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40 Marvels That Will Restore Your Faith in St. Louis 

click to enlarge Grand Boulevard and Washington Avenue: a sign of progress.

KELLY GLUECK

Grand Boulevard and Washington Avenue: a sign of progress.

If our four decades in St. Louis have taught us anything, it's to seize hold of the sublime. Whether it's pausing to marvel at a gorgeous sunset, reveling at a killer street party or splurging on an unforgettable night out, we've learned to seek out reasons to fall in love with St. Louis all over again. Whether you're a newcomer looking for the Gateway City's peak experiences or an old-timer who just needs a reminder about what drew you in, this list of 40 things to see, eat, hear, do and savor should keep you busy — and marveling at the city's bounty.

Best Sign of Progress

Grand Boulevard and Washington Avenue

www.grandcenter.org

Standing at the intersection of Grand Boulevard and Washington Avenue after the symphony on a Friday night used to be rather depressing. Maybe there were happy patrons streaming out of the Fox down the block, but you mostly saw empty buildings and shuttered theaters in the glow of the Third Street Baptist Church's neon sign. Thanks to the pioneering spirit of several local theater companies — and especially the financial backing of the Kranzbergs — that same vantage point is now smack-dab in the center of a thriving arts district. There are people heading to see plays, art lovers heading toward the Contemporary and the Pulitzer, the cabaret crowd, and, for once a month in the summer, circusgoers. It's incredible to think about the growth Grand Center has seen in the past decade and inspiring to realize it was driven by the power of Art — not a sports stadium, not a shopping mall, but Art. — Paul Friswold

Best Place to Reach for the Stars

Compton Hill Water Tower

1700 South Grand Boulevard, 314-552-9000

The St. Louis city skyline is a thing of beauty on its own, but when a full moon is added into the mix, it's really worth taking a look. The best place to do that is at the observation deck atop the Compton Hill Water Tower, a beguiling structure in Compton Hill Reservoir Park at Grand and Russell boulevards. Harvey Ellis (who's also responsible for St. Louis City Hall) designed the 179-foot tower in 1897. The tower functioned to regulate water pressure for city homes, absorbing surges from reciprocating water pipes. It was retired from that line of work in 1929, but the city water division used it to support its dispatch antennae until 1984. It sat vacant and closed up until 1995, when the city contemplated demolishing it, but neighbors raised $19 million for restoration, leading to its reopening in 1999. The Compton Hill Water Tower and Park Preservation Society opens the observation deck afternoons on selected Saturdays and at night for full moons. Check its Facebook page, www.facebook.com/comptonhilltower, before you go. Your $5 admission fee supports the society's upkeep of both tower and park. —Melissa Meinzer

click to enlarge CityGarden. - FLICKR/MITCH BENNETT

Best Place to Believe in St. Louis Again

Citygarden

801 Market Street, 314-241-3337

Oh, sure, there are great swimming pools accessible to the public across the metro area. But to our mind, on a blistering day, there's no better spot to see rich and poor, black and white come together than the wading pool and splash pad at Citygarden. There's no entry fee and no metal detector at this privately maintained, publicly accessible park, no one asking for your membership card or where you went to high school. Instead, there are kids, whooping and hollering and enjoying the great outdoors with the sort of excitement that baby boomers swear has entirely disappeared from America. It's seriously one of the only places you can go in the entire country where people are busier having fun than recording it on their smartphones. (Maybe it's the proximity to all that splashing — too dangerous for our expensive devices?) Citygarden has thrived in its downtown home for eight years now, but this year was still a notably good one — after much trial and error and a few good concepts that simply didn't fit the space and/or the garden's patrons, the gorgeous glassed-in restaurant overlooking the site finally got a tenant that makes perfect sense. Kaldi's at Citygarden is uniquely equipped to feed all those engaged parents and their soaking-wet offspring, giving everyone an excuse to sit down, fuel up and recharge their batteries for yet more fun. What could be better? –Sarah Fenske

Best Art Walk

First Fridays in Old North

In the city's Old North neighborhood, First Fridays are unlike any other Friday of the month. On North 14th Street, visitors will find art galleries UrbArts, the Gallery and 14th Street Artists Community showcasing new exhibits, music performed by blues and jazz artists and DJs, and culture enthusiasts eagerly checking out all of the above. Hungry? The strip is home to verified St. Louis treasure Crown Candy Kitchen, which stays open every Friday until 9 p.m. Grab a sandwich or some ice cream with licorice on the side and head to the nonprofit print shop and community space Central Print. There you will find activities where guests are encouraged to create original compositions, including personalized notebooks, postcards and greeting cards, as well as bookmarks made with wooden type on a printing press. La Mancha Coffeehouse also stays open until 8 p.m. on Fridays and offers burgers, wraps, sandwiches and quesadillas. The party is a great time to connect with artists of color who live in and around the city — and visit some great local businesses too. —Taylor Vinson

The Soulard Blues Band. - KELLY GLUECK
  • KELLY GLUECK
  • The Soulard Blues Band.

Best Residency

Soulard Blues Band at Broadway Oyster Bar

736 South Broadway, 314-621-8811

The Soulard Blues Band's weekly show at the Broadway Oyster Bar is billed as "the longest running blues jam session in the nation." That's not without merit — the band has had a standing gig at the downtown blues bar since 1978, closing in on four decades — though it is certainly hard to verify whether that's indeed long enough to claim the No. 1 slot. Even the band's sole founding member, Art Dwyer, isn't sure. "I don't know if it's true or not," he told the Ste. Genevieve Herald in June. "We've been doing it. People come up and tell me things about it that I don't remember." In a town overflowing with blues talent that spills out onto concert calendars with remarkable frequency, the Soulard Blues Band stands apart. Musicians who have passed through its ranks have gone on to fill the lineups of innumerable acts around town over the years, making the band a sort of proving ground in the local blues world. And there's just something remarkable about watching the band perform the blues, a form of music inextricably tied to St. Louis, at a downtown bar while surrounded by like-minded music fans. It is a living history you can take part in on a whim — each and every Monday night. —Daniel Hill

Best Citywide Party

The Gateway Cup

www.gatewaycup.com

Undoubtedly, the people who are really, really into bicycles could rattle off chapter and verse about why the Gateway Cup is significant for cycling. The event, which launched in 1985, is part of the USA Cycling Pro Road Tour, with four separate race courses sanctioned by the Union Cycliste Internationale. For non-cyclists, though, that's the boring stuff. What isn't boring are the races themselves — and the party they create. By racing through the city streets in four gorgeous St. Louis neighborhoods (Lafayette Square, Benton Park, the Hill and Francis Park), the races bring in fans, support staff and onlookers who patronize local businesses and swell to create a street party lasting all day (or, in the case of Lafayette Square, well into the night). Yeah, it's vaguely inconvenient if you live along the route, but you won't hear a word of complaint from anyone who's not a complete asshole. It's not only that the race organizers do an amazing job of restoring the neighborhoods overnight to pristine condition (although that goes a long way with residents). It's the sheer thrill of watching dozens of cyclists round hairpin turns, sending an audible "whoosh" through the crowds and a sudden, sharp gust of wind through the muggy air. You don't have to know a thing about cycling to find these races a blast — and you don't have to live in the neighborhoods that host them to join in the party. Grab a beer and start cheering. —Sarah Fenske

click to enlarge Murals on Page Boulevard. - SARA BANNOURA
  • SARA BANNOURA
  • Murals on Page Boulevard.

Best Beautification Effort

Murals on Page Boulevard between Kingshighway and Union boulevards

Find a dose of St. Louis pride in an unexpected location — boarded-up doors and windows of blighted buildings along Page Boulevard. In general, downtrodden old homes don't inspire. But on these, you can see murals by local artist Christopher Green, commissioned by nonprofit Better Family Life. Beyond just beautifying the old buildings and jazzing up the plywood, the murals give hope and show that greatness can arise from anywhere. Martin Luther Mathews, depicted in one of the portraits, co-founded the Mathews-Dickey Boys' & Girls' Club with the late Hubert "Dickey" Ballentine in 1960, when the two men, then coaching neighborhood baseball teams, wondered how to instill values in the kids they saw. Since its inception, millions of St. Louis kids and teenagers have benefited from the club's athletics, education and professional development. Another mural shows East St. Louis native Jackie Joyner-Kersee, grinning over a shoulder with her half-dozen Olympic medals tossed across it. Talk about inspirational. —Melissa Meinzer

Best Weekend Trip

Popeye Picnic

www.popeyepicnic.com

In St. Louis, we recognize achievements through fairly traditional means — a company award, a networking dinner, maybe even a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame if you're a really big deal or play sportzpuckball. But 90 minutes away, Chester, Illinois, puts the Gateway City to shame when it comes to honoring one of its own. Here, a polite golf clap simply won't do — not for Popeye the Sailor Man. Every year as tribute to the spinach-eating comic-strip character conceived by Chester-born E.C. Segar, residents shut down State Street for a weekend-long festival that's heavy on kitsch, nostalgia and fun. Naturally, there's a huge parade full of homemade floats, high school marching bands and roving Popeye characters running from the high school to the courthouse, but the Popeye Picnic offers even more opportunities to celebrate the town's favorite character. Run a 5K. Watch classic cartoons on inflatable screens. Hit up the Popeye museum memorably named Spinach Can Collectibles. Satiate that fair-food craving with greasy french fries and candy apples. Snuggle with your baby on carnival rides. Take in a magic show. Check out the wiener dog races. And if that's not enough, you can always explore the Popeye Character Trail, which starts with a giant Popeye statue near the Mississippi River in Segar Park and wanders throughout town to include love interest Olive Oyl, hamburger mooch Wimpy, villain Bluto and more, with additional statues unveiled every year during the Popeye Picnic. Join thousands of fans the weekend after Labor Day, and stay until you echo Chester's favorite son by saying, "That's all I can stands; I can't stands no more." Until next September, that is. —Allison Babka

The Silverleaf Lounge. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • The Silverleaf Lounge.

Best Way to Feel Like a Baller

Buy a Round for the Bar at the Silverleaf Lounge

3442 Hereford Street, 314-481-4080

Depending on the time of day and size of crowd, you can probably pull this off for $50 or less. The Silverleaf is, after all, a tiny place. Hidden away on a mile-long side street in Northampton, the nearly perfect south-city bar has been slinging drinks inside a space about the size of your living room since before Prohibition. (Note the wooden coolers.) The close quarters almost guarantee you'll find yourself chatting away with the regulars by your second beer. This is the time to spring for a round. Tell the bartender your new friends have a drink coming on you, pause a moment to glance over the crowd of off-duty firefighters and neighborhood walk-ins and then correct yourself — you'd like to buy a round for the entire bar. The low prices will make it an affordable extravagance but still a notable gesture. Maybe it's not popping bottles in the Champagne Room, but treating the working man in one of the city's greatest dive bars has got to be worth more for your soul. —Doyle Murphy

Best Escape from the City

River Scene Trail in Castlewood State Park

1401 Kiefer Creek Road, Ballwin; 636-227-4433

Take a hike. Get out. Leave. We love the city, but sometimes the city doesn't love us back. For those moments, there is the River Scene Trail. The wooded escape is less than 40 minutes away in Castlewood State Park. The trail is a 3.25-mile loop that has a little of everything. The first portion has a quick climb to the top of a bluff that offers picture-worthy views of the Meramec River Valley below. Descend through the trees on a wooden staircase and cross under a railroad trestle through a short tunnel. You'll pop out the other side and find yourself at the river's edge within seconds. From here, it's a flat, shady stroll along the water, giving you plenty of time to catch your breath from your earlier climb. You'll pass the old foundations from the area's previous life as a resort destination in the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually, the trail takes you back toward the parking area, leaving just a short walk to the car. You can easily do it all in a morning and make it back to the city in time for lunch. —Doyle Murphy

Turn the page for more marvels, including our best celestial event.
click to enlarge David Robertson. - COURTESY OF ST. LOUIS SYMPHONY
  • COURTESY OF ST. LOUIS SYMPHONY
  • David Robertson.

Best Victory Lap

David Robertson, St. Louis Symphony

The 2017-2018 season marks the end of David Robertson's thirteen-year tenure leading the St. Louis Symphony. Robertson arrived in 2005, shortly after a contentious labor dispute between the musicians and management; at its lowest ebb, Powell Hall's doors were locked against the musicians. With his ready smile and a drive to restore lost glory, Robertson helped lead the symphony out of those dark days. Since his arrival there has been labor peace for the musicians and a return to prominence for the mighty orchestra, with well-received trips to New York, California and Europe. Robertson and Co. won a Grammy for their recording of John Adams' City Noir (the symphony's first such win since 1991) and expanded their fan base locally with exceptionally popular New Year's Eve "surprise shows" and low-cost concerts of new and experimental music at the Pulitzer. David Robertson leaves the symphony healthier, more respected and better equipped for the future. —Paul Friswold

Best Celestial Event

The Great American Eclipse

We are the most modern people who have ever lived. We knew well in advance that there would be a total solar eclipse this summer. We had seen the computer models and maps and the animated predictions of what it would look like at near-totality, and we understood the forces that were at work high above Earth as the clock ticked down to 1:17 p.m. on Monday, August 21, 2017. And yet, there was something unnerving about the encroaching darkness as the moon covered more and more of the sun. At the moment when St. Louis went utterly dark and all the streetlights came on, there was no technological device that could calm the queasy flutter in your stomach. Some things are simply bigger than us, no two ways about it. Watching the sky go out and then slowly come back on was an excellent reminder that in the grand scheme of things, CGI models and maps aren't the same as seeing it for yourself. If it gets just one of you to stop trying to capture every moment of your life in your phone's screen, it is a lesson well learned. —Paul Friswold

Mayor Lyda Krewson. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Mayor Lyda Krewson.

Best Glass-Break

Lyda Krewson

Five months after Hillary Clinton's dreams of the presidency ended in a shocking upset, St. Louis elected as mayor a candidate who had many, many things in common with the 2016 Democratic Party standard-bearer. It wasn't just that Lyda Krewson was a pragmatist in a race that had attracted some progressive candidates, or that she was the darling of the donor class, easily outraising what began as a roster of many, many opponents. It was also that she was a woman. To which you might say, "Duh" — but not so fast. While Krewson didn't run explicitly as a female candidate, wisely eschewing a strategy that touted the virtues of her gender, that she broke the glass ceiling in this old boy's club of a city was in fact remarkable. And her achievement was, if anything, made even more remarkable in that the candidate who finished second, city Treasurer Tishaura Jones, is also female. Men have run this city for centuries — and clearly, St. Louis was ready for change. Here's to the smart, hard-working woman who proved it could be done — and here, too, is to the prospect of many more women on top in years to come.  –Sarah Fenske

Best Place to Hear a Ghost Story

Missouri State Penitentiary

115 Lafayette Street, Jefferson City; 866-998-6998

Movies like Jailhouse Rock and The Shawshank Redemption provide a romanticized notion of what it means to be locked up, but let's be real — life in the "A" block is no treat. But for those who insist on faux cell time, might we suggest a trip to the Missouri State Penitentiary? Built in the 1830s when Missouri was still a relatively new state, the maximum security prison eventually became one of the largest in the country. Notable inmates include bank robber Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd, anti-war activist Kate Richards O'Hare and James Earl Ray, who escaped and later assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. All of that history and more comes to life during the Pen's smorgasbord of tours, which generally run two to three hours and may be led by a former inmate or a knowledgeable narrative guide. We know these walls can talk, though, so we'd rather put our money on the offerings focused on paranormal experiences. Learn about the unusual occurrences that have spooked the Pen's guards or try to find Casper himself during evening sessions and even overnight ghost-hunting investigations. Camping out in the penitentiary during the witching hour will only set you back $100, and you'll have plenty of wow-inducing stories about the now-closed institution that used to be the oldest operating penal facility west of the Mississippi River. — Allison Babka

click to enlarge Off Broadway. - NATE BURRELL
  • NATE BURRELL
  • Off Broadway.

Best Front-Row Seats

Off Broadway

3509 Lemp Avenue, 314-498-6989

One of the many amazing things about Off Broadway is how easy it is to get the VIP experience. Because the tickets at the smallish music venue south of Cherokee are usually general admission, you just need to arrive reasonably on time, walk up to the stage and stand there until the show starts. That's it. This isn't advanced game theory here. You can even grab a tallboy and still have time to find a spot close enough to read the set list lying at the bass guitarist's feet. This feat is possible because most of the crowd lingers away from the stage until the last moment. There is an outdoor bar, and the patio feels so much like a backyard get-together that people like to just hang out. Off Broadway is a casual place, so that's understandable, but it also provides an opening for the more ambitious. All you need to do is beat them inside by a few minutes, and you'll find yourself with your knees pressed against the stage when the action begins. If you're the pushy type, you don't even have to get there early. Just wriggle through the crowd of polite Midwesterners and claim your place. —Doyle Murphy

Best Way to Get High

Gateway Arch Helicopter Tours

Riverfront at 50 South Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard, 314-496-4494

It's no secret that construction surrounding the St. Louis Arch has put a damper on tourist-like activities downtown in the last couple of years. But the Gateway Arch Helicopter Tours are bringing the beautiful sites of St. Louis back to tourists and natives alike. The tours are located on the downtown riverfront, where construction finished last summer. Thrill-seekers can enjoy the bird's-eye view of countless St. Louis attractions on one of four tours: the Riverfront Tour ($37 per person), the Anheuser Busch Tour ($63 per person), the Botanical Garden Tour ($105 per person) and the Deluxe Tour, which visits these sites along with Forest Park, the City Museum and more ($150 per person). The actual flight times vary per tour from as short as two minutes to as long as twenty minutes. The operation runs first-come, first-served and does not take reservations. There are two different helicopters — one seats between two and four passengers and the other seats two or three passengers. Because, well, they want the helicopter to stay airborne, there are some weight restrictions, so inquire ahead of time if you're on the bigger side. The establishment, which accepts cash and credit, is open from April through November every day from 11 a.m. until sunset. — Sabrina Medler

Best Celebration of Art

Vibes Grand Arts Event

@VIBESSTL

Vibes highlights local musicians, visual artists, fashion designers, chefs and more at its yearly "Grand Arts Event" in St. Louis. At Vibes, you can catch rising stars like Smino Brown and Bloom perform before they make it to the big stage, as well as check out the work of up-and-coming visual artists. The event began at Cherokee Street's Blank Space in 2012 and has been growing ever since. This year, for the first time, it was split into two separate days in different locations, promoting visual artists, merchants and chefs on one day and musicians on the second. Vibes is always packed and sells out quickly (one year, the event was "over-capacity after 45 minutes," notes organizer Sierra Brown), so repeat customers know to secure their tickets in advance. And families are always welcome, but after 9 p.m., the crowd's energy swells; you'll want to put the kids to bed and prepare for a good time. All art on display at Vibes is available for purchase, making it a great way to support local artists and get some new decorations for your wall too. —Taylor Vinson

Fatal Bus Accident. - JESSICA DONAHOE
  • JESSICA DONAHOE
  • Fatal Bus Accident.

Best Way to Laugh 'Til Your Face Hurts

Fatal Bus Accident at the Improv Shop

3960 Chouteau Avenue, 314-652-2200

It takes guts to helm a live comedy show with a name evoking vehicular manslaughter. For nearly two years, though, Fatal Bus Accident and its four principal performers have demonstrated why the production is beloved within the St. Louis comedy scene, and especially by the core group of faithful fans who watched the show develop in its former home at the Heavy Anchor. Loosely framed as a "live talk show," Fatal Bus Accident serves as a crucible for the combined wits of comedians Stryker Spurlock, Amy Milton, Jeremy Hellwig and Jon Venegoni. At the height of the show's prowess — which it reaches with a remarkable consistency — the combination of lightning-quick jokes and plot twists means the audience can hardly process one absurd premise before another comes charging in from stage-right, possibly in the form of a person dressed up as bald eagle trying to eat Milton's liver or as a figure draped in green fabric who hops around and answers to the name "Portmantoad." Nothing is as it seems. Along with a supporting cast of some of St. Louis' best standup comics, Fatal Bus Accident incorporates video skits, show-specific zines and a love affair with time travel that goes much deeper than tired bits about becoming your own grandparent. With a recent move to the Improv Shop, Fatal Bus Accident aims to continue refining its strange comedy chemistry, brewing a show that is uniquely weird and weirdly wonderful. (Or as the Portmantoad would say, "weirderful.") —Danny Wicentowski

Best Tribute Concert Experience

An Under Cover Weekend

www.undercoverweekend.com

If there's one thing St. Louisans like — nay, love — it is tribute acts. There is a reason El Monstero, the city's premier Pink Floyd impersonators, are able to sell out the Pageant for a weeklong stretch every December. We also are home to Celebration Day (a tribute to Led Zeppelin), Grand Allusion (a tribute to Styx) and Shakey Deal (a tribute to Neil Young). We even have three separate tribute acts in town devoted solely to the Grateful Dead. Some of this can be chalked up to our location squarely in the midst of KSHE Country, but not all of it. For the last eleven years An Under Cover Weekend has found success painting outside of the lines of the classic rock set — and, in fact, expressly set the bar outside of that genre for its latest go-around. This year's iteration took place for the first time at Delmar Hall after years at the Firebird, with local acts tackling tributes to musicians spanning three decades of music: Night one was '80s night (Theresa Payne as Chaka Khan, Too Deep as Madonna); night two took us to the '90s (Blank Generation as OutKast, Fivefold as Third Eye Blind); and night three pushed into the '00s (the Fade as Justin Timberlake, Aida Ade as Erykah Badu). Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, it's the best tribute experience in town each and every year. And that's even with plenty of competition. —Daniel Hill

Best St. Louis Story

Christopher Parrish

www.facebook.com/CParrishMusic/

A couple of years back, a young piano player from New York moved to St. Louis. Ethan Leinwand quickly found work, bands and creative opportunities. When Christopher Parrish, a piano man with similar, but not identical, interests in early twentieth-century music moved here earlier this summer, he found a kindred, welcoming spirit in Leinwand. But Leinwand is just one of many contacts that have encouraged Parrish, who's comfortable in jazz, swing, ragtime, stride piano and the blues. "I make a new friend every day," says Parrish, 32, who's as enthusiastic as he is dapper. "I make a new connection every day. Originally, I thought I'd move here and have to find a job delivering pizzas or washing dishes. But I haven't had to. I am shocked by the amount of support, generosity and graciousness of the people here. I really couldn't be any happier." An occasional player with Annie & the Fur Trappers, Parrish has also started a new group with TJ Muller and Jon Weiss, the St. Louis Ticklers, which has already found gigs. Again crediting the town's positive vibe, he says, "Everyone's been very supportive, especially given the style of music that I play. There's a terrific, burgeoning music scene here. There're no half-measures taken here, musically. Things are being done at a high level and I enjoy that." Though he's moved to town in advance of his wife, their temporary separation came with the idea of settling into a real community here; one with deep musical roots. "From a historical standpoint, St. Louis has always been a great city for music," Parrish says. "It was, and still is, an incubator for ragtime and of piano and vocal blues. Debatably the incubator." And, it appears, a place for new musicians to ply their trade in some of the oldest traditions we know. —Thomas Crone

Turn the page for more marvels, including our best private entrance.
click to enlarge The World Naked Bike Ride. - SARA BANNOURA
  • SARA BANNOURA
  • The World Naked Bike Ride.

Best Joyride

The World Naked Bike Ride

You don't need to be literally naked to participate in the St. Louis World Naked Bike Ride, but there's no reason for false modesty. Even if you decided to wear a thick parka — and you really shouldn't, considering this is a summertime event — it would take just a single glance over your handlebars to see the glittery blur of nipples, flanks and butts pedaling against the evening sky. Still going strong after a decade in St. Louis, the ride attracted around 2,000 riders to its 2017 celebration of bikes and bodies, and each participant followed the "Bare as you dare" slogan however they saw fit. You're just as likely to see painted slogans opposing the fossil fuel industry as bodies painted to look like Game of Thrones characters. At its heart, though, is the ride itself: a dozen or so miles on a circuit that starts at the Grove and winds its way downtown before returning to the starting line. It's not a race or a parade, although thousands of spectators gather along the route to cheer and take pictures, and police officers temporarily halt traffic to allow the riders to pedal safely along downtown's busy streets. Amid the vulnerability, the thrill of exposure, is the sense of being part of something bigger, stranger and more daring than any halftime streaker's mad dash to the 50-yard line. Such is the glorious paradox of the ride, a straddling of the mainstream and taboo that's best experienced perched on a bike seat, face to the wind, feeling comfortable and triumphant in your own skin. —Danny Wicentowski

Best History Trip

Hidden History of Downtown St. Louis

Many books have been written about St. Louis, but few are as full of peculiar facts and revelations as Maureen O'Connor Kavanaugh's Hidden History of Downtown St. Louis. The slim volume charts the growth of the city from its days as a suburb of the great Mississippian culture centered in Cahokia, Illinois, up through the twentieth century. Kavanaugh digs into the city's single Revolutionary War battle (spoiler alert: St. Louis owes its existence to Spanish soldiers, black people and a bunch of French farmers) to the rich culture that sprang Athena-like from the river trade. Many locals know that the murder ballads "Stagger Lee" and "Frankie and Johnny" were based on events that happened in St. Louis, but Kavanaugh digs deeper, discovering the name of the street singer who most likely wrote both songs. (Did you know St. Louis had street singers prowling the wards 100 years ago?) From the creation of ragtime by Tom Turpin in 1897 to the working days of young Thomas Lanier Williams III (later known as "Tennessee"), St. Louis has been home to artists, writers, poets and, at one point, three professional baseball teams. Kavanaugh shows us a St. Louis that has been grander, more inclusive and stranger than you've ever imagined. — Paul Friswold

Best Private Entrance

Club Seats at the Fox Theatre

527 North Grand Boulevard, 314-534-1111

Being a baller in this town doesn't require the Busch family pedigree or a connection to the Veiled Prophet organization (ugh). Really, all you need is a friend with membership in the Fox Club. The incredible box seats on this tucked-away level at the ever-fabulous Fox Theatre don't just offer comfortable chairs and a table to set your drink (or food — your server is more than happy to bring you both). They also offer private parking right next to the theater and, yes, a private hallway to whisk you from the gated lot straight into your luxury box. Walking down these lushly appointed halls, you can't help but think this is how old money St. Louis lives. Who needs a Hummer when you have an entrance all your own? But don't even think about saving up for this luxury. It's not just that season tickets start at (gulp) $34,150 for a four-seat box. There's also a waiting list. —Sarah Fenske

The Greek Festival at St. Nicholas. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • STEVE TRUESDELL
  • The Greek Festival at St. Nicholas.

Best Food Adventure

St. Louis Greek Festival

www.opastl.com

St. Louis isn't hurting for tasty Greek cuisine — you can find excellent gyros and saganaki at any number of sit-down restaurants and food trucks — but the St. Louis Greek Festival in the Central West End is a special treat no matter how much moussaka you've downed recently. Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2017, the Labor Day Weekend tradition offers cheap eats and plenty of entertainment. Inside St. Nicholas, parishioners bake and serve classic Greek dishes such as spanakopita, shish kabob and pastitsio, and their box of assorted pastries comes with the sweetest, most authentic baklava this side of Mykonos. Feast on the deliciousness while watching Greek folk dancers in the historic church's auditorium, or head outside to the taverna to grab a few bottles of Zeos beer and listen to musicians play songs from the homeland. There's a lot to take in, and first-timers may become a bit overwhelmed by the hubbub, so map out your strategy ahead of time online. Best advice of all might be to plan to visit this essential St. Louis festival more than once during the weekend; we guarantee that no two experiences will be exactly alike. For the love of Zeus, hundreds of thousands of revelers over an entire century can't be wrong. Opa! —Allison Babka

Best Staycation

Chase Park Plaza

212 North Kingshighway, 314-633-3000

The staycation is a growing trend for road-weary travelers, for obvious reasons. It offers all the upside of the traditional vacation — the day drinking, the temporary resignation of responsibilities — without the inescapable downsides (the hassle of airports, the expense of rental cars and all that wasted time in transit). And that means there's no good reason to let your out-of-town relatives hog all the fun; you too can spend a blissful weekend at the Chase Park Plaza. It's the perfect place to get away in St. Louis without having to actually leave town. The classic hotel has the feel of high-end historic hotels in Chicago and New York, only without the hit to your bank account. The 1920s Art Deco architecture will make you want to head straight to the bar for a gin rickey before doing the Charleston with the nearest dame, while the pool outside features a poolside bar and plenty of deck chairs and cozy cabanas. Or maybe see a movie: The Chase is home to a five-screen theater that features current films at great prices. Evenings at the Chase, too, are rich with possibility. Want to stay in for dinner? Choose between the Preston, which takes a "food is art" approach to small, thoughtful plates; the Chase Club, which offers more casual pub fare; and the Tenderloin Room, which has been serving up fine cuts since the 1960s. Heading out for the evening can mean a short walk to countless options around the Central West End. It's a fun experience to see St. Louis through the eyes of a tourist, walking the streets and wandering into places you've previously only driven past. And at the end of your adventure, you need only stumble a few blocks to make it back to your room, where you can rest easy knowing that tomorrow morning, the pool will be there waiting for you. —Jered Schneider

Vicia. - MABEL SUEN
  • MABEL SUEN
  • Vicia.

Best Place to Eat Like a Californian

Vicia

4260 Forest Park Avenue, 314-553-9239

For more than 100 years, St. Louis has been a meat and potatoes town, and while the city's culinary landscape is changing rapidly, old habits die hard — which may be one reason Vicia found itself facing a mini-tempest this summer. The editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Tod Robberson, wrote an entire column denouncing the acclaimed Cortex district restaurant by suggesting it exemplified everything wrong with modern liberals: "This place (along with the entire culture that supports it) is trying way too hard." Never mind that owners Michael and Tara Gallina have done nothing overtly political since moving to town a few years ago. To the old fogeys that live by (and grow flabby on) the city's notoriously generous portions of dead animals, the Gallinas' "vegetable-forward" cuisine was an affront, a situation that didn't need to be avoided so much as stopped in its tracks. Still, once you get past the clumsy way Robberson tried to build his argument, the attempted takedown was actually hugely flattering — what restaurant is so revolutionary that it requires the full power of the Paper of Record's editorial pages? Vicia is a game-changer, and for anyone who cares about food, that's a wonderful thing. For too long, many St. Louis restaurants used big portions to make up for a certain carelessness about freshness and flavor. The Gallinas, with their thoughtful attention to every last detail in carefully harvested fruits and vegetables, are changing that. Their tasting menu stands alone in town as a culinary experience that will change the way you think about food — and, perhaps, the status quo that so heavily relies on carcasses as a source of nutrition. No wonder Robberson felt threatened. And if you're looking for a more insightful take on the Vicia experience, you might turn to the Post-Dispatch's actual food critic: He calls the tasting menu "transcendent." –Sarah Fenske

Best Way to Feel Like a Champion

Rooting for the St. Louis SLAM

Don't let anyone tell you there's something dishonorable about jumping on a winning team's bandwagon. What do you think happened in St. Louis after the Rams' Super Bowl-winning season in 2000, huh? Under the radar, however, those halcyon days have been replicated — and arguably exceeded — by the St. Louis SLAM, the reigning, back-to-back champions of the Women's Football Alliance and the region's only all-women, full-contact football team. Having won the WFA Division II championship in 2016, the SLAM defended its title in June, burying the Tampa Bay Inferno 42-15 and starting a bona fide dynasty in the process. Come springtime, the season will offer the opportunity for the roster of 40 or so players to chase their championship dreams anew. And this is a home team worth rooting for: because putting your butt in the bleachers and watching live football is a particularly American joy; because the fans to your left and right are likely cheering for sisters, mothers, daughters and partners; and because no one is paid, and therefore each run, hit, jump and block is executed by a woman who refuses to let the pain of the last play put her on the bench for the next one. So root, root, root for the home team. Let the energy lift you off your seat. Yell 'til your lungs give out. That's the feeling that championships are made of. —Danny Wicentowski

click to enlarge St. Louis Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. - RON JAMES
  • RON JAMES
  • St. Louis Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.

Best Civic Obsession

William Shakespeare

1564-1616

As far as the RFT can determine, William Shakespeare never made it to St. Louis during his lifetime (if you know otherwise, please send a telegram). No matter — St. Louis has taken in the Bard as an honorary son. Each new year brings with it more opportunities to see his plays presented in theaters, in parks and in the streets. We have one theater company devoted to his works (St. Louis Shakespeare). We have Shakespeare Festival St. Louis in Forest Park in the summer, as well as an autumn sub-festival that features a recast and modified Shakespeare play performed by actors and citizens together in a different neighborhood every year (Shakespeare in the Streets). His dramas show up regularly in the schedules of various theater companies around town (Repertory Theatre Saint Louis puts on its first-ever production of Hamlet in a little under two weeks). In the week leading up to Big Bill's birthday (April 23), various groups team up to present all 38 of his plays in whole or in part at unusual locations (Shake-38), and the whole thing is capped off by the laying of a wreath at the base of his bust in Tower Grove Park on the day of his death (also April 23). Technically, William Shakespeare is dead and buried. But in St. Louis, William Shakespeare lives a pretty great life. —Paul Friswold

Best Source of Inspiration

TEDxStLouisWomen

www.tedxstlouis.com

"Inspirational" conferences are a dime a dozen, and they're often pretty darn bad — especially when they're geared toward women. PowerPoint presentations riddled with mind-numbing platitudes? Speakers who insist that you can "have it all" if you just "lean in" and "believe in your dreams?" Yeah, no. You keep that swag bag full of nail files and fruity lip balm; we're good. TEDxStLouisWomen is different. A local offshoot of TED talks, TEDxStLouisWomen gathers national and regional women with diverse experiences who have succeeded, failed and everything in between to help participants recognize and overcome obstacles. During the one-day conference, these women get you to think about your ideas, business and life, but you won't find any of the typical faux-cheerleader stuff here. And why would you expect to, when Tabatha Coffey is one of this year's keynote speakers? A noted business owner, editorial hairstylist and author, Coffey became known for her no-holds-barred coaching style on Bravo's Tabatha Takes Over. She promises to bring the same fire to TEDxStLouisWomen, scheduled for November 2, at Peabody Opera House. With Coffey, Jessica Bryndza of Uber, Dr. Toniya Singh of St. Louis Heart & Vascular, Crystal Martin of LaunchCode's CoderGirl program and other kick-ass women, TEDxStLouisWomen is more about substance and less about the trite "wisdom" taking over your Instagram feed. —Allison Babka

Best Place to Experiment

St. Louis Theater Scene

St. Louis punches above its weight when it comes to theater. We have more companies than comparably sized cities, and we also have a greater variety of shows. What has been lacking in recent years are experimental shows — but even that problem has slowly worked itself out in the wake of the St. Louis Fringe Festival's 2012 debut. A handful of avant garde companies have sprouted up, scratching the itch of those who crave non-linear plots, silent productions and interesting, atypical ideas of what a play is. TheatreLab, ERA, Theatre Nuevo, Prime and YoungLiars have all mounted shows that challenge audiences and provoke thought and argument. Not all of them will be to your liking — but neither will some of the more conventional shows produced in town. The young artists powering these new companies are willing to expend the time, talent and money to stage a work exploring the concept of Hell, or a series of short plays about conspiracies, or even a fractured recreation of a Greek tragedy because they believe there's an audience for it — and there is. At long last, there really is. —Paul Friswold

Turn the page for more marvels, including the best place to drink like a beer baron.
Das Bevo. - MABEL SUEN
  • MABEL SUEN
  • Das Bevo.

Best Place to Drink Like a Beer Baron

Das Bevo

4749 Gravois Avenue, 314-832-2251

To imbibe aristocratically takes more than just a dinner jacket or a dainty pinkie extended from a tea cup. In St. Louis, where a German immigrant beer-brewing heritage still holds meaning, one should ideally locate the windmill now dubbed Das Bevo and its grand, chandelier-lit hall of dark wood. Built in 1916 by August Busch Sr., the south-city landmark has been given new life by owners Pat and Carol Schuchard, who took over in 2016 and invested more than $1 million to renovate and restore the property before reopening this year. Inside, the cavernous main dining hall features a soaring ceiling, walls lined with hunting trophies and an inviting communal table that can support the steins — or if you're feeling particularly brave, ubersteins — of dozens of comrades. Outside, a biergarten offers a dog-friendly patio perfect for a snack of pretzels and sausages. Between bites and draughts, take a moment to marvel that Busch's windmill still turns. The era that birthed this eccentric heirloom may have passed on, but the warmth of its old-world luxury persists, beckoning the common folk who each day pass by. At Das Bevo, every drink is a toast, every meal a banquet, each traveler a king. —Danny Wicentowski

Best New Bar

Bronson House

3201 Washington Boulevard, 314-312-3192

The best new bar to open in St. Louis this year would be an awful place to visit on one of those steamy August days when the mercury tops 100 and the humidity ups the ante to flat-out oppressive. Nor would you even want to think of stopping by come December, when sleet streaks from a white-gray sky. But on a twilight night in September? It's positively perfect. Located on the expansive back patio of the historic (and newly remodeled) Bronson House, the space boasts only a pergola over the bar for shade or cover, depending on your weather-related needs. But it also boasts incredible cocktails, courtesy of Noah Prince-Goldberg and Rob Somerscales of the Artisan Well, and a glorious ambience, with live music providing a soundtrack for the setting sun. It's magic ... especially when the weather is cooperating. —Sarah Fenske

Best Reason to Get Up Early

Sunrise at Bellerive Park

5570 South Broadway

With the exception of the Gateway Arch grounds, the city of St. Louis is home to just two public parks that abut the Mississippi River: the North Riverfront Park near the Chain of Rocks Bridge and Bellerive Park (with the adjacent Sister Marie Charles Park just below) on the bluffs above Carondelet. The latter is one the city's most unassuming jewels, a two-block-long expanse of grass, brush, pines, oaks and a wildflower garden, planted to entice the monarchs to rest a while. And you should join them, any time of day, but especially at sunrise, when the mist moves like smoke from a prairie fire over the Cahokia bluffs to the east and curls around the barges passing slow and silent downstream. Arrive at least a half-hour before dawn, find a bench up on the hill or just below the pavilion, and meditate on a low planet (if time and season align), as the sky turns from slate to peach and rose, and the waters seem as still as a winter pond. You might even climb the playground tower for a broader view. A train will signal in the distance. Radio towers will blink to the southeast. But it's all still and luminous as the sun lifts over the Illinois side. One note of gentle caution: Bellerive is an urban park, so take a friend along. They can bring the donuts and coffee. You'll have the St. Louis magic covered. —Roy Kasten

click to enlarge The Trial, another brilliant American premiere by St. Louis' premier opera company. - KEN HOWARD, OPERA THEATRE OF ST. LOUIS
  • KEN HOWARD, OPERA THEATRE OF ST. LOUIS
  • The Trial, another brilliant American premiere by St. Louis' premier opera company.

Best Reason to Get Dressed Up

Opera Theatre Of St. Louis

130 Edgar Road, Webster Road; 314-961-0644

Yeah, yeah, you've heard the rap on opera: It's for old people, it's for rich people, it's histrionic, it's boring. Never mind, because the word on the street is all wrong, especially if the opera you're talking about is being mounted by Opera Theatre of St. Louis. The area's premier opera producers (oh yes, we have more than one opera producer) smashed it out of the park last season, with spot-on takes on Madame Butterfly and The Grapes of Wrath, as well as a darkly funny/horrifying American premiere of The Trial, which brought Phillip Glass himself to the audience. But the experience isn't just for opera buffs. The company's young friends events, open to those 45 and under (opera takes an expansive view of "young"), provide a buffet dinner and outside bar before the show, a wonderful spot to meet, greet and get a Champagne buzz going before you head in. All in all, it makes for the perfect evening, rendered even more exciting in that it's one of the only places in the city where you have a great excuse to dress smart. Elegant and enriching? Not many evenings can boast that combination — and at just $49 a person for an inclusive young friends ticket, it's also a surprising bargain. All the better to buy a fabulous dress ... or maybe even some opera gloves .—Sarah Fenske

Best Newcomer

The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum

3524 Russell Boulevard, 314-282-0234

American identity is shaped by many things, and Mark Twain and baseball — two Missouri specialties — undeniably loom large among them. A small museum in south city is now helping to showcase handwritten contributions to history relating to both of those and plenty more. The St. Louis branch of the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum dates back to just 2015. David and Marsha Karpeles, California real-estate magnates with an interest in original documents, have established manuscript libraries in cities across the country, with a mission of bringing primary documents to cities whose offerings were lacking. The museums house the couple's impressive collection, which includes documents like a hand-copied (by Beethoven) version of Handel's Messiah and Einstein's notes on his theory of relativity. St. Louis became the thirteenth iteration after the Karpeles acquired the gorgeous old Third Christian Scientist building in Compton Heights. Seeing the actual history-bending pen strokes of a genius is a unique thrill — and, thanks to the Karpeles' incredible largesse, a totally free one. This summer, our branch's featured exhibition showcased works of one of Missouri's favorite sons, Mark Twain. Visitors could see his handwritten notes on a staged version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer — and a note to a woman where Twain called himself a "loser." In September, the exhibition changed over to Very Early Baseball, which includes documents from giants such as Babe Ruth. There are also two smaller, all-local companion exhibitions: one on the 1944 Streetcar Series, when the St. Louis Cardinals took on the St. Louis Browns in the World Series, and one on the city's Negro League team, the St. Louis Stars. In addition to the featured traveling exhibitions and local supplements, the museum houses the St. Louis Media History Foundation, a fascinating retrospective of the city's heritage in radio, television, print, advertising and public relations. Check out its Sports in the Media exhibition this fall after you've enjoyed Very Early Baseball. —Melissa Meinzer

click to enlarge Three Sixty. - SARA BANNOURA
  • SARA BANNOURA
  • Three Sixty.

Best Place to Look Down on Everyone Else

Three Sixty

1 South Broadway, 314-241-8439

We're not letting you in on any secret by saying that Three Sixty is amazing — it's been included in countless Best Of issues and featured on list after list of the city's hottest hot spots. But here's the thing about Three Sixty: Unlike many of the other places you might recall being wowed by back in the summer of 2011, Three Sixty's charms don't fade. Chief among them is that view — the bar soars 400 feet above the city, with a perfect angle on the action at Busch Stadium. Still, despite its lofty perch, there's nothing snobby or pretentious about the scene here. The bartenders are actually helpful, and the food remains as good as the day the place opened, if not better. To our mind, Three Sixty is yet another reminder of all St. Louis has to offer. In New York or LA, a bar like this would be infuriating: overcrowded, overpriced and overwhelming. The beautiful people would make it impossible for the rest of us to ever get a seat with a view, much less reasonably pleasant service. But here in St. Louis, 26 floors above the steaming sidewalks, you don't need a connection or a big bankroll. You just need to show up and drink it in. —Sarah Fenske

Best Lifetime Achievement

The Muny

1 Theatre Drive, 314-361-1900

The Muny has seen it all in its 99 seasons, and also outlasted it all. The theater opened in 1919 with a production of the ballad opera The Bohemian Girl, which is about a young Hapsburg noblewoman who is raised by a band of Roma travelers. The show stayed in the repertoire until 1951, when changing tastes bumped it for more modern fare, like Carousel and Annie Get Your Gun. The Muny survived the decline of the comic operetta, the staple of its first 30 years, and just kept moving forward. It has ushered in the Golden Age of Musicals and witnessed that era's eventual decline. It has outlasted two world wars and the advent of radio, TV and digital streaming. It has even weathered the rise and fall (and rise again) of St. Louis itself. Few other civic organizations can make that claim, with the notable exceptions of the St. Louis Artists' Guild and the St. Louis Cardinals, and even the Cards eventually gave in and allowed video replay. At the Muny every show is still performed live, no do overs and no nets. And that's part of its longevity. The star power featured has grown and waned over the years, but current artistic director and executive producer Mike Isaacson has restored luster to the Muny name in his short tenure. The casts are stronger, the staging is smarter and the shows continue to bring droves of St. Louisans to an outdoor theater on hot summer nights. Will season 100 be rung in with a reprise of The Bohemian Girl, just for old time's sake? Probably not. The Muny hasn't made it this far without having a very good idea just what the audience wants. —Paul Friswold

Best Shock and Awe

Two Weeks of Fireworks

Your Alley, St. Louis

The ban on fireworks has got to be the city's most-ignored law, eclipsing even prohibitions against being drunk and disorderly or driving with expired license plates. The shelling goes on for a solid two weeks around the Fourth of July. It begins with a steady increase in the firecracker pops that occur all year and descends into full-scale mayhem. By the date of the actual holiday, St. Louis is covered in a haze of smoke and smells of sulfur. It's a balance of beauty, wonder and terror as explosions light the sky in all directions and homeowners run outside to search their roofs for signs of fire. The chaos divides the city into free-wheeling bombers and conscientious objectors, who point to the annual toll of wounded humans, terrified pets and charred buildings. It's neighbor versus neighbor, but the pleas for a more sedate Independence Day prove futile every year. The nights fill with the scream of rockets and the claps of small explosives, drowning out the complaints with Black Cats and six-shot mortar shells. Those behind the annual show of force seem to feed off the criticism as they detonate untold thousands of dollars in fireworks, reload and fire again. The objectors may have the law on their side, but the bombers always win. —Doyle Murphy

click to enlarge The view from the highest tier at Confluence Tower. - FLICKR/DAVE HERHOLZ
  • FLICKR/DAVE HERHOLZ
  • The view from the highest tier at Confluence Tower.

Best Breathtaking View

Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower

435 Confluence Tower Drive, Hartford, Illinois

The drive up Illinois' Route 3 toward Alton and Grafton is just the thing on a lazy weekend afternoon, even without stopping anywhere. But if you're feeling a little more lively, a visit to the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower, which made its debut during the bicentennial celebration of the storied explorers' westward voyage, offers spectacular panoramas and plenty of scope for the imagination. Overlooking the junction of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and the place officially deemed the 1804 "point of departure" in expedition journals, it's a relatively unassuming facility compared to, say, a certain arch rising up from the opposing riverbank about fifteen miles south. But don't judge a monument by its size alone: This one gives you not one but three different birds-eye vantage points — from platforms 50, 100 and 150 feet high — to view the surrounding Mississippi River basin in all its understated yet breathtaking glory. For just $6 (and $4 for kids 12 and under), you can channel Lewis and Clark, get in touch with your own spirit of adventure and learn about life along the river for peoples present and past.—Evie Hemphill

Best Defiance of the Odds

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The RFT made it to 40 — and still doesn't care about golf. —Paul Friswold

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September 9, 2020

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