This is part 2 of our 11 Day / 10 Night Road Trip around the US MidWest. For Part 1, see this link.
Day 6, we visited all the top sights in Memphis, the second largest city in the state of Tennessee, after Nashville. The city’s claims to fame include Graceland, the mansion Elvis Presley lived in during his later years. Perhaps more importantly, Memphis is considered by many to be the home of blues music.
The Big River Crossing in Memphis, crossing over to Arkansas, is the longest public pedestrian bridge across the Mississippi, at nearly 1.6 km. Early in the morning when we walked the crossing, there were many joggers and walkers on the bridge.
Then we stopped at the nearby National Ornamental Metal Museum with many displays of art jewelry, architectural pieces, and sculpture. Even without going inside the museum, the grounds have many interesting permanent installations of metal sculptures to see. This museum has one of the best views overlooking the Mississippi River.
Then it was time to head over to the down town area and go into the Peabody Hotel for the “March of the Ducks” (from the elevator to the center fountain), an 85-year old tradition at the historical hotel, which started in 1933. The ducks march twice a day at 11 am and 5 pm.
Downtown Memphis has experienced quite a rebirth and renewal in the last few years, full of new development after
decades of abandonment. In the past few years, the city has emerged to boast to have one of the largest downtown populations among US cities. From several vantage point in the city center, one can see the Memphis Pyramid, a former sports arena and concert venue. It is now the Bass Pro’s largest store at 535,000 sq. ft. Inside this huge retail store, the pyramid houses two restaurants, a bowling alley, a 100-room hotel, an observation deck, and the tallest free-standing elevator in America.
Next we headed out of downtown again to visit the 4,500 acres, Shelby Farms Park, one of the 20 largest urban parks in USA. It has many lakes, wetlands, 40 miles of trails, buffaloes, as well as rentals for bikes, kayaks, and paddle-boards. The Park’s trail network includes Shelby Farms Greenline, an iconic 10.65 mile paved cycling and pedestrian trail that connects the heart of Memphis to the heart of Cordova through Shelby Farms Park.
Afterwards, we went back into town, parked our car and walked over the connecting walkway to Mud Island River Park. This park contains a museum of the Mississippi River and a scale model of the river. The park is also accessible by a suspended monorail, made famous by a chase scene in the movie The Firm. Visitors can remove their shoes and wade through the replica mighty Mississippi.
At the tip of the park is an excellent vantage point of the city and the river. We stayed in the area and watched the spectacular sunset what casted a warm glow over Mud Island River Park and the bridge over the Mississippi River.
After a southern dinner of seafood gumbo and wild rice, we went to check out night life at the famous Beale Street, “Home of the Blues”. It was quite lively, with many packed bars and clubs, many of them featuring live music. The street is closed to car traffic, security was strict. Going through a metal scanner and ID check was required to enter.
On Day 7, we left Memphis and drove 4 hours to St. Louis, Missouri, with a quick stop at Cape Giraudoux, the largest city between Memphis, Tennessee and St. Louis, Missouri. On the western bank of the Mississippi River, this town is touched by the likes of Mark Twain, Lewis and Clark, and Ulysses S. Grant.
Arriving at St. Louis by mid-afternoon, we checked in to our pre-booked time to ride the tram up the Gateway Arch, now a US National Park. It is the highest man-made monument in the USA. At the top, the views of the city and the Missouri River were fabulous. Besides the tram ride, there are many historical exhibits indoor, an outdoor riverfront grass area, and walkways to enjoy in this popular tourist area.
After the Gateway Arch and riverfront area, a
short walk back up via Market Street to North Broadway street has us inside the The Old Courthouse, also part of the Gateway Arch National Park. We looked around the ground floor but did not stay for the tour from a park ranger. It is a great place for history lovers.
In the evening, we headed over to the Loop Delmar neighborhood, an entertainment, cultural and restaurant district. The Loop is the home of the St. Louis Walk of Fame, a series of brass plaques embedded in the sidewalk along Delmar Boulevard commemorating famous St. Louisans, including musicians Chuck Berry, Miles Davis and Tina Turner, actor John Goodman, bridge-builder James Eads and sexologists Masters and Johnson. There is a statue of Chuck Berry here as he spent many years playing his music in the Blueberry Hill restaurant and music club in this neighborhood. This restaurant is still considered a St. Louis landmark and we saw both tourist and locals enjoying meals and drinks inside. But for our dinner, we headed across the street to the Fitz’s Soda Bar & Grill for burgers, craft beers, and best of all, a yummy Fitz’s root beer float.
On Day 8 early morning, we drove 20 minutes across the Missouri-Illinois state line to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, just east of the Mississippi River. This site is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the largest archaeology site in North America north of Mexico. This site was a large pre-Colombian Native American city between 1050–1350 AD. Unfortunately, the visitor center was closed on this day, but we hiked up one of the larger mounds to get a good view of the surroundings.
Fortunately, being weekend, the traffic was light so we turned back to St. Louis in time for our scheduled tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery. The brewery is in the historic Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis, and is the largest and oldest brewery site for the company. The tour was both informative and entertaining.
In addition to learning about company history, brewery methods, one can see some Budweiser Clydesdale horses in the stable area. At the end of the tour, we each enjoyed complimentary beers inside the on-site restaurant and bar.
There was still much more to see in this city. In the afternoon, we started with a visit to Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, a Roman Catholic church that contains the most mosaic art in one site in the world, 83,000 square feet, installed by 20 artists who used more than 41 million of glass tiles with more than 7,000 colors. The church began in 1912, and was completed in 1988. This was followed by a visit to the iconic Chase Park Plaza Hotel, with some of Chase’s celebrity guests such as Bob Hope, Phyllis Diller, Perry Como, the Rolling Stones, and 8 US Presidents.
Then we stopped by the Busch Stadium and the neighboring new Village Park neighborhood with many restaurants and pubs. There was no game on, so it was quite easy to stop our car for a quick look at the many statues of famous St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame players outside the Busch Stadium.
Lastly, we read that St. Louis is the chess capital of USA with the world’s largest chess piece outside the World Chess Hall of Fame. And since we enjoy playing chess at our leisure time, we had to stop by for a quick visit.
On Day 9, we left St. Louis and drove 30 minutes westward to the Highway 66 State Park near the town of Eureka, Missouri. It was fun to drive through a short portion of the original Route 66 highway (which goes from Chicago to Los Angeles), and the State Park Visitor’s Center has many memorabilia of the bygone years.
Driving a further 2 hours we reached Jefferson City, the capital city of Missouri. Jefferson City is named after the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was the President responsible for the Louisiana Purchase, which some of the land from that purchase eventually became the State of Missouri. In 2013, Jefferson City was named America’s “Most Beautiful” Small Town by Rand McNally.
Missouri State Capitol Building was rated as being the fifth most beautiful on the outside and first most beautiful on the inside of all 50 United States capitals by USA Today. Completed in 1917, the Capitol covers three acres in downtown Jefferson City. Capitol tours are provided to the public at no cost, and this tour provides an excellent education on the State of Missouri and the structure that represents its home. The room-sized mural “A Social History of the State of Missouri” by Thomas Hart Benton is the most famous art piece in the Jefferson City State Capitol. It was completed in 1936.
Next to the Missouri State Capitol is the Louis and Clark Trail Head Plaza with a monument commemorating the location where the Lewis and Clark expedition started on May 1804. This was the first American expedition to cross the Continental Divide to reach the Pacific coast in September 1806. Below this plaza is the Jefferson Landing State Historic Site, also known as Jefferson’s Landing. It was the site of the original river landing and the first area settled in the city.
After seeing these major sites in Jefferson City, we drove another 2.5 hours westward to Kansas City, Missouri. As it was still early when we arrived Kansas City, we had time to visit this city, under appreciated by tourists. Reputed to have more boulevards than Paris and more fountains than any other city in the world except for Rome, it is a beautiful city and it is unique, in that it is split down the middle by the state line of Kansas and Missouri.
With wide streets and light traffic, it was really easy to check out three sights quickly, “The Scout” statue on Penn Valley Lookout, Kansas City MO, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.
We spent more time at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. In the museum there is Roman Fountain Basin, oldest fountain in the USA, dating back to 220 AD. Kansas City MO has the second most fountains in the world, after Rome. We also allocated quite a bit of time for the Money Museum inside the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Missouri. You can try to lift a 27 lbs of a pure gold bar at the Museum and you get a complimentary bag of shredded US dollar bills at the end of the visit. Our final stop with our car was the Country Club Plaza, a Spanish-inspired district dotted with fountains and Old World charm, opened in 1922 as America’s first outdoor shopping district.
In the evening, we tried the free tram service, serving the Main Street of this city. We rode the tram all the way to the Union Square Railway Station, looked around the historic station, then rode the tram back to the historical Power & Light District. There were many restaurant within this area but not a BBQ restaurant that we craved. So we headed outside the downtown area for the closest Gates BBQ, one of the many recommended BBQ restaurants for Kansas City, Missouri.
On Day 10, we spent time touring Kansas City in the state of Kansas.
First stop was Strawberry Hill, with a view across the valley to Kansas City, Missouri. The metropolitan Kansas City is mostly Kansas City, Missouri, not Kansas City, Kansas. Then we drove to Scheels, another giant outdoor gears retailer in the US Midwest (since 1904) in Overland Park, a city just south of Kansas City, KS. This city is one of the most affluent cities in the U.S. There is a large Ferris Wheel inside this retailer.
Next stop was Kaw Point Park, commemorating the landing of Lewis & Clark’s Expedition in 1804 on the banks at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers.
Then it was time for some shopping at the Legends Outlet Mall in Kansas City, Kansas.
On Day 11, we had a relaxing morning before making our way back to the airport for our flight home. This whirlwind driving tour, covering 7 states (including a short visit to Illinois across the Mississippi River from St. Louis) exceeded our expectation. Discovering USA from the freedom of the open road is always a great vacation. But this trip, we experienced not only extraordinary vistas, historic sites, charming small towns, but also many delightful and unexpected gems.