Updated for 2021 – As someone who likes to road trip, St Louis, is literally the Gateway to the West for me. So many of my road trips have taken me across the Mississippi and through the city. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing the Gateway Arch looming in the distance. But it seemed I was always driving through. When I finally had the opportunity to linger, I couldn’t believe all the unique things there are to do in St Louis. It made me sad I hadn’t stopped sooner. Here’s just a few of my favorites things.
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A Unique St Louis Hotel
in 1894, St Louis became the Gateway to the West when Union Station – the train station – opened. At the time, it was the world’s largest and the busiest train station. Just the roofed trainshed alone, covered forty two train tracks. At one point, 100,000 passengers a day passed through the station. That’s amazing to think about for the 1800’s.
Then, in the 50’s and 60’s, with airplane travel becoming more easily available, sadly, train travel decreased. The station was too expensive to maintain. It sat there for years, until finally in 1985, after an extensive renovation, the station reopened as a hotel.
Union Station Hotel
Union Station Hotel is a member of the Historic Hotels of America and a National Historic Landmark and has over 500 rooms, a Grand Hall, which houses one of the biggest bars I’ve ever seen, a restaurant and a huge event space.
The entire hotel gorgeous but the star of the show, for me, is the stunning Grand Hall. Even if you aren’t staying at the hotel, it’s worth stopping by to see it. The arched ceiling is jaw-dropping gorgeous with frescoes, mosaics, gold leaf details and stained, hand cut, Tiffany glass.
If you time it just right, you can sit back and watch the 3D light show they have nightly in the Grand Hall, all while sipping a classic cocktail. And if you’re hungry, they make a really great burger too.
SouthernerSays: Since I visited St Louis, the city has opened a brand new aquarium and the Wheel at St Louis Union Station in this space under the trainshed. Construction was just starting the day I left Union Station. I can’t wait to get back and see the additions to the area.
Unique St Louis Food & Drink
I love trying regional specialties when I travel. So, besides all the barbecue and donuts I ate, I thoroughly enjoyed the other unique foods I tried in St Louis. Gooey butter cakes are exactly how they sound. Gooey and buttery. You can find them at bakeries around town. Ted Drewes Frozen Custard is another St Louis institution. I didn’t get a chance to try it but everyone raves about it. Next time St Louis. Here’s a couple of other unique restaurants in St Louis that I did get to try.
Lombardos has been in business since 1934. This restaurant IS old school, unique St Louis. Family owned and operated, they serve authentic Italian food featuring pasta, of course, but they also serve steak and seafood. Since I wanted to try authentic St Louis recipes, I ordered toasted ravioli, which St. Louis is known for and some of the best garlic cheese bread I’ve ever had. Even though the restaurant is in a touristy area, the bar was full of locals. And that’s always a good sign.
The Fountain on Locust
If you ever want to have a meal in an old Stutz auto showroom – and who wouldn’t – put The Fountain on Locust on your wish list. Unique, hip and decorated with hand painted art deco murals, they serve mouthwatering, made from scratch food and cocktails.
I decided to go for dinner one night. Everything I ate was fresh and delicious but it’s their ice cream and boozy desserts that makes it one of the most unique things to do in St Louis. Generally, I’m not a huge ice cream fan but theirs, sourced from a dairy in Wisconsin, is so good, I would eat it every chance I got. All the sauces are made fresh in house too. If you’ve only ever had chocolate sauce out of a bottle, you don’t know what you’ve been missing until you try theirs.
I also loved the fact that a lot of the cocktails have names after famous St. Louisans. I had a gin based, T. S. Eliot drink, after the poet born on Locust Street. How cool is that?
The perfect speakeasy should be secret, hidden and dark with unforgettable cocktails. Thaxton Speakeasy checks all of those boxes. Thaxton is the only password protected bar in St. Louis. Located in the Historic Thaxton building downtown, you enter street side into an event space and down the steps into the cozy basement turned bar. The whole vibe IS prohibition.
Thaxton has knowledgeable bartenders who specialize in classic cocktails. You can tell they put a lot of effort into their craft. I ordered an Aviation, which is not your normal everyday cocktail and it was just right.
If you decide to go, you can request the password on their website. Thaxton is open on Friday and Saturday unless they are privately booked. Due to space limitations, reservations are recommended.
Unique St Louis Places
St Louis has some really unique neighborhoods and suburbs. I loved visiting Forest Park, Soulard and Florissant. Here’s a few more unique St Louis places in the area.
Located in the Forest Park neighborhood of St Louis, The Grove, used to be called Adam’s Grove In the 50’s. Back then, it was a busy commercial district. After experiencing a decline, the area underwent a revitalization and is one again one of St Louis’s busiest entertainment districts. There are more than fifty shops along this mile stretch of road. And you can do just about anything you want to. You can eat, drink, dance, buy clothes, get a haircut – or even a tattoo. The best part is, you don’t even have to do any of those things to get a taste of the The Grove. It’s one of the best places in the city to view street art and murals.
St Louis Public Library
One of the most unique things in St Louis – that I just happened up on as I was driving around – is the gorgeous sculpture at the St Louis Public Library. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know it was the library. I never imaged something so beautiful at a library. Since it was my last day in St Louis and I didn’t have much time, I only stopped long enough to snap a quick photo.
When I got home I did some research and found out that the building that houses the library, built in 1912, recently underwent a renovation to accommodate more books and make the space more useful. The Manolo Valdes sculpture “Butterflies” was added in preparation of – get this – a real butterfly garden in the future! Isn’t that a great idea and way to get more people to the library and reading? Hopefully, I’ll be able to go inside the next time I visit. The sculpture was a gift of The Gateway Foundation that also has 55 other pieces of art scattered around downtown St Louis. So keep your eyes peeled.
Route 66 in St Louis
When most people think about Route 66, they think about lonely stretches of abandoned highway in the western United States. However, the “Mother Road” is still a vibrant part of many of the Midwestern states like Missouri. It passes directly through St Louis, and in addition to the Gateway Arch, there are quite a few famous landmarks and neighborhoods that can be found on the original Route 66.
One of the those neighborhoods is the charming Maplewood area of St Louis. Located only about ten minutes from downtown, Maplewood feels like a world away. A variety of restaurants, cool bars, breweries and shopping can be found in this quaint, small town USA setting. It’s the perfect way to spend the day or stay longer and explore St Louis.
Street Art + Murals in St Louis
Possibly one of the things that surprised me most about St Louis was the street art and murals. I accidentally stumbled upon the Mural Mile as I was driving around. Mural Mile is one mile of graffiti and murals on the floodwall along the Mississippi River, south of the Gateway Arch.
Not sure why I was so surprised because this project was started way back in 1997 by the Paint Louis organization. Since then, over 250 artists have participated in the project. After a while, it’s common for murals to be painted over but here’s some of my favorite ones from when I visited.
Other Things To Do in St Louis
There’s even more to do in St Louis than what’s mentioned here. The city is an exceptional destination for families because so many activities are free. The St Louis Zoo, The St Louis Science Center, and the Missouri Botanical Gardens all have free admission for kids. The Family Attractions Card is a good for coupons and savings at sites around the city.
City Museum was at the top of my St Louis to do list but it was either raining or closed on the days that I could go. I hope to visit my next time in St Louis.
If you are a beer lover, then St Louis is the place for you. The greater St Louis area has over 35 breweries. Not to mention, St Louis is the world headquarters of Anheuser-Busch. Wouldn’t you like to tour the oldest and largest brewery in the country?
Where to Stay in St Louis
Besides Union Station Hotel, St Louis has plenty of other hotels and even a casino. The Live! by Loews hotel downtown, looks super interesting, as does The Last Hotel in the Unbound Collection by Hyatt. In Forest Park check out the Hilton’s Double Tree Hotel.
Getting to St Louis
Traveling to St Louis is very convenient. Because of it’s central Midwestern location, flights into Lambert International Airport (STL) are no more than a couple of hours from most major US cities. TSA Pre-check is available at the airport. Check flights on Skyscanner.com.
Car rentals are a quick shuttle ride away with plenty of gas stations nearby for fill ups when you return your rental. Check car rentals on Expedia.com.
St Louis also has a STL Adventure Pass for hop on/hop off transportation to some popular sites.
Getting Around St Louis
For a big city, St Louis is easy to get around in. The only time traffic was congested was in construction areas or around 5 pm. Although I heard others complaining about it, coming from Atlanta, it was a breeze for me. I didn’t use any public transportation while I was there but I did use Uber a couple of times.
Street parking has meters but is very affordable. It’s $.25 for every fifteen minutes. Free on Sundays and after 7pm Monday through Saturday. Some areas have paid parking lots. They do cost a little more than street parking but still affordable. And the machines accept credit card to pay. The City has a website to help find downtown parking.