I have always said that I am a unique blend of city and country. I grew up as an inner city kid but I spent most of my summers on farms in Missouri. Every summer I would pack my bags and head to Missouri to visit with family. I have driven through Hannibal so many times, I have lost count. Getting to Hannibal was a landmark of sorts. It meant that I was one hour from seeing my grandma, Mamo, whom I love dearly. We usually didn't stop. On the five hour drive from Chicago, my dad would get restless and wanted to push forward. We would cross the bridge over the Mississippi and cheer at the state line. Getting to Missouri meant we were all on vacation. I would stare out the window at the almost movie like set that is Hannibal and wonder what it would be like to visit it. We would visit on occasion, making the one hour trip back from Grandma's house to see the Mark Twain Caves or visit the old cemetery on the hill but I never got a chance to explore the town on my own terms until recently.
Hannibal is the kind of mom and pop midwestern town that would be easily dismissed if it weren't for it's history. You know it's name because it is the birthplace of Mark Twain. This is where Mark Twain grew up, played on the river, got ideas for his stories in the caves and infused his life into his writing. The people who live here have taken pride in both preserving that memory and making it into spectacle. It seems like playing Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are rights of passage for young kids. During peak season, you will see them walking about town. The businesses are all run by locals, who like the speed of the river, seem to march slower in time than life in the city. The oddities and curiosities of the historic parts of town are charming and cartoonish. Perfect for those with imagination, a playful spirit and a love of Mark Twain.
Below you will find a collection of my favorite things to see and do in Hannibal.
MARK TWAIN RIVERBOAT
Start with a one hour riverboat tour on the Mississippi. The trip starts with a tune played on the large organ that can be heard about town. This signals a mini parade of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn characters that make their way down to the river and greet you as you enter. The views from the boat will give you a great view of Hannibal, a quick history and a few locations from Huckleberry Finn. Sit on the deck and imagine being Samuel Clement, who was a steamboat pilot on the river.
Next, head into town and stroll the main strip. Get lost in Lydia's Cabinet of Curiosities. Make sure you take a look at the Dinosaur Fossils, ask the host about them. Missouri sits on a rich bed of limestone. The cave systems here are abundant. That also means that excavating fossils is a local hobby. Ask about them, they have quite the story to tell you.
Next wander into Mrs. Clemens Antique Mall and oogle at all the deliciously creepy treasures. Those who are easily creeped out by dolls, need not apply.
If you are from a rural area, take this next recommendation with a grain of salt. While Hannibal certainly has restaurants that are themed to suit the history of the place, a good cup of coffee and a healthy lunch isn't on the menu for most of them. You'll find a smattering of calories and grease at the diners, pizza places and ice cream parlors. By all means, if that is your thing dive in and enjoy! I do however highly recommend a cafe not far from all the curiosity shops, Java Jive.
If you are looking for that garden to table salad for lunch, this is the place. Not only are the people who run this place wonderful to chat with but they know their coffee and fresh food. All items are locally sourced from farmers. This place is a breath of fresh air on the strip. Bring your copy of your favorite Mark Twain book and cozy up on the couch with a cup for a few hours. The pastries and salads were amazing. Certainly a departure among the greasy midwestern comfort food.
Before you leave Java Jive, stop at the front and take a moment to see all the brochures for things to do in town. There is much to see and you'll need to make some decisions about what your priorities are. From here, I am taking you to the caves. But that means you would skip the museums, boyhood home, trolley tours and hilariously bad, kind of need to see, haunted house and wax museum. If you are doing a day two, by all means check those out. They are fun for people who want to know more about the places and people that influenced Mark Twains writing. I however have a love of the underground and found the caves be more interesting.
If you love camping like me, you'll want to camp here for your stay to get the full experience. These are the caves and the grounds that inspired Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. You'll want to explore, set up a big fire and enjoy the landscape. I have a hotel recommendation further down for those that want a bed.
Explore Cameron Cave during the day and book a lantern and flashlight tour of the Mark Twain caves at night. You'll see hiding places of Jesse James, spots that historians claim are directly related to Huck Finn and learn about the Missouri Cave systems. These tours are easily walkable. Bring a light jacket, the caves are always between 55-60 degrees. Which on a hot summer day is the perfect way to cool off.
If camping isn't your thing, I highly recommend a stay at Rockcliffe Mansion. The mansion was recently restored and opened to the public as a bed and breakfast. It is a rare opportunity to sleep in a restored house from the 1800's. The views of the river are worth the trip up the hill. If staying overnight isn't on the menu come take a tour during the day. I will be booking a night for myself next time I come through. I was so excited to learn you should sleep in these rooms and have a mansion to roam around in at night. Mark Twain gave many speeches and lectures from the stairs in the main parlor. They can be all yours for a night.
Take in the views from the porch before you leave, from here you can look down over the whole town. As a kid, I always longed for travel. My family was bound to the midwest growing up. I used to roll my eyes at places like this, thinking how silly they were when I longed for travel to exotic and more far away places. As I've grown I have come to understand the nostalgic charm of climbing back in time, however cheesy it seems, and enjoying a different perspective. I don't think you'll need more than two days here but it would make a great stop on your road trip onward south to the beautiful state parks in southern illinois or missouri.
TIPS AND FUN FACTS
Twain was born shortly after an appearance of Halley's Comet, and he predicted that he would "go out with it" as well; he died the day after the comet returned. He was lauded as the "greatest American humorist of his age", and William Faulkner called him "the father of American literature".
Each time of year offers a different beauty to this town. The height of the seasons are Memorial Day - Labor Day. There is a festival in the fall and around Christmas time. After that, most of the museums are closed. Be sure to check the websites to see what time of year is best for what you want to see.
Hannibal is also home to the Unsinkable Molly Brown. One of the more famous survivors of the Titanic. There is a muesum dedicated to her story.