Beyond the Arch: Surprisingly cool destinations within a 30-minute drive

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When planning a day trip to Alton, Illinois, you can opt for one of two itineraries.

Plan 1 (The Traditional)
Take a right turn off the Clark Bridge and head for Fast Eddie's Bon Air (1530 East Fourth Street; 618-462-5532 or www Try to find a place to park. Grab the last remaining table. You'll be inside this crowded, legendary roadhouse of cold beer and cheap tasty eats until the sunlight is but a dim memory, and your designated driver has fallen asleep.

Believe it or not, there's more to Alton than the famous Fast Eddie's.
Suzy Rust
Believe it or not, there's more to Alton than the famous Fast Eddie's.
St. Charles: Pretty as a picture.
Julia Gabbert
St. Charles: Pretty as a picture.

Plan 2 (Mix It Up!)
There really is more to do in Alton than party at Fast Eddie's, so instead of taking your usual right off the bridge, be adventurous and turn left.

Duke Bakery, in the heart of the Middletown Historic District (819 Henry Street; 618-462-2922 or, is now celebrating its 60th anniversary and should be your first stop. This local institution serves a proprietorial blend of good coffee and plenty of delicious pastries to go with it.

Gawk at the neighborhood's charming Victorians for a while, then head back downhill to the Melvin Price Locks and Dam and the National Great Rivers Museum (2 Lock and Dam Way; 618-462-6979 or www.mvs.usace Observe as various vessels enter the lock chambers and then, inside the museum, learn the difference between hopper, deck and tank barges.

All that river air and newfound knowledge will put you in the mood for a shopping spree. Head back downtown and park somewhere near the intersection of George Street and Broadway. Start at Country Meadows Antiques (401 East Broadway; 618-465-1965 or, then work your way through the nearby shops, which includes two RFT Best Of St. Louis award-winners: the Prairie Peddler (413 East Broadway; 618-465-6114 or www and George Street Antique Mall (108 George Street; 618-463-1693). You're sure to find incredible old treasures. Once those are stowed, check out the stoneware at Mississippi Mud Pottery (310 East Broadway; 618-462-7573 or, and watch the Mud Team shaping even more pieces at its wheels.

Lunchtime! Head down Broadway to My Just Desserts (31 East Broadway; 618-462-5881 or for some wonderful soup, salads, sandwiches and homemade pie in a pleasant historical building. Afterward, stroll across the street to Second Reading Book Shop (16 East Broadway; 618-462-2830 or and talk to its owner, famous local author John J. Dunphy. He can tell you everything you want to know about the Riverbend region. Be sure to ask him about the Piasa Bird, whose autobiography he edited. That story will naturally make you want to see the bluff painting of this scary, scaly monster for yourself. Take a short drive up the River Road past the grain elevators for a look.

Is it time for a drink yet? If not, drive up State Street to the Christian Hill Historic District and check out some haunted houses. You did know Alton is one of the most haunted towns in America, didn't you? The Alton Visitor Center (200 Piasa Street; 618-465-6676 or has maps galore, one of which gives directions to all the best-known area ghost hangouts.

Now it really is time for that drink! Bossanova (112 West Third Street; 618-462-1175 or is the place to go for this, with its secret agent-inspired martinis and large selection of beers. The atmosphere is glossy but relaxed, and there's an RFT award-winning painting of a naked lady behind the bar. If you're in the mood for casual dining, this can be your last stop. The salads are fresh and well-made, and the Ligurian pizzette — topped with shrimp, sun-dried tomatoes, walnuts, pesto and feta — is a fantastic customer favorite.

If you'd like to end the day with a fancier meal, head over to Gentelin's on Broadway (122 East Broadway; 618-465-6080 or The view of the Clark Bridge is dramatic; the food, inventive and delectable; the service, attentive and friendly.

Finally! You can go to Fast Eddie's Bon Air for a nightcap now. Just be aware that a cab ride back to St. Louis can get pricey. Better hope your designated driver is still standing.
— Suzy Rust

St. Charles
Of course you've heard of New Town at St. Charles — the pristine planned community of perfect new suburban homes and businesses, meant to look just like Main Street U.S.A. But if you're looking for a place that's actually worth visiting, you probably want to head to Old Town St. Charles, which features an actual historic Main Street built on the same brick roads used by pioneers in the nineteenth century.

The shops are a bit different today, but the old buildings still remain. Thanks to its rich history and picturesque scenery, Main Street is ideal for a day of shopping, dining and strolling down the brick streets or along the river. It's hard to go more than ten feet on Main Street without passing a unique novelty shop selling knickknacks, clothing, jewelry or snacks — and you've got ten whole blocks to explore.

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