A Midwestern state between Kansas and Kentucky, Missouri is covered in grassy plains that stretch for miles that contrast against the high peaks of the Ozark Mountains. Several cities dot Missouri and are filled with fantastic attractions, like the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, or the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. However, there is plenty of nature to balance out the city bustle – Missouri is filled with gorgeous state parks and nature retreats awaiting your visit. So hang onto your hat and start your Missouri tour, exploring the energy of country clubs of Branson to breathing in the fresh air of the majestic Ozarks. Missouri is bound to pleasantly surprise you and entice to you stay a little longer.
Check out our recommendations for the 15 best things to do in Missouri!
1. St. Louis Zoological Park
Located in the heart of St. Louis, this zoo is recognized as a leader in animal research and conservation, and is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It also offers entry free of charge except for special exhibits! The St. Louis Zoological Park has been around ever since the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and the acquisition of a Smithsonian Institution: the Flight Cage.
Now, you can see a wide variety of expanded exhibits: the Big Cat Country and Jungle of the Apes, to name just a few. If you’re feeling whimsical, there is also the Butterfly House or the Fragile Forest. Take a carousel ride at the May Ann Lee Conservation Carousel, which features hand-carved wooden animals that represent actual endangered species. Whether you come to see the animals or learn more about animal conservation, this zoo has plenty of activities that will simultaneously entertain and educate you.
2. Missouri Botanical Gardens
Sometimes a city can get overwhelming, and it’s important to be able to retreat into the quiet of nature. The Missouri Botanical Gardens are a slice of natural paradise and also one of the oldest botanical institutions in the US, located in the middle of St. Louis and founded in 1859 by philanthropist Henry Shaw. This National Historic Landmark is open to the public and is still a center for botanical research and science education!
Bring some comfortable shoes and be prepared to walk because these gardens span 79 acres and include many different and fascinating sections. Tour the pioneering village, an Osage camp, and Henry Shaw’s original state home. Or, relax at Seiwa-en, the largest Japanese garden in North America! It is also a place for annual cultural festivals, such as the Chinese Culture Days or Japanese Festival. Kick back at these or come on your own any time to enjoy the peace and quiet nature provides.
3. National World War I Museum
Located in Kansas City, Missouri, The National World War I Museum and Memorial has been open to the public since 1926, and tells the story of WWI and corresponding events spanning from before 1914 to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Even the entrance teaches you something: as you walk over the glass bridge, below you will see a field of 9,000 red poppies, each one symbolizing 1,000 combatant deaths from the War.
The building which houses the museum now is not the original building, but rather one built following fundraising efforts to reform the museum and make it the official WWI museum in the US. Now, the Main Gallery holds artifacts including a Renault FT Tank, a Ford Model T Ambulance, and propaganda posters. While most people focus more in WWII, it’s good to retrace history and learn about the first Great War that created the environment leading to WWII. You’ll be glad you visited.
4. Gateway Arch
St. Louis, Missouri is home to the world’s tallest arch (630 feet tall!), the Gateway Arch. Located on the west bank of the Mississippi River, this inverted, weighted catenary arch made of stainless steel is the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and is a famous symbol of the city of St. Louis.
Take a walk along the Mississippi and stop by to admire this monument to the U.S. westward expansion, open to the public since 1967. If you’re brave enough, take the tram to the top for some spectacular views reaching up to 30 miles. Or stay on the ground floor at the visitor center to check out the Museum of Westward Expansion and the different exhibits housed there.
5. Lake of the Ozarks
Located in the northern part of the Ozark Mountains in central Missouri, The Lake of the Ozarks is a large reservoir created by the impoundment of the Osage River and its tributaries. The slow, lazy curves of the lake have given it the name “The Magic Dragon” and it was one of the largest man-made lakes when it was created in 1931, soon becoming a vacation destination because of its picturesque backdrop and watersports attractions.
Rent a vacation home on the lake and explore the mountains – visit the Lake of the Ozarks State Park, or stop in at Party Cove if you’re in the mood for a good time. You can also relax in style at the Lodge of Four Seasons and play a few rounds of golf even – it is one of the Midwest’s most challenging courses. Enjoy a lakefront vacation, hop on a boat and put your feet up in this beautiful environment.
6. Hermann Wine Trail
Missouri is home to the historic German community of Hermann, formed by German immigrants who arrived in Missouri in 1837 and started making wines. These settlers grew the wine business carefully and encouraged newcomers to grow more vines, quickly incorporating their winemaking into their lifestyles – wine halls were a favorite gathering place after Sunday church, and holding a Weinfest every year!
Come visit this charming town to tour the vineyards that make Missouri proud. The state-funded Grape and Wine Program promotes tourism and research to continue this trade. Stop in at Stone Hill Winery, one of the oldest wineries in the area, and do one of the fun wine trail events, like the Chocolate Wine Trail, or the Saw Cheese Wine Trail. Book yourself a night or two at a local inn so you can relax and drink responsibly, because we can guarantee you won’t want to stop after one glass!
7. A Natural Retreat at Forest Park, St. Louis
St. Louis is a great city, but sometimes you need to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and reconnect with nature. Forest Park, the “Heart of St. Louis”, is an ideal place to do this and is located nearby in the western part of the city, covering 1,371 acres. It was opened in 1876 and even hosted the 1904 Summer Olympics.
Visit the park for a day outside or to see the St. Louis Zoo or the Science Center. Meadows and trees abound, as well as ponds and restored prairie and wetlands. Bring your camera and prepare yourself to feel like you’ve stepped into a different world. Don’t miss the World’s Fair Pavilion or the Cascades. There are plenty of attractions for all ages, and you don’t have to go far for a bit of peace and quiet.
8. Ha Ha Tonka State Park
Located along the Niangua arm of the Lake of the Ozarks, Ha Ha Tonka State Park spans over three thousand acres and contains the ruins of Ha Ha Tonka, a mansion built after 16th century European castles. The castle was built in the early 1900s and named “ha ha tonka” after the natural springs on the property, a phrase which is said to mean “smiling waters”.
The state of Missouri purchased the castle ruins and park in 1978, converting them into a state park. You can see the ruins from the post office, and it’s a beautiful part of the Ozarks to visit. It has 15 miles of hiking; explore caves, sinkholes, natural bridges and even the castle! Or, if you prefer more water based sports, you can go boating, fishing and swimming.
9. Katy Trail
The Katy Trail State Park contains the Katy Trail, which runs along the 240 miles if the former Missouri-Kansas Texas (MKT) Railroad. Stretching along the railroad tracks and the Missouri River, it is the longest Rails-to-Trails trail in the country and is used by hikers, joggers, cyclists and tourists every year. Parts of the trail are also part of Lewis and Clark National Historic Tail and the American Discovery Trail.
The trail begins at Machens, along mile-marker 27 before passing through Jefferson City. Follow it all the way out to the original MKT Bridge and retrace old railroad tracks and bridges from years gone by. Perfect for the avid hiker, cyclist, or just anyone who wants to hit the road and stretch their legs, check out any stretch of it during your next trip to Missouri and bring your camera to capture some great shots.
10. Retrace the steps of Mark Twain in Hannibal
Mark Twain might have been a literary giant, but once upon a time he was just a kid in Missouri, born and raised in the small town of Hannibal. Now, the town has preserved his house and created museums to commemorate his life, as well as the lives of his beloved characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Walk through town to retrace his steps and live parts of your favorite childhood books.
With 1 ticket, you gain access to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Garden, The Huckleberry Finn House, the Becky Thatcher House and much more! Explore the exhibits that take you through some famous scenes from the novel, like the raft ride with Huck and Jim or the cave where Tom and Becky explored. There are free music concerts offered in summer, perfect for those long summer days. Fantasy meets reality in Hannibal, be sure to stop in and enjoy the experience!
11. Dogwood Canyon Nature Park
A seemingly endless expanse of untouched Ozarks landscapes, Dogwood Canyon Nature Park is around 10,000 acres long and home to some of the prettiest nature and wildlife in the state of Missouri. The park is ideal for day trips and overnight, with camping and cabin rentals offered for those eager to spend more time in the mountains.
Pack your camera and walking shoes and prepare yourself to be impressed. You can fish, hike or bike on the canyon floor, or take a tram tour or cattle drive if you’d rather stay off your feet. Tour the hilltop prairies or ride a horse through the park – there is plenty of to see and do, and you’ll be never be bored!
12. Nightlife in Branson
What is better than combining a fun night out with a live music scene? Branson’s thriving nightlife is full of nightclubs that offer good live music in a setting designed for your relaxation over a few good cocktails. Check out the Highway 76 Strip, which is full of both Broadway-style stage productions and clubs.
After the sun goes down, get cleaned up and check out the Outback Pub, a casual venue with both indoor and outdoor seating along with plenty of dance floor! The Rowdy Beaver Restaurant and Tavern is another must-visit spot, with several brews on tap and a kitchen that is open late! Whether you want to listen to music or sing karaoke, you’ll find everything in Branson. Enjoy a few good drinks and soak in the Southern Hospitality and atmosphere.
13. Heartland Harvest Garden
An edible landscape bound to blow your minds, Heartland Harvest Garden tells visitors the story of where food comes from and how it makes it to your table. Kansas City created this garden to capture the essence of America’s farmland backbone, bringing recognition and appreciation to agriculture. As you explore the edible varieties of fruits, vegetables and grains, you’ll have a whole new appreciation for food and where it comes from!
Start at the Entrance Gardens, which will show you how your coffee and chocolate is grown, as well as captivating you with the Seed to Plate Greenhouse! Wander through fruit orchards, Mediterranean vineyards, and a Fun Foods Farm. Designed with visitors of all ages in mind, Heartland Harvest Garden makes learning about agriculture fun and educational for those passing through.
14. Meramec State Park
Located along the Meramec River near Sullivan, Missouri, Meramec State Park boasts diverse ecosystems spanning from hardwood forests to glades, as well as several caves throughout the park. It was acquired by the state and developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1927, with trails added and buildings constructed to turn it into a state park. Some of these buildings still stand today: the Observation Tower, Park Shelter House and Beach Area Historic District to name a few.
You can stop and stretch your legs here, or stay overnight at the campgrounds. Visit Fisher Cave, the most well-known cave in the park and located by the campgrounds, or explore the IronWorks Trail that takes you down to the old Hamilton Ironworks, no longer functional. Take a cave tour, or go fishing or swimming on the Meramec River and enjoy this retreat back into nature.
15. Historical St. Joseph, Missouri
St. Joseph, informally called St. Joe, is located in Buchanan County along the Missouri River. It was founded by a fur trader, Joseph Robidoux, in 1843 and was known as a last supply point and rough frontier town during the Wild West days. This town has seen it all: the birthplace of the Pony Express, the death place of infamous outlaw Jesse James, and then more recently, the birthplace of famous rapper, Eminem.
Clearly, St. Joseph has some colorful history to explore, offering a Pony Express Museum for those interested in learning about its history. You can also visit the Heaton-Bowman Smith Funeral home to see the small museum maintained for Jesse James, which still displays the bullet hole from the final shot that killed him. Aside from these attractions, the downtown and lively, full of shops and restaurants awaiting you once you have finished retracing some important moments in U.S. history.