36 Hours in St. Louis
Before travelers could fly there, St. Louis, on the Mississippi River, was a natural point of continental convergence for rails, trails and sails, the gateway to the West in the 19th century. That traffic, and the industry that grew up around it, created a legacy of wealth and power that is reflected in the city’s architecture and memorials to its complex history. These days, the downtown core, which boomed with industrialization in the early 20th century, and hollowed out with a rush to the suburbs thereafter, is filling up with new residences, hotel projects and cultural venues (including a museum dedicated to the blues). You can still drink Budweiser in the massive factory where it’s made, but you’ll also find microbreweries that emphasize local ingredients; innovative takes on soul food at restaurants like Gourmet Soul; and flavors introduced by immigrant communities from the Balkans and beyond.
1) 2 p.m. Frontier revisited
The 630-foot Gateway Arch, the grand 1965 city landmark, remains the same, including the vintage tram rides to the top (tram ride from $12). But a four-year, $380-million remodeling of Gateway Arch National Park (admission $3) reframes the monument’s connection to the city and to the westward migration it commemorates. A highway that divided the park from the city has been covered, providing additional park land and easy pedestrian access. A sloping plaza now ushers visitors into the subterranean Museum at the Gateway Arch, overhauled to explore Western colonization from different viewpoints, including that of Manifest Destiny (themed “the West was won”), Native Americans (“the West was stolen”) and Mexico (“the North was taken”). Design fans will appreciate the new gallery devoted to Eero Saarinen’s brilliant catenary arch design, including the models of relatively conservative entries it beat in the design competition. Students of history shouldn’t miss the Old Courthouse, part of the park and the site where Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, sued for their freedom from slavery.
2) 5 p.m. This brew’s for you
St. Louis is the original home of the ubiquitous macro-brew Budweiser. But microbrew operations, some employing veterans of Bud, have created competing pints at newer brewers like Side Project Brewing, Narrow Gauge Brewing Company and Urban Chestnut Brewing Company. If forced to pick one, don’t miss the original upstart, the Saint Louis Brewery, makers of Schlafly beer. Since 1991, the Schlafly Tap Room has occupied a historically registered 1901 printing company building west of downtown in a handsome neighborhood of brick warehouses still awaiting revival. There’s hardly a type of beer Schlafly hasn’t made over the years and the taps turn seasonally. Look for the hazy white lager and refreshing kölsch (pints $6).
3) 7:30 p.m. Midwestern bounty
Many St. Louis chefs champion the abundance of Missouri-grown foods, including, on the high end, the chef Michael Gallina. The native of St. Louis worked at New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns for nearly 10 years before moving back home to open the farm-to-table restaurant Vicia. The vegetable-centric menu celebrates Midwestern ingredients with fine-dining flair in the window-wrapped room, and warm servers set a relaxed tone. Dishes change with the seasons, but recently included ham-studded crispy fried rice ($16), fork-tender, grass-fed beef with whey onions ($18), and turnip tacos ($18) that use paper-thin turnip slices as shells for make-your-own tacos, accompanied by strained yogurt, pickled red onion, black beans and optional pork or mushrooms. The bar does liquid wonders with herbs and even leftover yogurt whey.
4) 10 a.m. Rebel with a cause
Amanda Clark, an historian, can spout all the pertinent facts and figures about St. Louis. But she wanted to combine them with more offbeat, seamy and overshadowed city stories when she founded Renegade Stl tours six years ago. Now the company has expanded its portfolio to include tours themed to disasters and catastrophes, photography, baseball and manufacturing history. The two-hour Downtown History and Architecture Extravaganza (from $20) is a good first outing, covering St. Louis’s start in 1764 as a French trading settlement; the Gilded Age boom when city merchants profited outfitting westward migrants; and the midcentury development of the Gateway Arch. En route she points out architectural gems from the architects Louis Sullivan and Philip Johnson and discusses the city’s early experiment in legal prostitution and its ongoing struggle with brick theft from historic buildings.
5) 12 p.m. Balkan treats
Waves of immigrants — including Italians in the restaurant-filled Hill district and Germans, among them the founders of Anheuser-Busch beer — have left their mark on St. Louis. More recently, beginning in the 1990s, refugees from Bosnia flocked to affordable St. Louis, particularly the Bevo Mill district, home to a replica of a wooden fountain found in Sarajevo. The community’s proudest culinary expression is found in suburban Webster Groves where Balkan Treat Box, long a popular food truck, just opened a brick-and-mortar, lunch-only shop dealing grilled beef sausages called cevapi ($11) and Turkish wood-fired pide flatbread with Balkan kajmak cream ($11).
6) 1 p.m. Shop local
In the Botanical Heights District, named for its proximity to the comprehensive Missouri Botanical Garden, Union Studio provides one-stop shopping for a variety of local art, clothing, jewelry and crafts. Wander over to browse for handle-free ceramic mugs by the potter Al Westcott, handmade ties and pocket squares by Lonesome Traveler and sensuously draping pendant necklaces from Mahnal Jewelry by Shayba Muhammad. Pick up souvenirs from an assortment of St. Louis-themed cards, pins and dish towels. If perishables are more your style, hit Union Loafers bakery and cafe next door for a loaf of fresh sourdough.
7) 2 p.m. Art and blues
Two of the city’s many interesting museums are small enough to hit in one stimulating spree. First, stop in the Grand Center neighborhood at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation (free), a fascinating blend of Tadao Ando’s minimalist architecture and rotating exhibitions of contemporary art from St. Louis’s famed publishing family. Continue downtown to the two-year-old National Blues Museum ($15), which pays homage to the American musical form that evolved from field hollers and rags by W.C. Handy to Muddy Waters’ electric blues and Chuck Berry’s early rock ’n’ roll. Interactive exhibits allow visitors to write and create their own blues song by choosing piano, harmonica and guitar styles, writing lyrics and mixing it all up in a sound booth. Send yourself the finished results via email. Besides being a great introduction to the blues, the museum celebrates African-American culture in St. Louis, which is also home to the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site where the ragtime composer lived, and The Griot Museum of Black History, featuring exhibits on slavery and wax figures of area-born celebrities, including Josephine Baker.
8) 5:30 p.m. Craft dinner
The chef most closely associated with St. Louis’s culinary emergence, Gerard Craft, has done French, Italian and now, in his new restaurant called Cinder House, South American food. A tribute, in part, to his childhood nanny from Brazil, Cinder House serves a mix of wood-fired dishes from grilled prawns ($15) to steaks (from $32), and Brazilian pork, beef and chimichurri feijoada ($32) and moqueca seafood stew ($30). Situated in the riverfront Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis, Cinder House includes a spacious outdoor patio that serves caipirinhas and mojitos ($11), in addition to Instagrammable views of the Gateway Arch.
9) 7:30 p.m. For culture seekers
There is a wealth of choices in the city’s rich performing arts scene. Many theaters are clustered in the Grand Center Arts District, including the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, which includes the playwright Tony Kushner as an alumnus. St. Louis Black Repertory bills itself as the nation’s largest professional African-American theater company. Earlier this year it staged the premiere of “Canfield Drive,” exploring media coverage of the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, Mo.; “Nina Simone: Four Women” runs May 15 to June 2. The second-oldest symphony in the country, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra plays in Powell Symphony Hall, an ornate 1935 vaudeville theater. In summer, the 100-year-old Municipal Opera Association, known as the Muny, stages popular musicals (“Guys and Dolls” kicks off the season June 10) in a vast 10,800-seat outdoor stadium in Forest Park.
10) 9 a.m. No half measures
Arrive early or prepare to line up at Half & Half in suburban Clayton, where the chef and owner, Mike Randolph takes breakfast seriously. A little more than half of the menu in the sunny, bustling storefront skews savory, with dishes like a fried egg sandwich ($8.50), and veggie hash with eggs and potatoes that comes in a piping hot skillet ($11). On the sweet side, there’s pancakes with raspberry jam, mascarpone and granola ($11) and s’mores French toast ($10.50). Wash it down with bottomless cups of locally roasted Blueprint Coffee ($3.95).
11) 10 a.m. Urban adventure
The site of the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, the nearly 1,300-acre Forest Park serves as the wilderness and playing field for urban residents, as well as a cultural magnet with attractions that include the Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri History Museum, Saint Louis Zoo and science center. You can drive around the park, but the best way to see it is on foot, following paths that wind through forests and prairies and around tranquil ponds. Park-goers can also rent a kayak at the boathouse ($15 an hour), play tennis ($5) or golf (from $22).
12) Noon. Museum of play
With its many museums, St. Louis covers the spectrum of culture, anchored on the playful end by City Museum (admission $15). The all-ages playground, based in a 600,000-square-foot former shoe factory, houses a mix of eclectic exhibits and carnival attractions, including a Ferris wheel and giant slide on the roof. Slides, as well as stairs, connect four levels of this arty fun house, which features an aquarium, collections of architectural artifacts, mosaics and taxidermy and a mini shoelace factory. Its “no maps” policy encourages guests to let loose and go where the treehouse or the underground caves lead.
If You Go
Many of the loft apartment conversions that have revived St. Louis’ downtown buildings now stock Airbnb’s inventory. For example, the one-bedroom Designer Loft in Center of Downtown features whitewashed brick walls, modernist furnishings and a fully equipped contemporary kitchen. From $65; Airbnb.com/rooms/17106158.
The new Hotel Saint Louis occupies a retrofitted 1893 landmark building originally designed by Louis Sullivan with a restored marble lobby capped by a stained-glass ceiling. The full-service hotel includes a spa, a top-floor bar and, in summer, a rooftop pool. From $169; hotelsaintlouis.com.
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