Traveling with teenagers can be tricky at times. They complain about being bored, they’re embarrassed by their parents and getting them to look up from their phones feels like a Herculean task. So, when my husband and I told our teens that we were taking a weekend family getaway, we braced ourselves for the eye rolls and exasperated sighs.
“Where are we going?” asked Allison, my 13-year-old.
“Jefferson City, Missouri,” my husband Rick said, his voice optimistic at Allison’s interest.
“That’s perfect!” she said. “My history teacher just gave us an assignment on Missouri’s capital.”
My husband flashed a hopeful smile, then we both looked at Trent (15), who was typing away on his phone.
“What do you think, Trent?” I asked.
He turned his phone around and asked, “Can we go here?” The screen glowed with a website for tours of the Missouri State Penitentiary. “It’s supposed to be haunted.”
Little did they know, there were plenty of kid friendly activities in Jefferson City for them to enjoy. And both the Capitol building and the prison were already on our list.
We rolled into town the first morning and headed straight for the Capitol. Sitting high upon a limestone bluff overlooking the south bank of the Missouri River, the building is quite striking. Its massive columns and bronze doors are grand, and our eyes were drawn immediately to the dome tower that rises 238 feet above the ground and is topped with a bronze statue of Ceres*, the Roman goddess of agriculture.
After taking a few photos, we went inside and grabbed a self-guided map at the tour desk. Allison pulled out her pink glitter notebook and started taking notes. Even Trent looked impressed at the building’s grandeur. The architecture inside the Capitol is just as stunning as outside. Covering a total of three acres, the building not only houses Missouri’s two legislative bodies and offices for state officials, but it is, in essence, a museum of public art. It’s filled with a collection of statues, murals and stained glass that reflects the state’s history, people and culture.
Back outside, we took a leisurely stroll through the beautiful Carnahan Memorial Garden. Located next to the Governor’s Mansion, the sunken garden is filled with flowers, a reflecting pool and beautiful stonework. A grand staircase leads to a stone pergola that is lit with original lighting.
From there, we headed down to Jefferson Landing, where Allison received more information for her history assignment. One of the few remaining river-front landings along the Missouri River, the area has been restored to show what life was like when Jefferson City was first named as the state’s capital. We explored the Lohman Building, a sturdy stone structure that portrays the original 1850s building that was a central hub for the city. It served as a general store, warehouse, telegraph office, hotel and general gathering place for the growing capital.
Allison finished taking notes in her phone, then looked up and asked, “What’s next?”
*Currently being cleaned and restored. The Ceres statue will return to the top of the Capitol in late 2019.
We grabbed a quick bite for lunch and were getting ready to head to our next stop, but Rick had a tasty detour planned. Central Dairy is a Jefferson City landmark and has been serving ice cream to happy customers for over 80 years. Originally established in Columbia, Missouri in 1920, the company opened its Jefferson City location on Madison Street in 1934 and installed the now-famous ice cream counter in the front of the dairy.
Walking into the shop was like stepping into an old-fashioned ice cream parlor with its booth seating and red and white awnings. There were so many flavors to choose from. Trent got the Fudge Ripple; Allison ordered the Candy Bar Whirl; and Rick and I shared the Rock & Roll Split, which was a delicious concoction of vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and black walnut ice cream with banana, marshmallow and strawberry toppings and a sprinkle of nuts. I would’ve been perfectly happy to just end our weekend getaway right there in the ice cream parlor, but Trent was eager to visit the prison.
The 19th century Missouri State Penitentiary is every bit as imposing as you would imagine—both inside and out. I was feeling a bit nervous about going inside, but Trent had his phone out and was snapping pictures. I think he was hoping to see a ghost.
However, when we entered through the original barred glass doors, I was just as mesmerized as Trent. I was enthralled with our tour guide’s stories about the grisly, but fascinating history of the prison and began to embrace the haunting beauty of the place. The cells we peered into once held some of our country’s most notorious criminals like Pretty Boy Floyd, Sonny Liston and James Earl Ray.
We learned about the 1954 riot when inmates violently took over the prison. And we explored Housing Unit 4, the oldest building (1864) still standing on the grounds. Our guide led us into the sobering dungeon cells and gas execution chambers, where we shut the door and turned out the lights so we could experience what solitary confinement would have been like.
After the tour, we perused the artifacts and memorabilia in the museum. The items curated there meant so much more now that we had a better understanding of what prison life was like for the inmates. And while we didn’t see any ghosts (thank goodness!), Trent was happily sharing his photos on social media and texting his friends all about the gruesome tales we’d heard.
The next day we hit the downtown hub of Jefferson City for a little bit of shopping. The downtown area’s architecture pays homage to the city’s history and reflects past generations, boasting a small-town atmosphere with all of the big city amenities you could want. We quickly discovered, though, that shopping downtown wasn’t just a leisurely weekend activity—it was an exciting discovery of unique old shops and interesting new finds.
Allison and I found adorable dresses and gorgeous jewelry at shops like Fine Mess Boutique and Southbank Gift Company. Rick and Trent, who have both recently gotten into mountain biking, were excited to find Red Wheel Bike Shop and spent most of the morning obsessing over all the new gear they purchased.
After working up an appetite with all that shopping, we asked some of the locals for the best place for lunch. Everyone we talked to recommended Arris’ Pizza Palace, and we weren’t disappointed. Skillfully fusing Greek and Italian cuisine, Arris’ is more than just a pizza joint. It’s a local tradition for many families in Jefferson City, and it has now become a tradition for ours. We ordered the Achilles, a delicious pizza topped with ground beef, pepperoni and jalapeños, with a round of toasted ravioli and spanakopita for appetizers.
As the kids polished off the last slices, Rick asked if they had enjoyed the weekend. Their smiles said it all. Jefferson City was the perfect choice for a family getaway.