With a summer that most agree passed too quickly, many people feel cheated in their passion for travel this year. If you feel the same, you’re not alone. But have hope! There’s still time to fulfill your wanderlust in a city that may surprise you – Springfield!
Nestled in the Missouri Ozarks, this city may be familiar to travelers as a stop on their way to Branson. There’s so much more!
Known as the “Queen City of the Ozarks,” Missouri’s third-largest metropolitan area is replete with a vibrant history, charming neighborhoods, beautiful countryside and urban chic that meets southern charm with a generous dose of hospitality.
This year it’s the perfect destination for a weekend (or longer) getaway.
Springfield never crossed your mind as a destination? You’ve missed out and there’s no more perfect time to go than the fall.
Surprisingly, southern Missouri has a slightly more temperate climate than, say, Kansas City or St. Louis, with seemingly more bearable fall and winter temperatures. That makes Springfield a great destination whether for enjoying fall foliage or getting in some early Christmas shopping.
If you are tired of the same old dining and shopping opportunities of Kansas City, St. Louis or Columbia, Springfield offers fresh air, bountiful artists, fun dining experiences, quirky cafes, and unique lodging – all with the Ozark mountains nearby.
What to do
There’s lots to do and see in the span of 48 hours so you’ll have to pick carefully.
Springfield, of course, is the birthplace of Route 66. The Visitor Center is straight out of the 1950s and you can get a good overview of how this highway shaped America before the modern Interstate Highway System. The center is near the many artsy shops and restaurants that fill the downtown area.
While downtown, don’t miss Park Central Square. It’s the location of the first quick-draw shoot out. Yes, the wild west apparently existed in Missouri. Nearby are live theatres, museums, art galleries and restaurants ranging from ethnic, like Japanese and Peruvian, to American comfort foods.
The outdoors and indoors
Sports fans will enjoy the Springfield Cardinals AA baseball affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals who play at Hammons Field during their regular season. There’s also the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame open all year long.
Other outdoor activities include some of the best hiking trails in the state. Each season provides a different canvas for nature to present itself and fall is no exception. But if you’d like to keep your outdoor interests “indoors,” try the Discovery Center of Springfield. Families can interact with each other while doing hands-on learning projects.
You can also visit the original Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, with its famous hunting and fishing gallery. A visit to the giant aquariums will top off your visit. If you leave Bass Pro thinking you’ve missed something, pop in next door at the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium. Named #1 Best Aquarium by USA Today, Wonders of Wildlife is a world-class experience you might not expect to find outside the State’s two metropolises. You’ll find it’s a celebration of the conservation of both land and water and the stewardship we are each given for the care of the earth.
The aquarium includes a 225,000 tank and is known for its “Out to Sea” exhibit. You’ll see a variety of colorful tropical fish, sharks and rays. This absolutely huge aquarium and conservation center is a must-see. It sits in a massive 350,000 square foot complex and contains over a mile of walkways and footpaths. With 1.5 million gallons of aquarium, this will be amazing for any lover of fish and other sea life.
Now, Anita and I have adult children (one newly married) but no grandchildren. But for those that do, in addition to the aquariums, there’s also the Itty Bitty City. It’s a fantastic other-world and pretend experience for kids. It really is a itty bitty city, complete with buildings, shops, a post office and more. Each house a hands-on activity that will fascinate the kids and, just maybe, the parents and grandparents, too!
I remember seeing the television commercials for the caverns since my youth and this was my first visit. Anita’s not into caves and is a bit claustrophobic but with some prodding, and reassurances from the ticket agent, she was convinced. The 50-minute guided tour used a tram pulled by a jeep. We followed an ancient underground riverbed filled with massive formations.
The caves were discovered during the Civil War and kept secret because the bat guano could be used for the manufacture of ammunition. They were initially explored by a group of young women from nearby Springfield – all in their teens – who were part of an athletics club. In fact, you can see where they each signed their names on the cave walls. This cave’s sparkling geologic features and fascinating human history have made it a popular destination for tourists for over 90 years. And it’s not claustrophobic!
The Dickerson Park Zoo is a 100-acre park that is unique among other city zoos these days, as it offers up-close encounters and hands-on opportunities. For a city this size, the zoo offers first-class habitats for a wide range of animals from around the globe including cheetahs, African elephants and the rare Malayan tiger. Admission fees are reasonable and the zoo regularly hosts scavenger hunts and activity sheets for the kids.
For an evening activity, we chose Andy B’s which is a local icon since 1971. It is THE home for area leagues. Its an entertainment venue filled with numerous lanes of bowling (we enjoyed the VIP lanes) to arcades, laser tag and a virtual reality experience that is one of only two in the entire country.
Now that you’ve experienced the wonders of nature, its time for the wonders of the “creative” mind. The city’s signature art center is the Springfield Art Museum. Begun by ladies in an art club over a century ago, it’s now one of Missouri’s finest museums. Since 1926 the museum has focused on documenting the art and life of the Ozarks including the rich cultural heritage of the region. You’ll see works from Missouri and regional artists to national and international pieces.
Current touring exhibitions include “Eye to I: Self-Portraits from the National Portrait Gallery” in Washington D.C. It features expressions of how artists have chosen to express themselves through photography, printmaking, video, drawing and painting. It runs through January 17, 2021. You’ll also see “Creating an American Identity” featuring pieces from the museum’s permanent collection, all displayed to show styles and stories of Springfield and the nation from the 18th to the 21st century.
But if you would rather create art rather than look at it, we found Creative Escape Glass to be the surprise hit of the weekend. Owner Rebekah Santiago says glass and “sparkles” have grabbed her attention as long as she remembers. She, along with her husband Rafael (who’s an urgent care MD) have created a studio where visitors can try out something they’re most likely not familiar with – glass art creations. The studio also has custom-made glass plates, bowls, crosses, pendants, jewelry and wind chimes for purchase.
Anita and I spent several hours letting our creativity flow, and in a medium in which neither of us had any experience. Most people don’t know, but my background and early career was art before the journalism bug bit. Even with an art degree I had never worked with glass.
After watching several short videos (which you do before you arrive), Rebekah guides you through the choosing of a pattern and size for your fused glass piece. The process of fused glass is as interesting as the finished work. Anita chose to make a snowman ornament and I made a Star of David suncatcher. We would not normally have chosen such an activity for a weekend trip but we are glad we did. After seeing so much, it was nice to focus our minds and energy into the creative process. The activity is perfect for groups and even kids, with supervision, can be creative.
I asked Rebekah if glass art has special meaning for the soul. Another guest at the studio piped up and said, “Yes!” Glass, it seems, can be like a window to the soul and humans are naturally drawn to it. Rebekah says there’s nothing more rewarding than taking broken pieces of glass, just scraps really, and turning them into an object of beauty.
Anita and I loved that. It’s a reflection of what God has done with all of us.
Where to stay
You won’t have a problem finding lodging that meets your needs and budget. From upscale big-city hotels, to quaint motor inns and B&Bs, the city has everything. If you are looking for a couples get-a-way or need room for the kids, options abound.
We stayed at a local treasure: The Mansion at Elfindale.
Begun by railroad baron John O’Day in the 1880s, the stately home was not completed until after his death in 1901. Over the years, the home would change hands several times including being purchased by a Catholic order of nuns who opened a girls school and built a chapel. In the late 70s, two Iranians purchased the entire property with the hope of bringing the Shaw of Iran to Springfield for convalescence. The plan never materialized when President Jimmy Carter barred him from entering the country during the Iranian Revolution.
Anita and I enjoyed exploring the mansion and its Victorian-themed rooms and furnishings and were reminded a bit of the stately home in Downton Abbey. Many of the rooms have the original claw foot bathtubs and brass fixtures. It even has a hidden servants staircase.
Rooms range from Kings and doubles to large suites suitable for a family of 5 or more.
The staff is very attentive, including Myra, who welcomes you with a short and interesting tour upon your arrival.
Other unique places to stay include the Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven Motel. There’s a room decked out in Elvis memorabilia to commemorate the times “The King” stayed there. Several boutique hotels dot the city center.
Springfield restaurants can be quite creative as well! You are sure to be hungry. There’s plenty of fun and eclectic eateries to try out. Anita’s favorite is the Aviary Cafe. They have plenty of outdoor seating to complement indoor dining regulations and are staffed with friendly folks. We met friends and before our entrees were served, shared an appetizer you might not have guessed – Brussels sprout crispers!
The Aviary, though, is known for their crepes. Anita had the Sautéed Pumpkin Squash Crepe. Other crepes include Crepe Lorraine featuring applewood-smoked bacon, spinach and scrambled eggs garnished with mornay and crumbled bacon.
They even have a chicken pot pie crepe. But if crepes aren’t for you, enjoy a cheeseburger on brioche bun with garlic aioli. Yum!
Any visit to Springfield wouldn’t be complete without at least one stop at Hurts Donuts. Famous for being open “25 hours a day, 8 days a week,” their ooeygooey, sticky donuts are a guilty pleasure. But you can’t go home without a box for family members.
Across the United States, there are 36 cities, towns and hamlets named “Springfield.” Why is Missouri’s rendition so unique? Perhaps it’s the food, the focus on the outdoors or multitude of activities.
It’s all these. Get to know the Queen City and her fair citizens. It is the perfect adventure as the year comes to a close.
For more information, visit the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.
–Dwight Widaman | Metro Voice