Travel: St. Louis in 12 Hours
Despite not being a major city by population, St. Louis holds its own against other larger cities with its tourist attractions, quirky foods, and iconic sites. Sports fans, foodies, and site-seers can all find activities within the city. Because of the city’s smaller size and the close proximity of attractions, experiencing a wide variety of St. Louis culture is possible even in a short amount of time.
Recently I spent one day in St. Louis, taking in as much as possible of the city. Within 12 hours, I saw a portion of the Botanical Garden, visited the top of the Arch, ate locally famous pizza, saw the site of the 1904 World Fair, and explored local neighborhoods.
The city of St. Louis was founded in 1764 by French fur traders and named after Louis IX of France. Prior to that, the area was largely occupied by Native Americans. The area changed control from France to Spain and back again to France before being purchased by the US in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Missouri was established as a state in 1820, and St. Louis was incorporated as a city the following year. Before the Civil War, racial tensions in the area were high because Missouri bordered the free state of Illinois. Hundreds of slaves escaped or sued for their freedom in court. During the 1840’s German and Irish immigrants flooded into the area, taking the population from 20,000 in 1840 or 160,000 by 1860. During the following century and a half, government and residents fought over racial discrimination and civil rights issues.
Suburbs started popping up surrounding the city, spreading the population out over a larger area. With such a heavy European influence with immigrants from France, Spain, Ireland, and Italy, Roman Catholicism was wide spread and many iconic churches were built in the neighborhoods. Many of the neighborhoods were established by immigrants and reflect their heritage. Lafayette Square is one example, with houses built in the French style that surround Lafayette Park, the oldest public park in the city. Many of the neighborhoods have local coffee shops, retail storefronts, and bars. Near Lafayette Square I visited Square One Brewery and Distillery, where everything is made in-house.
The most famous part of St. Louis is the Arch, located within the Gateway Arch National Park. The park stretches from the historic Old Courthouse to the banks of the Mississippi River. The park was established in 1935 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the area as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, commemorating the Louisiana Purchase by Thomas Jefferson in 1803 and the explorers who led the Midwest expansion and shaped that region of America.
Over two decades later, Finnish-American Architect Eero Saarinen designed the Arch that would become the staple to the monument park. Construction began in 1961 and was completed four years later in 1965. At 630 feet tall, the Arch is the tallest man-made monument in the US. It was designed to withstand extreme conditions, such as earthquakes and high winds, and has a foundation that allows it to sway up to 18 inches.
The Arch offers a four-minute tram ride to the top of the 63 story structure where guests can see up to 30 miles east and west. The tram is composed of little pods that hold up to five guests at a time. There is a small glass opening that allows a view of the innerworkings of the tram system and interior of the Arch structure. At the top of the Arch, there are rows of small windows on each side looking out over the city and the Mississippi. Although tickets for the tram to the top are sold for specific time slots, there is no time limit for how long you can stay at the top. I would recommend buying ticket in advance online and arriving before your designated time.
Recently added to the park is the museum at the bottom of the Arch. Within its six themed exhibits, it covers 201 years of history from 1764 to 1965. The museum discusses topics such as the steamboat industry, westward expansion, Manifest Destiny, and explorers Lewis and Clark. The National Park also has acres of green space around the Arch and a view of the Mississippi River.
A short drive from the Arch is the Missouri Botanical Garden, the nation’s oldest botanical garden that has remained in continuous operation. Founded in 1859, the Garden is now a National Historic Landmark and houses over 27,000 plants throughout its 79 acres. It would be nearly impossible to see the entire Garden in one visit. However, the Garden is divided into dozens of specialty gardens that are accessible by walking or tram, allowing guests to make the most of their time there.
Some of the specialty gardens are themed to a region or time period, like the Ottoman Garden, the Victorian Garden, the Strassenfest German Garden, the Bavarian Garden, and the Chinese Garden. Others are themed to a specific plant, like the Magnolia Grove, the Gladney Rose Garden, the Hosta Garden, the Iris Garden, the Daylily Garden, and the Herb Garden. One of the most popular areas is the Climatron, a domed climate-controlled area that houses mostly tropical and warmer climate plants year-round. There are also several attractions for kids, such as exploration and science centers, that are filled with hands-on activities and programs. Inside the Japanese Garden there is a Koi fish pond with a feeding area that is a major attraction for kids as well.
The Garden has a huge gift shop with hundreds of plants and seeds for purchase. I brought home a coffee plant, like what is grown in the Climatron, and a succulent as unique and practical souvenirs. There are also several cafes and eateries within the garden that serve fresh salads and light sandwiches.
Like any well-known city, St. Louis has its list of specialty, unique items it is known for. Provel Cheese is specific to the St. Louis region. A combination of cheddar, swiss, and provolone, this white, processed cheese product was invented over 50 years ago specifically for St. Louis style pizza. A local favorite for St. Louis pizza is Imo’s Pizza. It was founded in 1964 and is known for its cracker-thin crust, square slices, and use of Provel cheese. Toasted ravioli is another local legend and can be found at most pizza places. Another long-standing food tradition is the gooey butter cake, which dates back to the 1930s. It is a dense, flat cake that is usually served with a dusting of powdered sugar.
St. Louis is also known as the site of the World Fair in 1904, and the Summer Olympic games that same year. The World Fair, known that year as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, was held in Forest Park. The park is now home to the St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis Art Museum, the Missouri History Museum, and the St. Louis Science Center and is nicknamed “The Heart of St. Louis” due to its centrality to the city.
St. Louis also has a strong sports history and fanbase. It is home to champion sports teams St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Blues, and the city has also contributed a player to each US Men’s soccer team that has competed in the FIFA World Cup.
Whether stopping in for a day trip en route to another destination or hanging out for the weekend, St. Louis has a lot to offer. There is famous food to consume, professional sports teams to cheer on, and national landmarks to visit.