Roughly at the center of the state, 130 miles west of St. Louis and 140 miles east of Kansas City on the south bank of the Missouri River, Jefferson City (pop. 43,079) is a strangely small and somnolent place. The handsome neoclassical state capitol (daily, free), modeled on the U.S. Capitol and completed in 1917, is the central landmark, rising above the river at the heart of town. Inside, the rotunda and ground floor area are packed with informative exhibits tracing the state’s political and natural history, while one-hour guided tours take in the entire building, including a famous mural by Thomas Hart Benton on the walls of the third-floor House Lounge.
The small, surprisingly quiet downtown area has a couple of places worth searching out: start with Arris’ Pizza Palace (117 W. High St., 573/635-9225), which has been serving great pizzas and a range of Greek specialties since 1961. Afterward, enjoy freshly churned ice cream at Central Dairy (610 Madison St., 573/635-6148). And if all that makes you want to linger, stay the night at the historic but recently remodeled Baymont Inn and Suites (319 W. Miller St., 573/636-5231, $84 and up), right downtown, a block off US-50, the main alternative to the national chains.
Highway 100: Hermann and Washington
Running along the south bank of the Missouri River, Hwy-100 is the most interesting route between Jefferson City and St. Louis. Midway along, the town of Hermann (pop. 2,431) was founded by German immigrants in 1837. Surrounded by small wineries and standing right on the riverfront, Hermann reminds some visitors of a Rhine Valley village, its German heritage kept alive at the German School Museum (312 Schiller St., 573/486-2017, Thurs.-Tues. Apr.-Oct., Sat.-Sun. Nov. and 1st two weekends of Dec., $5) downtown.
Roughly 50 miles from the Gateway Arch at downtown St. Louis, the redbrick town of Washington (pop. 13,982) rises on narrow streets above the broad Missouri River. Like Hermann, the town was settled by German immigrants in the mid-1800s and is now full of restaurants and B&B inns catering to weekend visitors. The small Washington Historical Society Museum at 4th and Market Streets has exhibits on early settlers and the town’s current main industry (after tourism, that is): manufacturing corncob pipes.
The great frontiersman Daniel Boone settled along the northern banks of the Missouri River in 1799 and lived near what’s now the town of Defiance for the next 20 years until his death in 1820. His home, five well-signed miles outside Defiance, is now open for tours (636/798-2005, Mon.-Fri. 8:30am-5pm, Sat.-Sun. 11:30am-5pm, $8).
West of St. Louis, Hwy-100 and US-50 merge into the high-speed I-44 freeway in Eureka, near the massive Six Flags amusement park (636/938-5300, $66), which has great roller coasters. Near the wooden Colossus Ferris wheel is a mural with scenes from the 1904 World’s Fair.