state of Missouri, offering road trippers an array of classic motels, neon signs, and kitschy attractions. Case in point: the World’s Largest Route 66 Rocking Chair, which resides in the small town of Fanning. Built by Danny Sanazaro on April Fool’s Day 2008—in a successful attempt to trump a rocking chair he saw in Indiana—the bright-red rocker is nearly 43 feet high and rests on 31.5-foot-long legs that weigh one ton each. As its name implies, however, it’s only the largest rocker on Route 66—there’s now an even bigger one in Illinois, constructed in 2015. If you’re driving the Mother Road, you’ll want to stop here anyway to snap photos and pick up souvenirs in the adjacent tourist shop.
201 W Capitol Ave, Jefferson City, MO 65101, USA
Jefferson City may be Missouri’s 15th most populous city, but it’s the state capital nonetheless, with a stunning building to prove it. Completed in 1917, the Capitol sits on a limestone bluff on the south bank of the Missouri River, covering three full acres downtown. Revered for its architectural details, it features impressive columns, a grand staircase, and enormous bronze doors—at one time, the largest casts since the Roman area. Two allegorical bronze figures depicting the Mississippi and Missouri rivers flank a 13-foot-tall statue of Thomas Jefferson at the south entrance, while a frieze showing the history of Missouri decorates the north side of the building. Inside, a ground-floor museum pays homage to Missouri’s cultural and natural heritage with exhibits, dioramas, and rotating displays. The three-point perspective paintings scattered throughout the hallways are also a popular attraction. Take one of the free 45-minute guided tours to learn more about the building, its artwork, and Missouri itself.
1201 S 12th St, St Joseph, MO 64503, USA
Located in St. Joseph, the Jesse James Home—operated by the Pony Express Historical Association—is a small but mighty museum that’s easily worth an hour’s time. It was here that the notorious outlaw Jesse James was shot and killed on April 3, 1882, after living a lawless career for 16 years. Today, the one-story, Greek Revival–style house is packed with artifacts, including the coffin handles from James’s grave, a small tie pin he was wearing the day he was killed, a bullet removed from his right lung, and a casting of his skull, showing the bullet hole behind his right ear.
399 Silver Dollar City Pkwy, Branson, MO 65616, USA
Opened in 1960, Silver Dollar City mimics an 1880 mining town, complete with themed rides and employees who dress the part. Visitors to the kitschy theme park will find more than 40 rides—the Time Traveler is the fastest, tallest, steepest spinning roller coaster in the world, but also make time for the family-friendly Fire-in-the Hole indoor coaster. After the rides, be sure to indulge in the surprisingly delicious food on offer, including tater twists, funnel cakes, and cast-iron skillets of succotash. Also be sure to swing by one of the many craftsmen shops, where you can catch woodworkers, glassblowers, and candy makers in action, and don’t leave without walking through Marvel Cave (this is Missouri after all) and posing for a tintype photo (props provided).
120 N Main St, Hannibal, MO 63401, USA
Located in the small river town of Hannibal, the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum is actually a cluster of eight buildings that pay homage to one of America’s most celebrated authors. Visitors can tour Mark Twain’s Boyhood Home & Garden—a designated National Historic Landmark—to see where Samuel Langhorne Clemens grew up and the real adventures of Tom Sawyer took place, then pop into the Interpretive Center to view a timeline of his life and several interactive exhibits. Also worth checking out are the Huckleberry Finn House (where Tom Blankenship grew up), the Becky Thatcher House (featuring a museum dedicated to Laura Hawkins and childhood in the mid-1800s), the J.M. Clemens Justice of the Peace Office (where Twain’s father held court), and the Museum Gallery (home to 15 Norman Rockwell paintings and treasured Clemens family artifacts). Before heading out, be sure to pose for a family photo in front of the Tom & Huck Statue, which sits at the foot of Cardiff Hill.
500 W Sunshine St, Springfield, MO 65807, USA
Founded by Bass Pro Shops CEO Johnny Morris, the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium “celebrates people who hunt, fish, and act as stewards of the land and water.” However, you don’t have to be an outdoorsman to appreciate this 350 million–square-foot facility and its 35,000 live fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals from around the world. Particularly impressive is the Out to Sea Shark Dive exhibit, where visitors can go underwater in a metal cage and get face-to-face with sharks, barracuda, and Atlantic goliath groupers—all in the middle of America’s heartland.
Lake Ozark, MO, USA
The largest state park in Missouri, Lake of the Ozarks is a wildly popular destination for swimming, fishing, boating, or simply taking in the scenery from a shady campsite or picnic area. Along the lake’s shoreline, visitors will also find 12 hiking and biking trails, equestrian paths, caves, and two swimming beaches with imported sand for sunning. The infamous Party Cove, once dubbed “the oldest established permanent bacchanal in the country,” is often packed with rows of big boats and plenty of booze, but more relaxed areas can be found throughout the park, whether you want to spend time on the water or explore the open woodlands, sunny glades, small springs, and towering bluffs that surround the lake.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Food + Drink
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East