When you roll into this laid-back river town, about 130 miles up the scenic Mississippi river road from St. Louis, you may get a nagging feeling that you've been here before. Well, you have -- if you've read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Every scene in that book was based on affectionate memories of the town where a boy named Sam Clemens grew up, long before he became Mark Twain. Sometimes Hannibal leans on the association a bit too much -- every third restaurant or shop seems to be named after a Tom Sawyer character -- but the historic heart of town really does have a remarkable connection to this beloved American writer.
Eight properties around town, packaged under the name the Mark Twain Museum, have rock-solid associations with Sam Clemens. The main one is the small white frame house at 208 Hill St., where the Clemens family lived from 1844 to 1853; the parlor, the dining room, the kitchen, and the three upstairs bedrooms are all furnished in the period. You can almost imagine Sam climbing out the window of the back bedroom he shared with his brother Henry, sneaking off to nighttime escapades. Across the street is the much more prosperous house of the Hawkins family, whose daughter Laura -- Twain's lifelong friend -- was the model for Becky Thatcher. The law office of Sam's father, John Clemens, has been moved to the same street; its tiny front courtroom was the setting for Muff Potter's trial in Tom Sawyer. After a shift in the family fortunes, the Clemenses moved to cramped quarters above the old-fashioned pharmacy run by Dr. Orville Grant, over on Main Street. The last stop on this historic trail may not be authentic, but it could be the kids' favorite: the Museum Gallery, set in an old department store on Main Street, where interactive displays on Tom Sawyer allow children to whitewash a fence, hide in a spooky graveyard, and get lost in a cave, just like Tom and Huck and Becky did.
Of all the peripheral attractions in town, the one that has the most true Tom-'n'-Huck flavor is the Mark Twain Cave, 300 Cave Hollow Rd. (tel. 573/221-1656; www.marktwaincave.com), a mile south of town on MO 79. Whether or not Sam Clemens actually got lost during a school picnic in either of these two caves, it's easy to imagine him making mischief down here, and the guides on the 1-hour tour are sure to work in references to the book.
Sleepy as Hannibal seems most of the year, it crackles to life during the National Tom Sawyer Days (www.hannibaljaycees.org/NTSD.html), the long weekend around July 4. All sorts of Twain-themed activities are held outdoors, from fence painting to frog jumping, and it's just generally the sort of whoop-de-do that Sam Clemens -- or Tom Sawyer -- would have loved.
Nearest Airport: Lambert–St. Louis International, 125 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Best Western Plus on the River, 401 N. Third St. (tel. 800/780-7234 or 573/248-1150; www.bestwestern.com).