Do you find America to be boring in the middle? You’ve probably never been to St. Louis, the antithesis of your stereotypical flyover metropolis. The city is old, for starters—old in that way you can really feel, its French roots sticking out further than many might expect. St. Louis is a place suspended between many Americas—a place apart even from Missouri, itself no stranger to outsider status. Even after decades of decline, it remains a sophisticated town, a center of art and culture, earning its stripes back in the time when this used to be one of the larger cities in North America. Perfect? Nope. Dull? Not for a minute. If you’re headed this way anytime soon, take a day and dive deep into one of America’s most under-appreciated places.
It starts with breakfast at Café Osage. A stone’s throw from some of the city’s worst blight, Bowood Farms is a smartly-designed garden center and urban farm, a pleasure to visit at any time of year. Right on premises, a cozy café (with a nice patio, in season) does a very good breakfast, pulling from their own gardens and some very good regional purveyors. Early riser? They’re open by 7am, most days. 4605 Olive St.
Get the blues at one of the country’s best new museums. Many of the city’s best-known cultural institutions are free to enter, making them an absolute must on any visitor’s itinerary. You’ll have to pay to visit the National Blues Museum, an impressive new addition to the national scene, but it’s well worth it—interactive exhibits (including plenty of music to listen to, naturally) offer a proper immersion and help the uninitiated trace the fascinating past of one of America’s finest musical traditions. 615 Washington Ave.
Shop one of America’s most historic markets. Just as New Orleans has the French Quarter, St. Louis has Soulard, the city’s oldest neighborhood and a living reminder of the region’s rich French history—all without a tourist in sight. (Well, mostly—the annual Mardi Gras celebration is kind of a big deal around here, as you might expect.) Wednesdays through Saturdays, Soulard’s public market (since 1779!) hums with the energy of actual local people doing their actual shopping (produce, spices, what have you), practically in the shadow of the modern downtown skyline. Here on an off day? No matter—shops like La Belle Histoire offer a touch of Royal Street, while neighborhood joints like Bogart Smokehouse will happily feed you (try the pastrami), if you’re feeling peckish.
Still hungry? Stop for a proper lunch at Guerrilla Street Food Chicken adobo, pancit, garlic fried rice, Spam fries—probably not what you were expecting to find at one of the most talked-about restaurants in St. Louis right now.This smash-hit Filipino food truck that’s gone brick and mortar, just opposite historic Tower Grove Park, sums up modern St. Louis, and, for that matter, many American cities these days, fairly perfectly: expect the unexpected. 3559 Arsenal St.
See one of the world’s largest mosaics (then explore an entire museum dedicated to the craft). Stepping out of the summer heat into the cool of the city’s century-old cathedral—formally known as the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis and home of the regional Archdiocese—can be quite the rush. A multi-piece installation that began in 1912 was only very recently completed—it’s one of the largest and most impressive mosaic displays of its time, including work done by Tiffany Studios (yes, that Tiffany). Can’t get enough? Down below, the Mosaic Museum brings you up to speed on the centuries-old tradition. 4431 Lindell Blvd.
Time for some pool time. A sleek Four Seasons hotel is the last thing most visitors expect to find at the heart of St. Louis, but it’s here, rising above the Mississippi River, with views of the downtown skyline and—naturally—Eero Saarinen’s iconic Gateway Arch. You don’t have to splash out for a stay in what’s easily the best hotel in St. Louis to splash around in their rooftop pool—a focal point of the 8th-floor Sky Terrace, day visitors are welcome to book in for a swim (advance reservations required, Mon-Thurs only). Here on a weekend? Pop up for a drink or a snack al fresco with a view; if it’s Friday, there’s live music and happy hour specials out on the terrace beginning at 8pm—all are welcome.
Try the weird beer at Earthbound A re-invigorated brewery on up-and-coming Cherokee Street dating back to the 1860s (in case you forgot, this city has long pretty much run on beer) is now home to one of the city’s most playful microbreweries, home to some seriously “weird” (their word) beers. Try the scotch ale brewed with (oh, why not) scotch bonnet peppers, or the birch bark porter, or pretty much anything else on their ever-changing tap list. While you’re in the neighborhood, have a look around the ‘hood—if you’ve had one too many, perk up with a coffee at Mud House—this is one of the better roaster / café combos in town. 2710 Cherokee St.
Have dinner in the past Just west of the gardens, The Hill neighborhood, through all its ups and downs, remains one of the top examples of a classic Little Italy remaining in North America. That’s not surprising—if you had to choose one type of cooking to define St. Louis, it’d probably be Italian-American—this is, after all, home to one of the country’s most unique pizza styles (Heard the one about Provel cheese? You will!) and a place where people still eat toasted (deep-fried) ravioli as a snack. From delis to pasta spots to regular-filled red sauce joints, you can take your pick, but for something magnificently old-school (and a little more refined), book a table at Dominic’s, years ago referred to in a national publication as one of the two best Italian restaurants in the United States. The other one? Also in St. Louis. 5101 Wilson St.
Ready to book? If you’re looking for the lowest airfares to St. Louis, start your search at CheapFlights, or compare multiple sites at once with BookingBuddy. Don’t forget that bundling your flight and hotel together can save you a lot of money; give it a try at either Orbitz or Expedia—both are great places to start a simple airfare search, too. If you’re just after the best St. Louis hotel deals, start your search at Hotels.com or Priceline, where you can save up to 60 percent on any given night by taking advantage of their Express Deals feature. (This simple tool has probably saved us—no joke—thousands of dollars over the years.) Don’t forget, you can also cross-reference a ton of hotel user reviews with the best rates available from more than 200 web sites at TripAdvisor. If you need a rental car, begin your search by swinging wide to get a sense of the market—a site like Booking Buddy lets you check pretty much every site worth knowing in just a couple of clicks.