The thing that struck me immediately, on my first visit to St. Louis years ago, was the Gateway Arch. Seeing it soar above me as I drove west on the highway, I felt a kind of familiar shock, that sense of comfort and amazement you get when an icon you know only from photographs is proven to be real. The second thing I noticed was the way the city divided itself into neighborhoods. It’s hardly unique to describe St. Louis this way (in fact, most articles about what to do in the city are split up just like this one is) but I’ll always remember discovering those neighborhoods, one after another. It was a setup entirely unlike the places I was most familiar with, primarily New York, where neighborhoods were geographic and demographic designations that blended into one another, and Connecticut, where we split our municipalities off from each other into smaller and smaller segments, and encircled each of those with a metaphorical wall. In contrast, each of St. Louis’s neighborhoods had not only a distinct look and flavor, but a mini-downtown with a main street and enough history and culture to make it a destination in its own right – yet somehow they all combined to make a cohesive whole. I haven’t been to every neighborhood – there are 79 of them – but their existence is something I never quite got over, even after visiting several more times, even after living in St. Louis for a year.
St. Louis is not a huge city; it covers 66 square miles and just over 300,000 residents live in the city proper. But its choices can surprise and overwhelm you, in the best way, especially if you’ve previously associated the city only with a news report about crime rates or a song about trolleys. Nicknamed the Gateway to the West, it can also feel, to a Northerner, like a Gateway to the South. (Dayton Duncan wrote, “St. Louis is an Eastern-Southern city – as if Pittsburch or Cincinnati had been barged down the Ohio and up the Mississippi to a new location, picking up a taste for Dixieland jazz during the last leg of the move.”) Located at the confluence of major rivers, St. Louis has always been a point where cultures converge. Its past is a jumble of Mississipian mound builders and French fur trappers; a whirl of Spanish, French, and American flags; a clash between Union and Confederacy, with repercussions that linger still; and a flow of people – explorers, immigrants, travelers, slaves, refugees – moving in and moving west. It is a land of flood walls, tornado shelters, earthquakes lurking below, and storms lingering in the collective memory despite the blue skies above. It has a fleur-de-lis on its flag and a steamboat on its seal. It’s a place of blues and baseball, of red brick houses and hometown pride, of custard served upside-down. It cannot be fully grasped in one trip, but I’m still tempted to try.
Now that Southwest Airlines offers a nonstop flight from Hartford, St. Louis is less than three hours from Connecticut. If you, like me, love underrated places with endless possibilities, here are some of my favorite neighborhoods to explore. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but think of it as an introduction to a city that deserves to be better known.
Parts of Lafayette Square, especially its centerpiece, the lovely Lafayette Park, feel as if they must be private. Surely an enclave so elegant wouldn’t be left wide open, fully accessible to curious travelers who come to gawk at the beauty? But it is, and we can. In fact, the park is not just the oldest urban park west of the Mississippi, but the oldest public park in St. Louis. Once devastated by a tornado, this neighborhood is now thriving – in a quiet, tasteful kind of way. Its “painted ladies” are as pretty as any historic homes in the country (yes, even that one block in San Francisco you’ve seen nine million times on Instagram) and the little collection of shops and restaurants on Park Avenue – including the cozy Park Avenue Coffee – make up a neighborhood with an old-fashioned small-town America feel.
Soulard Farmers’ Market may not be the largest or showiest public market in America, but it’s one of the oldest – it predates the Louisiana Purchase. What’s more, it still feels completely authentic: just a no-frills, everyday market where locals shop for groceries, as they have since 1779. The surrounding neighborhood is equally down to earth, if more photogenic: walk the streets of Soulard and you’ll find blocks of brick houses in a variety of styles and sizes, hinting at the lives and habits of the people who have made this area their home over centuries. Star anchors and painted doors add to the local color, as do the restaurants, bars, churches, and parks that pop up amidst the red bricks.
Tower Grove South/Tower Grove East/Shaw/Botanical Heights/Southwest Garden
Two vast and exquisite green spaces, Tower Grove Park and the Missouri Botanical Garden, are surrounded by neighborhoods that combine residential areas (typical of St. Louis, they’re packed with examples of the city’s distinctive architectural styles) and a selection of cute and funky stores and ethnic restaurants. In Tower Grove Park, the second-largest park in St. Louis, paved paths wind between thousands of trees (it’s also a Level II arboretum) and fanciful historic pavilions. The adjacent Botanical Garden combines over two dozen distinct gardens and other picturesque indoor and outdoor features. South Grand Boulevard (the South Grand business district is sometimes considered a neighborhood of its own) is lined with places to eat and tempting shops like Urban Matter for tastefully trendy gifts, Zee Bee Market for internationally made goods, and Garden District STL for sweet, plant-inspired finds.
Cherokee Antique Row
Cherokee Antique Row is the name given to Cherokee Street between Jefferson and Lemp Avenues. It runs through four neighborhoods (Benton Park West, Gravois Park, Benton Park and Marine Villa) and despite the moniker, it’s not all about antiques. Along with vintage shops, you’ll also find plenty of art and food in this six-block strip. The atmosphere here is both edgy and saturated with history; look for the plaques that explain the background behind various landmarks in the Cherokee-Lemp Historic District. Also, don’t miss the fire hydrants painted like American flags and the iconic statue of a Native American man standing on the corner of Cherokee and Jefferson. If you venture beyond this stretch of Cherokee, you’ll find more unique local businesses, including the best place to pick up a decidedly non-cheesy souvenir, STL Style.
Central West End
The CWE is the poshest section of St. Louis; of the city’s 79 neighborhoods, this is where they decided to put the Whole Foods. But that doesn’t mean this area is staid or stuffy. The overall vibe is youthful, lively, and welcoming to visitors. Here, at the northeast corner of Forest Park, you’ll find a grid of charming streets that, in New England, would make up a vibrant medium-sized town. This is a perfect neighborhood for simply strolling, taking in the urban-meets-suburban atmosphere, peeking down the private, tree-lined residential blocks, and looking up at the fancy street lamps. But most people come here for the variety of restaurants and bars and independent, upscale shops like the acclaimed Left Bank Books and the luxurious Provisions St. Louis.
Like any other business district, downtown St. Louis has its share of shiny skyscrapers. But they are all dwarfed – in size and shininess – by the Gateway Arch. The tallest structure in Missouri, it rises high above the bank of the Mississippi River and the aqua dome of the Old Courthouse, where Dred Scott and hundreds of other enslaved people sued for their freedom. Visitors can ride to the top of the Arch, learn about pivotal moments in American history at the museum below, or simply walk around the grounds. By the riverfront, a statue of Lewis and Clark’s 1806 return to the city doubles as an informal flood gauge when the river rises, and the striking 19th century Eads Bridge stretches across the water to Illinois. Nearby, at the site of the original French settlement that would become St. Louis, the revamped warehouse district of Laclede’s Landing offers nightlife after dark and a quiet walk on cobblestone streets during the day. Further west, Citygarden is a park and outdoor sculpture playground for children and adults, and beyond that, the striking Union Station building now holds a hotel and family-oriented entertainment complex. In the blocks between downtown’s attractions, restaurants, and hotels, you’ll find ambitious architecture, eclectic museums, small parks, and surprising glimpses into St. Louis’s multi-faceted past.
Though it’s not technically its own ‘hood, it’s sometimes treated as such because of its sheer size (at 1,300 acres, it’s the largest park in St. Louis and about 1.5 times larger than New York’s Central Park) as well as the number of significant cultural institutions located here. You could get lost for hours – literally and figuratively – exploring all this world-class public space has to offer. Walking and biking trails, bridges, and boardwalks traverse lawns, forests, and wetlands. Hills conceal waterfalls and sparkling pools. Highlights include the Jewel Box, a glimmering Art Deco greenhouse; the St. Louis Art Museum; and the Missouri History Museum. It’s also full of less flashy but equally thoughtful touches like the turtle sculptures in the tiny park-within-a-park at Oakland and Tamm Avenues. Get your bearings at the Visitor Center (it also houses the Forest Perk Cafe), and use the interactive map to discover different features of the park.
The Hill (and south of Forest Park)
The Hill, a neighborhood of humble brick houses interrupted by the occasional small business, is St. Louis’s Little Italy. If you didn’t know, you’d pick it up from the green, red, and white signs and fire hydrants painted to celebrate the area’s heritage. Famous for its many Italian restaurants, The Hill is the best place to try one of the city’s culinary favorites, toasted ravioli.
Nearby Dogtown (where I lived during my time in St. Louis) is not technically a neighborhood; this historically Irish area is made up of parts of four neighborhoods with less memorable names. But it is a distinct place, marked visually by its orange, white, and green signs and hydrants. It’s also where you’ll find Irish pubs with a small-town feel.
The Grove, a district within the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood known for nightlife, is also home to St. Louis’s biggest and best display of murals. Drive or walk down Manchester Avenue and you can’t miss the colorful art decorating the brick walls and the whimsical decorations strung up above the road.
Other things to look out for in the neighborhoods just south of Forest Park are the Hi-Pointe Theatre, a comfortable vintage spot to catch a new-release art movie; the world’s largest Amoco sign, which towers over the gas station at Clayton Road and South Skinker Boulevard; and, if you’re looking for a place to rest after traipsing through the park, Comet Coffee, a quality coffee shop and bakery disguised as a strip mall mediocrity.
U City/The Loop
Technically, University City is, well, a city and not a section of St. Louis. (Note its unique octagonal City Hall building.) The section of Delmar Boulevard known as the Loop was once the center of a streetcar suburb; today, it’s part funky college town, part St. Louis neighborhood, and part world of its own. (Its name comes from the nearby Washington University campus.) The Loop Trolley carries passengers up and down Delmar and over to Forest Park, but this very walkable area is best experienced on foot. That way, you’ll see the sidewalk stars of the St. Louis Walk of Fame, which honors the surprising number of St. Louisans who have made their mark far beyond Missouri. Some fixtures of the Boulevard are hard to miss, like the statue of Chuck Berry and the renovated 1920s Tivoli Theatre, but don’t ignore the small shops, like The Silver Lady. And make sure to leave Delmar for a while to wander the quiet streets parallel to it; with their classic college campus environment, they provide a respite from all the activity of the Loop itself.
Of the affluent suburbs/mini-cities/neighborhoods that ring St. Louis, especially to the west, Clayton is probably my favorite. On weekdays, it feels corporate and almost fast-paced, populated by white collar workers in conservatively-fitting chinos rushing to grab a coffee on their lunch break. On weekends, however, it becomes a sleepy, old-fashioned town, homey with a dash of sophistication. This is the time to check out local throwbacks like the pretty little Kaldi’s Coffee on DeMun Avenue (the original location of the chain) and World News Ltd on Central Avenue, a corner newsstand with numerous racks of magazines and newspapers and a bit of everything else.