Missouri sits at the crossroads of the United States’ Midwest and South. In fact, its very admission as a state was the result of an 1820 compromise between the Southern states and the North over the issue of slavery. Missouri was established as a state permitting slavery and, in exchange, slavery was prohibited in the western territories north of Missouri’s 36º30’ parallel – the Mason-Dixie Line. It’s no surprise then that Missouri has been nicknamed the “heart of the USA” and that residents see themselves as both Midwestern and Southern. Typically, northern Missourians hailing from cities like St. Louis and Kansas City consider themselves Midwesterners while Missourians in the south rural areas of Springfield and Cape Girardeau consider themselves Southerners.
Missouri has also been referred to as the “Gateway to the West”. And this moniker is fitting considering the state’s historic role as the starting point for the Lewis & Clark expedition. In later years, Missouri’s town of Westport marked the starting point of the Oregon Trail, which was used by thousands of pioneers making their trek westward to Oregon, Santa Fe, and California.
But Missouri’s hybrid culture or historic role in America’s westward expansion is not the reason the state attracts millions of visitors each year. This “Show Me State” features entertainment and cultural-rich destinations like St. Louis, Branson, and Kansas City. Branson, in particular, is known as the entertainment capital of America, flaunting country music shows, live theatre performances, hydrotechnic shows, championship golf courses, award-winning theme parks, and cultural museums. But Missouri also boasts Kansas City and its flashy theme parks, glamorous shopping complexes, and lively jazz clubs, as well as the world-class city of St. Louis, famously known for its landmark Gateway Arch, Anheuser Busch Brewery, and riverboat casinos.
Natural beauty describes Missouri as well, a land of towering bluffs, sparkling rivers like the Mississippi, subterranean lakes like the Bonne Terre Mine, scenic trails like the rugged Ozark, and even underground caves – more than 6,000 caves in fact are scattered throughout the state. Missouri also has a wine country west and south of St. Louis, a region dotted with wineries like the Mount Pleasant Winery and the Stone Hill Winery where you can sample award-winning vintages.
The first Europeans to explore Missouri were the French who sailed up and down the Mississippi in the late 1600s. The French claimed the territory and it became part of the Louisiana Colony. Over the next few centuries, the French and Spanish traded the territory back and forth. Missouri finally became part of the United States when it was acquired in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
St. Louis developed into a thriving city during the 19th century, serving as an important port along the Mississippi. It also became a gateway to the West for many pioneers during the nation’s westward expansion period. The Pony Express mail service also began in Missouri in the 1860s at the northwest town of St. Joseph.
In 1820, Missouri was admitted as a state as part of a compromise between the free states of the north and the slave states of the south. Its own people were sharply divided between the Union and the Confederates during the Civil War. Even today, the state features a cultural divide between northern residents who share more similarities with Midwesterners and the rural southerners who share more similarities with the Southern states.
Attractions By Region
Missouri is divided into five tourist regions: the northwest, northeast, central, southwest, and southeast. The northwest features wineries, rural charm, and the metropolis of Kansas City, which is famous for its barbecues. You’ll also find historic attractions like the National Frontier Trails museum, which traces the history of the pioneers headed west for Oregon, Santa Fe, and California. There are also war sites like in Sibley where you can tour Fort Osage, a stronghold from the War of 1812. In Liberty, you can visit the town’s Civil War battlefield, as well as learn more about the famous bank robber, Jesse James, at the Jesse James Bank Museum and Jesse James Farm and Museum. St. Joseph is another city in the northwest worth visiting; it offers historic attractions associated with the Pony Express. Throughout the northwest, the outdoors invite visitors to fish, hike, boat, and wildlife-watch at the various parks, recreation areas, and wildlife refuges in the area; be sure to visit Big Lake State Park, Fountain Grove Conservation Area, Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, and Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
Missouri’s northeast region features wineries, communities along the Mississippi River, and the state’s largest city, St. Louis. In this latter city, you can visit the landmark Gateway Arch and the St. Louis Zoo, entertain at the city’s riverboat cruises, or sample the myriad fine restaurants. Outside of St. Louis is the river country made famous by Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. If you are a fan of the author, you should visit the Mark Twain Cave to see the author’s childhood home and where he got his inspirations for his adventurous tales. The northeast’s wine country lies west of St. Louis where you’ll find wineries and a strong German culture.
Missouri’s central region features numerous scenic hiking trails and vintage wineries. It is also home to the state capital of Jefferson City. Outdoor adventure opportunities abound in this region. You can visit the trails of Katy Trail State Park and the beautiful Lake of the Ozarks, where you can swim, water-ski, fish, boat, and explore the area’s caves. Jefferson City offers the sight of government architecture, highlighted by the Roman Renaissance-style capitol building.
Missouri’s southwest region is highlighted by Branson, the “Family Friendly Las Vegas” where entertainment abounds in the form of variety shows, music performances, magic acts, and circus and comedy gigs. You’ll also find the Titanic museum, river cruises, and amusement parks like the Silver Dollar City. Another major city of the southwest is Springfield, which features museums, art galleries, zoos, aquariums, and the Fantastic Caverns caves which you can ride through. Outside of the urban areas, you’ll find wineries and beautiful lakes like the Taneycomo, Table Rock, and Bull Shoals where anglers, scuba divers, and water-skiers congregate. On the historical side, visit Joplin and its museums to trace the town’s mining history and 19th century heydays. Mansfield, meanwhile, features the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, which is dedicated to the author of the popular Little House on the Prairies books.
Missouri’s southeast region is a land of the outdoors, offering paddling, climbing, and hiking opportunities. Rivers and waterways dominate the region. You’ll find the Black River, Meramec River, and Eleven Point River, as well as designated areas like the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. The 300-mile Ozark Trail is popular among hikers and backpackers; it meanders through the Mark Twain National Forest and the St. Francois Mountains. Big Spring is another notable destination, home to some of the largest natural springs in the United States. Caves can be explored at Bonne Terre which is highlighted by an underground lake that is popular among scuba divers and romantic to ride a boat through.