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Show me downtown Missouri!

Courtesy St. Louis CVC

Whether you’re strolling tree-lined brick sidewalks and stopping in distinctive locally owned shops and boutiques, or riding to the top of one of the nation’s tallest monuments, you’ll find that downtowns are the heart and soul of Missouri’s large metropolitan areas and small towns alike.

Some buzz with activity and a big-city vibe; others feel laid-back and charming, transporting visitors to another era. Whichever is the case, there’s plenty to discover in Missouri’s many communities.

St. Louis
The Gateway Arch, on the banks of the Mississippi River on the edge of downtown, is a must-see whenever visitors explore St. Louis. An engineering feat like no other, the nation’s tallest man-made monument stands as a tribute to the gutsy determination and ingenuity of its builders as well as the hardy pioneers who settled the West.

Annually, 4 million visitors journey to the top of the 630-foot arch in an enclosed pod tram. As the tram negotiates the monument’s curve, the trip vacillates between thrilling and slightly nerve-racking. At the top, visitors step onto the arch’s slightly curved floor and peer through tiny rectangular windows at the miniaturized city below.

Beneath the arch, visitors can tour the Westward Expansion Museum and watch a movie that details the arch’s construction.

“The arch grounds are adding attractions and being redesigned for an improved visitor experience with new walkways connecting it to downtown,” said Donna Andrews, public relations director at the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission.

The nearby City Museum brings out the inner child in visitors of any age. This former shoe factory houses an aquarium with more than 10,000 creatures, including sharks, stingrays and sea horses. There’s the Tiny Train Town Model Railroad, a 1924 Wurlitzer Pipe Organ and the Elmslie and Sullivan exhibit, which features original pieces by two of America’s most important architects.

“Adults enjoy themselves as much as kids,” said Andrews. “The unique thing about the museum is that everything has been created from salvaged and recycled materials.”

The museum also includes walk-through replicas of Missouri caves and a daily circus show with tumblers, aerialists and jugglers. The Vintage Opera Poster collection ranges from an 1845 Russian performance to the Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ 2003 season.

St. Charles
Situated on the Missouri River, neighboring St. Charles served as Missouri’s first capital and boasts the state’s largest historic district. Visitors can wander downtown’s brick streets and shop for high-quality artwork and crafts, clothing and souvenirs in more than 120 shops.

The First Missouri State Capitol Historic Site offers tours of the restored and furnished building that served as the state’s first seat of government.

The Haviland Museum in the Newbill-McElhiney House contains nearly 1,000 pieces of Haviland china dating from the 1850s to the 1920s. The 45-minute tour also highlights a dining table set in Victorian style, elegant serving dishes and many unusual pieces.

“St. Charles tourism provides a popular iPod walking tour with narrations of selected historic buildings,” said Carol Felzien, director of communications for the Greater St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Our tour is self-paced and lasts approximately 60 minutes.”

For nightlife and live entertainment, Quintessential Dining and Nightlife recently opened a luxurious rooftop terrace. The dramatic granite bar and gazebo-style lounge seating are perched above historic Main Street with lovely views.

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.