My wife and I enjoy visiting capital cities when we travel. While our goal is to visit all 50 state capitals, we’ve only made it to 11, so we have plenty of work ahead of us. As we visit, we take in the sights and sample local cuisine to get an overall impression of the city.
In Missouri, Jefferson City -- Jeff City to locals -- offers a unique capital-city experience. It’s not the largest city in the state (only the 15th-largest), nor is it home to the state’s main university, as many other state capitals are.
Nevertheless, Jefferson City, located near the Ozarks, offers an interesting look at state history and local culture and makes for a spectacular weekend adventure.
Here are seven things to do when you’re in the area.
1. Tour The Missouri State Penitentiary
The Missouri State Penitentiary operated for nearly 190 years, opening its gates in 1836, the same month as the Battle of the Alamo in Texas. Nicknamed “The Walls” because of the large stone blocks used to enclose it, the Missouri State Penitentiary once housed some of the most notorious criminals in American history, including Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd and James Earl Ray. The prison was referred to as the “Deadliest 47 Acres in America” because 40 inmates were executed there. Even more died at the hands of other inmates, guards, and local businessmen, according to the tour guides. Another notable inmate was the boxing champion Sonny Liston, who actually held matches inside the prison.
Today, public tours take you through the prison cellblocks, yards, and other areas. You can even participate in a haunted tour for an extra fee.
2. Explore The State Capitol
You can learn a lot about a state’s history on a guided tour of the state’s capitol building.
State leaders chose Jefferson City as Missouri’s capital city because it was centrally located along the Missouri River, then the state’s main transportation route. Fun fact: The first capital of Missouri was Saint Charles, located northwest of Saint Louis.
Completed in 1917, the Missouri State Capitol is located near the river and offers beautiful views of the area. Its campus is decorated with water fountains, sculptures, and floral gardens. The Lewis and Clark Trailhead Plaza recognizes the 1804 explorers who sailed the Missouri River en route to the Pacific Northwest.
Inside the Capitol, you’ll notice beautiful artwork celebrating the state’s natural resources encircling the rotunda’s dome. Home to the state legislature and governor’s office, the Capitol offers a tour of both the Senate and House chambers. The House lounge features murals showcasing state history and hosts public hearings as well as social gatherings.
The Capitol is also home to the state’s Hall of Famous Missourians, which features 50 busts of some of the state’s greatest residents, including President Harry S. Truman and baseball legend Buck O’Neil.
Located on the Capitol’s first floor, the Missouri State Museum offers a look at the state’s early days, from the time when Native Americans were the dominant people to the present day. The museum also provides a look at Missouri’s geography, from the swamps of the southeast to the glacial lands of the north.
A short walk away is the Missouri Governor’s Mansion, home to the chief executive and his family. The Mel Carnahan Memorial Garden features beautifully landscaped flower beds and shrubs.
3. Visit The Museum Of Missouri Military History
The Museum of Missouri Military History, located in the National Guard’s training center, offers a look at the state’s military involvement. Visitors can learn about Missourians’ participation in America’s wars and take in exhibits featuring a Revolutionary War musket, a Civil War howitzer, and a World War II machine gun, as well as uniforms and equipment. The museum also has a McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle and other military vehicles in its outdoor exhibit.
4. Travel Back In Time At The Jefferson Landing State Historic Site
When Jefferson City became the state capital, the lower end of Jefferson Street developed into a business hub. Home to the Lohman Building and other businesses, including a hotel, the Jefferson Landing State Historic Site offers a look at the city’s early growth. You can see what it was like to live in the city during the 1850s with a visit to the general store and warehouse. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.
5. Cross The River To The Katy Trail
You can get a sense of the area’s natural beauty by taking a walk or bike ride along the Katy Trail, which runs along the Missouri River.
Cross over on the Missouri River Pedestrian Bike Bridge, which includes two lookout points where you can take in views of the Missouri State Capitol and more. It’s a peaceful spot, with the Missouri River flowing beneath you, the trees and bluffs reaching skyward, and the Capitol peeking out from behind the trees. On a sunny day, there may not be a more spectacular view in Jefferson City. Bring a padlock along and join the fray as people place “Locks of Love” on the fencing along the pedestrian bridge.
After you’ve enjoyed some time on the bridge, enjoy a stroll along the Katy Trail, a popular hiking and biking trail that runs nearly 240 miles from near Saint Louis to Clinton, Missouri.
6. Explore The Historic Downtown Area
There’s some impressive architecture to be found in downtown Jefferson City, including the oldest synagogue west of the Mississippi River. The downtown area boasts several buildings constructed during the mid-to-late 1800s in the Romanesque and other elegant Victorian styles. You’ll find stained glass windows, old clocks, and unique building materials.
Buildings of interest include the Cole County Courthouse, Lohman’s Opera House, Temple Beth El, and Exchange and Trust Bank Building. Before you set out, print the walking tour brochure from the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau -- it highlights 20 important buildings in the area.
7. Check Out The Unique Shops
Downtown Jefferson City is also home to several unique shops and boutiques. Here are some of the highlights.
You can find bath and gift sets, as well as clothing and stationery, at Southbank Gift Company.
You can create your own pottery design at Unique Creations. Choose a home decor piece -- like a butter dish, plate, or cup -- and set about painting your own gift.
Classic and vintage home decor and accessories can be found at Dogwood Vintiques. Featuring sewing machines, radios, glassware, and more, the 15-year-old mall is home to about 28,000 square feet and two floors of treasures.
Where To Eat In Jefferson City
Ask any local where to get a bite to eat, and they’ll likely mention ECCO Lounge. Once a saloon, ECCO Lounge is now known for its pub-style menu, including its breaded onion rings, handmade burgers, and beer-battered chicken sandwiches. The restaurant also offers steaks and seafood.
Located about three blocks from the Missouri State Penitentiary is Prison Brews, which brews its own beer on-site. Prison Brews offers a casual environment and items such as burgers, pizzas, and sandwiches. The decor has a prison theme, and the brewery encourages visitors to enjoy their time in the big house -- or restaurant -- and even offers souvenirs, including themed T-shirts.
For dessert, head to Central Dairy. Established in 1920, Central Dairy was Jefferson City’s best-known milk producer. In 1934, the dairy added an ice cream counter, and it’s been a popular treat shop ever since. People line up outside, willing to wait for a fresh hand-scooped ice cream cone, dish, sundae, or shake at the old-fashioned parlor. Be prepared to have your ice cream to go, because the booths and tables fill up fast. You can even order a pint or gallon to go.
Where To Stay In Jefferson City
The centrally located Capitol Plaza Hotel is only a few minutes’ walk from the Missouri State Capitol and other downtown attractions. With comfortable, pet-friendly rooms with plenty of space, an indoor pool, and a restaurant, the hotel is a great place to relax.
Bed-and-breakfast enthusiasts will want to check out the Dauphine Hotel. Opened in 1875 as a hotel, the Dauphine transitioned to a bed and breakfast in recent years. A stay in one of the seven well-appointed rooms is guaranteed to be an intimate and cozy experience. The bed and breakfast, located about 30 minutes from Jefferson City in Bonnots Mill, Missouri, offers rooms at affordable rates.
For more to see and do in Missouri, see this page.