Overview

St. Louis, Missouri, got the nickname "Gateway to the West" thanks to pioneers in search of a better way of life who pursued their American dream by making tracks to this unique river city. But that heritage is only part of the charm. St. Louis is where Scott Joplin rolled out ragtime tunes and jazzmen played the blues. It's also where Dred Scott filed his landmark lawsuit for freedom from slavery.

The city started with pioneers of American spirit and nurtured pioneers in transportation, space exploration and biotechnology. St. Louis has preserved enough of yesterday to convey a real sense of place and keep its pioneer spirit alive through high-tech industries of tomorrow. Think Chicago without the traffic, New York without the noise or Miami without the beach, as well as without the high cost of living or a long daily commute.

Traditional? Yes. Staid? Hardly. St. Louisans play as hard as they work, so there's an abundance of entertainment, education, and arts and culture—and they're rather fond of their sports teams. This vibrant, ethnically diverse region holds unexpected treasures. In many St. Louis neighborhoods, sidewalk cafes, ethnic restaurants, and new shops and galleries are reviving the city's distinctive character.

Geography

St. Louis is situated on gently rolling terrain in eastern Missouri near the border with Illinois, 18 mi/29 km south of the confluence of two large rivers, the Mississippi and the Missouri. The Gateway Arch sits on the banks of the Mississippi River and serves as the city's front door. From it, you can walk into the heart of downtown or visit the downtown of a century ago (maintained in the restored buildings and cobblestoned streets of Laclede's Landing). The riverfront casinos, sports stadiums, an expanded convention center and restaurants are all within walking distance of the Arch.

The city boundaries are actually rather small, and include unique areas such as Soulard, the Central West End, the Italian neighborhood called The Hill and the funky vibrant neighborhood known as the The Loop. These areas are about 10-15 minutes from downtown by car. In fact, there's as much to see and do outside downtown as there is in the city center. You might choose to lodge elsewhere and take the short trip into downtown for those attractions that interest you. Clayton, on the western edge of the city, is a thriving "second downtown," with its own impressive concentration of businesses, hotels, restaurants and shops.

History

In 1754, Pierre Laclede, a partner in a fur-trading company in New Orleans, began scouting for an ideal Native American fur-trading location. He took his 13-year-old stepson, Auguste Chouteau, with him on a journey up the Mississippi River. After looking over two sites that proved unsuitable for their needs, they journeyed approximately 18 mi/29 km south of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and discovered a site that would become St. Louis.

Laclede and Chouteau liked the area's river access and the bluff that would prevent flooding. They marked the site and returned to it one year later to found the settlement of St. Louis, named for King Louis IX of France. In a journal entry in 1763, Laclede predicted the city's future: "I have found a situation where I am going to form a settlement which might become hereafter one of the finest cities in America."

The area surrounding St. Louis provided Native Americans with an abundance of fish and game. It was also an ideal environment for the tribes to build their ceremonial mounds, large earthen structures from which St. Louis earned its early nickname, "Mound City." The French claimed the area as their own in the late 1600s, and by 1700 they had signed a treaty with the Iroquois that allowed organized trading in the region. In 1803, Napoleon sold the land to the U.S. as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the Corps of Discovery set out on their famous expedition from St. Louis in 1804. At the time, the city was considered the fur-trading center of the U.S. Soon, St. Louis gained a new nickname: "Gateway to the West." Pioneers, mountain men, trappers and travelers all stopped in St. Louis to stock up on supplies before crossing the Great Plains. Growing rapidly, the town incorporated in 1809. By 1817, steamboats began to arrive at the city's riverbanks.

The city continued to grow in the early 1900s and achieved prominence by hosting both the Olympics and the World's Fair in 1904. The second half of the 20th century proved more difficult, as St. Louis faced problems of urban decline and a large exodus to the suburbs by residents. There were some bright spots, however. On 25 May 1965, the dedication of Eero Saarinen's 632-ft/195-m steel arch on the Mississippi symbolized the city's role as a way station for westbound pioneers.

Today, St. Louis' downtown has undergone a US$5 billion renovation, complete with a downtown core filled with restaurants, hotels and residential lofts. The Washington Avenue Loft District has revitalized historic buildings and warehouses built in the early 1900s and created a vibrant downtown neighborhood.

Sightseeing

There is no better place to start exploring St. Louis than at the Arch, a landmark that you may see soaring above the horizon even before you reach the city. By all means, take the tram to the top, but don't forget to visit the Museum of Westward Expansion at the base of the Arch, too.

St. Louis' downtown has plenty of other attractions, including the Citygarden, Old Cathedral, Old Courthouse, City Museum, Union Station, Laclede's Landing, riverboat cruises and casinos. Catch MLB's Cardinals at Busch Stadium or check out the NHL's St. Louis Blues. There are plenty of additional options located throughout the city, including great shopping, dining and nightlife in the Central West End, Lafayette Square, South Grand and The Loop, just west of downtown.

Forest Park, on the edge of the Central West End, has long been an important part of St. Louis. It became the center of the world's attention in 1904 when the city hosted the World's Fair. Forest Park is one of the country's best urban parks, as much for its cultural institutions (the art museum, history museum, science center and zoo) as its recreational facilities (tennis and handball courts, a golf course, running and biking trails, and picnic areas). Take advantage of the Segway tours of Forest Park, offered by the St. Louis Science Center, and get a whole different feel for transportation.

Citygarden is a 2.9 acre/1.2 hectare sculpture park tucked between office towers and the bustle of downtown. The spectacular green space incorporates a unique collection of water features, architecture and contemporary artwork by renowned artists. Laumeier Sculpture Park features a unique indoor and outdoor museum displaying more than 80 sculptures. Just 15 minutes from downtown, this park is a nice place to walk and relax, even if you're not an art fan.

Directly south of downtown, near Interstate 55, is the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, North American headquarters for the "King of Beers." Also to the south is the Missouri Botanical Garden—one of the best in the region.

Another great escape from the city is Grant's Farm, the former home of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, now owned by the Busch family. You can tour former president Grant's cabin, nicknamed "Hardscrabble," and view more than 1,000 exotic animals from around the world. Some of the Budweiser Clydesdales are also stabled at the facility, and there are a variety of opportunities for kids to interact with the animals.

Nightlife

Live music, dance clubs and corner bars provide plenty of opportunities for nocturnal ramblings. Look for lively nightlife at Laclede's Landing downtown, in The Loop, in Soulard (blues clubs) and on Washington Avenue. Lumiere Place, the casino complex adjacent to Laclede's Landing, features nightspots Globar and Aqua.

Most bars and clubs close at midnight Sunday-Thursday. On Friday and Saturday nights, most bars are open until at least 1:30 am, with some bars on Laclede's Landing staying open until 3 am.

Dining

You'll find a good range of restaurants in St. Louis. Italian restaurants in the Hill district, the pubs and grills of Soulard, and Continental and Asian fare in the Central West End and University City Loop are all tempting. In the Hill district, sample St. Louis' very own toasted ravioli. In the Central West End or Soulard, dine at one of the outdoor cafes.

Dining times are similar to those in the rest of the U.S.: Breakfast is usually eaten 7-10 am, lunch 11 am-2:30 pm and dinner 6-10 pm.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, excluding drinks, tax and tip: $ = less than US$12; $$ = US$12-$25; $$$ = US$26-$50; $$$$ = more than US$50.

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