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Each week, KCUR's Adventure! newsletter brings you a new way to explore the Kansas City region.

Road trip: Head to Hannibal, Missouri, for the home of Mark Twain and a whole lot more

Two kids pretend to paint a white fence outside of Mark Twain's boyhood home, a white two story house.
Libby Hanssen
KCUR 89.3
Two visitors to Hannibal, Missouri, pretend to paint "Tom Sawyer's Fence," outside of Mark Twain's Boyhood Home.

Hannibal, Missouri, is a perfect weekend destination that celebrates the life and literature of Samuel Clemens, AKA Mark Twain. You can also find other notable historic sites, plenty of events and festivals, and caves worth exploring.

This story was first published in KCUR's Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.

If you’re hankering for a literary road trip, there’s no better destination than Hannibal, Missouri, a picturesque river town on the banks of the Mississippi River. It’s the hometown of one of Missouri's favorite sons: the inimitable Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known the world over as Mark Twain.

Drive-wise, the town is about 3.5 hours from Kansas City, along Highway 36 (also known as The Way of American Genius) connecting St. Joseph, on Missouri’s Western border, to Hannibal, on the Eastern side.

Whether you’re planning a day trip or a long weekend, there’s plenty to enjoy in Hannibal and along the way.

As Twain himself wrote: “One must travel, to learn.”

Meet Mark Twain

If you’re not familiar with the works of Mark Twain, a visit to Hannibal will soon catch you up, as many of the local businesses and tourist attractions (and even the lamp post banners) celebrate his life and work.

Start at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, which includes several properties dedicated to preserving and showcasing Twain’s formative years in Hannibal. Here, learn about the people and events that shaped Twain’s life in pre-Civil War Missouri.

Though most of the properties are clustered together at Hill Street and Main, a full tour of the properties takes you around downtown Hannibal, including the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn statue on nearby Cardiff Hill, below the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse.

Along with the boyhood home of Clemens (first opened to the public in 1912), you can pretend to paint Tom Sawyer’s infamous fence, visit Becky Thatcher’s House (the real-life restored residence of Laura Hawkins, who was the model for Becky) and view nearby Huckleberry Finn House Site (the reconstructed home of Huck-inspiration Tom Blankenship), as well as a museum building with interpretive exhibits and an art gallery.

On Thursdays in the summer, enjoy “Music Under the Stars,” outside the boyhood home. If you are around on the weekends in the summer, look out for Tom and Becky out on Main Street, part of the Tom & Becky Program, where 7th graders (five boys and five girls) are selected through a competitive process each year to represent the iconic duo at events around the country.

Get to know Clemens the raconteur with “Mark Twain ‘Live’” at the Cave Hollow Theater, featuring Twain impersonators Jim Waddell, who has performed the role for over 30 years, or Peter Lebrón. The theater is in the Mark Twain Cave Complex (which we’ll discuss in the next section) and the one-hour performance brings to life Twain’s personality as a humorist through his own words. The show runs Wednesday-Sunday, April through November, at 2 p.m.

If you want to see where Clemens was born, head off Highway 36 south to Florida, Missouri, on Mark Twain Lake, and visit the Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site, in Mark Twain Lake State Park. The site has the two room cabin he was born in, examples of his literary exploits, and furnishings from his home in Connecticut.

Though not technically part of either Twain museum, on 3rd Street you can find Jim’s Journey: the Huck Finn Freedom Center, which shares the African American experience in northeastern Missouri. The center honors Daniel Quarles, Twain’s inspiration for Jim, Huck’s enslaved companion in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

If you are in Hannibal on Nov. 30, you can participate in the Annual Mark Twain Birthday Bash (this year, it’s his 189th!) at the Museum Gallery on Main Street. The event includes games and treats for kids and commences at dusk with the annual Christmas tree lighting, with music and caroling.

Take a tour

A man holds up a light to illuminate signatures written on the walls of the Mark Twain Cave.
Mark Twain Cave Complex
Tour guides at the Mark Twain Cave Complex show off rock formations, tell about the history of the cave, and share how it features in Twain’s "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

Clemens, famously, wrote of many of his journeys, including trips on the Mississippi, to the West, through Europe, and around the world.

Around Hannibal, there are also plenty of guided options to see the local sites, whether by foot, trolley, boat, or bus.

Visit Hannibal offers many self-guided tours — including murals, historic churches, and historic homes — and you can pick up pamphlets at the Hannibal Convention & Visitors Bureau as you head into town on 36. It’s the building on Grand Street that looks a bit like a riverboat.

Missouri is the Cave State, and the local caves were a regular part of young Clemens’ adventures. The Mark Twain Cave Complex offers guided tours of the same cave (formerly called McDowell’s Cave) Twain used as inspiration for the dramatic scenes in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, now a National Natural Landmark.

Your guide will show off different rock formations, tell about the history of the cave, and share how it features in Twain’s story. Evidence of the cave as part of Hannibal’s history can be seen in the many signatures and carvings on the cave walls (definitely no longer allowed!). Clemens’ own signature was discovered in 2019.

The complex also includes tours of Cameron Cave, a less commercialized cave that touts its “untouched natural beauty,” a winery, campground, and, coming soon, a rejuvenated Sawyer’s Creek Fun Park.

It’s also a stop-off location for the Historic Hannibal City Tour. And while this trolley tour does include a fair amount of Twain trivia, it also visits other significant sites and showcases other native Hannibalians, like the birthplace of Margaret Tobin Brown, AKA the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” of Titanic fame, or the rare black squirrels in Riverview Park.

Like Twain, you can take to the Missouri with a trip on the Mark Twain Riverboat, docked at the end of Center Street. The riverboat has one-hour sightseeing tours during the day and a two-hour dinner tour in the evening, with dancing to live music.

And for those interested in the occult, there is the nightly Haunted Hannibal Ghost Tour, which includes learning how to use dowsing rods to aid in paranormal investigations.

Festival fun

Four kids, each dressed as Tom Sawyer, compete in a fence painting competition on Hannibal, Missouri's Main Street.
Libby Hanssen
KCUR 89.3
During July Fourth weekend, kids compete at the annual fence painting competition during the National Tom Sawyer Days.

Hannibal has a lot of history to celebrate, and the town does so with regularity.

During Memorial Day weekend, there’s the Twain on Main Festival, a Wild West-themed event that honors Twain’s western travels and his book, “Roughing It.” The festival includes entertainment at the Main Stage, and artists, crafters, authors, and vendors from across the United States. Along with booths and trucks for food, there’s also a saloon area with locally-made beer, wine and spirits.

In June, there is the annual Juneteenth celebration with a parade in the morning, and activities and entertainment throughout the day. There’s also the annual Cardboard Boat Races, June 22, where kids build boats and see how long they stay afloat at the Hannibal Aquatic Center.

The weekend of July 4 includes many annual events and draws crowds from all over. There’s the National Tom Sawyer Days, July 3-7, the streets packed with kids dressed as their favorite Twain character, fence painting competitions, frog jumping contests, and many more family friendly activities, including a fireworks display on Independence Day.

Also enjoy the Samuel L. Clemens Arts & Crafts and More Festival July 4-6 in Central Park.

The Hannibal Cannibal, a 5K, 10K, 15K Run & Walk event, is July 6. The route travels through most of downtown Hannibal and the surrounding locales.

There’s also the Big River Steampunk Festival (Labor Day weekend) and Harvest Hootenanny in September, the annual Folklife Festival in October, and many Halloween and Christmas season events.

Vacation destination

A white riverboat with red trim and red, white, and blue bunting, travels on the Mississippi River,
Visit Hannibal
Among the many activities available in Hannibal, Missouri are riverboat tours on the Mississippi River.

Like most vacation spots, Hannibal has tourist friendly activities, with plenty of dining options, stores, entertainment, and outdoor spaces.

There are myriad gift shops, antique stores and Twain memorabilia, but only one store with Medieval weaponry: NobleWares is worth a stop for a unique souvenir — you might even find an accessory for your Renaissance Fair outfit. Ayers Pottery is another interesting option, with handmade works from 30 artists.

There are a variety of restaurants and sweet shops, from pizza to steakhouse, coffee shops to breweries, including Becky’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor & Emporium, the traditional Irish Ole Wolfhound Pub, and the 1950s style Becky Thatcher Diner. Make sure to check out the Mark Twain Dinette, the oldest restaurant in Hannibal, which specializes in fried chicken, onion rings, homemade root beer and Maid-Rites, loose ground beef sandwich on a steamed bun.

Enjoy theater productions and comedy shows at the Bluff City Theater, live music at venues around town, and artwork at area galleries.

Or visit some of the area parks and explore the natural world around Hannibal. Take in the view from Lover’s Leap, stroll down Riverview Park along the bank of the Mississipp, or visit Hannibal’s Sodalis Nature Preserve, home of the endangered Indiana bat, also known as myotis sodalis. While visitors can’t go in the caves, obviously, between April and September you can try to witness the nightly swarm, viewed from the park’s amphitheater.

While in Hannibal, check out some of the programming offered by the Park Department, including “What’s with ALL these cicadas?” (June 8), “Fairies of the Night: the Magical World of Fireflies” (June 14), or join other birding enthusiasts at the 2024 Missouri Bluebird Conference (July 12-14).

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen is a freelance writer in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. Learn more at Proust Eats a Sandwich.
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