Viewed from its iconic Arch, St. Louis marches westward along a neat grid that helps acclimate visitors to its most popular destinations: to the left, the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, straight ahead, the museums and zoo in Forest Park, and to the right, dining destinations and shops scattered among the downtown skyscrapers. Following its glory days around the 1904 World's Fair, the city weathered a long period of neglect. But no more. The revitalization downtown is matched by small-scale residential rehabs throughout the city's red-brick neighborhoods.
Much of what visitors want to see is in St. Louis proper. But the city and St. Louis County split up more than a hundred years ago, leaving the city bordered by the Mississippi River — the dividing line between Missouri and Illinois, to the east, and St. Louis County to the west. While the city's neighborhoods are fairly close together compared to other metropolitan areas, making it easy to navigate, visitors will need a car or should plan on taking cabs. Parking is relatively easy and inexpensive everywhere, with the exception of the very heart of downtown.
St. Louis is a city that offers plenty of diversions and is flush with dining destinations. Keep an eye out for local specialties. Among the favorites is toasted ravioli, a deep-fried bar snack or first course accompanied by red sauce for dipping. Pork steaks — a backyard barbecue favorite — are cut from the pork shoulder or butt; when barbecued, they yield moist, tender results. When it comes to dessert, watch for gooey, coffee butter cake with a filling that's extremely sweet; it's often served with a glass of cold milk to cut its richness.
Wondering where to stay? We're fond of the Chase Park Plaza Hotel,
an elegant historic hotel complex within walking distance of the chic Central West End. The Chase lies
diagonally across Kings highway from Forest Park, which is handy for those who appreciate a morning run. In Clayton, it's all about The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis, the scene of many local high-end soirées. There, you'll find nice views of downtown or the sunset from balconies.
Another set of rooms with a view is the Moonrise Hotel, an independent boutique property overlooking The Loop, one of the city's most diverse neighborhoods. If you're downtown, check into Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis, with its fabulous views of the riverfront and Arch plus easy access to the Lumière Place casino. If a bed and breakfast is more your speed, check out dwell 912 in an old neighborhood called Lafayette Square, just south of downtown. There's plenty of privacy, unlike other B&Bs, since it resides in an attached, two-story guesthouse, complete with patio.
ST. LOUIS DAY 1: Gateway Arch, Citygarden and Central West End
It's all-but-a-given that any visit to St. Louis should begin at the Gateway Arch, especially when skies are clear. But first, fuel up on breakfast at the Rooster, a small, pleasantly funky downtown spot for crêpes. Remember that during peak tourist season, you'll want to dine early and beat the crowds to the Eero Saarinen-designed curve (or better yet, reserve tickets online in advance for the ride to the top). Parking is under the north end of the Arch grounds, near the historic Eads Bridge, the first to span the Mississippi River. Follow up with a drive down Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard along the river, where you'll see the original cobblestones with huge rings here and there for mooring steamboats. You'll also see, framed by the legs of the Arch, the classical-style Old Courthouse where Dred Scott sued for freedom and lost, one of the pivotal slavery cases leading up to the Civil War.
About 15 blocks west of the Old Courthouse is Union Station, a national historic site that's worth at least a brief stop for souvenirs — even though trains don't stop there anymore. On the way, check out Citygarden, a new two-square-block public sculpture park with a few dozen cleverly arranged, contemporary works of art, plus very inviting wading pools and fountains. You're likely to see plenty of local families — plus a few office workers on weekdays — cooling off there during the summer. And the folks with headphones? They may be listening to the self-guided tour, which is available through iTunes.
Lunch can be an indulgent one at Crown Candy Kitchen, north of downtown, with plenty of ice cream options and great BLT sandwiches, or at The St. Louis Brewery/The Tap Room, at the western edge of downtown, where the specialties — besides the house-brewed beers — include fish and chips and a marvelously sticky toffee pudding. After lunch, head for the City Museum. Located in an old shoe factory where a young Tennessee Williams worked — and, later, wrote about in "The Glass Menagerie," There's a motley assemblage, including an aquarium, architectural artifacts and an acrobat school. From the museum, head east along Washington Avenue, where fashionable shops like the Collective at MX offer designer wares. Hop aboard the downtown trolley (just a couple of bucks for an all-day pass) to scope out the entire stretch.
If you've done The Arch on an earlier visit, consider a free tour of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery. The buildings are old — and some of the interiors are surprisingly elegant. And, of course, it means a chance to visit one of the stables of the famed Clydesdales. Unlike Hollywood, if these stars are in their yard, they may well come over to visit with guests. If you decide to go this route, have lunch at Frazer's, where you can choose from either casual home-cooked meals or more sophisticated fare. Afterwards, go antiquing on Cherokee Street east of Jefferson Avenue, where the shops are in former private homes that face onto the old brick sidewalks. West of Jefferson is a Latino neighborhood with grocery stores and shops perfect for exploring. If you're visiting Wednesday through Saturday, be sure to stop by the European-style Soulard Farmers Market, which sports everything from fresh pasta to designer knock-off purses, in a site that's been a market for over 200 years. It makes for great people watching, even if you don't buy anything.
A third alternative is a stroll in the Central West End, an old neighborhood of large homes near the Washington University School of Medicine and its affiliated hospitals. Euclid Avenue, from Forest Park Avenue to Washington Avenue, is the center of the commercial area, with shops like Left Bank Books and restaurants like Rasoi for modern Indian cuisine.
For dinner tonight, plan on Acero, part of the emerging restaurant row in the suburb of Maplewood, offering excellent new-school Italian fare.
We also recommend using your hotel's concierge service to obtain tickets for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, whose conductor, David Robinson, chats up the audience, sharing his delight with the music they're about to hear. Or catch a game, such as the Cardinals in their old-style (but new) stadium. And — depending on the time of year — there's always the St. Louis Blues hockey team.
Continue to Day 2