Occupying the western banks of the Mississippi River, the great Gateway to the West is a place of energy, culture, deep history and cutting-edge modern charm.
Once an outpost of the French Republic, the town quickly boomed thanks to its tactical position as a port on the river way between Missouri and Illinois. Steamers drifted north and south, infusing the town with Southern drawls and Midwestern character.
Consequently, the St. Louis of today booms with a multicultural array of attractions, celebrating the US pioneers with its grand arched monuments, offering Native American artwork next to Middle Eastern masterpieces in its art galleries, and issuing the likes of Tennessee BBQ and Mexican tacos from its eateries.
In fact, few cities in America have such a diverse medley of must-sees and must-dos as St. Louis, just as this list of its 15 top draws proves. There’s everything from lookout points to regal gardens, children’s museums to Bud-filled breweries. Enjoy our list of best things to do in St. Louis!
1. Scale the mighty Gateway Arch
The undisputed icon of St. Louis is the Gateway Arch, standing a whopping 192 meters high on the Missouri edge of the Mississippi River banks.
Built during the early 60s, the great monument hails in as the largest archway on the planet, and certainly one of the most awesome architectural come engineering feats in the United States.
It’s intended to pay homage to the frontiersmen and women who adventured out westwards to discover the Great Plains, the Rockies and eventually California, while other commentators have pointed out how the ambitious design mimics the fearless American spirit and the go-getter attitude of the Midwest.
For the best experience of this iconic St. Louis structure, be sure to take the tramways to the observation floor, where sweeping panoramas of Illinois state and the city unfold to the east and west.
2. Discover the Heart of St. Louis at Forest Park
Covering more than 1,300 acres between the neighborhoods of Clayton and the Central West End, the sprawling greenery of Forest Park encompasses everything from verdant hills to pretty woodland walks, curiously Oriental pagodas to interesting little sculpture gardens like Turtle Park (home to models of all the local Mississippi turtles).
Visitors are invited to picnic on appropriately-named Picnic Island, stroll the winding waterways of the River des Peres, now home to bubbling fountains and famous water features like the Cascades, hit the Kennedy Forest for longer hiking routes, wonder at the elegant Baroque revivalism of the Cabanne House, enjoy ice skating and a spot of golf – the list goes on!
3. See a kaleidoscope of flora at the Missouri Botanical Garden
For more than 150 years the Missouri Botanical Garden has been leading the way for American horticulturalists.
A truly landmark garden, the National Historic Landmark is a patchwork of blooming flower beds and colossal greenhouses, pretty lawns and groves of exotic trees.
A botanist’s dream-come-true, visitors are invited to explore the likes of the Gladney Rose Garden and its colourful dashes of red and white, the gilded gateways and philosophic rock formations of the Grigg Nanjing Friendship Chinese Garden, the fig trees and olive branches of the bible-inspired Biblical Garden and oodles, oodles more.
Oh, and don’t miss the butterfly house – it’s one of the largest in the country!
4. Check out the Grizzlies and zebras at St. Louis Zoo
Encircled by the narrow-gauge Emerson Zooline Railroad and boasting some of the top conservation and animal preservation facilities in the entire US, the St. Louis Zoo makes its home just on the southern edge of aforementioned Forest Park.
Animal lovers and wildlife seekers are in for a real treat here. There are exhibitions that showcase the wildlife of the Caribbean, with bamboo sharks and stingrays flitting through the waters.
There are enclosures with some of the wildest beasts in North America – not least of all those formidable Grizzlies!
Others reveal the biodiversity of Africa with pink flamingos and hippos, zebras, leopards and lions. With so much more to note, there’s no question that this is one of the city’s top attractions!
5. Get in the German beerhall spirit at Urban Chestnut Brewing Co
Granted there are oodles and oodles of awesome microbreweries and craft beer bars to choose from in the Gateway to the West, but Urban Chestnut Brewing Co is surely worth a special mention – if only for its colossal beerhall-style interior.
Transporting patrons to the kellers and biergartens of Bavaria at both its locations in St. Louis – one on Manchester Avenue, the other on Washington Avenue – Urban Chestnut is responsible for a number of the city’s most acclaimed crafts.
There’s the Winged Nut copper-coloured ale with Munich malts and a curious hint of chestnut flavorings. There’s the Reverence series Schnickelfritz, a traditional German weissbier with a refreshing fruitiness. There’s the bottled Hardwood Myth: brooding, black and English to the core!
6. Get the adrenaline pumping at Six Flags St. Louis
Occupying a whopping 323 acres of land on the extreme western edge of the city, the St. Louis outlet of the famous Six Flags adventure park name beckons thrill-seekers with rides like the American Thunder, the all-new Bonzai Pipeline, the twisting and turning Boomerang, revolving Fireball, and the loop-de-loop-packed Ninja.
And if that’s still not enough to pique the adrenaline glands, there’s also an adjoining water park, loaded with the raft-based Big Kahuna, the winding slides of the Tree House, pirate-packed Hook’s Lagoon and splash pools that are just perfect for those hot Midwestern summer months!
7. Get bona fide barbecue at Bogart’s Smokehouse
Bogart’s is nothing short of legendary on the culinary line-up of the so-called Gateway to the West.
Drawing from the culinary traditions of the American south and Tennessee – one of the head cooks, chef Skip Steele, hails in from the BBQ-mad reaches of Memphis – the joint is a medley of classic ribs and pulled pork, hickory smoke and fiery grilled meats.
Specials include the Old Joe Platter, a trio of ribs and sarnies bolstered by four sides, and the trademark BBQ Salad, which fuses mixed greens and BBQ-smoked onion rings with anything from beef brisket to smoked pastrami to burnt ends. Come hungry!
8. Take a tour and a tipple at the Anheuser-Busch Brewery
The legendary brewing rooms of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery represent perhaps the single most iconic beer location in St. Louis, nay Missouri, nay America!
Why? Well, it was here that one Adolphus Busch decided to set up shop in the middle of the 1800s, drawing expertise and growing thanks to St. Louis’s booming population of German immigrants, its tactical location on the edge of the Mississippi River, and the city’s indelible love for good beer.
Of course, American Bud is the name that followed, and today this initial brewing location of the now great beer empire is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Visitors can tour the old cask rooms and see how the much-loved brew is made, finishing off with a tipple or two in the adjoining tasting rooms!
9. Get awestruck at the Saint Louis Science Center
An absolute must for any science lovers hitting the Gateway to the West, the Saint Louis Science Center is the most visited institution of its kind on the planet. Covering a whopping 300,000 square feet in the midst of Forest Park, the exhibition center began life in the early 1960s as a humble planetarium. Since then it’s grown to include sprawling sections dedicated to biology, chemistry and physics, going from the Ecology & Environment area, where visitors can learn about the processes involved in palaeontology, to the Mission: Mars exhibit, which showcases the technologies being put to use in America’s cosmic explorations. There’s also an on-site OMNIMAX theatre, showing a range of truly immerse Science-related films throughout the year.
10. Start the day at Rooster
Now with two locations across the city – one in Downtown and one on South Grand – Rooster has risen and risen to become one of the best-loved breakfast and brunch joints in the entire of St. Louis.
Dedicated to serving up fresh, farm-style foods, the menu touts everything from scrambled eggs to brunch burgers packed with farmer’s sausages and breakfast potatoes.
The speciality dishes come in the form of creative crepes and platters, like the spiced black bean pancake with salsa and eggs (bringing just a touch of Mexican flavor to the table) and the so-called Rooster Slinger, which mixes andouille sausage with all the usual breakie staples; toast, fried egg et al.
And if you’re suffering from a hangover courtesy of St. Louis’ many Germanic beer halls, be sure to sample one of the celebrated (and celebration-inducing) Bloody Marys!
11. The St. Louis Art Museum: 500,000 people a year can’t be wrong!
Standing tall and grand in the midst of Forest Park, the St. Louis Art Museum hails in as one of the finest art institutions in the country.
Bursting with works by masters the world over, the center’s permanent exhibitions include pieces by the likes of Bartolomeo Manfredi, van Gogh and Rembrandt, not to mention sprawling collections dedicated to showcasing the creativity of eastern schools, from the Himalaya to the Orient, the Middle East to North Africa.
Thanks to its international prestige, the gallery also attracts oodles of top-quality touring shows. These are eclectic in the extreme, with past and upcoming exhibitions ranging from studies of representations of Japanese war to the sacred gods of Polynesia.
12. Drink, dine and party the day away on the Delmar Loop
The Delmar Loop is St. Louis’s premier entertainment area. Loaded with a fully-fledged line-up of eating and drinking establishments, the area’s got it all.
There’s the Al-tarboush deli, touting cumin-scented staples from the Middle East. There’s Blueprint Coffee, with their artisan brews. There’s Cicero’s, with its Romana pizzas and Italian dishes. There’s El Maguey; home to some of the finest Mexican tacos and quesadillas in town!
But it doesn’t stop there either, because The Loop is also one of the prime nightlife areas in town.
Iconic clubs like Blueberry Hill burst with 60s garage and rock and roll; hookah lounges smoke until the early hours, and crowds flock to The Pageant for some of the finest theatre shows in the Midwest!
13. Get out of the city at the Weldon Spring Conservation Area
Clutching the banks of the Missouri River away from the city streets and urban fray of central St. Louis, the Weldon Spring Conservation Area is a fine place to go for a taste of Missouri’s real wilds.
Still peppered with the remnants of TNT and uranium silos, the park is a patchwork of pretty limestone cliffs and forests, grassy meadows and winding river banks.
29 miles of marked trails are on offer tos walkers, while game hunting is big business too, attracting oodles of gun-toting locals during the on season.
For travelers who are feeling uber-adventurous, the Katy Trail starts nearby, weaving its way deep into Missouri state, across the riparian plains towards Clinton in the east.
14. Delve into St. Louis’ architectural history at the City Museum
Fun and frivolous at every turn, the City Museum of St. Louis is one part playground, one part serious architectural and artistic project.
Created by sculptor and artist Bob Cassilly, the center apotheosises the properties and worth of found and recycled materials.
Consequently, visitors are greeted with bridges and spiral staircases made out of old refrigerating coils courtesy of the city’s own Anheuser-Busch brewers, the likes of the Enchanted Caves installation, loaded with curious creatures and fantastical beasts, and the so-called Vault Room, constructed using the recycled doors of the vault from a central bank in Chicago.
The site is also home to the World Aquarium and some Dadaist rooftop gardens to boot.
15. Let the kids run wild at the Magic House
Hosted, unassumingly, in a gorgeous Victorian-style mansion on the southern edges of St. Louis’ Kirkwood neighborhood, the Magic House does well to hide its fun-filled exhibits.
With everything from fairy-tale journeys into the mythic lands of Jack and the Beanstalk to sandcastle sculpture gardens, hair-raising Van de Graaff generators and a huge Children’s Village, the site is considered one of the top youth museums in the United States!
And it’s not just about fun either. The whole place edges towards the educational to boot, with lessons in maths, health and fitness, American history, construction and more.