Content Produced in Partnership with Explore St. Louis
Home to the oldest college west of Mississippi, the oldest botanical gardens in the country, the world’s most extensive collection of tile mosaics, the first skyscraper, one of the newest national parks, and plenty of other notable attractions, St. Louis has been a cornerstone of the country and one of the Midwest’s mainstays for decades.
Once the fifth-largest city in the USA (bigger even than Chicago), in its heyday, St. Louis thrived as the first non-European city to host the Olympics, a battleground for the Civil Rights movement, a Route 66 passageway, and a prosperous industrial hub, the mighty Mississippi proving to be a valuable trade route. But in recent years, it has fallen out of favor with millennials and those migrating west, often leaving it overlooked the middle of the country.
Determined not to be forgotten, the city has put a significant emphasis on urban renewal and revitalization projects to lure tourists back. And it’s not a tough sell once you see how much they have to work with. Outstanding architecture, a storied sports legacy, eclectic neighborhoods, festivals aplenty, and a well-established beer culture have historically offered travelers plenty to do and see, but with new attractions being added every day, it’s only more reason to give it a second look.
St. Louis is going through a renaissance and who doesn’t love a good comeback story? Forest Park is as big as Central Park, the zoo is the top free attraction in America, and new experiential museums have been devised keep children engaged and adults acting like kids again.
St. Louis is one of those surprising sleeper cities worth revisiting. Because if you haven’t been there lately, you may not even recognize it. Here’s everything to do once you get there.
Tour Grand Center Arts District
Architecture, music, humanities. St. Louis has culture in spades, most of which can be found in the Grand Center Arts District. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s home to over 60 cultural institutions in a one-mile radius that includes everything from theaters and galleries to performance venues.
A celebration of the arts in all its forms, you can find eclectic spaces and museums displaying everything from motorcycles to the Pulitzer’s personal art collection. A neighborhood that seems to have nine lives, over the decades, buildings have evolved from churches to vaudeville theaters and burlesque shows and even private homes.
The city boasts the second oldest philharmonic in the nation, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, that ironically started as a beer garden. Housed in the beautiful Powell Hall, the ornate ceilings are a fabulous venue to see a show. With over 100 performances a year, many of which are free for the community, they aim to make concerts accessible to all. But if you don’t want to sit through an entire performance, the Dark Room has nightly live jazz where you can imbibe in dinner and a show.
The crown jewel of the neighborhood is the Fabulous Fox Theater, which has been a pillar of the community for almost a century, attracting big-name musical acts and Broadway shows to St. Louis. Take any opportunity you can to see a performance, but if the timing doesn’t work out, they do offer tours 3x a week to marvel at the palatial theater design and original organs.
For art lovers, the not to-miss-museums include the Contemporary Arts Museum (CAM), the Sheldon, an art enclave meets concert hall, with unique exhibits that combine their collection of instruments with musical acts, and my personal favorite, the International Hall of Fame Photography, which showcases iconic and inspiring imagery.
Pro Tip: First Friday is one of the best times to visit as a majority of the museums are free. Summer is also great because the Sheldon has artist-inspired miniature golf and a new vertical outdoor garden.
Explore the New Union Station
What was once one of the largest and busiest transportation hubs in the world, the recently revamped Union Station is now a major entertainment district. Home to the St. Louis Wheel, carousel, aquarium, mini-golf, dine-in train cars, ice cream parlour, ropes course, and House of Mirrors, it’s all brand-new and buzzing with people waiting in hour-plus lines to experience the new attractions.
The 200-foot observation wheel offers magnificent skyline views, while the carousel is a nostalgic taste of classic carnival culture. If you can stomach the line, the vintage Soda Fountain has people clamoring for freak shakes in an old-school candy shop. When you’re ready to work it off, have the kids use the energy and adrenaline on the sky-high obstacle course you can watch from below.
For me, though, it was the St. Louis Aquarium that stole the show. It isn’t the biggest aquarium in the country, but it is super interactive and high tech. To enter, you ride a three-minute virtual reality train narrated by proud native John Goodman. Inside, you’re graced with touch-tanks housing everything from stingrays to those little guys who nibble off dead skin, along with more unique residents like Lord Stanley, the blue lobster. He’s so rare that only one in two million are blue (and from what they claim, the St. Louis Blues are eight times more likely to win a Stanley Cup title than to find a blue lobster. As a Blackhawks fan, I don’t love that statistic, but alas). And if you need more convincing to visit, there’s even a sloth….
Pro Tip: Experience Union Station after dark. With a nightly Fire and Light Show outside and colorful lights dazzling the Grand Hall, everything is glowing in a rainbow blaze.
Visit One of the Newest National Parks
Gateway Arch has been the iconic symbol of St. Louis for decades, but it wasn’t until last year when it was turned from a national monument into a national park. And to my complete shock, it isn’t merely a statue; it’s an incredibly narrow building you can go inside with an observation deck at the top.
Initially proposed in the ‘40s after a steamboat fire destroyed the riverfront, they felt the view wasn’t a compelling introduction to the city, so they invited architects to apply to a design competition to revitalize the area. The arch won, yet little did they know how complex it would be to implement. A true feat of engineering, it wasn’t completed until the ‘60s.
The base is a museum dedicated to the architect, the design, Missouri’s colonial times, and America’s westward expansion, which the arch ultimately symbolizes. Last year, it was named the 60th and smallest national park, despite being the second tallest manmade monument in the world (after only the Eiffel Tower).
It’s home to the only tram in the world that combines elements of an escalator, elevator, and Ferris Wheel to navigate up the curve. Tiny futuristic pods bring you to the top on a wild and slightly awkward ride. You’re smushed together with strangers (five to a car) and have one small window that looks out over the electrical equipment (you’re literally inside a steel building with no view of the outside world). The observation deck at the top is lined with tiny windows overlooking both sides of the city and river. It’s a cool bird’s eye view, but if you don’t like heights, people, or small spaces, don’t do it, as it can be pretty claustrophobic.
During the summer, you can also take a riverboat cruise to see the arch from a different perspective, which may be more appealing to those that prefer fresh air.
Eat Your Way Around Town
Thanks to a large number of immigrant settlers, St. Louis’s food scene is diverse with tons of ethnic variety. There’s everything for every palate and budget from James Beard recipients to hole-in-the-wall diners.
There’s authentic Italian like Vito’s, who’ve been slinging their signature house-made red sauce for years, bougie brunch spots like Turn where avo toast and biscuit flights reign supreme, and modern coffee shops like High Low, home to house-made pastries and creative caffeine highs. Boulderites, they also have Snarf’s sandwiches (the Colorado shops are owned by the brother, while the sister owns the St. Louis outposts), which is like having a bite of home for breakfast (yes, the St. Louis shops even have brekkie).
St. Louis even boasts their own style of pizza, which is super thin, square-cut, and topped with Provel, a processed white cheese product. It originated from Imo’s, a polarizing, love it or hate it late-night spot. As a Chicago pizza purist, it tasted more like flatbread than pie to me but was a good snack if you don’t put too much stock into what pizza should look or taste like.
Pro Tip: Other signature St. Louis dishes to seek out are toasted ravioli and gooey butter cake, which are both Midwest must-tries.
I’m not generally a huge museum person (ADD generation), but St. Louis’s are just eclectic and interactive enough to keep me interested. City Museum is one of the especially WTF ones vaguely reminiscent of Meow Wolf in Santa Fe. It’s hard to describe but not hard to miss with a giant dragon, plane, bus, ball pit, and gargoyles hanging off the exterior of the building. Various rooms from aquariums to treehouses are open to explore by crawling through tunnels and sliding down slides. Everything is meant to be touched from the taxidermy to old pinball machines, ancient European artifacts, electric chair, you get the idea…or maybe you don’t because I don’t even entirely know what I was looking at and am sure I’d stumble upon 1000 different things on the next visit.
The Magic House is another interactive children’s museum that really is just as fun for adults. One of the best in the country, whimsical exhibits have you climbing up a magical beanstalk to playing in a room full of bubbles to performing karaoke in a replica Oval Office. Weird flex, but I appreciate the randomness of it all, which I need to hold my attention.
The World Chess Hall of Fame proves there truly is a museum for every interest from artistically crafted sets to monthly matches, while Purina Farms is a mecca for pet lovers. The Incredible Dog Arena has some of the most talented canines in the world performing feats of agility, while the Petting Zoo and Rescue Ranch are home to cuddly barn creatures and adoptable animals (aka. where you can leave me). And that’s just scratching the surface on the highlights. Yeah, St. Louis has a lot going on.
Where to Stay: The Angad Arts Hotel
A museum meets boutique hotel in the heart of the arts district, this uniquely designed property has rooms you book by color in addition to layout. Thought to set the tone for your trip based on your mood and emotion, if you subscribe to color theory, there’s red for passion, blue for tranquility, happy for yellow, and green for rejuvenation. Which space feels most inspired to you?
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