The "Show Me State" certainly has a lot to display. For starters, the bold green landscape of the Ozark Mountains overtakes much of Missouri's Southern portion. On top of that, dominant and reliable waterways crisscross the bulk of the boundary – allowing countless towns to form during different phases of the Western Expansion. These places tell remarkable tales of those turbulent but formative centuries. Many of them have struck a delicate balance of modernizing with the changing seasons while also preserving what came before. But whether you are visiting to appreciate the scenery, learn about the history, or to join in with the tight-knit communities, Missouri is unlikely to disappoint. These are seven adorable towns that stand clear of the lot.
One of the most adorable towns in Missouri is also one of the most historically-attractive. Founded in approximately 1735 by French-Canadian colonists on the West bank of the great Mississippi River, Ste. Genevieve is not only the oldest town in the state, but the first permanent, non-Indigenous settlement West of the famous waterway. Now technically a small city (but with a population of only about 5,000 residents), this seat of the titular county sits in the Southeast corner of Missouri, right on the Southwestern Illinois border, and also on the Eastern edge of the Ozark mountains. Ste. Genevieve is therefore an excellent hub for exploring the pristine landscape or delving into the colorful history of the first westward migrations of the early European settlers. For a head start on the latter, pop on over to the Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park, which encompasses a large part of the town's historical district.
The quaint and social community of Washington is ideally located on the Southern bank of the Missouri River, in Franklin County. Though only about 50 miles West of St. Louis, Washington is in a completely different realm – one surrounded by over 40 wineries, built around walkable streets lined with red-brick buildings, and steeped in the German heritage of its early 19th century founders. Go for a stroll or a bike ride along the five-mile Rotary Riverfront Trail, which cuts right through downtown to get oriented with the layout, and then try your hand at antiquing across the various classy shops, sip on some of the local grape creations, pop by the farmer's market, or keep an eye out for the regular fair-weather festivals that take over the town.
Another lovely spot in the Ozarks that has a long and eclectic history is the Village of Caledonia in Washington County. Plopped in the beautiful Bellevue Valley, this humble settlement has only 131 permanent residents, making it one of the smallest incorporated villages in the state. Despite the miniscule population, or perhaps because of it, the community exudes a magnetic charm. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Caledonia features a total of 28 historic homes, businesses, churches, and cemeteries, all of which can be visited on a casual stroll. And the Old Village Mercantile, which has been open since 1909, is definitely the place to go for a little afternoon treat. Outside of town, there are numerous appealing spots to sink into nature. Buford Mountain Conservation Area sits to the Southeast, Hughes Mountain Natural Area is a short drive to the Northeast, and the Mark Twain National Forest sprawls far and wide to the West.
The smallest settlement on this list goes to the village of Arrow Rock, in Saline County. This North-Central Missouri community posted a 2020 population of only 60 people, but the entire place is considered a National Historic Landmark. Arrow Rock hugs the East side of the Missouri River and is connected to the Jameson Island Unit wildlife refuge. This area is part of the famous Lewis & Clark Trail, as well as the Santa Fe Trail (i.e. America's first commercial highway). Arrow Rock also stands atop a beautiful limestone bluff that shows evidence of activity by indigenous cultures dating back almost 12,000 years. The modern name stems from the flint tools and arrowheads that were commonly manufactured long before French settlers mapped this terrain.
Yet another small Missouri town that packs a delightful punch is the roughly 133-person-strong city of Kimmswick. Less than 25 miles South along the Mississippi River from St. Louis, this Jefferson County settlement does a great job of bringing in happy and well-satiated tourists. The Strawberry Festival, which takes place in June, and the Apple Butter Festival, which follows in October, showcase the delicious bounties of local fruits, and at any time of year, the two beloved bakeries (Dough Depot and Blue Owl) are happy to indulge everyone's sweet tooth. The Strawberry Festival also happens to overlap with the annual bluegrass festival, injecting even more fun-loving social energy into Kimmswick. On quieter days, visitors can search for souvenirs at the small-scale boutique shops, or for that undiscovered gem at the local art galleries.
Switching from the tiniest of villages to a mid-sized, all-American town, Cape Girardeau is full of people (but not too many!), history, culture, and scenery. This modestly-sized city sits roughly 60 miles Southeast of Ste. Genevieve, and similarly hugs the Eastern border of the Ozarks and the Western shore of the Mississippi River. In terms of history, there are a dozen districts on the national register, as well as many more individual historic landmarks that were erected throughout the 19th and early 20th century. Along with celebrating the adventures of Lewis and Clark, the early colonists, and the famous American author, Mark Twain, the nearby Trail of Tears State Park commemorates the forced relocation of the Cherokee people, but also features an inspiring riverside lookout and gentle wooded hiking trails. A youthful energy also abounds in Cape Girardeau, thanks to thousands of students arriving each fall to the Southeast Missouri State University campus, and the local creatives who host a monthly artwalk.
One last riverside community that will ensure an aesthetically-pleasing trip through Missouri is the sub-1,000-resident city of Van Buren, in Carter County. Plunked beside the Current River in the Southeast quadrant of the state Van Buren enjoys the invigorating blue/green atmosphere of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways Park, to the immediate North, and the aptly-named Big Spring (which at an average daily flow rate of 286 million gallons of water is one of three contenders for the nation's biggest spring) is only a smidge further South. To complement these natural attractions and encourage a patient embrace of the scenery, there are numerous campgrounds maintained in and around Van Buren, along the Current River.
A lot is happening in the state of Missouri. But there is much more to this place than the tri-city cross-section of Kansas City, Columbia, and St. Louis can account for. In fact, some of the best discoveries are sure to come from these seven adorable small towns. Once you get a taste of the pollution-free countryside, the amiable communities, the multitudinous layers of history, and the wholesome seasonal activities, you'll never look at this middle-American state the same way again.