Settled on the western bank of the mighty Mississippi River, St. Louis has long been a destination for curious travelers.
The Native American Mississippian culture flourished in this area until the 15th century, constructing dozens of elaborate earthwork mounds and a city that rivaled the population of London. Founded by French fur traders in 1764, St. Louis soon passed into Spanish hands as war spoils before returning to France again and then being signed over to the United States. St. Louis was the starting point of the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition to figure out exactly what had been bought as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
Even though the city has impressive historic credentials, St. Louis is hardly stuck in the past. Just as the lively river courses past the city, St. Louis is always on the move, while maintaining a classic no-fuss Midwestern personality.
Here are the must-include things to do on your trip to St. Louis.
Ride to the top of the Gateway Arch
A symbol of St. Louis and white western migration, the 630ft-high Gateway Arch, more than double the height of the Statue of Liberty, promotes the city’s historic role as the “Gateway to the West.” Small trams that feel like 1960s space capsules straight out of The Jetsons take just four minutes to trundle to the top of the arch, releasing passengers into a narrow viewing area with windows that provide unbeatable views over the city. Back at ground level, the free-to-visit Museum at the Gateway Arch has interactive exhibits that detail the history of St. Louis and the architectural and engineering feats required for the arch’s construction.
Fly down a 10-story slide at City Museum
Don’t you dare let the dull name put you off: City Museum might be the most fun you’ll have in St. Louis. Part playground, part architectural salvage, part art installation, this fun house is a wild ride – literally. Seven- and 10-story slides cascade down through the industrial building, a century-old former warehouse for the International Shoe Company, and relics from demolished buildings are portals to other floors (and maybe even other worlds). Don’t miss the school bus and Ferris wheel perched on the rooftop – the extra excitement is worth the additional fee.
Find your space in Forest Park
Clocking in at 1371 acres – almost 45% larger than Central Park in New York City – Forest Park is the green heart of St. Louis. The park has plenty to keep sporty types occupied, from tennis courts and a golf course to a boathouse and wintertime ice rink, but history buffs and culture vultures will love it too. The park was the venue for the 1904 World’s Fair and Summer Olympics, and today it has an impressive host of top-notch and surprisingly free-to-visit museums, including the Missouri History Museum and the St. Louis Art Museum plus the St. Louis Zoo, that are worth an afternoon at an absolute minimum.
Tour the Anheuser-Busch Brewery…
Say what you will about Budweiser, but the lager remains one of the best-selling beers in the US. The Anheuser-Busch Brewery, a huge red-brick brewery complex, was opened by German immigrants in the 1850s, and the public has been allowed to gawk at the ornate interiors and production line for more than 130 years. Visits are free, as are the samples at the tour’s end.
...but drink up St. Louis’ excellent craft beer scene
While St. Louis might be better known for its mega beer brands, the city’s craft brewery scene is one of the finest in the Midwest. The juicy Rockmelon Cantaloupe IPA from 4 Hands Brewing Co – an easy e-scooter ride down the street from Anheuser-Busch – won our hearts immediately, as did the laid-back atmosphere at 2nd Shift Brewing and the out-of-this-world flavors at Earthbound Beer (Chicken and Waffles Blonde! Thai Basil IPA!). If you have wheels, head to the western suburb of Maplewood for Side Project Brewing, which in 2019 was named the second best brewer in the entire world by RateBeer. Their experimental barrel-aged beers include spontaneously fermented wild ales and fruity saisons.
Admire the architecture of Union Station
You might not be able to catch a train at Union Station anymore (though you still can from the slightly depressing Gateway Transportation Center about half a mile away), this grand structure, opened in 1894, is worth a visit. The Grand Hall, now a hotel bar, is a perfect vantage point for admiring the train station’s Roman Revival architecture, including original terrazzo flooring, gold-leaf detailing and a Tiffany glass window in which women in brightly colored dresses depict the cities of San Francisco and New York, with St. Louis in the middle linking them together. The expansive 65-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling is best appreciated during an evening 3D light show, where soaring birds, dancing flowers and exploding fireworks are projected every hour from 5pm to 10pm.
Sample St. Louis’s favorite foods
St. Louis’s foodie specialties reflect the diversity of the immigrants and newcomers who have called this city home over the centuries. The Hill is a long-standing Italian-American neighborhood with a delectable selection of delis and restaurants, and it’s the best place to try toasted ravioli, breaded and deep-fried pockets of meat. Sample them at the source at Charlie Gitto's, where they were “invented” in 1947 when a chef accidentally dropped a ravioli in hot oil instead of water.
For even more of a carb overload, try St. Louis–style pizza: the super thin-crust is cut into squares and topped with your standard pick of meats and vegetables and then covered in buttery-textured Provel, a custom combination of cheddar, Swiss and provolone cheeses that you won’t find far outside the city’s boundaries. Local chain Imo’s has been serving Provel pizzas since the 1960s, and with more than 70 outlets across the St. Louis metro area, it clearly has a strong local following.
Sweet tooths should save room for a "concrete" from Ted Drewes, where cups of thick frozen custard are mixed with chocolate, fruit, nuts, hot fudge and caramel sauce. The location on Chippewa Street, opened in 1941, served generations of travelers along this historic branch of Route 66.
Marvel at the mosaics at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis
With two lofty spires, a grand dome and a huge rosette window, the imposing Romanesque-style Cathedral Basilica wouldn’t look out of place in Europe. Though construction was completed on the cathedral in 1914, work on the famous mosaics continued until 1988. Nearly 42 million glass mosaic pieces in 7000 colors cover the walls and ceilings throughout this huge building, and it’s the largest collection of mosaic art in the western hemisphere. The mosaic museum on the cathedral’s lower level goes into detail about their design and installation, and guided tours are offered on weekdays.
Cheer on St. Louis’s sports teams
The love of sports of all sorts runs deep in St. Louis, which has been named one of the best sports cities in the country. Catch a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game at Busch Stadium – the team has won the World Series 11 times, second only to the New York Yankees. The St. Louis Blues hockey team won the Stanley Cup in 2019 and makes frequent appearances in the Stanley Cup playoffs. After years of proposals, the city will soon get its first Major League Soccer team, St. Louis City SC, which is expected to have its first season in 2023 in a brand new purpose-built stadium. St. Louis also has a handful of minor league teams and college teams, so sports fans are never long without a game.
Listen to live jazz at Venice Cafe
Covered in glittering mirrors, colorful mosaics and quirky bric-a-brac – think repurposed ashtrays, boat hulls and taxidermy – Venice Cafe is where art and music meet up for a great night out. Many legendary names in music, including Scott Joplin, Chuck Berry and Miles Davis, got their start in St. Louis, and this bar doesn’t miss a beat, with live blues, rock and jazz almost every night of the week. The cash-only bar serves cocktails, beer and wine, and there’s also a menu of Caribbean dishes.
Get to know the region’s earlier residents at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
One of the most intriguing archaeological sites in the Midwest, Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site was once a sprawling Native American city from 800 to 1400 AD with its population of tens of thousands on par with London, England, at the time. Today the quiet, grass-covered remains of this sophisticated prehistoric civilization cover 2200 acres, and the Unesco World Heritage-listed site preserves 70 of the original 120 earthen mounds, which were used as building foundations and for burials.
A reconstructed astronomical observatory made of wooden posts arranged in a circle, nicknamed Woodhenge, aligned with the movements of the sun to indicate the changing seasons throughout the year. Climb the stairs to the top of Monks Mound, the largest indigenous earthwork in the Americas, which is nearly 100 feet tall. From here, on a clear day, you can see the Gateway Arch and St. Louis’s skyline.
You’ll need a car or ride-hailing app such as Uber or Lyft to get to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. The site is about a 20-minute drive east of downtown St. Louis, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River.
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