St. Louis is one of the seven iconic Western towns featured in our 2017 Best of the West issue.
Being the historic “Gateway to the West” is never easy. Who wants to be that place everyone was leaving from en masse? In covered wagons, stagecoaches, steamboats, trains, single-engine monoplanes, or President Thomas Jefferson-sponsored westward expansion expeditions. And usually with very uncertain return dates.
Lewis and Clark. Samuel Clemens. Charles Lindbergh and his Spirit of St. Louis. Countless homesteaders, pioneers, and French fur traders. The Los Angeles Rams. They were all in St. Louis at various points — for a time — before overlanding to the Pacific, finding literary fame and Mark Twain pseudonyms out West, flying solo (OK, east) across the Atlantic, striking gold in mid-19th-century California, packing up the pelts after the Louisiana Purchase, or losing a bunch more games back in L.A. last year.
The flip side, of course, is that so much has arrived in St. Louis as well, shaping the rich history and proud legacy of a town that has welcomed World’s Fairs, the Olympics (first-ever in the United
States), giant arches, a beer empire, and Ted Drewes frozen custard, just to name a few.
St. Louis has weathered its share of hard times — buoyed by revitalized riverfront projects along the Mississippi, beautiful parks and botanical gardens, world-class (and often free) art and cultural institutions, neighborhoods brimming with character, and some of the tastiest food and entertainment on either side of the Great River.
All just-passing-through complexes aside, St. Louis remains a tough gateway town to turn your back on.
“It is self-evident that St. Louis affected me more deeply than any other environment has ever done,” T.S. Eliot reflected about his pleasant childhood here, long after the Nobel-Prize-winning poet would reinvent himself as a rather unhappy Englishman. “I feel that there is something in having passed one’s childhood beside the big river which is incommunicable to those people who have not.”
“Neither an obelisk nor a rectangular box nor a dome seemed right on this site ... but here, at the edge of the Mississippi River, a great arch did seem right,” noted Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, whose 1947 contest-winning design for St. Louis’ iconic Gateway Arch would be completed posthumously in 1965. The westward expansion symbolism fueling the nation’s tallest man-made national monument and its Jefferson National Expansion Memorial grounds are tough to miss from any vantage point. But for a 630-foot-high perspective that would’ve blown Lewis and Clark’s spyglasses (even through those tiny windows), take the four-minute tram ride to the top of this awesome parabola before the crowds arrive, take in that timeless gateway view beyond modern St. Louis, and feel grateful that the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers (15 miles north) isn’t the only route to take you farther west these days.
GO GREEN — AND BLUE — AND MUDDY
One of the country’s largest urban green spaces, Forest Park is a regular on top 10 city park lists and contains a lineup of world-class institutions, including the Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis Science Center, Saint Louis Zoo, and the Missouri History Museum. Chronicling the origins and lasting impact of America’s most influential musical genre in a new 23,000-square-foot facility filled with high-tech exhibits and a 150-seat performance room, downtown’s long-awaited National Blues Museum reminds guests St. Louis is a vital crossroads on many fronts. As for Ol’ Man River, aka The Big Muddy — which helped define the city’s history, topography, and character — you can ply the Mississippi’s brown waters and take in the skyline on a replica 19th-century paddle-wheeler. It’s hardly Huck Finn’s raft, but it’s Twain-appropriate. With vessel names like the Becky Thatcher and the Tom Sawyer, you’ll get a feel for the famed adventures based upriver in Clemens’ boyhood hometown of Hannibal.
HEAD FOR THE HILLS
For a UNESCO-protected look at why St. Louis was once nicknamed Mound City, drive 20 minutes to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in neighboring Collinsville, Illinois — home to the largest prehistoric earthen construction in the Americas. A thousand years ago, the area was inhabited by a vast, highly sophisticated Native Mississippian civilization farming these grounds and erecting architectural and ceremonial mounds of various sizes (large, extra-large, and massive) with hand tools and baskets of transported earth. Most of them, including numerous mounds blanketing St. Louis, have been long destroyed or built over by the new residents. Cahokia’s huge main attraction, Monks Mound (100 feet high, 14-acre base, 22 million cubic feet of transported earth), helps regain a lost appreciation.
SAVE ROOM FOR A CONE
Smokin’ hot barbecue (try Pappy’s Smokehouse), classic square-cut pizza (Imo’s), and gooey butter cake (McArthur’s Bakery) are just a few reasons to forgo all dietary restrictions in one of the best cities on either side of the Mississippi to eat like there’s no tomorrow. But don’t forget to celebrate the most important edible summer invention here: the ice cream cone. According to local legend, when an ice cream vendor ran out of dishes at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, his quick-thinking waffle-concessionaire neighbor in the next booth suggested using a rolled up waffle as a substitute. Over a century later, here’s your excuse to cruise old Route 66 southwest from downtown to legendary ice cream stop Ted Drewes for a cone that was ranked No. 1 in the world in a recent international competition. Psst — it’s technically frozen custard.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR
The town’s biggest birthday bash happens July Fourth weekend with Fair Saint Louis, a free city-sponsored event featuring three days of live entertainment, air shows, climactic fireworks, and an estimated 250,000 revelers in Forest Park. For an encore in late summer, Big Muddy Blues Festival hosts one of the town’s top annual outdoor music concerts on the cobblestone streets of Laclede’s Landing over Labor Day weekend, followed by Forest Park’s LouFest (30 bands, four stages, two days) the following week.
More info: explorestlouis.com