In the first half of the 20th century, this city across the Mississippi from St. Louis was the fourth-largest in Illinois, with a population of more than 80,000.
Established in 1861, East St. Louis adopted the nickname, City of Champions, for the many sports stars who were born or grew up here in the late 19th and early 20th century.
From the 50s onwards, the city lost much of its heavy industry, and this former powerhouse experienced a long decline.
And yet there’s still much to respect about East St. Louis, from its regeneration schemes to its monumental riverfront park and the urban farms that have cropped up around the city.
1. St. Louis
Opposite East St. Louis’ Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park, the magnificent Gateway Arch welcomes you to the lands acquired by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
That arch, designed by Eero Saarinen and opened in 1967, is an astonishing piece of architecture, as the tallest arch in the world and the tallest accessible building in the state, at 630 feet.
St. Louis has a lot for you to sink your teeth into, from sophisticated culture and pulsating nightlife to world-class sports teams like the Cardinals and St. Louis Blues.
For families, the hardest part will be making a decision, with the Saint Louis Zoo, historic Forest Park, City Museum, Six Flags St. Louis, the St. Louis Aquarium, Magic House and many more at your fingertips.
2. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Some 900 years after its peak, the remnants of the largest pre-Columbian Native American settlement north of Mexico lie a few short miles from downtown East St. Louis.
The Cahokia Mounds are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and this mass of earthwork mounds are enclosed by a 2,000-acre park, although the city is thought to have been much larger and held a population of up to 18,000.
Especially awe-inspiring is Monks Mound, the largest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas, at 100 feet high and more than 950 feet long.
The interpretive center offers insight into the Misssissippian culture, displaying a recreated village, as well as the results of archeological and anthropological research at the site.
Architecturally rich, full of life and steeped in history, the fabled Soulard neighborhood is close to the riverbank a short way south of downtown St. Louis.
Soulard deserves a walking tour for its streets lined with gorgeous 19th-century brick houses and shaded by tall old trees.
The north end has a wide choice of bars and restaurants and is known far and wide for its live music scene, with blues and jazz a specialty. Including its founder, most of Soulard’s early settlers were French, and this is obvious from the names of streets and churches.
Soulard’s has the oldest farmers’ market west of the Mississippi, going back well over 200 years and housed in a Renaissance Revival building from 1929. The market is open Wednesday to Saturday all year, Saturdays being the busiest days.
4. Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park
On the east bank of the Mississippi, directly opposite the Gateway Arch, East St. Louis has its own monumental park.
Eero Saarinen’s initial plans for the Gateway Arch incorporated the east bank, but funding was never approved.
And so from the 1940s onwards there was a 40-year campaign, spearheaded by St. Louis attorney Malcom W. Martin (1912-2004), to create something important on this site and preserve the view.
The crowning feature of the Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park is the Gateway Geyser, which we’ll cover in more detail next.
Beside this, a little closer to the riverfront is the Mississippi River Overlook, an observation platform atop five tiers of long ramps, opened in 2009. Here at the viewpoint is a statue of Martin, who fought tirelessly to make the park a reality.
5. Gateway Geyser
May through September you can witness the park’s most famous feature in action. Loaded with symbolism, the Gateway Geyser is a special fountain shooting a jet of water 630 feet into the air.
This jet is constellated by four smaller fountains, each representing one of the four rivers that converge at St. Louis, the Mississippi, Illinois, Missouri and Meramec.
Malcolm W. Martin flipped the switch to open the fountain in 1995, which uses three 800-horsepower pumps to fire that jet at a speed of 250 feet per second.
The geyser erupts once a day for ten minutes at noon, depending on wind speed and drought conditions.
6. Anheuser-Busch Brewery
The home of Budweiser, and headquarters of Anheuser-Busch, dominates the cityscape on the south side of Soulard.
This is a National Historic Landmark, on a 142-acre campus comprising 189 structures, and still brewing 30 different Anheuser-Busch beverages, from Budweiser to Michelob Ultra.
The brewery was opened by Adolphus Busch (1839-1913) in the 1850s, and his descendants controlled the company until a hostile takeover by InBev in 2008 removed Adolphus’ great-great-grandson August Busch IV.
You can come to the place where it all started for a free tour, viewing the stunning interiors and meeting the brewery’s Clydesdale draft horses, the breed that used to pull the brewery’s beer wagons in the 19th century.
7. Eads Bridge
It’s hard to overstate the historical importance of the combined railway (MetroLink) and road bridge linking St. Louis and East. St. Louis.
After the Civil War it was clear that St. Louis’ future depended on a crossing on the Mississippi, and work started in 1867.
For the design, Lincoln called James Buchanan Eads (1820-1887), who was distinguished by his military engineering feats during the war.
Eads came up with the world’s first steel-truss bridge, using state-of-the-art construction techniques like pneumatic caissons to build the granite piers, and the cantilever method (a world first), allowing river traffic to use the river during construction.
The Eads Bridge was the longest arch bridge in the world when it opened in 1874 and today is a National Historic Landmark, admired for its three graceful arches.
8. Katherine Dunham Museum
The multitalented and highly influential dancer, author and social activist, Katherine Dunham (1909-2006) settled in East St. Louis in 1964 while serving as artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University.
Soon after, she established the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC) as a means of easing the social difficulties and civil strife that arose here during the unemployment crisis.
This became the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities (KDCAH), responsible, among other things, for an excellent museum preserving Dunham’s remarkable collections.
The museum is especially rich in African and Caribbean art objects, with more than 250 examples of sculpture, paintings, tapestries, ceremonial costumes and musical instruments from 50 different countries.
Also on show are mementos from Dunham’s career, from photographs to letters, costumes, awards and performance programs.
9. World Wide Technology Raceway
There are four motorsport facilities in one at this major race track just north of East St. Louis. The World Wide Technology Raceway (previously Gateway International Raceway) has been around since 1967 and reopened under new ownership in 2012 after closing in 2010.
The complex consists of a 1.25-mile oval for IndyCar and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, a 1.6-mile infield road course used by a variety of national car clubs and a quarter-mile drag strip, which hosts an NHRA Camping World Drag Series event.
The most recent addition is a world-class karting facility, which opened within the oval in 2014.
10. Gateway Kartplex
Even when there are racing events taking place at the outer tracks, the independent Gateway Kartplex can carry on as usual.
This is the premier karting facility in the St. Louis area, and like the rest of the complex has a wonderful view of the St. Louis skyline.
The track is an invigorating test for even the best drivers with its warren of tightly-tucked turns after the back straight. The track can be reorganized into a variety of configurations, including a 1/8 -mile oval to mirror the raceway’s main track.
The Gateway Kartplex hosts a range of competitive series for both private kart owners and people who rent their karts from the facility.
You can also book parties, corporate outings and other group events, or just show up for an Arrive & Drive race, with a range of packages available, from a single ten-minute session to a full day.
11. DeMange Family Farms
Within a few minutes of downtown, this family-run farm is open April through November. You can drop by at the start of the season for bedding flowers, vegetable plants and garden accessories like hanging baskets.
Then as the summer progresses DeMange Family Farms harvests all kinds of fruit, vegetables and flowers that you can purchase from the farm stand, open Monday to Saturday.
Typically you can pick up watermelons, honeydew, okra, cabbage, corn, tomatoes, beans and a variety of apples.
12. Rusty Wallace Driving Experience
NASCAR and International Motorsports Hall of Famer, Rusty Wallace, was born not far away in Arnold, MO, and his company offers ride-alongs and racing experiences at numerous tracks around the country.
This goes for the World Wide Technology Raceway, where you can find out what it’s like to race around the oval and negotiate its banked turns, either behind the wheel or on board with an experienced racecar driver.
Drivers can choose from three laps to a whole 50-lap race day, while passengers can ride along for three or five laps, and opt for a “side-by-side ride” to witness how talented drivers share the track at high speed.
13. Gateway National Golf Links
Just next door in Madison you’ll find the only true links-style golf course in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area.
Gateway National Golf Links has taken inspiration from the famed British seaside courses like Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s and Carnoustie, providing a round of golf that harks back to the game’s origins.
This means lush, rolling bentgrass fairways, Scottish-style burns (streams), giant greens, mounds separating holes, lots of tall grass in the rough and a wetland habitat crossed by bridges and boardwalks.
The course also gives you occasional views of the St. Louis skyline and Gateway Arch.
14. Jones Park
East St. Louis’ main urban park is home to the city’s park district building and sits close to the Jackie Joyner Kersee Community Center.
Jones Park goes back a long way, as far as the 1910s, when it was a summer destination for its beach and lake, now used only for fishing.
The tall, mature trees are a reminder of the great age of this park, and on the shore of the lake is a fine old boathouse.
There’s a walking trail taking you next to the water, ample grassy space, numerous picnic tables and play equipment for children. Trout, channel catfish and bass are a few of the species regularly caught at the lake.
15. Casino Queen
At the time of writing, this casino and hotel on the riverbank in East St. Louis had just struck a deal with the sports betting brand DraftKings.
In the 2020s Casino Queen will undergo a multimillion-dollar update, with a food court, all-day restaurant and state-of-the-art sportsbook, tied into the DraftKings mobile app.
The casino has almost 40,000 square feet of betting space, offering 34 table games, 1,100 slot machines. Even before the renovation there were four dining options, including a buffet, deli and sports bar.