After spending six of my formative years in St. Charles, a St. Louis suburb, I moved into the city. For four years, I discovered the city as an undergraduate at Saint Louis University. The idea of a college town didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to go to school in an urban setting, and enjoy non-campus-based student life.
While I didn’t appreciate it at the time, St. Louis was rather ideal for a college kid. The city is vibrant and diverse enough to add variety to a college campus, but not as distracting as a major city like New York or Chicago. I was able to find meaningful volunteer and internship opportunities while pursuing my studies.
These days, perhaps due to nostalgia, I return to find this midwestern city more charming and full of opportunity with each visit. A year ago, we met a couple in a Tower Grove coffee shop, who also had spent years in China. It was a rare coincidence, and we became fast friends. The St. Louis native and her Scottish partner have tapped into the St. Louis scene as journalists. Their feeds make me entertain the idea of returning to this up-and-coming city one day! For all the latest foodie hotspots, definitely follow @bitesofstlouis on Instagram!
Most people I meet outside of St. Louis have typically been there for work or an off-chance visit. If you happen to stop by this city, I hope this guide helps you see the city more than just the Arch!
Growing up, Union Station was a somewhat rundown shopping mall that had unimpressive fudge and souvenir shops. The architecture has always been impressive, but the destination was never much to write home about. The most notable feature is the whispering archway at the entrance. The form of the arch transports whispering sounds from one end to the other!
In recent years, Union Station has undergone a significant renovation. The station lobby is now a part of the St. Louis Union Station hotel. I was stunned when I visited recently and saw how well it was restored to its former glamour. Have a drink at the lobby bar, and enjoy the light show.
Forest Park, the site of 1904 World’s Fair, is the pride and joy of St. Louis. If you’ve ever seen the musical Meet Me in St. Louis, it’s centered around this park. Drive down Lindell Blvd., and you’ll still see magnificent homes from the turn of the century. One can absolutely imagine galloping around the park in horse-drawn carriages.
The park spans 1,326 acres (5.37 sqm) and is home to the St. Louis Art Museum, the History Museum, and the Zoo, all free of charge. My favorite spot is the Grand Basin, at the foothill of the Art Museum. In the summer months, the Muny hosts outdoor musicals that were always a summertime favorite. Various festivals also take place here during the warmer months, including an impressive hot air balloon gathering!
Attend a Baseball Game & Visit Ballpark Village
St. Louis is a sports town, and people are very loyal. I don’t know much about sports, but I do get a kick out of seeing people sporting the St. Louis Cardinals gear on my travels. Busch Stadium had undergone a significant renovation in recent years, and the Ballpark Village is a good time. Indeed, a very central American experience.
Anheuser-Bush Brewery is a St. Louis institution. The Imbev purchase is still a sore subject. Nevertheless, beer is a big thing in town, and the Brewery gives an entertaining tour. During the holidays, the headquarter is really decked out in that holiday spirit – worth a look. If you are into independent craft beers, St. Louis has a vibrant scene. The Schlafly Taproom is the most well known, but many microbreweries have emerged over the last decade.
The Fabulous Fox Theatre
The Fabulous Fox Theatre that shows some of Broadway’s greatest hits has been a staple in my life growing up in St. Louis. Built in 1929, the theatre has had a tumultuous history. Restored in the 1980s and again in the 2000s, this theatre now shines its former glory. I was mesmerized by the intricate interior details. I highly recommend catching a show here or attending a public tour to learn about this building’s history and architecture.
Not far from Washington University is the Delmar Loop. This stretch has also undergone some revival in recent years. I was surprised by how many Chinese and other Asian cuisines now line the street. There is even a fancy hipster grocery store with all the Asian snacks. I suppose WashU has really up its Asian students enrollments.
One notable restaurant is Corner 17, where its extensive menu that transported me right back to China. If you aren’t in the mood for a sit-down meal, I recommend getting a snack or a bowl of noodles at Tasti-tea. As the name suggests, it also has delicious bubble tea!
If you aren’t in the mood for Asian, Fitz’s, Blueberry Hills, and Salt+Smoke are classic American joints. Catch a film at the independent cinema, Tivoli, grab a coffee at an old-time favorite, Meshuggah Café, and buy a book at Subterranean Books. Alternatively, Blueprint Coffee serves up a nice cup of jo as well.
Central West End
This was my stomping ground in college at St. Louis University. Located in Mid-town, this trendy neighborhood has plenty of restaurants, bars, cafés, and boutiques. Spend a sunny afternoon in the area: Have lunch at Kingside Diner, stroll and marvel at the beautiful gated homes. Browse and buy a book from Left Bank Books, especially the used section in the basement (whenever possible, I support the independent book shops that still remain opened). If you are in the mood for some solid BBQ, head to Pappy’s Smokehouse.
If timing allows, I also recommend catching a concert, or if you are Catholic, attend mass at Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis. This is one of the most magnificent churches I’ve witnessed amidst my travels across various houses of worship around the world. Even the staunchest nonbeliever could not help but feel a sense of serene spirituality when walking under the mosaics.
If you are visiting my alma mater, head South to the medical campus. A diverse set of restaurants and shops take place here. Some of my longstanding favorites are Pho Grand (Vietnamese), the King and I (Thai), and MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse (Brunch). The street also has some fun shops. Jay International Food has an impressive selection of ingredients and spices, and Found by the Pound has funky vintage pieces.
Between Central West End and South Grand is the Tower Grove neighborhood that’s been gentrified since I had left. The district now has all the hipster cafés, trendy restaurants, and colorful wall murals. I recommend great coffee at Rise Coffee, delicious macarons and treats at La Patisserie Chouquette, lovely Mediterranean food at Olio, and solid Thai food at Chao Baan.
St. Louis has a particular dish – the toasted ravioli, that is classic Italian-American. Head to the Hill neighborhood, where the Italian immigrants had settled and had been serving delightful Italian food with an American twist. I recommend Anthonino’s Taverna.
For some wholesome family fun, I recommend the Science Center, full of interactive and educational games, including a life-size Mario Brothers! The Botanical Garden is also delightful. In summer months, they host many outdoor concerts. I used to love spending summer evenings with a picnic dinner here.
Ted Drew’s Frozen Custard
Finally, a short drive away from The Hill is an all-time St. Louis favorite – Ted Drew’s Frozen Custard. They are known for the mixed ice cream named concretes. The malt ice cream mixed with topping is so solid that the cup is turned upside down after mixing to showcase its “concrete” thickness. This family business has been around since the 1930s and remains an outdoor-only joint with serving windows. The ice cream stand is opened year-around, and Christmas trees are sold from October each year. I’ve been here at near-freezing temperatures eating these ice cream treats. It’s what you do in St. Louis!
The Foundry Bakery
Before you fly out of St. Louis, stop by Foundry Bakery in the nearby Maryland Heights suburb for its delicious bread and bubble tea. I was on a hunt for good bread for my very picky French husband, and this place came up. The Taiwanese baker incorporates sourdough technique to the traditional Asian baked goods. The result is the best pineapple bun (actually a custard bun, the name comes from its pineapple shape). I’ve ever had. The operation is small, so I’ve learned to call ahead to avoid disappointment if they run out. The place is a bit out of the way, but so worth the effort!