Chances are you’ve heard of it. Maybe you’ve seen the 40’s musical Meet Me In St Louis? Or perhaps you remember it as the home-place of Louise from Saint Louis, Carrie Bradshaw’s assistant in the first of the Sex and the City movies?
Chances also are you probably don’t know much about it. It’s almost certainly not on your to-visit list. Well, it’s time for you to re-evaluate that opinion.
St Louis or, to pronounce it the way the locals do, Saint Lewis, is known as the Gateway to the West (more on that later). It’s the biggest city in the southern state of Missouri and it’s now possible to reach it from the UK on a single ticket. I chose WOW as my low-cost airline, which meant getting to the city, via Reykjavík, cost under £300 ($396.56/342.51EUR) for a four-day round trip.
Before you read on, please put aside any assumptions you might have about the southern United States. My traveling companion and I, both out, proud (and in my case, obviously) gay men felt safe, secure and welcome at all times. The city’s progressive and very blue. Each year, it hosts an ever-growing PrideFest, with an estimated 300,000 people in attendance in 2018. If you want to catch that fun, head over at the end of June.
Like all of the southern states, Missouri experiences long, lazy, very hot summers. We visited in early September and the temperature was still in the high 20s – we even had a day over 30. For a sun-worshiper like me, this was bliss, but it’s something to bear in mind if you’re not such a fan of the heat.
What to see in St Louis?
Your first stop should be Forest Park. At 1,371 acres, it’s the largest city park in the USA – dwarfing New York’s Central Park, which is only 843 acres. The park itself is beautiful. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a middle-American city; superbly manicured, lush, green and absolutely landscaped. The park has multiple jewels in its crown, including, but not limited to, the St. Louis Zoo, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Missouri History Museum, and the Muny Theatre.
The zoo is an absolute treat. There’s everything you’d expect to find in one, including polar bears, tigers, some absolutely terrifying hippos and dwarf mongooses, which are probably the cutest thing you ever did see. Our favorite were the penguins, especially the humboldts, which you can get close enough to touch (though of course you shouldn’t). Keep your eyes out for the puffins too, they’re ridiculously characterful.
The History Museum is a brilliant place. St Louis has a rich past; it has sat at the heart of American history from the very beginning. St Louis itself formed a part of the Louisiana Purchase and, until recently, the city was one of the largest producers of cars outside of Detroit.
France, Spain and Great Britain have all played a part in its story alongside, of course, native American tribes. The museum charts all of this, and you can take it all in in less than an hour. Though we’d recommend spending a little longer and really digging into it.
The beauty of all the attractions in the park – and there are many more besides these – is that they’re all free. This doesn’t include shows at the theatre, but covers everything else. It’s a brilliant space to spend a day.
Keeping with the theme of museums. You absolutely must visit the Blues Museum. Even if you’re not a fan of blues music, the museum is a must to learn how the movement traveled from Africa with enslaved people, grew in the south during the long period of slavery, and spread through the country when slavery ended.
It’s a profoundly moving story, but also an enlightening one. I for one had no idea quite how influential the genre was, and how much bands from the Rolling Stones to the Beatles owe to it.
While you’re downtown, head to the Gateway Arch. Completed in 1965, the arch stands 630ft tall. It’s majestic, and looks not unlike a Star Trek communicator. It dominates the city’s skyline and, once you’re up there, affords breathtaking views of both the city and the state of Illinois, which begins the other side of Mississippi River. (Indeed, there’s a city called East Saint Louis, which sits just the other side of the state line.)
Transport to the top is provided by two cable cars which are snug to say the least; anyone who suffers from severe claustrophobia should probably give it a miss. But for everyone else, a couple of minutes in a cramped car is absolutely worth it for the views.
A short trek from the arch sits the City Museum. Though to call it a museum is really pushing it. It’s essentially the mind of a child made real. The museum is an array of things to climb up, slide down, jump over and play in. There’s a giant ball pool, a Ferris wheel on top of the building, as well as an old fire truck and a small aeroplane sat on the roof. It’s probably the most fun you can have in St Louis with your clothes on or off, and is an absolute must-do.
How to eat like a Midwesterner
Let’s be honest, one of the most important parts of any trip the USA is the food. And St Louis does not disappoint.
For breakfast, get yourself to Rooster. It’s a cute, unprepossessing (and slightly spartan) café located in downtown St Louis. But the food is so good we went back twice. It specializes in crepes and pancakes and, boy, they don’t disappoint. Ours were smothered in chocolate chips and Nutella, but you can have them almost any way you want. We should’ve tried the s’more crepe too, but ran out of room in our stomachs. Also delicious are the biscuits and gravy (essentially savoury scones with a creamy, sausage-based sauce) and the pork loin steak. 95/10.
For lunch, hit up Fitz’s. Founded in 1937, it’s an all-American, diner-style eatery on the cute, slightly indie Delmar Loop. The wraps are insane (and the size of your head), while the pizza burger (it’s exactly what it sounds like) is the food we never knew we needed. Fitz’s is also famous for its root beer, which can be had on draught or from the bottle – and it’s ruddy lovely. Also worth trying are the milkshakes, which are so thick they should probably be called thicc. The whole experience is worth losing your waistline for.
For dinner, park yourself outside Bar Louie in the Central West End and watch the world go by. While you’re at it, treat yourself to the Tuscan chicken pasta which was, some of the best pasta your writer here has ever eaten.
It’s also very, very important that you take yourself to Ted Drewes. This is the home of frozen custard. Frozen custard is like ice cream, only a million times better. I lack the words to fully articulate quite how delicious it is. It’s as calorific as you imagine it is, but holiday calories don’t count, which is good, as you’ll find yourself going back for seconds.
Drink and dance
You’ll not find yourself wanting for places to sup in St Louis. For a city that’s small (both by US standards and compared to our bigger cities like London or Manchester) there’s an awful lot to do.
St Louis’ LGBTI village is based around The Grove, west of downtown. It’s a vibrant neighborhood, which comes alive late at night. We ventured out mid-week, and found Rehab, a cavernous bar with an excellent house white, to be buzzing. Indeed, as we left at about 1am, we were told that the party was just getting started.
You’ll find no shortage of other bars and clubs, including Just John’s bar/JJ’s Clubhouse, Attitudes, The Monocle and a host of others. Indeed, for a city of this size, there are a surprising number of bars serving our community. If you wanted to try a different nightspot every night of your stay, you’d certainly be able to.
As much fun as it is, you don’t have to stay in the village. As we said earlier on, St Louis is a progressive, tolerant, welcoming city, and that applies equally at night as during the day. There are a number of LGBTI-focused bars in other parts of the city. Our other favorite neighborhood is the Central West End (CWE). The CWE is one of the higher-end neighborhoods in the city. It’s full of very traditionally American houses, many displaying rainbow flags (we even saw a rainbow version of the St Louis city flag).
The district is full of cute bars, especially around Maryland Plaza and Maryland Avenue. Most have outside seating, just ripe for watching the world go by. Our favorite was Brennan’s, a whisky and cigar bar on the main strip. It does an excellent old fashioned, the house white is lovely, and the house burger is out of this world.
It’s worth noting that St Louis isn’t like any European city, where one area flows seamlessly into another. Downtown is 20 minutes in a cab, on the freeway, from the Central West End, which is in turn another cab ride (or an hour’s walk through the Forest Park) from the Delmar Loop.
Outside of flights and hotels, your biggest single expense is likely to be cabs. We found Lyft to be a little cheaper than Uber, so download that before you go. It’s also worth looking at options for hiring a car for a couple of days of your trip.
Staying in St Louis
We stayed at the Chase Park Plaza, a very plush, exceptionally comfortable (American hotels always give good bed) hotel on the edge of Forest Park, a short cab ride from The Grove. It did an exceptional breakfast, and has a absolutely glorious outdoor pool where you can indulge your Real Housewives of St Louis fantasies. You can read more on that here.
If you fancy staying closer to downtown, the Hotel Saint Louis opens shortly. A decadent, Art Deco affair, it promises style by the bucketload and as a rooftop pool. Both are perfect for taking advantage of St Louis’ summers.
For more information about St Louis, and to plan your trip, visit www.explorestlouis.com. You can find out more about WOW Air’s destinations, including its recently launched routes to Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit and, of course, St Louis at www.wowair.co.uk, or by calling 0118 321 8384.