With its winding rivers, stunning natural beauty, fantastic food, arts, culture, and a laid-back, Midwestern vibe, the state of Missouri has many components that make it a great place to visit. There’s truly something for everyone to see, do, and experience in the Show-Me State!
While many people are familiar with Missouri’s two largest cities — Kansas City and St. Louis — the state boasts other sizable spots, also loaded with history, charm, and amenities, all of which manage to retain an accessible, comfortable, small-town feel.
Here are six of our favorite big Missouri towns sitting in that small-town sweet spot, and a few reasons why you should consider a visit.
1. Independence, Missouri
Conveniently located just off I-70 in western Missouri, Independence is where legends and legacies live on. The historic city has a presidential claim to fame: It was where our country’s 33rd president, Harry S. Truman, grew up, first practiced law, and entered politics. His presidential library — currently in the final stages of a $30-million renovation — is slated to reopen later this year, in time to celebrate the 75th anniversary of when Truman became the nation’s 33rd president. The Harry S. Truman Home in Independence is a favorite of history buffs and is featured as one of 44 stops on the Truman Historic Walking Trail.
While more than 100,000 people live in Independence today, the Historic Independence Square surrounding the county courthouse where Truman once served as a judge is pure small-town sweetness. Its historic brick buildings house shops, galleries, and eateries that are perfect for a romantic date night. Grab an ice cream soda or sundae from Clinton’s Soda Fountain, and you’ll swear you’ve taken a walk back in time! And it’s not so far-fetched a notion when you stop to consider Independence was the starting point of the Santa Fe, Oregon, and California Trails in the 1800s. You can celebrate the pioneering spirit of those who sought their fortune in the Wild West at Independence’s National Frontier Trails Museum or on a mule-drawn wagon tour with Pioneer Trails Adventures. Consider discovering your own family history at the city’s Midwest Genealogy Center. One of the country’s largest treasure troves of archives and documents, the center is free to access and open to the public.
To learn more about Independence, including additional must-sees and experiences, click here!
2. St. Charles, Missouri
Just a quick jog west of St. Louis, the city of St. Charles is a riverside charmer. It’s crammed with history, having been settled early by French fur trappers thanks to its enviable position alongside the Missouri River. St. Charles served as the state’s first state capitol, and visitors can still tour the modest but sturdy brick building where the state’s earliest lawmakers met to set policy. This is also where explorers Lewis and Clark launched their famous expedition in 1804, eventually reaching the Pacific Ocean by way of St. Charles.
Today, more than 70,000 people live in St. Charles, and you’ll love the stores and cafes in the city’s historic downtown district, with plenty of places to shop, sip, and nosh. Bicyclists also know St. Charles makes for a terrific starting point for a day on Katy Trail State Park, Missouri’s famed rails to trails path that crosses much of the state. Don’t have a bike? No worries, you can rent one at the Bike Stop Cafe right near the trailhead.
3. St. Joseph, Missouri
Tucked away in Missouri’s northeastern region, St. Joseph is a favorite for folks interested in Wild West history. It’s here that, long before the invention of the telegraph, the Pony Express — a horseback mail route that made deliveries from St. Joseph all the way to California — was imagined and realized. The Patee House, the museum dedicated to the route, is its former headquarters and is well worth a stop. Nearby, you’ll find the home where Jesse James lived just before his murder by a fellow outlaw in 1883. The home was moved into town from its original location and is open for tours.
Beyond its Wild West roots, St. Joseph is well known for its lively but casual downtown district, public art displays, and stunning Victorian-era mansions along its Millionaires Row, where St. Joseph’s wealthy merchants lived on and around Hall Street. While 75,000 people call the city home, it projects a much smaller, cozier vibe.
Learn much more about the fun you’ll find and experience in St. Joseph here.
4. Joplin, Missouri
Joplin, a city of 50,000 residents in southwest Missouri, sits along historic Route 66 and blends the best of the country with the best of urban living. Get your outdoor fix in at Grand Falls, the largest continuously running waterfall in Missouri, or hike the arid glade ecosystem at Wildcat Glades Conservation and Audubon Center.
Just outside Joplin, you can explore the place where renowned agriculture scientist George Washington Carver grew up and first learned to tend to plants and the land. It’s now a national monument.
Downtown Joplin boasts boutiques, cafes, and night hot spots. Nearby, outlaws Bonnie and Clyde hid out after one of their heists in the 1930s. The garage apartment where they holed up still stands. It’s privately owned but available to rent for hard-core history fans. The home is located at 215 W. 34th Street.
5. Jefferson City, Missouri
Missouri’s capital city is packed with amenities that make it a great place to explore. Start with a tour of the domed state capitol building and check out the State History Museum housed on its first floor.
The downtown historic district, including Jefferson Landing State Park, feels like walking back in time and gives you a feel for how this river town grew up around the Missouri and expanded out to become the center of the state’s government. After you’re done exploring, indulge in a sweet treat at Central Dairy. This place has served up homemade ice cream treats since 1934 and is beloved by locals and visitors alike.
Find out more about Jeff City, including its link to some of the most infamous criminals in American history, here.
6. Cape Girardeau, Missouri
Missouri’s largest city in the bootheel, Cape Girardeau sits alongside the Mississippi and its riverfront location makes for a perfect place to stroll and explore the colorful downtown district, which has been lovingly and carefully preserved.
Cape Girardeau has plenty of history. Start your lesson at Trail of Tears State Park, which documents and memorializes the forced exodus of thousands of members of the Cherokee Nation from their lands. It’s a somber but beautiful place, with easy hiking trails, picnic areas, an educational visitor center, and incredible views of the Mississippi below.
Fort D is the last remaining of four forts that helped to protect the town of Cape Girardeau from Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Designed by German-American engineers from St. Louis, the fort is on the National Register of Historic Places and routinely hosts living history demonstrations.