The birthplace of Route 66, Springfield is where Midwestern affability meets Southern hospitality and big-city attractions come with a small-town charm. The city combines nostalgic Americana and a bustling nightlife, while also earning its historical nickname — the Queen City of the Ozarks — as a gateway to the hills and forests of the Ozarks.
At the heart of the city, Park Central Square is a broad, bricked plaza dotted with trees and public art and hemmed in by low, stately buildings. Peaceful and sunny, this was incongruously the site of one of the most notorious shootings in America. Here, gunslinger and raconteur Wild Bill Hickok shot and killed gambler Davis Tutt in a public pistol duel, one of the few documented quick-draw shoot-outs so beloved by Western films like High Noon.
To hear more about the shoot-out, you can visit the History Museum on the Square. You’ll also find exhibits examining other facets of the city’s history: so-called ‘Indian Country’, the American Civil War and the origins of America’s once-great Route 66.
The highway is a symbol of the city’s heyday — the post-war boom, when middle-class parents would pack their children into the family station wagon and strike out on long, meandering road trips along the newly created highway system.
Route 66 is one of the oldest roads on that system. Known to fans as the Mother Road, it was born in Springfield in 1927 when businessmen Cyrus Avery and John Woodruff conceived of a road to link Chicago to Los Angeles, opening up the American West.
If you want to recreate that era, we suggest you stop for burgers, fries and a milkshake at the Steak ‘n Shake. Located right on Route 66, the neon-lit diner preserves its original decor, with a red-and-white-striped awning, black-and-white tile floor and curb-service window.
For more nostalgia, the Route 66 Car Museum displays dozens of cars from the past century, with a special focus on the classic autos of the 1950s and 60s. You can admire the sleek lines of a gleaming 1957 Chevrolet Corvette ‘Fuelie’ Convertible or a 1951 Crosley Standard Station Wagon, an example of the sorts of car that once ferried families across the country.
Today, Springfield boasts four university campuses, and the large student population supports a thriving ecosystem of bars, restaurants and breweries. You’ll also find plenty of musical venues and seasonal festivals.
For walking, cycling or running, we suggest the Ozark Greenways Trails — a vast network of tree-shaded tracks that criss-crosses the city and links in with paths in several nearby conservation areas and parks.
You can also go walking or cycling at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield. Located a short drive to the south of the city, this national park commemorates the first major battle of the American Civil War west of the Mississippi River. Pick up a map for a self-guided tour that illuminates the battle and its significance in the war. On selected weekends in June, July and August, you can speak with costumed American Civil War reenactors who present information on military life and carry out musket and artillery firing demonstrations.
On the outskirts of the city, Fantastic Caverns is a massive cave system that boasts yawning grottoes filled with stalagmites and stalactites and weirdly liquid rock formations. This is the only ride-through cave in the country and you tour via a 4x4-drawn tram, a precaution to protect the delicate ecosystem.
The caves have a varied history — they were a headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, a speakeasy during Prohibition, and local schools held dances and concerts here in the sixties.
Best time to visit
September and October are probably the best months to visit Springfield, bringing crisp temperatures and bright autumnal foliage. You can enjoy spring weather (and showers) in April and May, as the surrounding hills return to life after a long winter. June to August tend to be hot and muggy, but also sunny.