So here’s Part Two of the countdown – my list of the top five things to do in St Louis:
5. Farmer’s market
Soulard Market, 730 Carroll Street
No, not the middle classes paying £7.50 for half a pound of sausages and smugly ordering ostrich steaks. Instead, Amish stalls, Illinois tomatoes (these are fat, juicy and colourful and, to use a cliché, they really do taste like tomatoes used to), crusty bread, collard greens, spices, herbs, juicy tangerines, fresh vegetables, huge slabs of meat, local cheeses (the hot pepper cheese we ordered was incredibly tasty and very spicy, and a perfect accompaniment to the Illinois tomatoes), and flowers. There’s a fabulous atmosphere here, with people walking around the stalls with a beer and a bread stick, discussing the offers available, what’s new, what’s fresh, what’s running out, what tastes good and how to cook the stuff when you get it home. It’s cheaper than the supermarket and far better, and all of St Louis seems to be here on a Saturday morning. This is one of the oldest public markets still in existence in the United States and must be one of the best. Fresh produce is available here all year round, and it is encouraging in these days of junk food and a much-discussed obesity epidemic to see people here enthusing over real food and talking about it with such obvious love. The market is located in the Soulard region, which is tipped to be one of the next big areas to take off in St Louis. A range of interesting looking bars, coffee shops and restaurants are sprouting up around here. For now, though, keep your car locked.
4. Mississippi-Missouri confluence
As you are this close to where these two great rivers interconnect, you would be mad not to get along there to have a look – you’re going to be in this area anyway because of St Charles and the Bird Sanctuary (see below) so why not. The Missouri is actually the longest river in the United States, and it was along this river that Lewis and Clark made steady progress when discovering vast tracts of western America. While you are hanging around the area you should also take in the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge which allows you to walk over the Mississippi – it is a mile across. Again, be careful around here as we have heard stories of people using the free car park having their cars broken into (“don’t take but a minute” as one shocked local was overheard to say). Keep valuables out of sight at the very least. On the plus side, this is the world’s longest pedestrian and cyclist bridge and the view of the Gothic water intakes that served the city of St Louis for so many years make this trip worth it. For the confluence, head for Riverview Drive on the I-270 and you can’t go wrong. It is known as the Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area.
St Louis is the gateway to the west and the Arch on the Mississippi waterfront signifies that. It is a very impressive monument and one that you won’t be able to avoid around these parts as it dominates the skyline. You can – believe it or not – take a trip to the top of the Arch for even more stunning views. It is exactly as high as it is wide – 630 feet. We didn’t go up but the surrounding areas of parkland and the nearby area of Laclede’s Landing are all well worth exploring – it is here that you will find St Louis at its best in terms of restaurants, bars and cultural life. My only warning is that the gentleman’s rest room in one bar around here – which shall remain nameless – has a seated toilet bowl on full display to those using the urinals, which certainly focuses the mind. Explore this area – while you are here check out the Old Courthouse, famous for the Dred Scott Trial. Also in early September this area hosts a blues festival and free concerts are provided most nights in August.
2. World Bird Sanctuary
125 Bald Eagle Ridge Road, Valley Park, MO 63088
The wetlands and World Bird Sanctuary, located in 130 acres of beautiful Missouri forest within an easy drive of the city, are a nature lover’s paradise. We managed to see a bald eagle nesting there in late April, a good couple of months after they have usually flown north for the summer. You can walk out to the viewing points and bird feeding stations for a view of native songbirds and visit the Sanctuary’s World Environmental Education Center (it was closed the day we were there so avoid Sundays). The aim of this area is the laudable one of preserving the earth’s biological diversity and securing the future of threatened bird species.
1. Bar Italia
13 Maryland Plaza, St Louis, MO 63108-1501
We started with food and that is where we will end. It had to be a restaurant experience that took the Number 1 spot. You’ll be needing somewhere to kick back after all the sightseeing mentioned above – we certainly did. And this is one hell of a restaurant experience. Let me fill you in – a fantastic view over Maryland Plaza if you are fortunate enough to get one of the superb window seats upstairs (if the weather is slightly warmer than it was in late April you can also dine outside on the extensive patio), gorgeous appetisers, delicious wine, excellent service, helpful and chatty waiters (very knowledgeable on Woody Allen the night we were there), tasty main courses and specials – including quail, a pasta dish with three types of sausage in a tomato sauce, mahi-mahi (again), veal – excellent bruschetta, the normal range of pizzas, meats and pastas, beautiful fresh bread and olives – the perfect Italian experience in the mid-West. We left feeling very full but very happy. Widely regarded as the best Italian in the city, considered by some to be the best restaurant in the city – anyone spending any time at all in St Louis has to come here. It is walking distance from Llewellyn’s as well, so you will already have had your pre-dinner drinks. But save some room for the award-winning wine list. The owners – three brothers – mingle with the diners. This is just about a perfect place.
Right, if that’s not enough to get you through a long weekend maybe you should go around the Budweiser brewery after all. Or you could drive on Route 66, see Chuck Berry perform – as he does monthly – at The Duck Room at Blueberry Hill, check out the exciting restaurants and bohemian scene in the University City loop, go to the St Louis Zoo, shop at the Union Station complex, go to see the Cardinals, take an open-top bus tour round the city, hang out in the botanic gardens. For god’s sake, there’s even a wolf sanctuary not too far away.
Make no mistake about it, St Louis is not as fashionable as Miami, Florida, Los Angeles, New York or most other places you could think of, you need a car to get around, it is less appealing than nearby Chicago with its blues, Lake Michigan, skyscrapers and Aquarium, but there is still a hell of a lot that this city can offer and if you find yourself out in the mid-West, it would be a shame to overlook it – if you are not averse to superb weather, excellent food, great facilities, and a laid-back friendly approach to life. Give it a try, you have nothing to lose and you may pick up some of those wonderful Illinois tomatoes.