Meet Me in St Louis - a Visitor's Guide
Created | Updated Mar 27, 2009
St Louis, Missouri, is located just south of the convergence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, directly across the water from East St Louis, Illinois. The city limits cover approximately 62 square miles (about 160 square kilometres) and is bordered by, but independent of, St Louis County to the north, west and south, and the river on the east.
St Louis is the second-largest city in Missouri, with a population in the range of 345,000 - 350,000. The metropolitan area, including several surrounding counties, is the largest in the state with a population in excess of 2.5 million.
At times during its history St Louis has been a major US city, playing an important role in the shaping of the country. It was the second-largest port in the country in the 1830s and 40s; by the 1850s it was a primary point of departure for westbound pioneers, earning the city its nickname of 'The Gateway to the West'. St Louis put on the largest World's Fair in history in 1904, the same year it hosted the first Olympics to be held in the US.
Throughout the 20th Century St Louis experienced a fall from grace, especially after the 1970s when residents began leaving the city for the surrounding and outlying counties1, abandoning the city to blight. By the turn of the 21st Century St Louis held a pretty consistent spot near the top of the 'Most Dangerous Cities in America' list. But a strong push for revitalisation is keeping the city from the brink, and there's still lots to see and do in this river city.
Visitors flying into St Louis will arrive at Lambert International Airport, which is located in the county about ten minutes west of downtown on Interstate 70. Amtrak national trains also have stops in St Louis, as do Greyhound national buses.
Several interstates pass through the centre of downtown, including I-55 north and south, I-44 southwest, the previously mentioned I-70 east and west, and I-64 east and west, although 64 is locally referred to as highway 402, and lost travellers asking directions to I-64 are likely to be met with blank stares. Highway 40 is very old, narrow and almost constantly under construction. If you can get to where you're going without using 40, the alternate route is heavily recommended3.
Where to Drop Your Bags
There is no shortage of hotels in the Gateway City. It's possible to find rooms in every price range. Many hotels are located in the heart of downtown which make them likely choices if you're visiting to attend a ballgame or concert; they're also convenient to the MetroLink light rail. It might be wise to avoid accomodations north of the Laclede's Landing area; the landscape becomes industrial and the blight is evident.
South and west of the downtown area are good for lodgings as well, and the choice can depend on what attractions you would like to be closest to. Alternatively you can choose to stay in the county; hotels near the airport are within easy distance of the light rail. There are several outlets from which to rent a car by the day or week here as well. MetroLink rail service is limited, so if you plan to rely on public transportation it would be wise to get maps of the rail and bus services and choose lodgings convenient to stops and stations. On the whole, it's much easier to get around with a car.
Let us Entertain You
St Louis really has a lot to offer its visitors, so you'll not be stuck for things to do. If you're on a budget, a good place to start is Forest Park on the west side of the city along highway 40. Forest Park contains the Missouri History Museum, the St Louis Art Museum and one of the nation's highest ranked zoos, all of which have free admission. Many of the shows and concerts staged in the park are free as well.
The Museum of Westward Expansion is located at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial - or rather, under it. On the surface, most people will instantly recognise the Gateway Arch, the tallest monument in the US. Admission to the museum is free, and rides to the observation deck of the Arch can be purchased.
On the south side, the Anheuser-Busch Brewery on Pestalozzi Street is one of the largest breweries in the world; free tours leave several times daily with a free product sampling4 at the conclusion. Grant's Farm is also south of downtown on Gravois Road, offers free tram tours of the grounds, and is the home of the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdale Horses.
The Missouri Botanical Garden is located just west of downtown on Shaw Boulevard near I-44. The locals call it Shaw's Garden after Henry Shaw, who began the garden in the 1850s. The garden includes the largest traditional Japanese garden in North America and a re-creation of a tropical rainforest among hundreds of other collections. There is a nominal admission fee; special events may cost more.
The City Museum at Lucas Avenue and 15th Street is eye-catching for the school bus perched precariously on the roof of the building. The nation's only completely recycled museum, from the building, which was formerly a shoe company, to everything inside down to the mosaic tile floors. All materials in the museum have been salvaged from within the city limits.
The Grand Center Arts District along North Grand Avenue and the surrounding area is home to many performance venues. There you'll find the ornate Fox Theatre, Powell Symphony Hall, the Sheldon Concert Hall and the Grandel Theatre, as well as several galleries and museums.
If spectating is more your idea of a good time, this is your town. St Louis is often called one of the best cities in sport for its enthusiastic and fiercely loyal fans. The major sporting venues are all downtown within a mile of each other: Blues hockey at the Scottrade Center, Rams (American) football in the Edward Jones Dome and Cardinals baseball at New Busch Stadium. The National Bowling Hall of Fame and the Cardinals Hall of Fame are adjacent to the ballpark.
Shop 'Til You Drop... Or Not
In days gone by, St Louis might have been a major shopping destination. As recently as the late 1980s there were two major shopping centres right downtown, but one has closed and the other is a shadow of its former self.
St Louis Union Station on Market Street is the one that remains. When it was built in the 1890s it was the largest passenger train station in the US, but as rail traffic to St Louis slowed down it eventually fell into disuse in the 1970s. In 1985 after an extensive renovation, the station reopened as downtown's premier shopping district. Business at Union Station has slackened off again, but many shops remain amid several vacant storefronts.
Don't let it be said you can't go shopping in St Louis, though. There are several large shopping malls in the area, as well as many boutiques and specialty shops. There just isn't a shopping district like you might find in other large cities.
In lieu of shopping, you could go for lunch or dinner. The St Louis Hard Rock Cafe is located on Union Station's parking lot, and there are restaurants on nearly every corner downtown. In order to experience the true flavour of St Louis however, there are a few establishments you should seek out.
For Italian cuisine, look no farther than The Hill, a neighbourhood a few minutes west of downtown along I-44 renowned for its Italian restaurants. One can hardly go wrong walking into any restaurant in The Hill, but Rigazzi's on Daggett, Zia's or Amighetti's on Wilson or Charlie Gitto's on Shaw come highly recommended. Try the toasted ravioli - they invented it, you know.
Hodak's at Gravois and McNair serves the best fried chicken in town. You may have to wait a bit for a table, but their dinners overfill the plate and won't bust the budget. Not up for chicken? They also have a full menu of sandwiches and seafood.
Imo's is 'original, St Louis-style pizza'. St Louis-style pizza is made on almost cracker-thin crust with a variety of toppings and Provel cheese - a special blend of cheddar, swiss and provelone that is used almost exclusively in St Louis. Imo's has several locations in the area - just ask a local or consult a phone directory for the nearest one.
The St Louis Bread Company is nationally branded as Panera Bread, presumably because the name 'St Louis' wasn't perceived as nationally marketable. But in St Louis, you need only ask directions to the nearest 'Bread Co'5 to discover a comfortable cafe with great soups, sandwiches, salads and fresh-baked breads and pastries. Locations offer Wi-Fi access as well.
Leave Room for Dessert
For an extra-special treat in the summer heat (or in the spring breeze, or in the autumn chill), drop by Ted Drewes in south city on Chippewa or South Grand. Drewes serves legendary frozen custard in sundaes or concretes6. Their specialty flavours include Terramizzou - a combination of chocolate and pistacios, Dutchman Delight - chocolate, butterscotch and pecans, and Teddad's with Dad's Scotch Oatmeal cookies, also a St Louis exclusive.
Alternatively, on the north side, there's the Crown Candy Kitchen on St Louis Avenue. A local favourite for nearly a century, Crown serves lunch and dinner, operates an old-fashioned soda fountain, and sells homemade confections and ice cream.
Exploring the Metro Area
St Louis isn't strictly a city-limits town, the 'burbs have much to offer the out-of-town visitor.
The Butterfly House is in west St Louis County on Olive Boulevard in Faust Park. There is an open-flight butterfly room in the St Louis Zoo, but the Butterfly House is a much larger facility with many more varieties of butterfly. A sure-fire hit with the kids as it's not uncommon for the butterflies to land on you, and it's considered lucky.
Also in west St Louis County on Barrett Station Road is the National Museum of Transportation, maintained by the St Louis County Parks Department. The museum is mostly outdoors and features over one hundred train engines and rail cars, many of which are open for exploration. The museum maintains a few working models of streetcars and subway trains that are occasionally operated as rides. There is also an automotive building with a selection of rare cars and a partially rebuilt unit from the Coral Court Motel celebrating America's motoring heyday.
The Magic House is in Kirkwood in south St Louis County on Kirkwood Road7. Technically it is the Children's Museum, but is great for all ages with lots of hands-on exhibits, and a three-storey spiral slide. There is also an area especially for toddlers.
There is a historic shopping district on Main Street in neighbouring St Charles, just west of St Louis across the Missouri River. Along the rivers in St Louis, St Charles and Illinois there are riverboat casino complexes. North of St Louis across the Mississippi River in Alton, Illinois, is the famous Fast Eddie's Bon Air, an over-21-only restaurant and bar. It's possible at Fast Eddie's to order the entire menu for about $10, but get there early and accept that you might have to eat standing up.
Getting on With the Locals
St Louis has often been called the biggest small town in the US, and for good reason. Despite its size, at times it seems that everyone knows everyone else. St Louisans that meet up when travelling abroad will often find they share common aquaintances, if only by a few degrees of separation. Likewise, a St Louisan's first question of another St Louisan will often be 'Where did you go to high school?' in an attempt to establish a common bond - more often than not this is successful.
Visitors to St Louis are consistently impressed with the level of friendliness they encounter while in town, in direct opposition of what they were given to expect before arriving. While in conversation with a local, the subject of weather will invariably come up - it has either been too hot, too cold, too windy, too rainy, too dry... and is it nicer where you're from? They can ramble on a bit, and if they get started on the blizzard of '82 or the flood of '93, it might be best to glance at your watch and start making excuses.
Speaking the Vernacular
Key to being able to communicate with St Louisans is being able to understand what they're saying. A wide variety of accents can be found in the area from the standard midwestern drawl and deeply southern twang, both of which are native, to nasal eastern US accents, Latin American, and a host of other foreign influences.
Some pronunciations that may come in handy:
- You are visiting St LOO-iss, Mizz-UR-ee, not St Louie, Mizzurah.
- While there, you may drive on Gravois Road (Gravoy), Spoede Road (Spaydee), Chouteau Avenue (Sho-do, rhymes with Frodo) or DeBaliviere (Deballiver).
- On an excursion to some of the metropolitan extremities, you may pass through the towns of Creve Coeur (Creev-Core) or Des Peres (DePair).
Other helpful hints:
- If someone calls you a hoosier, this is a mild insult, akin to a Canadian calling someone a 'hoser'. That the word 'hoosier' is an insult is exclusive to St Louis, just the other side of Illinois in Indiana they're proud to be Hoosiers. They probably say 'Mizzurah', too.
- When getting directions, if you're told to go over the Poplar Street Bridge, don't consult a map for Poplar Street. The Poplar, or PSB, carries the major interstates (70, 64, 55 and US 40) across the Mississippi from downtown into Illinois. There is a Poplar Street, but it doesn't connect to the bridge.
- 'God's Country' means Illinois. Only people from Illinois call it that.
Enjoy your visit, and y'all come back soon!