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9 Reasons to Drive to St. Louis

Thrillist logo Thrillist 6 days ago Meredith Heil

a man flying through the air on a cloudy day © Courtesy of Gateway Arch National Park

Little known fact: The great city of St. Louis has much more to offer out-of-towners than Nellyville and the King of Beers. (Not that those aren’t grounds enough to make the trip, of course.) Often stuck playing second fiddle to its flashier northern neighbor Chicago, the Gateway to the West is actually bursting with hidden gems that make it the perfect destination for enterprising Midwestern weekenders. Here are nine irresistible reasons to pack up the van, brush up on your Country Grammar, and dive head-first into the region’s best kept secret.

a house with bushes in front of a brick building © Courtesy of The Fleur-De-Lys Mansion

Kick back at a charming boutique, swank luxury hotel, or cozy inn

Whether you’re in the market for a modern artsy loft, a storied beacon of history, plush five star accommodations, or a little slice of home, St. Louis’s vastly diverse hospitality landscape has all your lodging needs good and covered. Dozens of opulently restored mansions like the Fleur-de-Lys, the Lodge at Grant's Trail, the Lehmann House, Seven Gables Inn, and the Lemp are on hand to provide weary travelers with a bevy of bed and breakfast-style warmth while hipsters flock to colorful outposts like Angad Arts Hotel, the Moonrise, Hotel Saint Louis, and the Art Deco dream Last Hotel. For history buffs, it doesn’t get much realer than the St. Louis Union Station Hotel, a gorgeously revamped downtown stunner that dates to 1894, or quirkier than the Cheshire Inn, a 1920s-era burger joint turned polished guesthouse rife with classic British touches. And for those looking to literally lay their heads in the lap of luxury, time honored spots like The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis—the soon-to-be home of two Michelin-starred restaurateur Mario Iaccarino’s first stateside venture, Casa Don Alfonso—alongside industry giants like the Four Seasons, and the Chase Park Plaza Hotel are at your service.

Or click here to check out Airbnbs.

a close up of a tree covered in snow © Courtesy of Laumeier Sculpture Park

Take in some art with a side of fresh air

St. Louis has long been an unsung hero of the public art world, making it the ideal destination for getting your pandemic-friendly creativity fix. Start off by wandering through Citygarden’s network of captivating water features, large-scale sculptures, and brilliant greenery before venturing out to Laumeier Sculpture Park where over 60 thought-provoking installations dot the 105-acre expanse. And you truly can’t miss the legendary Moto Mural, a massive piece from wall painting maestro MOMO that stretches 170-square-feet in Grand Center, the Lou’s resident arts district.

a plate of food with meat and vegetables © Courtesy of Charlie Gitto's on the Hill

Safely snack your way through town with CurbsideSTL

St. Louis’s diverse dining scene has been quietly building steam for years now. And while the global pandemic has unquestionably done the restaurant world dirty, it’s become evident that few things can truly stand in the way of the city’s culinary momentum. Thanks to CurbsideSTL and TGTHR.City (along with a slew of other awesome community orgs), you can easily get your COVID-friendly fill from any number of amazing area restaurants and bars. The site has tons of dope features, including the ability to search specifically for Black-, Latinx-, woman-, or LGBTQ-owned establishments so you can feel good about where you’re dropping your hard earned cash. 

So what exactly is there to eat and drink around these parts? Here’s a tiny taste of what to expect to rev up your taste buds: Craving some piping hot toasted ravioli, AKA T-rav? Head over to the Hill and fill up on carry-out goodness from your favorite purveyor (hint: it’s Charlie Gitto’s, with Anthonino’s coming in a close second). Maybe you’re in the mood for some farm-to-table innovation? Easy—drop by Farmhaus in Lindenwood Park to sample James Beard Semifinalist Chef Kevin Willmann’s tasty wares or swing for some veggie-forward brilliance at Cortex’s multi-award-winning Vicia. Or try expanding your palate with global eats from Webster Groves wood-fired show-stopper Balkan Treat Box, decorated Vietnamese mainstay Mai Lee in Brentwood, Fox Park’s Yunnan-style Chinese gamechanger Lona’s Lil Eats, or ultra-buzzy Botanical Heights Southeast Asian hub Indo, helmed by Chef Nick Bognar (James Beard Award Semi-Finalist, Rising Star Chef of the Year 2019 and 2020, Food and Wine Best New Chef 2020, no big deal). And we haven’t even mentioned St. Louis-style thin crust pizza dripping with tangy Provel cheese (Frank & Helen’s in U. City has our vote), roving food trucks known to draw crowds from Creve Coeur to the banks of the mighty Mississippi, all the donuts (it’s indeed a thing, and Donut Drive-In does it right), or the sheer volume of finger-licking-good BBQ doled out by the multitalented Pappy’s Smokehouse Family. Grab a mask, clear out the backseat, and loosen your belt, friend—it’s going to be a long weekend.

a hand holding a glass of beer on a table © Courtesy of Schlafly Beer

Grab a pint (or three) straight from the tank

No trip to St. Louis is truly complete without a pilgrimage to Anheuser-Busch’s sprawling factory and visitor’s center—it’s basically written into the local constitution at this point. But, truth be told, the venerable Clydesdale-pushing giant is only just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sudsy attractions. The city has long been a hotbed for world renown craft breweries, with influential outposts like 4 Hands, Schlafly, Urban Chestnut, Side Project, Narrow Gauge, Perennial, 2nd Shift, Earthbound, Rockwell, Bluewood, Alpha, Civil Life, and Modern covering all your beer-loving bases. And that’s just scratching the surface. Sift through STLBeer’s comprehensive city guide to start planning a freshly brewed pub crawl to end all pub crawls.

Cruise through endlessly charming neighborhoods 

Much like fellow Midwestern titans Chicago, Minneapolis, and Detroit, St. Louis is a vast patchwork of neighborhoods each imbued with its own distinct vibe and tourist appeal. Comb through the family-friendly streets of landmark hamlets like the Hill, an Italian enclave known for its enticing restaurants, and the Ville, a deeply historic African-American community that gave rise to some of country’s first Black millionaires, before exploring the visions of traditional architectural grandeur that line the lavish residential and commercial corridors of Lafayette Square and Central West End. The artistically inclined should carve out some time to peruse the eclectic outposts that put Cherokee Antique Row and Grand Center on the map while nightlife-seekers have to hit up lively entertainment districts like the bar-centric Delmar Loop, resident gayborhood the Grove, picturesque Maplewood with its many breweries and cafes, and Downtown’s bustling post-industrial cityscape.

a group of fish in the water © Courtesy of St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station

Lose yourself in immersive museums

If you’re looking for some hands-on entertainment, Union Station is an excellent starting point. Once among the world’s busiest rail terminals, the gorgeously maintained structure (read: polished terrazzo flooring, avocado-hued terracotta bricks, dramatic vaulted ceilings, Tiffany glass) now houses a bounty of attractions including the state-of-the-art St. Louis Aquarium and its 13,000+ animal collection. Inside, kids of all ages spy on prehistoric paddlefish, get up close and personal with Zebra sharks, and graze the backs of smooth-skinned stingrays as they roam illuminated hallways surrounded by 250,00 gallons of water. The fun continues over at the Saint Louis Science Center, where a four-story Omnimax Theater transports museum-goers to the bear-laden wilds of Western Canada, the Planetarium launches guests into the far reaches of the solar system, and exhibits on everything from the towering Tyrannosaurus rex to ancient mummies pull folks deep into history. 

Anyone with half an imagination wouldn’t want to miss the City Museum. Internationally celebrated sculptor Bob Cassilly’s kooky hodgepodge of experimental art, urban architecture, and carnival-esque whimsy is stationed inside a century-old, 600,000-square-foot warehouse that once belonged to the International Shoe Company. Expect an all-ages playground complete with a giant rooftop slide, a working Ferris wheel, and ball pits plus underground caves and tunnels, a treehouse, taxidermied animals, a mini shoelace factory, and more, all constructed out of found and repurposed materials. Honestly, you have to see it to believe it.

Speaking of art, there’s plenty on the (slightly) more traditional side at esteemed institutions like the St. Louis Art Museum, the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis, and Wash U.’s standout Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. Music fans can pay their respect to the greats and even compose an inspired tune of their own at the tech-driven National Blues Museum before rounding out the day with a tour of ragtime legend Scott Joplin’s Delmar Boulevard home at the richly preserved Scott Joplin House State Historic Site.

Snap a sky-high selfie at the top of the Gateway Arch

It’s an obvious choice, sure, but where else can you ascend 630 feet into the air in a slowly seesawing vintage tram to gaze out over Busch Stadium’s beckoning cardinal red stands and the Mississippi river’s muddy expanse? Designed in 1947 by architectural virtuoso Eero Saarinen and completed in 1965, the curving stainless steel monument remains a sight to behold, both from the tippy-top as well as from the freshly-remodeled Gateway Arch National Park grounds and Museum at the Gateway Arch below.

a polar bear standing on top of a pile of snow © Photo by Robin Winkelman

Max out your day—but not your credit card—with free and cheap outdoor activities

St. Louis is a famously budget-friendly city and no site embodies that reputation more strongly than the always stellar—not to mention completely free—Saint Louis Zoo. From polar bears, puffins, and penguins to hippos, hyenas, cheetahs, and mongooses, over 12,000 animals spanning 500 species are on display in their lush habitats. The surrounding Forest Park is also well worth a gratis visit, with 1,370 acres of winding manicured trails, striking landscape and water features, and a picnic-ready pavilion that played host to the 1904 World’s Fair.

Across town you’ll find the Missouri Botanical Garden, the country’s oldest botanical garden and at just $14 entry fee per adult, another quality bargain escape. The verdant 79 acre plot showcases multiple floral exhibits, an herbarium stocked with more than 6.6 million specimens, a huge tropic greenhouse dubbed the Cimatron, as well as the continent’s largest Japanese garden and other breathtaking natural wonders.

© Courtesy of Andy's Frozen Custard

Two words: frozen custard

St. Louis’s signature creamy treat might be old news now thanks to Shake Shack founder and hometown hero Danny Meyer’s world domination, but somehow that fully loaded Reese’s concrete just hits different when you’re sucking it down at the source. Ted Drewes is the OG bucket lister here, with its notoriously long lines, plump scoops, monstrous array of toppings, and shakes spun as thick as quicksand, but lesser-known joints like Andy’s, Fritz’s, Silky’s, and St. Louis Frozen Custard Factory can equally hold their own. Because when it comes to ice cream, there’s no such thing as too much.

Meredith Heil is originally from St. Louis, now lives in Chicago, and in between has been to all 50 states (that's feet on the ground, none of that airport BS). She enjoys reading about, thinking about, talking about, writing about, putting on events about and drinking about craft beer.

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