Although Mark Twain’s remains were laid to rest in Elmira, N.Y., more than a century ago, his spirit lives on, as evidenced by the thousands of admirers who descend each year on the author’s hometown of Hannibal, Mo. Walk through his childhood home; visit the cave immortalized in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”; cruise the Mississippi. You’ll see that Hannibal played a crucial role in shaping the sensibilities of America’s foremost man of letters. Would there be a Mark Twain without Hannibal? It’s debatable.
what to do
Get your bearings with an evening stroll through Hannibal’s historic section. Walk down Hill Street for a view of the childhood home of Mark Twain — a National Historic Landmark — as well as a replica of the picket fence that inspired the Tom Sawyer scene in which Tom tricks his friends into performing his whitewashing chore for him. Keep walking past the railroad tracks and you’ll encounter a compelling statue of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (later known as Mark Twain) piloting a riverboat, a nod to the writer’s previous, much-loved profession.
Beyond the statue lies, in Twain’s words, “the great Mississippi, the majestic Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide long, shining in the sun.” Then walk a couple of more blocks to Hannibal’s quaint downtown. Stop for a cold one at Rumor Has It (125 N. Main St.) and take in live music while you rub elbows with the locals.
The next morning, check out Mark Twain Cave (a mile south of Hannibal on Hwy. 79; mark- twaincave.com, $16). It contains myriad narrow passages, and it’s easy to see how Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher would get lost in it.
Your tour guide will point out areas described in “Tom Sawyer” and toss out other bits of cave trivia: Hannibal children had to sign in and out of the cave on a slate board so parents could be assured their kids weren’t left behind at day’s end; Jesse James hid there after a local bank robbery; a St. Louis doctor performed a creepy medical experiment in which he preserved the body of his deceased 14-year-old daughter in the depths of the 52-degree cave.
Then head back to town to start your Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum tour (206-08 Hill St.; marktwainmuseum.org). Get your ticket ($11 for adults) at the interpretive center. The tour highlight is the simple, two-story frame house in which Twain grew up. A white, ghost-like figure of the writer dominates each sparsely furnished room, with the author’s pose illustrating a Twain quote that is written on a large chalkboard.
Visit the Museum Gallery (120 N. Main St.), a stately downtown building featuring first-floor displays depicting scenes from Twain’s books. The mezzanine focuses on Mark Twain’s days as a riverboat pilot (the writer’s pen name is riverboat jargon for “safe water ahead”), and the top floor contains a treasure trove of Twain memorabilia.
Finally, take your seat on the Mark Twain Riverboat (Center Street Landing; marktwainriverboat.com) and prepare for a two-hour Mississippi River dinner cruise ($42 for adults; dinner cruises start at 6:30 p.m. and run Fridays and Saturdays through October). Although the food is somewhat ordinary, you’ll have extraordinary views of the mighty river and its shoreline. During your leisurely ride, you’ll pass towering river bluffs and Jackson Island, fictionalized as the hideout of Huck Finn and his friend Jim.
where to eat
Lula Belle’s (111 Bird St.; lulabelles.com) offers lunchtime fare of sandwiches and salads ($7-$10). Nothing fancy — patty melts, club sandwiches, burgers — but tasty and satisfying. Built by a madam from Chicago in 1917, the building that houses Lula Belle’s was a working bordello until the 1960s.
Enjoy dinner at LaBinnah Bistro (207 N. 5th St.; labinnahbistro.com), which serves a gourmet meal at a café price ($16 to $22 for entrees). Converted from an 1870s Federal-style house, the intimate, 28-seat bistro’s well-thought-out menu includes American and Mediterranean selections. (Thumbs up for the chicken Florentine and Seattle salmon.) Save room for baklava.
where to shop
Your best bet for a tasteful Hannibal souvenir comes from the Museum Gallery’s first-floor gift shop. Standouts among other downtown shops include Chocolaterie Stam, which has been selling world-class chocolate for a century (103 N. Main St.; stamchocolate.com); Fresh Ayers, with pottery, art and home décor items (209 N. 3rd St.; ayerspottery.com); and St. Petersburg Mercantile, an upscale resale shop (114 N. Main St.).
if you go
Details about attractions, events, lodging and restaurants at visithannibal.com.
Two bed and breakfasts worth considering:
Garth Woodside Mansion (11069 New London Road; garthmansion.com) was originally the country estate of Mark Twain’s friend Col. John Garth. You can request the room the author slept in when he visited his hometown. It’s in the rolling hills outside Hannibal. Rooms start at $149.
Reagan’s Queen Anne (313 N. 5th St.; reagansqueenanne.com), within walking distance of major tourist sites, has unique woodwork, award-winning breakfasts and amiable hosts. Rooms start at $109.
Barbara Carrow is a freelance writer living in St. Louis.