St. Louis is my home away from home. It’s where I was born, and while I wasn’t raised here, it’s where I spent the bulk of my childhood vacations chowing down on gooey butter cake with grandparents and feeding goats at Grant’s Farm with cousins. It’s also a place I’ve learned to appreciate, in its own right, as an adult. Last year, I visited five times, and between toasted ravioli (t-rav) crawls on the Hill — the Italian neighborhood where the deep-fried finger food was invented — uncovered a deeper appreciation for the Lou.
The city, just a hop across the Mississippi River from Illinois, is a modest one. It has a rich musical history tied to the blues, but you don’t hear people bragging about it. It has a colorful beer history tied to Anheuser-Busch and, more recently, some solid craft brews, but no one puts on airs over it. And it has a fun food scene, laying claim to a number of unexpected originals (such as that toasted ravioli and gooey butter cake, for starters). It’s also home to the Eero-Saarinen-designed Gateway Arch, arguably the most recognizable monument in the Midwest. And Forest Park, a wellspring of green, dotted with free museums and a zoo, is one of the largest urban parks in the country. A work-hard, play-hard attitude is the sod beneath it all. The locals I know love the Gateway City and talk it up at every turn. But they’re happy that, among midsize cities, it has maintained a small-town friendliness and easy-to-get-around comforts. When visitors stop in, those St. Louisans are proud to take them on a t-rav tour and stock the fridge with locally brewed Schlafly.
New York has Central Park. Chicago has Grant Park. And St. Louis has 1Forest Park 1Forest Park Google Map: 5595 Grand Dr. Website: forestparkforever.org/ 314.367.7275 . There’s a world to discover in this cultural campus, which measures in at 450 acres larger than Central Park. Beyond the rolling green grass, forests, lakes and, yes, waterfall, there are three museums (Missouri History Museum, Saint Louis Art Museum and Saint Louis Science Center) and the Saint Louis Zoo, all of which are free. You can also play a round of golf, take in musical theater at the Muny amphitheater, rent a stand-up paddleboard, kayak or canoe and row around not one but two islands in Post-Dispatch Lake, grab a lakeside cocktail and a bite to eat at the Boathouse, and so much more. It’s a great place to take a Frisbee or just flop in the grass and watch Missourians in their natural habitat.
There really is no other museum like the 2City Museum 2City Museum Google Map: 750 N. 16th St. Website: citymuseum.org/ 314.231.2489 , and its name is spoken with reverence by all who have sweated here. (Exploring is a workout!) Imagine a museum that’s a little bit “Goonies,” a little bit Willy Wonka and a lot funhouse, where you can tunnel through caves, barrel down slides, discover secret passages and burrow through hamsterlike rooftop tunnels, most of which are constructed from reclaimed items from St. Louis and beyond — a school bus here, two airplanes there, a pipe organ and Ferris wheel for good measure. The 600,000-square-foot building once was home to the International Shoe Company and has been transformed by visionaries and artisans into an urban playground complete with a cantina, barbecue joint, cafe, bar and sandwich shop for quick refueling.
Not only is admission to 3Grant’s Farm 3Grant’s Farm Google Map: 10501 Gravois Rd. Website: grantsfarm.com/ 314.843.1700 free, so is the beer. (Although, parking costs $13.) The petting zoo, park and landmark is the ancestral home still owned by the beer-famous Busch family and operated by Anheuser-Busch. Guests 21 and up get two complimentary beer samples at the Bauernhof (that’s German for “farmstead”), and can enjoy those samples on a lovely patio while snacking on bratwurst and pretzels. Before and after you enjoy the beer, there’s plenty to do at this Bavarian-style farm. The outdoor space is lined with stables and has an old carriage house that still displays the family’s collection. On a tram ride, you can catch a glimpse of the cabin where Ulysses S. Grant lived before he became president, pass by a fence made of rifles that were used in the Civil War and spot dozens of animals, including elk, deer and bison. The real crowd-pleasers here are the goats and their kids. For $1.50, you can buy a bottle or a grain cup and watch the goofy animals fall over each other to have a handheld snack.
If you’ve never been to the top of the 4Gateway Arch 4Gateway Arch Google Map: 11 N. Fourth St. Website: gatewayarch.com 877.982.1410 , you’ve got to do it. And if it’s been a while, it’s time to do it again. While the 630-foot edifice remains the same skyline icon it has been since opening in 1965, the surrounding area has been transformed in recent years, and the formal reopening is set for July 3. The $380 million renovations replaced a parking lot with a welcoming riverside park — which was established as Gateway Arch National Park in February — complete with miles of walking trails, an amphitheater and plenty of picnic space. A new museum and visitors center will pay tribute to Americans who helped shape this country of ours. Before the recent changes, the arch was separated from downtown by a freeway. Now, thanks to a landscaped pedestrian bridge, it’s accessible by foot and acts as a kind of front yard to the city. If you plan on taking the tram to the top of America’s tallest man-made monument to peek out the narrow windows, you might want to book your ticket online and ensure yourself a seat.
The hot salami served at 5Gioia’s Deli 5Gioia’s Deli Google Map: 1934 Macklind Ave. Website: gioiasdeli.com/ 314.776.9410 may sound like a punchline to a joke — so does the “Porknado,” also served there — but it is serious business. Like any processed meat, you don’t necessarily want to know what goes into it. You just want to eat it. And “it” is as fall-apart tender as it comes, served on either white, wheat or garlic cheese bread (as if there’s any question, go for the garlic cheese), toasted and topped with your choice of cheese and garnish. It is sandwich perfection, and its revered reputation is well-earned: The restaurant has multiple locations, including one in St. Louis’s famous Italian neighborhood — the Hill — and is celebrating its 100th year in business. Last year, it was honored by the James Beard Foundation with an America’s Classic award.
6Union Loafers Cafe and Bread Bakery 6Union Loafers Cafe and Bread Bakery Google Map: 1629 Tower Grove Ave. Website: unionloafers.com/ 314.833.6111 is home to the holy trinity of carbs: pizza, sandwiches and bread, although you can’t always get them at the same time of day. That’s because this cozy establishment only doles out its heavenly sandwiches — such as the roasted pork with country ham, dill pickle, mustard and garlic mayo — at lunch Tuesday through Sunday (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.); and the delectable pizzas, such as spinach with bacon, garlic and lemon, at dinner Wednesday through Saturday (5:30 to 9:30 p.m.). By the way, bread is available only until it runs out. It happens. That bread, of course, is the key to all of the above. The artisanal dough recipes are based on old-world techniques and natural leavening, coaxing out flavors and textures you’ll just want to keep eating. The style of pizza here is somewhere between New York-style and Neapolitan. That’s a change from many local pizzerias, which crank out the St. Louis style of pie: a cracker-thin crust, square-cut and topped with stick-to-your-teeth Provel, a processed white cheese. Many locals love their Provel; many visitors leave it to the locals. At Union Loafers, it’s all mozzarella (and Parmesan and pecorino) all the time.
In some cities, you do a bar crawl. In St. Louis, I do a toasted ravioli crawl. Toasted ravs are a signature dish of the Gateway City stemming, the story goes, from a mistake a cook made decades ago when he dropped the pasta into the fryer, only to discover that BTR — before toasted ravioli — the world had been missing out. Start your crawl in the city’s famous Italian neighborhood, the Hill, at 7Anthonino’s Taverna 7Anthonino's Taverna Google Map: 2225 Macklind Ave. Website: anthoninos.com/ 314.773.4455 , a Greek and Italian joint that sets the fried pasta bar high. Here, the plump puffs of ravioli are filled with a delectable mélange of beef, ricotta and pecorino Romano, then are coated in bread crumbs, fried and served steaming hot with a tangy marinara. Share an order, have a local beer (Schlafly will do) and head on to the next spot. You can find toasted ravioli on menus around town, with a range of fillings including the traditional ones (meat and cheese) and barbecue.
My dad is from St. Louis, so I have never known, nor do I wish to imagine, a world without gooey butter cake — especially the ones from 8Park Avenue Coffee 8Park Avenue Coffee Google Map: 1919 Park Ave. Website: parkavenuecoffee.com 314.621.4020 . With a sweet, slightly crumbly crust on the bottom and a kind of buttery baked custard on top (that’s the “gooey”), this sugarcoated cake demonstrates a scientific mastery of cramming the most sugar and butter into one dense area. Park Avenue creates 73 different flavors of gooey butter cake, including banana split, blueberry and apple cinnamon. I recommend starting with the original, so you have a baseline for comparison, then follow your sweet tooth. Pro tip: Be sure to order a large coffee to counteract the crash that’s coming after the blood-sugar spike.
I’m a sucker for cute, locally owned gift shops with cheeky socks and irreverent books, and 9Phoenix Rising 9Phoenix Rising Google Map: 6331 Delmar Blvd. Website: shopphoenixrising.com 314.862.0609 , in the Delmar Loop, scores on all fronts. On a recent browse, I noted sloth socks, bacon bandages, books on crafting with cat hair and even a President Trump candle that smells of suntan lotion and steak — all the things you never needed, right in one place. Bonus: It’s surrounded by eclectic boutiques, so you can easily make it part of a larger shopping spree.
I’ve spent many Christmases in St. Louis, and my go-to for last-minute gifts has always been 10Christopher’s 10Christopher’s Google Map: 127 E. Argonne Dr. Website: christophersgifts.com 314.909.0202 , where you can find something for every family member — even that eccentric uncle — and yourself. There are delectable smells (candles, lotions, balms and soaps), fun coffee-table books and cookbooks, olive oils, teas, conversation-starting serving dishes and clothing. The people who work here are always friendly and helpful, and it’s easy to lose track of time wandering into the different sections of this store in Kirkwood, a suburb that has a charming, small-town feel.
11The Vault Luxury Resale 11The Vault Luxury Resale Google Map: 2325 S. Brentwood Blvd. Website: thevaultluxuryresale.com/ 314.736.6511 doesn’t seem like a resale store. Every item is in impeccable condition, whether it’s a Louis Vuitton bag, a Tory Burch dress or anything by Chanel. Really, only the prices shout “resale,” and that’s how owner Sue McCarthy wants it. McCarthy and her daughters, Diana Ford and Laura Maurice, were the stars of the Style Network show “Resale Royalty,” which aired in 2013. They’ve made enviable careers out of reselling items by sought-after brands — Fendi, Gucci, Prada, Hermes — that they buy directly from closets of fashionable women across the country. The light-filled store is quite generous with area nonprofit organizations, so you can shop and know that your dollars are doing some good.
It seems as if every cool city now has a standout gift boutique brimming with crafty artisan items. In St. Louis, that store is 12Urban Matter 12Urban Matter Google Map: 4704 Virginia Ave. Website: urbanmatterstl.com 314.456.6941 . You can find handmade pottery, funky jewelry, art, woodwork, purses, garden gear and other selections made by more than 100 artisans, many of whom are locals. It’s a one-stop shop for hostess gifts and trinkets to take home, and it’s all beautifully staged with the feel of a small, year-round craft fair.
The lunar-themed 13Moonrise Hotel 13Moonrise Hotel Google Map: 6177 Delmar Blvd. Website: moonrisehotel.com 314.721.1111 , which has what it terms “the world’s largest man-made moon” rotating on its roof, is smack-dab in the middle of the Delmar Loop action. That means you have easy walking access to fun restaurants, bars and shops — and a “Jetsons” abode to come home to. The rooms are fun, with midcentury modern decor, bright colors, an abundance of moon-themed art and, in the bathroom, cartoonlike drain covers. (The one in my room said “kaboom!”) The Rooftop Terrace Bar is a draw for locals and visitors looking to sip craft cocktails while taking in panoramic views of the area, all beneath the real moon. In a town overloaded with beige chains, it’s fair to say the Moonrise eclipses the rest. (Sorry.)
It’s likely that you’ll see a bride or two if you stay at the 14Chase Park Plaza Hotel 14Chase Park Plaza Hotel Google Map: 212 N. Kingshighway Blvd. Website: sonesta.com/us/missouri/st-louis/chase-park-plaza-royal-sonesta-st-louis/swimming-pool 314.633.3000 . The historical Royal Sonesta hotel, which dates to 1922, is an understandably popular spot for weddings. For one, the art deco digs are enormous, with nearly 400 rooms, three restaurants and gorgeous ballrooms with terraces. Plus, it’s in the Central West End neighborhood, so you can walk to restaurants and bars, as well as nearby Forest Park. And while the rooms and suites are lovely, with their touch of old-world elegance (lots of deep woods and marble), the real draw here is the lavish outdoor pool, where food and cocktails can be had. Surrounded by columns, fountains, porticoes and an outdoor fireplace, it feels more like the Mediterranean than St. Louis.
One of favorite my spots to lose a day is the 15Delmar Loop 15Delmar Loop Google Map: Delmar Boulevard between Kingsland Avenue and Des Peres Avenue , named for the streetcar route that once looped around here. Walkable and a smidgen bohemian, the six-block area near Washington University has been named one of the “10 Great Streets in America” by the American Planning Association, and there are dozens of boutiques, galleries, bars, coffee shops and restaurants, as well as a star-studded sidewalk dubbed the St. Louis Walk of Fame. A perfect day might include grabbing a frosty mug at Fitz’s Root Beer, where you can watch a soda-bottling line in action. Next, shoe up for quick game at the vintage-style Pin-Up Bowl, followed by a little shopping and some street tacos at Mission Taco Joint. Then, head up to the Rooftop Terrace Bar at the Moonrise Hotel for a nightcap or catch a live show at the Pageant or Blueberry Hill.
If it was good enough for William S. Burroughs, Kate Chopin, T.S. Eliot and Tennessee Williams to make home, the 16Central West End 16Central West End Google Map: Delmar Boulevard on the North, southward to N. Vandeventer Avenue on the East, westward to Interstate 64 on the South, northward to S. Kingshighway Boulevard, westward to Lindell Boulevard, northward to Union Boulevard on the West to Delmar Boulevard. is well worth an afternoon of exploration for visitors. The oh-so-walkable enclave is filled with turn-of-the-century homes, many of which were built in time for the 1904 World’s Fair. The area sits on the eastern edge of St. Louis’ crown jewel, Forest Park. It was named one of the “10 Great Neighborhoods in America” by the American Planning Association, and its art galleries, boutiques, antique shops, sidewalk cafes and bars bring a touch of European flair to the Lou. Plus, the CWE is home to the World Chess Hall of Fame, and you can grab a game at the oversize chess board right in front of the building.
Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Her website is thekatesilver.com. Find her on Twitter: @K8Silver.