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.

Best Things to Do In St. Louis

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