St. Louis is a river city that was and then wasn’t. Originally, it was a landing spot for French fur traders who settled on the banks of the Mississippi and settlers who started west on the Missouri. St. Louis’ location at the junction of the country’s most significant waterways is not merely a topographical feature — it’s the reason for its very existence.
It can also be a source of wistfulness, a feeling you pick up on from locals who are more than happy to explain the city’s loss of status to Chicago as St. Louis stuck with steamboats while its northern rival moved on to trains.
That could explain the Mississippi’s absence from St. Louis’ identity in recent years. It was a subtle void made not so subtle when it was physically cut off from the rest of the city 50 years ago to make room for Interstate 70. You couldn’t stroll down to its banks from downtown without awkwardly traversing a cement bridge over highway. The Gateway Arch was erected on its inhospitable riverfront, meaning it, too, was severed from the city.
This all changed last summer when the CityArchRiver project finally came to completion. The decade-long reunification project, which includes an over-the-highway green space and completely renovated Gateway Arch grounds and visitors center, finally reconnected the Mississippi and adjacent Arch grounds with the rest of the city. But it’s been much more than a physical reunion and aesthetic upgrade. It’s been a jolt of pride for a city with a reputation for being divided by much more than an interstate.
The celebration is a great occasion for our neighbors upriver to come on down and see what St. Louis has to offer.
Explore the Gateway Arch and riverfront
The renovation of the Gateway Arch grounds, which was completed in the summer of 2018, was about much more than looks: It was about redefining the city’s relationship with its river and monument. If you stand on the steps of St. Louis’ Old Courthouse building and gaze across the green space at the vista, you feel it. It’s a sense of awe that comes over you as you take in the towering silver Arch and environs and begin your trek to the grounds. A year ago, you wouldn’t have wanted to do this by foot. Now, with the opening of Luther Ely Smith Square, you can walk across verdant green spaces as you enter the park and wander around its scenic walkways and riverfront before visiting the renovated museum, which tells the story of St. Louis’ role in the country’s westward expansion.
Then there’s the tram ride to the top of the Arch in space-aged transport pods that lift you 63 stories into the sky for a gob-smacking vista of the city. Get tickets in advance because the excitement around the renovations means they tend to sell out quickly.
Bacon and the blues
If the tram ride to the top of the Arch isn’t heart-stopping enough, the BLT at Crown Candy Kitchen (1401 St. Louis Ave., 314-621-9650, crowncandykitchen.net) will do the trick. This century-old soda fountain in the city’s Old North neighborhood, a part of town that, while architecturally beautiful, has seen its fortunes fall over the years. Still, Crown Candy remains its anchor, the city’s undisputed dining institution, serving old-fashioned malts, handmade chocolate confections and sandwiches to the throngs of people who pack its quaint corner storefront. The Heart-Stopping BLT is the restaurant’s signature dish. Fourteen strips of bacon are latticed and stacked like a game of Jenga, then topped with lettuce, tomato and a healthy slather of Miracle Whip between two slices of white toast.
Crown Candy closes at 8 pm, but BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups (700 S. Broadway, 314-436-5222, bbsjazzbluessoups.com) offers a nightcap with a side of the blues until 3 am. The eternally cool South Broadway spot has been around in one form or another since the 1800s and has been everything from a boarding house to a transient hotel to a brothel.
Sample the best of St. Louis’ old-fashioned doughnut shops
St. Louis has an almost embarrassing number of old-timey doughnut shops, so it’s best to pace yourself and experience the varying styles found at a few different ones. Unassuming O’Fashion Donuts (1904 S. Vandeventer Ave., 314-776-9975) is a white brick building the size of a small garage that serves vanilla-glazed buttermilk cake doughnuts so good you won’t mind that the only thing available to wash them down with is hot plate coffee out of a Styrofoam cup. Just down the road, grab a chocolate long john or (and?) an apple fritter from Peggy Clanton, who works the counter at World’s Fair Donuts (1904 S. Vandeventer Ave., 314-776-9975). Her signature blue eyeshadow and sky-high beehive are almost as famous as the doughnuts.
Take a stroll through a Japanese garden
The Arch may be the symbol of St. Louis, but the Missouri Botanical Garden (4344 Shaw Blvd., 314-577-5100, missouribotanicalgarden.org) is its crown jewel. This source of civic pride boasts almost 80 acres of awe-inspiring beauty, including its Japanese Garden, which features waterfalls, pebble beaches, islands and hidden nooks that are nothing short of ethereal.
Lunch at Union Loafers
It hasn’t even been open four years, but Union Loafers (1629 Tower Grove Ave., 314-833-6111, unionloafers.com) is already a St. Louis landmark — with wait times to boot. Thankfully, the ultra-hip Botanical Heights neighborhood cafe uses the No Wait app, which will shave off the angst that comes with being quoted a 90-minute wait time for bread and soup. Once you have that bread and soup, however, you’ll realize it was worth the effort. Co-owner and baker Ted Wilson serves the best bread in town, a naturally fermented sourdough that puts plain sandwich bread to shame. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the restaurant’s legendary little gem salad and chicken and rice soup.
Explore the National Blues Museum
It didn’t take the Arch grounds revitalization for St. Louis to realize its stock was on the rise. That happened in 2016, when the doors to the National Blues Museum (615 Washington Ave., St. Louis, 314-925-0016, nationalbluesmuseum.org) opened, celebrating the genre that is the city’s soundtrack. This temple to the great American art form traces its role as one of the most foundational pieces of our nation’s culture through masterfully curated exhibits.
Take a trip to Sarajevo without leaving the country
Back in the early 1990s, St. Louis welcomed thousands of Bosnians fleeing the brutal war that raged in their homeland. They made their home in and around south St. Louis’ Bevo Mill neighborhood, turning the area into a “Little Sarajevo” complete with Bosnian butcher shops, grocery stores, bakeries, pitarias and coffee shops where it’s still common to have to pantomime your order if you do not speak Bosnian. J’s Pitaria (5003 Gravois Ave., 314-339-5319, jspitaria.com) serves outstanding traditional Bosnian cevapi, a mild Balkan-style beef sausage stuffed in soft pita.
Get lost in Forest Park, and take in the view with the city’s namesake
It’s a particular point of pride for St. Louisans that Forest Park is larger than New York City’s Central Park — not that anyone is counting acreage when surrounded by such beauty. The large green space is home to the city’s zoo, science center, history museum, a golf course, walking trails and winding lagoons. However, even a quick drive around the park will give you a glimpse of St. Louis history, with artifacts from the 1904 World’s Fair on display. The Spanish-style structure is a thing of beauty, but the park’s best vista comes from the promenade just across from the St. Louis Art Museum. A statue of King Louis IX of France stands watch over the park’s Grand Basin and is one of the most romantic points in the city.
Eat the square beyond compare
St. Louis-style pizza takes a beating by anyone who is not a local for its cracker-thin crust and processed Provel cheese. However, no visit to the city is complete without at least sampling this unique delicacy. The Imo’s on Hampton Avenue (1000 Hampton Ave., 314-644-5480, imospizza.com) is the local chain’s unofficial flagship and therefore the best place to surrender — with an appetizer of toasted ravioli, of course.
Artsy cocktails in Midtown
Finally, St. Louis is discovering the potential not only of its older buildings but of their rooftops as well. The newly-opened Angad Arts Hotel (3550 Samuel Shepard Drive, 314-561-0033, angadartshotel.com), which filled the noticeable void for a hotel and dining venue in the Grand Center Arts District, also serves as a hip art gallery. Its Chameleon Lounge gives guests an immersive 360-degree art experience, but it’s hard to compete with the work of art that is the city itself on full display from the Rainbow Terrace’s indoor and outdoor rooftop bar.
Take one last gander at the Arch while having brunch at Cinder House
Brunch at the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis would be a worthwhile outing even without its stunning view of the city. Its restaurant, Cinder House (999 N. Second St., 314-881-5759, cinderhousestl.com), is basically an edible love poem by the city’s first James Beard Award-winning chef, Gerard Craft, to the woman who taught him to love food. Her Brazilian influence is apparent in Cinder House’s Sunday Asado Buffet, which basically turns the eighth floor of the elegant hotel into a South American barbecue cookout. As you drift off into a meat-induced reverie and gaze out at the Mississippi, it becomes clear that this city’s best moments are not in the past; they’re right here in front of you.
Where to Stay
Angad Arts Hotel
3550 Samuel Shepard Drive | 314-561-0033 | angadartshotel.com
Recently opened in St. Louis’ historic theater district, the Angad Arts Hotel is more than a place to stay; it’s an immersive art experience. The beautifully renovated property allows guests to book rooms not only by type but also by color. It’s home to the swanky Grand Tavern by David Burke, as well as a cool lounge with an eye-popping video art display.
The Chase Park Plaza Royal Sonesta St. Louis
212 N. Kingshighway Blvd. | 314-633-3000 | sonesta.com
The historic Chase Park Plaza hotel is the embodiment of luxury in one of the city’s most tony neighborhoods. The property itself is an elegant, nearly 100-year-old art-deco-inspired skyscraper with a beautiful fountain-filled outdoor pool. Its proximity to both Forest Park and the restaurants, bars and boutiques of the Central West End make it a cosmopolitan experience.
The Cheshire Inn
6300 Clayton Road, Richmond Heights | 314-647-7300 | cheshirestl.com
No, you haven’t made a wrong turn and ended up in the English countryside, though this decidedly British property might make you feel that way. This charming hotel boasts Tudor-stye architecture and design details that evoke an old-fashioned bed and breakfast while remaining decidedly modern in its accommodations. As a bonus, its two restaurants, Boundary and Basso, are dining destinations in their own right, and its pub, Fox and Hounds, is one of the city’s coolest drinking institutions