Most cities don't stake a claim to fame on a prison, especially when it's the state capital. But Jefferson City does and they're darn proud of it.
The Missouri State Penitentiary opened in 1836 (in the same month as the fall of the Alamo), just 10 years after the first Capitol was built in the city and more than 80 years before our current Capitol was completed. So a tour of the prison has a right to its prominent place as the number one thing to do in Jefferson City.
Hop the train in Kansas City or St. Louis, bike in on the Katy Trail or come by car – just come explore the place Time magazine once called the "bloodiest 47 acres in America." It was one of the largest prisons in the United States, housing 4,900 inmates at its peak. Famous (or infamous) residents included boxer Sonny Liston, James Earl Ray (who escaped the prison and later assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr.) and gangster Pretty Boy Floyd.
History and ghost tours are available March through November each year. The daytime history tour, through the housing units, dungeon cells and gas chamber, was enough to give me goose bumps. That's probably why the ghost tours are limited to visitors aged 14 and older.
Even if you happen to visit during the off-season for prison tours, be sure to tour the museum just across the street in the old warden's house. Get a taste of life inside the walls with exhibits ranging from a replica cell to a control/counter-control display and items on loan from a former deputy warden.
Carry the theme of the day on just a few blocks away with a meal and libations at Prison Brews. I love sitting out on the large patio or in their dining room decked out in jail house décor. The food is fantastic (the burgers are highly recommended and don't skip the pretzels with beer cheese). Speaking of beer, the microbrewery offers a variety of beers on tap, as well as seasonal favorites with names inspired by the proximity of the penitentiary, like Big House IPA, I Ain't Your Honey Wheat, Deathrow Oatmeal Stout and Rapsheet Raspberry Ale.
Even the inmates got exercise time, so stretch your muscles out on the bocce ball courts and then relax over a light Go to Jail Ale.
Perhaps embracing a (rather scary) penitentiary might not be the most obvious choice for the seat of state government – but since no one will be locking you up inside, a theme trip to the prison and Prison Brews is the perfect recipe for a fun time.
Written by Barb Brueggeman