Going with the Flow in Missouri
Missouri may be land-locked, but it's a state where you're never far from the water. Yes, there are massive lakes like the Lake of the Ozarks, but with the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, along with their tributaries flowing across the state, Missouri's got a lot of river towns. In fact, the word “Missouri” is even derived from a Native American word meaning “town of the large canoes”.
So we sent Atlanta-based travel content creator Leah Shoup (@leahshoup) out to Missouri to explore a few of these river towns, where she mingled with the locals and went with the flow. “I felt kind of embraced everywhere we went,” Leah said. “In these river towns, people are so excited to have out-of-towners. They have a lot of pride in their town and strong connections to their place.”
Read on to see where Leah stopped along the way as she traveled around eastern Missouri.
Founded in 1769 by French Canadian fur traders, St. Charles is now the ninth-largest city in Missouri. Just a few miles west of St. Louis, St. Charles’ claim to fame is that it was the launching point of Lewis and Clark’s expedition into the Louisiana Territory. For our purposes, it was the launching pad of Leah’s journey into Missouri’s river towns.
The day began on historic Main Street at Frontier Perk Café, where Leah ate “some of the best eggs benedict I’ve ever had and the coffee was way better than Starbucks”. The café is across the street from Frontier Park, which offers views of the Missouri River, so she was able to take a stroll along with numerous families out that day. Cyclists were also about, due in part to the proximity of the St. Charles trailhead in Katy Trail State Park, a 240-mile biking trail that runs through the state.
Early explorers and pioneers did their shopping on the brick-lined Main Street, now part of the nationally registered historic district, and today the street is full of restaurants, shops and boutiques. At Joys Collective Market, Leah wandered the dozens of rooms, each devoted to different things like books, jewelry, succulents, clothing and home goods. She recommends stopping at Grandma’s Cookies, where the soft cookies look like scoops of ice cream and come in flavors like chocolate chip, snickerdoodle, coconut and peanut butter. “They taste like they haven’t been fully baked,” Leah raved. “I loved this because I don’t like cookies that are so crunchy.” Affordable prices (i.e. two cookies for $3) also helped sweeten the deal.
Leah rounded out her time in St. Charles with the Lewis & Clark Boat House and Museum, which she called a must-see for anyone interested in history in general. Along with nature displays about the flora and fauna Lewis and Clark saw on their journey, the museum also has full-scale replicas of the boats used on the expedition. The staff there were kind enough to answer any and all questions she had as well.
“Welcome to Hannibal, lady; can I give you any recommendations?” an older gentleman asked Leah as she parked her car. Sure that she had just met the mayor of the town, she later learned that he was just a regular citizen. “I do think that one of my favorite parts of visiting was the locals,” Leah says. “They were so welcoming and excited that I was visiting from another area.”
Whether you know the author as Mark Twain or Samuel Clemens, Hannibal was his hometown and visitors will notice his presence everywhere. Some of his characters are featured on a few of the murals around town, and if you look up the hill from Main Street, you’ll even see the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse as a beacon. Many of Twain’s works, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, were inspired by his experiences in this riverside town.
So it was only natural that Leah toured the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, which also includes a law office, a pharmacy and the homes of neighbors who inspired characters like Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher. As someone who is interested in history, Leah found the museum to be a very accurate picture of what life was like in Missouri.
Missouri’s river towns are full of historic homes, and Rockcliffe Mansion in Hannibal did not disappoint. “It’s being restored at the moment, so you don’t get a feeling that it will be this mind-blowing on the inside,” Leah said, noting that no rooms are roped off so you can get close to everything. “I thought that was the coolest thing ever, that you can take a tour of the mansion and it feels like you’re in the home, not like you’re visiting a museum, per se.” Not only can visitors book tours of the home, but they can also stay overnight there.
One unexpected experience came at LaBinnah Bistro, a veteran-owned-and-operated upscale restaurant located within an older home. The menu features lots of Turkish items like pickled Turkish vegetables, Ajvar (boneless chicken breast with puree eggplant, tomato, seasoned peppers, spices and sweet peppers) as well as Turkish coffee. “They ask that you don’t use your phone while in there,” Leah said. “It was actually kind of nice. They’re trying to have you focus on the experience and not be distracted.”
Freshly fueled with baklava, Leah joined the Haunted Hannibal Ghost Tour. As a Georgia native, Leah has been on a number of Savannah’s ghost tours but rated this as one of the best in her experience. “The husband and wife leading the tour were captivating and you could tell they loved what they were talking about,” she said, noting that they pointed out various haunted sites, like the Garden House Bed & Breakfast. The tour ends with a visit to a Baptist cemetery, where visitors hold divining rods and try to see if they can make contact with the spirits. Leah did not, and thereby had a peaceful sleep downtown in the Pistol Annie room at The Travelers Rooming House.
After grabbing a quick St. Louis-roasted Chauvin coffee at Java Jive in Hannibal, Leah hit the Great River Road early the next morning. The 2.5-hour drive southeast to Kimmswick takes in lots of green farmland, towns, and of course, river views. The mission critical here? Grabbing a slice of the coveted Levee High Apple Pie, made with 18 apples, at The Blue Owl Restaurant and Bakery. “It was definitely different to apple pies I’ve had before,” Leah declared. “You have to try it.”
Heading about 1.5 hours further south, Leah traveled to Cape Girardeau, the largest city in southeast Missouri. Riverboats are often seen docked at the harbor, and Leah noted that you can hear the sound of trains passing throughout the day. The thriving downtown has numerous art galleries and antique shops, as well as the Mississippi River Tales Mural. The nearby Southeast Missouri State University campus is home to the Crisp Museum, showcasing regional history and art. Stop for the banana pie at Celebrations Restaurant & Bar, or one of their specialty cocktails like the Sawyer, which is made of gin, lime, simple syrup, orange bitters, angostura and Peychaud's bitters.
After a good night’s sleep (with the sound of a train whistle as she shut her eyes), Leah headed back north, to the small town of Perryville. “This town has a heart and passion for veterans,” Leah said, noting that there were lots of pro-veteran things in the area. Most notable is Missouri’s National Veterans Memorial, a full-sized replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. “It was very striking just to see so many veterans visiting,” she said, noting that the volunteers at the memorial were eager to help find people’s names on the wall. “It’s a very emotional experience for people who lived through [the Vietnam War].”
After a quick lunch at Mary Jane Burgers & Brew in Perryville for a burger with a twist (hers had jam on it), Leah headed north to Ste. Genevieve, or “Ste. Gen” as the locals call it. Missouri’s oldest settlement, the town was founded in 1735 by French Canadian explorers. Today, it is home to the Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park, which preserves the French colonial heritage of the region. “It reminded me of a mini Old Montreal,” Leah said of the walkable town, where even her accommodation, Hotel Audubon, was located on Main Street. There are a number of historic homes to tour. Three of five poteaux-en-terre (post in ground) constructed homes remaining in North America are located in Ste. Genevieve. Leah also toured the Felix Valle House State Historic Site, which dates back to 1818.
The area is home to the Route du Vin Wine Trail, composed of vineyards such as Chaumette Vineyards & Winery, Charleville Vineyard & Microbrewery and the one Leah went to, Cave Vineyard. As the name implies, there is a cave on-site where you can bring a picnic lunch (provided you buy a bottle of wine).
“As you’re driving into the city, it almost doesn’t feel like you’re in a big city,” Leah said of her arrival into St. Louis. “The neighborhoods are spread out. You get more of that packed city vibe once you’re at the arch.” Gateway Arch National Park not only includes the 630-foot tall monument, but also a park over the highway, expanded grounds and enhanced museum exhibits. “The view from above was honestly way cooler than I was expecting,” she admitted.
Leah also explored lesser-known highlights of the city, like lunch at Olio, a restaurant that serves Israeli-inspired dishes inside a former 1930s filling station. Her favorite activity was walking around Lafayette Square neighborhood, where she could see the stately homes known affectionately as the “Painted Ladies” around the 30-acre Lafayette Park, the oldest urban park west of the Mississippi. Another friendly local chatted up Leah here, sharing his lucrative investment story about buying one of the stately homes for $8,000 in the 1980s. “I could have spent the whole day there, taking pictures,” she said.
Nicknamed the “Rome of the West,” the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is an operating Roman Catholic Church that is believed to house the world’s largest mosaic collection, consisting of 41.5 million pieces. “It had the coolest interior I’ve seen in a church in the U.S.,” Leah said of the first Catholic church in St. Louis, reported to have been originally constructed of logs in 1770. Built in Greek revival style, the church is also noted for its marble altars. "I expect that in Europe, but not in the U.S.”
Forest Park did not disappoint either. The city’s premier urban park offers a number of attractions like the Saint Louis Zoo, Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri History Museum, Saint Louis Science Center and The Muny outdoor musical theatre. The highlight for Leah was the Jewel Box, an Art Deco iron and glass greenhouse full of flowers.
Leah has traveled all over the word, and felt like her experience in Missouri's river towns was unique. “Not every small town gives me an old-timey historical feel, but these did," she said.
“It felt kind of like if Savannah and Montreal were blended together and made into small towns, that’s what it reminded me of,” she continues. “It was similar to big historic cities, but with the river towns, there was a slower pace of life and locals were taking their time. I do think it was like a colonial U.S. experience, but sprinkle in some elements of Europe and the Wild West.”