Just a hundred years ago St Louis, in Missouri, was the fourth largest city in the United States of America. Handily placed on the banks of the Mississippi, the city hosted both the World Trade Fair and the third modern Olympic games in 1904. It was a major centre of trade and industry (which was still largely driven by water transport), and a hub of cross-country rail development as a result of the building of the impressive Eads bridge and the stunning Union Station. St Louis played an important role in Black emancipation, the Old Courthouse being the location for the historic Dred Scott decision in 1857.
This is the city of Chuck Berry, Maya Angelou, TS Eliot, William Burroughs and Scott Joplin, of the St Louis Cardinals, of ribs, steaks, and the blues. It’s the gateway to the West. It is this part of the world that gave us Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. St Louis has a central importance in American history and in the development of American literature.
Yet despite a number of significant achievements in the 20th century, including providing more than half of the US soccer team that famously beat England in the 1950 World Cup finals, there can be little doubt that the city has lost a great deal of its importance in the past hundred years. Major corporations have moved out, population has fallen, the airport no longer has international routes, Union Station has been turned into a shopping mall, East St. Louis has become a notorious area for race and poverty problems, and there is a discernible and eerie silence on the streets, especially if you have recently arrived from nearby bustling Chicago.
My brother emigrated to St Louis from London in 2003, and I recently spent a weekend there. What I found was a very laid-back atmosphere, a pleasing climate, and friendly locals. The place is definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in the unlikely position of being stuck in the mid-West with time on your hands.
In reverse order, here is my hastily-prepared and opinionated list of the top 10 things to do in St Louis:
10. Harry’s Bar
2144 Market St, St Louis, MO 63103-2252 (636) 256-0221
For the best view over the admittedly limited but still quite impressive skyline of St Louis and possibly the liveliest after-work drinking haunt, the place to head to is Harry’s Bar on Market Street at the junction of North Jefferson and South Jefferson Avenues. The night we were there we had a superb early evening view over St Louis’s famous Arch on the banks of the Mississippi, and also a close up of the roof of Union Station close by. The atmosphere is friendly and the staff, catering largely to a crowd that want to eat relatively quickly and then move on, are thorough yet speedy. The specials – mahi mahi, pan-fried flank of lamb, pecan nut encrusted trout and veal liver – were all tried out by our party of four and all found to be excellent, especially when washed down with a Pinot Noir that was well worth the $40.00 we shelled out for it. The starter – a simple selection of Italian bread served with olive oil and Parmesan – was pure perfection. The service was first-class and we were out of the place – satisfied and happy – within our required time slot of 45 minutes. Don’t be put off by the external down-at-heel appearance and garish colours – this is a place where you will get a good meal for a relatively inexpensive price.
9. Forest Park
One thing the first-time visitor to St Louis will notice is an abundance of green space, especially in the more affluent areas of University City. Forest Park, which houses among other notable attractions the city’s history museum – which tells the story of slavery, the Civil War, the industrial and economic development of the city, and when we visited there was a temporary exhibition based on the 1904 Trade Fair and Olympic Games – contains an astounding 1,293 acres of parkland, 500 acres more than the more celebrated Central Park in New York. The park contains monuments, historic buildings, an abundance of wildlife (we saw an egret when we were walking through it), bridges, a river, waterways and landscapes, and also serves as a sports centre including a 27-hole golf course, tennis courts and areas for baseball, cycling, boating, fishing, handball, ice skating, roller-blading and jogging (which is very popular in these parts). It is wonderful to walk round this park when the weather is good, and I would suggest that any visitor who has overindulged in the local brews (see the next entry) could do no better than taking a turn around Forest Park to blow off those morning cobwebs.
4747 McPherson Street
We had to get on to booze eventually, with this being the home of the world’s most average beer, Budweiser. Don’t waste your time taking a trip around the Budweiser factory. Why bother? There are plenty more interesting local brews to sample, such as Schlafly’s, brewed by the St Louis Brewery Inc, which is light, malty and tasty, and plenty more interesting places in which to sample beer, including the Welsh bar Llewellyn’s where expat Brits can treat themselves to pints of London Pride, Bass or Boddington’s, alongside tasty local brews and comforting food such as home-made chips with a range of dips. The British ales are supposed to be as good as the real thing, though the Pride was a little ropy on the day I visited. The beer menu is extensive, however, and ordering from it is a treat in itself. The staff here – like everywhere in the city – are friendly and helpful and the atmosphere is laid back and relaxed. This is the perfect place for pre-dinner drinks.
7. St Charles and wineries
A perfect Sunday drive from St Louis might easily take you out to St Charles and from there on to one of the exciting local wineries that are dotted around. This could take in the bird sanctuary and the Missouri-Mississippi confluence, both of which are detailed below. St Charles is the place to come if you want to learn about Lewis and Clark’s legacy in discovering the west. Clark holed up here for a while waiting for Lewis to join him from his base in St Louis, and Frontier Park, on the banks of the Missouri, has a fine-looking monument dedicated to the explorers. It was from here that they continued to push along the Missouri further into the west. The town was initially a French settlement and still has a continental feel to it. This was actually the first state capital of Missouri. It is very touristy now, but as a result of that it is surrounded by excellent wineries that make for a very good comfort break, and allow you to indulge in a range of excellent wines grown right here in Missouri. Definitely worth trying is the Little Hills Restaurant & Winery, 501 S. Main Street, St. Charles, MO 63301 (636) 946-9339. This is quite a lot more entertaining than the tacky souvenir shops that line the rest of Main Street.
6. St Louis Symphony Orchestra
At the tender age of 39 I’ve always thought that classical music was not quite my thing (yet), but I was blown away by Handel’s Israel in Egypt, which we saw performed by the St Louis Symphony Orchestra accompanied by the St Louis Symphony Chorus (with some exemplary soloists) and conducted by Nicholas McGegan. The Orchestra performs regularly at the Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand Boulevard, which is a suitably ornate building, and only a stone’s throw away from Harry’s Bar. My brother and his wife are season ticket holders and are such fans that they attended a performance here on New Year’s Eve in 2004. On the night we were there the performance was moving, the music was excellent, the chorus was in great voice. The fact that music-mad volunteers personally greet you upon entering the building also gives you a lift. If you are here, check out what’s on, even if you think you are not a fan of classical music – you may be surprised. We definitely left feeling culturally richer for the experience.
Follow the link for Part Two of the list…