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Missouri: Of Writers & Riverboats

In many ways, Missouri is a state made by rivers. With the Mississippi River forming its eastern border and the Missouri River drawing a portion of its western border, the state has a history and culture that was born on the water.

Many of Missouri’s most iconic attractions are related to its river heritage, and exploring riverfront towns and cities around the state gives groups a look at the events and characters that have made Missouri what it is today. Along the way, they’ll learn about how many of the things that took place in Missouri went on to make big impacts on America as well.

This itinerary covers some of Missouri’s most notable riverfront communities and most enduring attractions. It begins with a visit to the Arch in St. Louis and then moves up the Mississippi River to St. Charles and Hannibal. Next, a short trip west across the state takes travelers to St. Joseph before finishing the tour in Kansas City.

Planners should allow at least four days for this itinerary, but they could also expand it to a five- or seven-day trip by adding nights in St. Louis or Kansas City.


St. Louis

Few visitors to St. Louis leave the city without catching at least a glimpse of its famous Gateway Arch. But groups can do much more than snap pictures during a visit to this landmark monument.

Formally known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the Arch symbolizes Missouri’s historic role as the gateway to the American West. Groups can take tram rides to the top of the monument, then head underground to the Museum of Westward Expansion. This museum has an outstanding collection of Native American artifacts, as well as information on Lewis and Clark’s famous explorations.

Groups should also allow an hour to join Gateway Arch Riverboat Cruises on the Mississippi aboard one of two re-created historic riverboats: the Becky Thatcher and the Tom Sawyer. Dinner and themed entertainment cruises are also available.

While you’re there: Church groups will enjoy a stop at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. This impressive building was designed in Romanesque and Byzantine styles and contains one of the country’s most extensive collections of mosaic tile art. Guides accompany groups on tours and point out the numerous artistic accomplishments inside.


St. Charles

Before St. Louis became the metropolis it is today, a town just a few miles up the river called St. Charles served as the capital of Missouri from 1821 through 1825. Though St. Charles’ days as a political powerhouse have long since passed, many vestiges of its history remain, making the city a key stop for groups touring Missouri.

At the center of St. Charles is a historic district on South Main Street that comprises dozens of old buildings and cobblestone streets. Groups can take guided tours of the historic district and stop in the First Missouri State Capitol State Historic Site to see the building where state business took place in St. Charles.

Also in the historic district is the Lewis and Clark Boat House and Nature Center. This museum houses several full-scale replicas of boats used by Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery.

While you’re there: Stop in at the Foundry Art Centre, a train factory built in the 1940s that has been renovated and turned into an interactive, multidisciplinary art studio. Dozens of artists have studios at the center, and visitors can visit their workshops and interact with them in addition to browsing fine-art exhibits.


Farther upriver from St. Charles, Hannibal invites visitors to explore the life and times of one of America’s most famous authors: Mark Twain. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Twain grew up in Hannibal and used people and places from around town as inspiration for many characters and events in his stories about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum introduces visitors to Twain and gives a glimpse of the Hannibal he experienced in the 1840s. The museum’s eight properties include the home where Twain grew up, as well as the Huckleberry Finn House and the Becky Thatcher House, the homes where Twain’s friends who inspired their namesake characters lived.

Groups can arrange to have a meal and a dramatic program with a Mark Twain interpreter as part of their visits to Hannibal.

While you’re there: The Mark Twain Mississippi Riverboat gives travelers another opportunity to get out on the Mississippi. Dinner cruises depart from the landing at the foot of the city’s historic district.


St. Joseph

On the western side of the state, along the banks of the Missouri River, is St. Joseph, a city that played an important role in the nation’s westward expansion. By 1858 the railroad was bringing travelers to town, and a local named John Patee opened a luxury hotel to serve them. Today, the hotel serves as a museum, documenting St. Joseph’s place in American history.

Groups that visit the museum get a great overview of the building and see all sorts of memorabilia and artifacts related to the railroad and local history. They also learn about the Pony Express, which was headquartered in office space at the hotel beginning in 1860.

The museum also has the Jesse James Home, which was inhabited by the famous criminal and, according to official history, is where he was shot in the back and killed by Robert Ford.

While you’re there: Located in former stables that housed the operations of the Pony Express, the Pony Express National Museum gives visitors an in-depth look at the famous delivery service that, although it was short-lived, became a fixture of early Americana.


Kansas City

In 1856, a steamboat named Arabia was packed with goods and supplies intended for settlements out west and began its journey along the Missouri River. It encountered catastrophe near Kansas City, though, and sank. More than 130 years later, after the river had changed course, the Arabia was found under a cornfield. Today, the Arabia Steamboat Museum tells this incredible story.

The cold waters of the Missouri River preserved the items packed onboard the ship, creating a time capsule that gives museum visitors a look at the merchandise shipped along the river. Guests see fine china, clothing, tools, canned food, buttons and other items that were among the 200 tons of cargo recovered from the Arabia.

Though many items are on display, others have yet to be restored. Groups can see experts working to clean and preserve items from the shipwreck in the laboratory at the museum.

While you’re there: Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza has some of the best shopping in the Midwest. This 15-block district has more than 150 shops and dozens of restaurants.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.