BUST OUT THE VIOLINS — So you’re visiting St. Louis? Let’s get the difficult part out of the way first.
Requisite example of urban decline
Nearly all native St. Louisans feel a compulsion to eulogize the city’s former life, as the 4th largest city in the country, host of the 1904 World’s Fair, and yes, recipient of the nation’s tallest, most beautiful, and most iconic monument, the Gateway Arch. Not that all St. Louisans are statisticians or demographers, but somehow we all seem to know our numbers when it comes to our horrific population drop: 857,000 in 1950 at our peak to 319,000 in 2010 (the nation’s steepest decline in that time period, including Detroit! Yikes). Downtown St. Louis, a once proud progenitor of the great metropolis built around it, was mercilessly hacked away by interstates and corporate citizens who were all too happy to trade urban character for lifeless plazas, parking garages, and stubby post-modern mid-rises.
St. Louis should suck. Suck hard. All the signs point to it. There should be Prozac dispensers at each street corner to help us cope with our own defeat.
Shockingly, though, St. Louis’s raw coolness destroys most of the competition, especially its west-of-the-Mississippi peer group. There’s just no other city like it. While St. Louis is described as the “Gateway to the West,” visitors to this formidable city by the river will discover an historic entrepot with deep connections to the great cities of the East Coast, from its rich historic architecture to its hard-nosed urban dialect to its extant ethnic enclaves. St. Louis is, decidedly, America’s last eastern city. A city of grand parks, rows upon rows of solid red-brick neighborhoods and top-tier cultural institutions, St. Louis has weathered some storms, but she has not lost her spark.
HOTELS, MOTELS, HOLIDAY INNS
Where you stay in St. Louis matters less than you think because our illustrious light rail system (MetroLink, born 1993) reliably traverses several visit-worthy core neighborhoods. If you’re a purist and stay only in downtown settings, why not settle on the Westin at Cupples Station, a historic set of ware-houses in the shadow of America’s liveliest ballpark, Busch Stadium? Not only that, it sits atop a Metro-Link station.
The bird (hang-gliding man? hard to tell) can take the shortcut to the top of the Arch. YOU get the cramped pod- elevator.
Alternatively, if you’re more likely to catch a Broadway show than a ballgame, stay at the local boutique Hotel Ignacio, just adjacent to St. Louis University’s campus and to Grand Center, St. Louis’s theater and arts district. If you want to go more upscale and stay in a more vibrant area, opt for the famous Chase Park Plaza in the stunningly elegant Central West End or the Moonrise Hotel in the funky, pulsating Delmar Loop. Finally, if you dare, stay in the haunted Lemp Mansion, a beautiful B&B that witnessed some grisly Prohibition-era suicides among its namesake beer baron family. It’s on the South Side, nestled in one of St. Louis’s storied red brick neighborhoods.
Let’s presume you’re staying downtown at the Westin.
A couple assumptions are about to take place: (A) You’re in a new place, and you’re excited, so you’re waking up early. (B) You’re out of your home ZIP code, where diets don’t apply. You will eat roughly five times per day. (C) You’re superhuman and know nothing of this “nap” business. (D) You’re standing in a beer brewing shrine of a city, so you will drink adult beverages (E) You’re sane, and therefore visiting in the warmer months (March through October).
WE DARE YOU TO KEEP THIS SCHEDULE
While locals should be harangued for their marriage to vehicular solo transportation, you’re visiting a city with somewhat spread out attractions and are entirely forgiven—rent/bring a car this visit. Before you head out, tune your radio to KDHX, 88.1 on the FM dial. Among the nation’s most well-supported community radio stations, KDHX is a clearinghouse of local flavor, from bluegrass to electronica.
8:00 AM – Wake up and get “it” out of the way. We know you’re a hipster and don’t want to be stereo-typical but, c’mon, you’ve never seen the Arch. Seriously, it’s okay…head east from your hotel past Busch Stadium and go up in the Arch. No, that building with the patinaey dome is not the Missouri Capitol (we wish…). It’s the Old Courthouse, built in phases between 1840 and the Civil War and now a part of what is called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (which includes the Arch). The ride to the top of the 630-foot tall stainless steel mustache (in a trippy 1960s pod that stays level despite its awkward angular as-cent) will set you back $10. Claustrophobes need not apply.
9:00 AM – Hoof it to Local Harvest Café for breakfast in the restored Old Post Office (9th/Locust) downtown. Its food is either locally-sourced, organic, or both—and most importantly, delicious. Make it quick if you want to keep this impossibly breakneck schedule. While outside the Old Post Office, spin around. You’re in the heart of old downtown, with its turn-of-the-century stock of office buildings splayed out on a narrow street grid inspired by the early French settlers.
9:30 AM – Next walk to City Museum, at 16th and Lucas. The glorious canyon of warehouses you’re strolling through is Washington Avenue, downtown’s centerpiece of revitalization (seriously, in the late 1990s, nearly all of it was empty and abandoned). Make a right (north) at 16th Street and say hello to City Museum. You might be thinking, “it’s too early for a museum” but this is not the type of museum where you’ll ever hear “shhhh”. It’s literally made of the city—a good chunk of the detritus and demolition debris of the past city gets a new life here. There are man-made caves, crawlspaces, in-line skateboarding facilities, a rooftop Ferris wheel, a fourth floor thrift store and so much more in this whimsical monument to the notion that everything can be reused. Entry to City Museum costs $12, rooftop is an extra $5, and aquarium (yes, aquarium) an extra $6. Don’t sweat the cash—basically everything else even remotely touristy is completely free of charge or near to it.
Soulard Streetscape - quintessential red brick St. Louis.
12:00 PM – You spent a few hours clambering around City Museum and burnt enough calories to be hungry again. Make your way back to the hotel, grab the car, and drive to Blues City Deli in the delightful, red brick Benton Park neighborhood. If you’re lucky, this homage to blues town (New Orleans, Memphis, STL, and Chicago) will have some live music for you to munch to. If that’s the case, the party usually spills out onto the streets.
12:30 PM – Since you’re already in Benton Park, hop back in the car and head east to Soulard, St. Louis’s oldest neighborhood. Soulard is home to dozens of corner bars and restaurants, nearly all of them in mid to late 1800s red brick classic buildings. This national and local historic district also plays host to a particularly large and raucous Mardi Gras celebration in wintertime, so the fact that its name in French translates to “drunkard” is only fitting. Once in the neighborhood, stop by Soulard Market (9th/Lafayette), the city’s last remaining public market and the oldest one west of the Mississippi. After you’ve loaded up on spices, trinkets, and hurricanes from Julia’s, a stand inside the market, jump back in the car and head south to the looming Anheuser Busch complex at 12th and Lynch.
1:30 PM – – Take the FREE Anheuser-Busch tour, which comes with two complimentary beers for the 21+ crowd.
Cherokee Street -- where roadway is a canvas
2:30 PM – Assuming there’s a sober member of the party, find the vehicle and head south to Cherokee Street—the nexus of creativity in the St. Louis region. You might as well park on the east end of the street and just plan on walking back on the opposite side of the street. East of Jefferson, the building stock is older and the businesses tend towards antiques (this is old Antique Row, after all). West of Jefferson, the grittier side of Cherokee comes out. This is home to the city’s most thriving Hispanic/Latino business area, interspersed with random hipsterific offerings.
Notable attractions (from east to west include): the Mud House (where your barista will surprise you with latte art); St. Louis Curio Shoppe (an all-STL, all the time gift shop—nothing in it is made more than 50 miles from the heart of the city); Fortune Teller Bar (True to its name, fortune tellers descend upon this hipster watering hole on weekend nights); La Vallesana (awesome and authentic taco stand); and Firecracker Press (old-fashioned printing press retail shop with some killer designs). No trip to Cherokee Street—or St. Louis—would be complete without at least poking your head in the STyLe-house. STyLehouse is a t-shirt shop run by local boosters and entrepreneur twin brothers Jeff and Randy Vines. Their fount of knowledge of, and passion for, this city could render this guide moot in mere minutes. (Related: their Instagram photography peppers this guide).
3:30 PM – Fire up the car and head to Forest Park—the 1,300 acre, attraction-laden, largest urban park in the region (and one of the largest in the country). You’re running fairly late in the day (most attractions close around 5), so just pick one of these to do: Science Center, Boathouse, Art Museum, the Municipal Opera (The Muny), Jewel Box, or Missouri History Museum. A recommendation: the St. Louis Zoo is among the top-rated in the country and is totally free to enter.
5:30 PM – It’s time to head to the Central West End (CWE), a bustling neighborhood located at the northeast corner of Forest Park. If you’re hungry, you have plenty of options: Greek at the Majestic, Indian at India Rasoi, deep dish style pizza (which President Barack Obama dubbed the best in the nation during a 2008 campaign stop) at Pi Pizzeria, gastropub offerings at Dressel’s, and burgers/sushi at Sub Zero (which also has one of the largest vodka selections in the world). If you are a whiskey-for-dinner type, don’t skip out on Brennan’s. Grab some food and then walk it off along the neighborhood’s stately private streets. West of Kingshighway sit two of the city’s most grand—Portland and Westmoreland Places. Enter on Lake Avenue from the south and walk until private security questions your presence. Don’t worry…tell security you’re from out of town and they may even let you continue on your stroll.
7:00 PM – You might be tired of driving, so leave your vehicle on the street in the CWE and hop on the MetroLink westbound (Red Line to Lambert Air-port). Depart at the Loop Station and head west. You are now in the Delmar Loop—yet another astonishingly revitalized area of the city that was once terribly disinvested. The Loop of today is St. Louis’s best independent boutique and local shopping destination, not to mention an entertainment hotspot with a lounge/bowling alley (the Pin Up), a top-rated music venue (Pageant), a beautifully restored movie theater (the Tivoli) and the St. Louis Walk of Fame (look down at the stars on the sidewalk for a history lesson on who made St. Louis great). If you really want to get the lay of the land, take the elevator in the quirky Moonrise Hotel to the roof, where there’s a bar with sweeping views of everything from the Arch, 8 miles east, to suburban office center Clayton just to the southwest.
The Central West End -- a second skyline for the city
If you’re here for shopping, do not miss the patchouli-scented, old school Vintage Vinyl record store or relative Loop newcomer and stylish clothing purveyor Devil City, If you’re a music fan (of course you are), note that St. Louis is very proud to be the birthplace—and home, still—of rock ‘n’ roll forefather Chuck Berry. In fact, Mr. Berry performs at the Loop’s Blueberry Hill once a month, to this day. If you’re in town during one of his performances, you are obligated to pay homage.
9:00 PM – Head back to MetroLink (this time, walk down stately Skinker Boulevard and take the Blue Line back to the Central West End). Pick up your vehicle and drive east to Lafayette Square. The Square is one of St. Louis’s most ornate neighborhoods, replete with limestone-clad Victorian-era “Painted Ladies” that ring the oldest park west of the Mississippi River (yep, you guessed it, Lafayette Park). It is also home to an intimate business district on Park Avenue. You’ll want to grab a drink or two at Bailey’s Chocolate Bar, with its signature chocolate martinis and an ambiance nearly as aphrodisiacal as chocolate itself. If you skipped dinner earlier, check out the renowned 1111 Mississippi restaurant, or rooftop bar Vin de Set.
Definitely be sure to wander the neighborhood, though—one of the nation’s oldest private streets, Benton Place, sits just north of the park and is well worth a jaunt.
10:30 PM – Head back downtown, finally. If you’re going to call it a night (boo!), why not stop for a nightcap within a stone’s throw of your hotel? Head to the 360 Bar at the Hilton (rooftop) for panoramic skyline views and tasty cocktails. If you’re not ready to quit (yay!), it’s time to head to the Grove (MetroLink accessible via a long-ish walk, but you might as well cab it). The Grove (also known as Forest Park Southeast) is a lively strip of bars, from lesbian and gay bars to hipster havens to music venues and more. If you’re in the mood for some world-renowned mixological magic, stop over at the Day of the Dead-like Sanctuaria. Then go dance off the caloric intake for the day at Atomic Cowboy and/or Handle-bar and/or Novak’s.
Nightlife in St. Louis -- just loiter in the street of your choice
3:00 AM – Think all life ends in this sleepy Mid-western hamlet in the wee hours? Think again. Some liver-hating individuals cross the River into Illinois to take advantage of its 6 AM liquor licenses (and, well, its carnal offerings of the adult variety). But let’s leave Metro East alone for your first visit (aside: do eventually visit Cahokia Mounds on the Illinois side of the river—it’s one of the largest pre-European settlements in North America. Its earthen mounds are all that remains of the onetime Native American metropolis. The tallest of them, Monk’s Mound, offers sweeping views of downtown St. Louis, a poetic visual collision of two civilizations. Ahem, we now return to your regularly scheduled program of strip clubs and other late night salaciousness).
Staying on the Missouri side, your only option is to head to one of the city’s many diners. If you brought a car and a designated driver, head down to the 24-hour Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, where you’ll see all types of St. Louis revelers brushing shoulders in this mock-Tudor style roadside attraction. Equally popular, and also on South Kingshighway, is the more straight-up greasy spoon Courtesy Diner. Order the St. Louis Slinger here for a window into one of St. Louis’s odd culinary creations. For a more urbane people-watching experience, plant your-self on 24-hour Coffee Cartel’s patio in the Central West End. Slurp down some coffee to sober up, and reject the notion that this city is some washed up has-been. We’re nowhere near it.
IF YOU DON’T WANT TO MOVE HERE NOW, AT LEAST YOU’LL BE BACK…
So this brings us to the end of the (admittedly impossibly dense) tour. And you haven’t even set foot in St. Louis’s authentic Little Italy, the Hill, where Italian restaurants and Virgin Mary statues outnumber residents. Or the Irish neighborhood at the foot of Forest Park, Dogtown, where St. Patty’s day celebrants gather. Or Old North St. Louis, home of St. Louis’s oldest soda fountain Crown Candy and revitalization hotspot after decades of devastating decline. Not even a cameo for South Grand either, with its veritable buffet of international eateries. You haven’t brunched in the oddball Bevo Mill, or strolled through the world’s first (and greatest) geodesic dome conservatory (the Climatron in-side the Missouri Botanical Garden). You haven’t yet tried a Gus’ Pretzel from a street-side vendor or sampled the neighborhood-themed cocktails at The Royale. And you don’t know the meaning of the term “soul” yet, because you haven’t heard it belted from the chops of our city’s own Kim Massie at Beale on Broadway.
Come on, just look at our city. You'll be back
Obviously, no great city can be experienced in its entirety in 24 hours. But you shouldn’t take that as an endorsement to quell your curiosity to further explore our old, battered and beautiful city. This “Red Brick Mama” has always-open arms for anyone with a soft spot for a gritty embrace. Three million area residents can’t be wrong. Right?