Founded by French fur trappers in 1764, St. Louis served for most of its first century as a prosperous outpost of “civilization” at the frontier of the Wild West. It was the starting point for the explorations of Lewis and Clark, and much later Charles Lindbergh, whose Spirit of St. Louis carried him across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, like many other American cities, St. Louis has suffered from years of decline and neglect; the population, which peaked at over 850,000 in 1950, is now less than half that. Although it has all the cultural and institutional trappings of a major city, not to mention the landmark Gateway Arch, St. Louis is at heart a city of small neighborhoods, such as bluesy Soulard south of downtown, the Italian-American “Hill” (boyhood home of Yogi Berra), and the collegiate West End district near verdant Forest Park.
One thing you have to see when in St. Louis (you literally cannot miss it) is the Gateway Arch (daily; 314/655-1700), on the riverfront at the foot of Market Street. Rising up from the west bank of the Mississippi River, Eero Saarinen’s stunning 630-foot stainless steel monument still dominates the city skyline, despite the disrespectful rise of nearby office towers. Under the legs of the Arch, which is officially called the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the free and fascinating Museum of Westward Expansion chronicles the human wave that swept America’s frontier west to the Pacific. A small elevator-like tram ($10) carries visitors up the arch to an observation chamber at the very top.
The St. Louis Cardinals (314/421-2400), one of the country’s most popular baseball teams, play at brand-new retro-modern Busch Stadium, right downtown with views of the river and Gateway Arch. Games are broadcast on KMOX 1120 AM.
West of downtown around the Washington University campus, in Forest Park’s 1,300 beautifully landscaped acres, museums of fine art, history, and science fill buildings that date back to the 1904 World’s Fair, St. Louis’s world-class swan song.