If you’re looking for a big-time destination in a small town, I have just the place for you: Springfield, Missouri, just over four hours northeast of Oklahoma City, is a one-size-fits-most kind of town. Indoors, outdoors and underground, history, food and fun – you’ll find it here.
Hunters, anglers and outdoorsy types know it as home to the Bass Pro mother ship. The store is impressive, with extra attractions not found in smaller sites. But for me, the big attraction is the accompanying Wonders of Wildlife Museum and Aquarium.
Bass Pro founder Johnny Morris does nothing halfway – none of his projects open until he is happy with every detail. The wildlife museum is stunning. And I say that somewhat grudgingly, because I’m not usually a fan of taxidermy. Most of the exhibits are created to show animals in their natural habitats, my favorite section being the National Parks Gallery.
As I wandered through multiple galleries, the atmosphere, even the temperature, changed to simulate the environment. I pulled my sweater around me as I approached the Polar Expedition Gallery with its live gentoo penguins.
The Aquarium is every bit as spectacular, with a two-story tank and lots of interesting smaller displays. From fish of the Great Barrier Reef to alligators of the swamps, this area is a world of watery wonders.
You’ll get plenty of exercise with a mile-and-a-half of exhibits. A typical visit is three to four hours, but you could easily spend the day. Admission is not inexpensive, so plan to get your money’s worth.
Break up your visit with fast food available in the Aquarium, or keep your admission ticket and go back to Bass Pro for a more leisurely experience in Hemingway’s Blue Water Café. BTW, there’s a 30,000-gallon salt-water aquarium here, too.
Tours to Try
For underground adventure – and a chance to rest your feet – visit Fantastic Caverns. Take a 50-minute ride past massive stalactites, stalagmites, delicate draperies and flowstones beneath still-growing soda straws. I love the fact that the first serious explorers of the cave were 12 women.
Smallin Civil War Cave is a walk-in cave with a burbling stream running through it. You’ll hear lots of history, and local legends, on an hour-long tour (with no stair-climbing). This little cave is an unexpected treasure.
If you’re ready for more history, Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield will take you back to the Civil War period. Missouri was an interesting state – although not seceding, the South-supporting governor and administration had been chased out of the capital by the Union Army and wound up in southwest Missouri. The Battle at Wilson’s Creek was the first major Civil War battle in Missouri. The Confederates were victorious here, but ultimately, Missouri remained under Union control.
Stop first at the visitor center to see a film, battlefield map and small museum. Then drive a 4.9-mile, one-way loop taking you by major historic points, wayside exhibits and walking trails. If it’s summer, bug spray – particularly for ticks – is a good idea.
For more walking opportunities, check out the Springfield Conservation Nature Center. Six trails, totaling nearly three miles, take you through forest, glade and prairie habitat.
To watch someone else get the exercise, see if the Springfield Cardinals are in town. You’ll enjoy great AA baseball – a chance to see future big-leaguers – in a great ballpark. The crowds really get into it, and the spirit is catching.
While Springfield and Tulsa spar over which city spawned the Mother Road, it really is a tie. Cyrus Avery of Tulsa and John Woodward of Springfield were, together, instrumental in promoting the creation of Route 66. Catch up on the background of the famous highway at the Springfield Visitor Center.
And to tickle your auto-loving fancy, tour the Route 66 Car Museum. Guy Mace’s personal collection includes approximately 80 vehicles, many of which would have traveled Route 66. But there’s more, from a 1907 Reo to Batman’s Gotham Roadster. The collection is beautiful, and all but two of the cars are operational. Just don’t look for hot rods or muscle cars; Mace is devoted to classics and sports cars.
Catch Some Zzzzs
For a real Route 66 experience, book a night at the Rail Haven, the oldest operating Best Western property in the country, founded in 1937. You’ll find great history, great atmosphere and modern amenities. And Elvis slept here.
Dip further into Springfield’s past at the Walnut Street Inn, built in 1894 by Charles McCann for his young wife Kathrine, at a cost of nearly $6,000. Each room contains biographical and historical materials. Even if you’re not interested in the history, you’ll enjoy the comfortable and homey rooms and the superb breakfast.
In the heart of downtown, the 1906 Masonic Temple has been converted into a sleek, modern boutique hotel. A great blend of original brick and modern technology and design, the building is LEED gold certified.
There are, of course, lots of other choices, but these are the ones where I’ve stayed – or, in the case of Rail Haven, toured. It’s not hard to find a bed in Springfield, but these three accommodations are invitingly unique.
Fork on the Road
I never imagined I’d get ecstatic over French fries, but the truffle and Parmesan fries (served with smoky garlic mayonnaise) at the Black Sheep were among the best tasting things I’ve had in a long time. The burger was great, and I loved their alcohol-laced milkshakes, but the fries … wow!
To kick-start your day, try breakfast at the Springfield Diner. Yes, it has the usual breakfast favorites, but try one of the Mediterranean dishes. The breakfast plate includes garden greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, white cheese, feta, oregano, olives, olive oil, honey, butter, a hard-boiled egg, organic jams, tahini and pita bread. I went for the menamen: three eggs, tomatoes and green peppers cooked with olive oil and served with pita. I’m sure lunch is good, too. Owner Omer Onder, originally from Turkey and a former journalist, says, “I hate big cities. Here I can cook and visit with my customers. I was imagining my place would be like Cheers. We’re like family – not a downtown restaurant; a neighborhood restaurant.”
Dining is surprisingly international in Springfield. One of the oldest establishments is Leong’s. Originally, locals were reluctant to try Asian food. So, David Leong adapted, breading and frying the chicken before adding it to the vegetables in his cashew chicken. Springfield cashew chicken was born – and became so popular, you can find it at most of the Chinese restaurants in the area. But Leong’s is the original, and best. At 99, David Leong still visits the restaurant daily to make sure his son is doing things right.
For Mediterranean cuisine, check out Greek Belly downtown. Ristorante Gilardi’s is elegant and serves wonderful Italian dishes. The Aviary, also downtown, serves a variety of dishes, but if you need a French fix, this is the place. Try crepes, quiche or a croque madame.
The big surprise for me was Van Gogh’s Eeterie on Historic Commercial Street. I can’t remember ever finding a restaurant specializing in Dutch food. This is it! If you’ve never tried it, order pannenkoeken – described as the love child of a crepe and a pizza – or a broodje, a Dutch sandwich. I love the décor, especially the beautiful blue-and-white tiles.
While you’re on C-Street, stop at Askinosie Chocolate. Talk about artisan chocolate! At this place, chocolate crafters are involved in the process from bean to bar. In 2019, Food and Wine Magazine included Askinosie in its list of “Best Chocolate in the U.S.”
Tens of thousands of people zip up and down I-44 every day, and travelers in-the-know have discovered the many surprises of Springfield. Join the growing number of people who have found that it’s a great place to stop, shop, sleep, eat and enjoy.