Mr. Rogers would have loved it here. His kids-show jingle—“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood”—could be the theme song of St. Louis. Sure, come to enjoy the city’s bounty of free attractions and its cool music scene (we’ll get to both later), but stay to explore its potpourri of enticing enclaves, each with its unique personality.
Let’s start along the mighty Mississippi River, where St. Louis itself got started back in 1764—today commemorated by its iconic silvery Arch, more than 40 stories tall. Ascend its innards via ski-lift cars for the view. Then, venture below to the free Museum of Westward Expansion, a saga that started right here. Photos and quotes illuminate the push. Daniel Webster asks, “What do we want with this worthless area?” Lewis and Clark report, “our fingers Aked with cold” before “Great joy…when coming in View of the Ocean.” Chief Black Elk laments, “A people’s dream died there at Wounded Knee.”
Cross over to the graceful Old Courthouse, site of the trial of slave Dred Scott, among the black marks in the blow-by-blow (literally) story of slavery in the city. Continue westward (that’s our theme) to the brand-new City Garden sculpture park, rated the best people-watching in town. Head on to City Museum, lamely named because words fail to describe its contents, and appeal. It’s a visionary’s collection of the city’s architectural remains, from gargoyles to sculpted bank vaults and fancy moldings, amid other “found art” encrusted on pillars: oyster shells, watchbands, ballpoint pens, neckties. Add in a blues bar open until 2 AM, and a tunneling, three-story slide—well, you get the idea.
Feast nearby on Smoking Joe’s dry-rubbed ribs (martinis and live music, too); crepes at retro-chic Rooster wine bar; small plates at Red, in the gorgeously renovated Hyatt Regency at the Arch; or the megamalts, sundaes, and other old-time favorites served at Crown Candy since 1913, anchoring a yet-to-be-gentrified neighborhood where we lunched with cops who’d parked their Prisoner Transfer wagon outside.
Just a few minutes south, Soulard is home to countless blues clubs celebrating the St. Louis sound, such as BB’s Jazz Blues and Soups, or Broadway Oyster. By day, the neighborhood hosts the oldest Farmers Market in the country, launched by none other then U.S. Grant. And the Inservas produce stand has been there nearly that long—“This is the only job my father ever had, and he turned 90 last September,” a member of the clan notes. Head here for spice stores; bakeries that herald the (in)famous St. Louis gooey cake; and meat markets whose signs alert customers “Yes, we have coon”—plus alligator, goat, and crayfish.
Soulard is host to Anheuser Busch (free tours), among the city’s original 100 breweries; a Mardi Gras parade second only to New Orleans’s; and Cherokee Street Antiques Row, with its lineup of specialty shops for whatever it is that thrills you—rare books, old stoves, shiny saxophones, china (fine to Fiestaware), and vintage clothes.
Head to The Hill, and arrive hungry. Block upon block of shotgun houses are punctuated by shops, aromatic with everything from Volpi’s prosciutto to Missouri Bakery’s own gooey cakes (I warned you!) to Di Grigori’s marinara in one-gallon jars. Bars feature bocce ball courts. Trattorias like Adrianna’s—known for her Sicilian-style pastas and sandwich litany—sport lines around the block.
Steer to nearby Forest Park, 1,200 green acres—home of the city’s wealth of free museums: Science; History (and the tale of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis); and Art, housed in the only remaining building of the 1904 World’s Fair. Today, it boasts all the bold names of painting, from Picasso and Renoir to Chuck Close, with his larger-than-life five o’clock shadow. Forest Hill also hosts a free 77-acre zoo in which to ogle the apes and pompous penguins, not far from summertime’s open-air opera, also free. Plus, golf, tennis, and even boating, which demands a rest stop at The Boathouse for its legendary salmon BLT, white-bean chili, and banana-ale bread pudding.
It’s close to The Loop, the urban boho stomping grounds claiming more than 50 restaurants, scads of unique boutiques, and landmarks. The latter include the retro-chic Pin-Up Bowl (more martinis); Pageant concert nightclub; Tivoli, an indie film house; and the new Moonrise Hotel, more avant than thou, along with its classy Eclipse restaurant. Across the avenue: Blueberry Hill, where, yes, Chuck Berry still performs; and Pi, whose pizza is so addictive that, after a taste, Barack Obama summoned the crew to the White House.
Sooner or later, you’ll end up—as everyone does in St. Louis—on Route 66, home to Ted Drewe’s, a drive-in serving frozen custard since 1929. Fans line up at its 12 windows after weddings, proms, and Cardinals games—or, like me, in the dead of winter—for a “concrete”: custard with mix-ins, so thick that it’s handed to you upside-down.
Lafayette Square, a mile from the Arch, is as French as its visiting namesake. Today, its painted-lady houses with their elegant mansard roofs are worth a drive-by, plus a stop at a bistro such as Vin de Set, serving homey French-Med fare like bouillabaisse or steak au poivre in a converted brewery.
Wait, there’s more: the city’s most-sought-after dinner rez at Niche, and its sidekick, Taste, with cocktails like Mata Hari Jewel (absinthe, mint, and bubbly) and pork-forward snacks. The tony Central West End is the site of the city’s new (1907) cathedral (the old one’s still active aside the Arch), with more glittering mosaics than anywhere else on earth. Its neighbors include chic boutiques, sidewalk cafes, and grand homes—such as the one in which Tennessee Williams lived, replicated in The Glass Menagerie. Never mind that when enrolled in college here, he lost its playwriting contest, and dropped out in a snit.
Well, that’s probably because the city’s hot gay clubs were before his time. Lucky you! Visit Erney’s for the VodBox experience—a walk-in cooler now a tasting room, plus a dance floor, too—voted best gay bar. Atomic Cowboy is a close contender, with its indie music, DJs, salsa dancing lessons, and patio—so hip, it attracts even the stray straight. Try The Complex, the largest gay dance club; Attitude, the city’s first; or, for the girls, Novak’s Bar and Grill, with karaoke, open mike, and outdoor patio—voted best lesbian bar. Novak also owns Nancy’s Place, drawing a GLBT crowd with its martini bar and blues. The Grove—boys town—hosts the flamboyant Pride Parade in Tower Grove Park.
For more information, contact St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission at 800-916-0040 or www.explorestlouis.com.