During her travels through China during World War II, war correspondent and St. Louis native Martha Gellhorn bet her then-husband, Ernest Hemingway, that a foreigner she'd spotted on a train hailed from her hometown. "I think it's a law," Gellhorn wrote in Travels With Myself and Another. "When you get to the worst farthest places, the stranger has come from St. Louis."
Being a stranger need not be such an ominous condition, and certainly not in present-day St. Louis. Maybe you're a new transplant. A tourist. A recovering hermit. Perhaps you're feeling the sudden need to get off your couch, turn off Netflix and interact with other humans. And that's OK! Don't let anyone try to convince you that St. Louis can't be friendly, or doesn't have a place for the outsider. It just takes that first step.
And we've got nineteen steps for you — suggestions for venues, events, clubs and activities that bring people together. You might find a diversion for a couple weekends, a story to tell at a bar or friends for life. What do you have to lose? You can always just head back to the couch and unpause Netflix.
1. Raise a Stein, and Your Voice, with the Beer Hall Choir
With the opening of Das Bevo, the Beer Hall Choir (www.beerchoir.com) found its perfect home beneath the soaring ceiling of the recently renovated Bevo Mill. It's not a formal choir, per se, but a monthly "social drinking experience." Just grab a beer, a songbook and a seat at one of the long communal tables; then follow along with maestro Michael Engelhardt, drinking accordingly along the way. To Engelhardt, it's not the beer, or even the music, that makes the "secret sauce" of the Beer Hall Choir so special. "It's social connection," he says. "There's just something that happens inside when you hear everybody singing together. You're part of that."
2. Get Cultured
It might not always seem that way, but St. Louis history has much more to it than Germans brewing. Starting the first Saturday in April, the St. Louis Landmark Association (www.landmarks-stl.org) operates walking tours that explore downtown's significant buildings and neighborhoods, covering not only mainstays like the Arch and Union Station, but also the little-known histories behind the Grand Center arts district and Washington Avenue — it wasn't always a street of trendy bars and restaurants, you know. If a bus tour is more your style, hop on one of the quirky tours offered by Renegade STL (renegadestl.com) and learn about the city's unexplored corners and underappreciated personalities. Rather not walk outside, ride a bus or spend any money? Then take advantage of free admission to the world-class Saint Louis Art Museum (www.slam.org) and attend a group tour or gallery talk; you'll be surprised at how much depth the institution contains — and how much you'll enjoy delving into it.
3. Read a Book (Communally)
St. Louis is positively bursting with book clubs, and if you can't network into one by asking around, you'll find your local book store is often more than happy to make the connection. (See our complete guide to local bookstores within this very issue.) Your local branch of the public library also likely offers a club. And if you haven't yet downloaded NextDoor (nextdoor.com), the neighborhood app is a good starting point as well — beyond the ongoing is-that-fireworks-or-gunshots conversation in most city neighborhoods, you can often network in with book clubs that have been going strong for years.
4. Get Involved in Politics
Whether you're red or blue, it's hard not to look at America's current political climate as anything but a dripping garbage fire. But you — yes, you! — can do something about it (and sometimes even get paid for it). You don't have to harbor presidential aspirations to get involved with canvassing or collecting signatures for a petition or candidate, and the upcoming midterm election season is a great place to start. Research your alderman, state reps and congressmen. Want to support them? Oppose them? You're not alone. Contact the state campaigns or, if you're in the city, shoot a friendly email to your representatives on the Democratic Central Committee (www.stlcitydems.com). The next time an election comes around, you won't be a bystander.
5. Get Jacked
If improving the body politic isn't your speed, take a shot at improving your actual body at group workout sessions. Local gyms and community centers like the JCC and YMCA offer hundreds of options, but lower-cost and free sessions are at your fingertips through Meetup groups like the St. Louis Adventure Group (www.meetup.com/StLAdventurers/). Looking for something contemplative that will also stretch your limbs at interesting angles? Yoga Buzz (www.yogabuzz.org) hosts "Yoga plus" events at locations all over the city, combining the shared anguish of a workout with a twist of culture, food or beer.
6. Go For the Glory
No force in the world can suppress a competitive spirit, and there's no reason you can't let that spirit fly in St. Louis. Multiple groups offer mainstays like softball, hockey, co-ed kickball and cornhole — and if you're adventurous, the St. Louis Curling Club (www.stlouiscurlingclub.org) is always looking for members. Take care, as particular leagues tend to come and go, and therefore it's worth some googling around in the winter to gauge your options as the weather warms. Thankfully, many leagues include the option to join as a "free agent," so you won't have to assemble your own collection of castoffs to vie for a trophy. See www.stlouis.sportsmonster.net for a large listing of options.
7. Roll the Dice Over a Board Game
Stretch and sweat all you want, but a sedentary pastime is nothing to scoff at either. Head over to Pieces STL (www.stlpieces.com), a board-game cafe in Soulard that has quickly become the epicenter of St. Louis' dice-rolling and card-playing crowd — a crowd that easily has room for one more. Co-owner Laura Leister notes that groups have the option to signal their openness to unattached players, while those coming in alone can alert others that they're willing to join any group that needs them. Flying solo on a weekday? That doesn't mean you can't play. "Some people just come to sit at our bar to have a beer by themselves," she says, "and they end up playing a game with their bartender."
8. Master Chess
There are games, and then there's chess. St. Louis is arguably America's chess capital, and if you're keen to hone your skills or to start your journey to becoming a grandmaster, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis (www.saintlouischessclub.org) could be your new home. The Chess Club hosts daily classes and lectures, and the group's Central West End headquarters functions as a cerebral community center that bustles with students of every age and experience level. Whether you're interested in casual games or tournament prep, or just taking chess instruction, the Chess Club is a sound opening move.
9. Chase Karaoke Stardom
There's a reason karaoke persists, immune to the passage of time and the fickle tastes of youth. For those two or three minutes — or six minutes, if you're one of those marvelous lunatics attempting Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" — you are the undisputed headliner, the belle of the barroom ball. And even if you walk into a karaoke bar knowing not a soul, the aura of communal performance anxiety makes for a fantastic ice breaker. Plus, the venues usually attract their own cadre of regular singers to befriend. St. Louis' karaoke palaces range from the violet-hued disco heaven of Mike Talayna's Juke Box Restaurant, which carries karaoke every night of the week, to neighborhood bars like Carson's (www.carsonssportsbar.com), which offers options from Wednesday to Sunday. And don't miss Karaoke BOOM, which travels between the Monocle, Foam and Sophie's Artist Lounge & Cocktail Club (see each bar's Facebook page for more details). Time to start practicing those high notes.
10. Make a Dive Bar Your Own
By definition, you can't be a stranger in a place where everybody knows your name. Maybe that's the underlying magic hidden inside neighborhood dive bars, the sort of places you might pass without a second thought during your morning commute, establishments with names like the Heavy Anchor or Rhonda's Place (pro tip: Google "the Real Drinker's Guide to St. Louis' Best Dive Bars," and you'll find this publication's finest work). Just pick one, and go there a few times. Bring a friend. Drink a beer after work. If they have a TV, watch a game. Tip the bartender. Talk to the bartender. Get really good at pinball. Talk to someone older and better-traveled than you, and maybe realize how little you know about motorcycles and proper car repair. Listen to the craziest stories you've ever heard. Start learning people's names before you drink so much you forget them — and that's the dive-bar magic starting once again.
11. Become a Soccer Louligan
The story of soccer in St. Louis didn't begin with the effort to put an MLS stadium downtown, and it certainly didn't end when that effort failed to sway city voters in 2017. The city's ties to the sport go back a century, and our present-day soccer culture is in the midst of a revival that's ravenous for more fans — a fan like you, perhaps. The St. Louligans (www.stlouligans.com), the largest club of soccer supporters in the metro area, consistently populates a raucous fan section at STL FC matches, and they bring an exuberant abandon that should make the Cardinals jealous. And once the World Cup rolls around this summer, bars like the Amsterdam Tavern, Barrister's and Tigín will be packed with fans of the beautiful game. To mix metaphors: Jump on the soccer bandwagon, the water is fine.
12. Relive Animal House with the Harriers
Like the platypus, the concept behind the Big Hump Hash House Harriers (www.big-hump.com) sounds like it shouldn't be possible. For nearly two decades, the group — which touts itself as "St. Louis' Original Drinking Club with a Running Problem" — gathers weekly to engage in "hashing," a non-competitive "hare and hounds" running game that's practiced by clubs all over the world. The "hares" leave chalk symbols on the ground, which direct the trailing "hounds" to the route, which includes some false trails and dead ends; that route, in turn, features stops for beer. St. Louis' iteration hosts weekly runs open to any athletic level, with most routes including a walking option. For newbies, the instructions are simple: Contact the organizers, grab $7 and just "show up and be 21, since there is drinking," advises veteran hasher Angela O'Hanlon, the group's president. If you're not into nicknames, though, be forewarned: You're going to get one. "Lazy Ass" and "Slips in Shit" are already taken. "Come with an open attitude," O'Hanlon laughs. "It's all about making fun of yourself."
13. Be of Service
When MLK said "Everybody can be great ... because anybody can serve," he wasn't talking about selling trucks. Nothing so easily shatters a feeling of being "other" than reaching out to people who are spinning on the margins of survival, homelessness and poverty. For a start, consider your skills and talents. Where could they be applied? Can you help out a classroom, mentor a high school student or help build a house? Click around the United Way's searchable database of local positions (www.stlvolunteer.org). Considering St. Louis is particularly strapped for resources to support its homeless population, you may find the greatest impact with groups like the St. Patrick Center (www.stpatrickcenter.org) and Peter & Paul Community Services (www.ppcsinc.org).
14. Join St. Louis' Pet People
Fido probably loves going outside no matter what, but it's time to show him the world beyond the immediate blocks around your place. Get to know the region by its parks and pet-friendly bar patios, and you'll find that many, many other dogs are dragging their humans to the same places. If you're in Midtown near Saint Louis University, you'll find your fellow dog folks arrayed around the abstract art in the Ellen Park Sculpture Park. Or head to the far western rim of St. Charles, to Broemmelsiek Park, where the admission is free, the acreage is plentiful and the lakes are perfect for doggy-paddling. And if you'd prefer a more passive experience, the Mauhaus Cat Café (www.mauhauscafe.com) is a temple to the endearing-but-also-sometimes-disinterested affections of a creature who doesn't care if you're a stranger, as long as you provide good petting. Find lots more options at bringfido.com.
15. Become a Superfan
It's easy to get caught up in huge musical acts coming through St. Louis — but it's the ones right here that are way more fun to follow, from small bar to bigger bar to maybe even a particular alt-weekly's annual music showcase. Try seeing what all the fuss is about by catching the ultra-polished Sleepy Kitty, the cataclysmic rock of Bug Chaser or the joyful Bruiser Queen — and then realize you can't get the opener's third song out of your head, and before you know it you're at the opener's show, and then suddenly you're three bands down the line and shouting lyrics in a mosh pit in a basement and you are alive as fuck. Don't worry about being pretentious or worry that actually liking something makes you weird. Try liking a band and then being around other people who like that band too, and see where it goes. It's as simple as a three-note chord, and poses the same infinite potential. Check out the RFT's local music listings, which run in the paper every week, to see who's playing where.
16. Till the Earth
Gardening isn't just something to do in your window box or, uh, in a locked shed containing a hydroponic weed empire. Instead, join the agricultural revolution at EarthDance Farms (www.earthdancefarms.org) in Ferguson. Each season, the fourteen-acre organic farm accepts around two dozen apprentices who work the land, plant the seeds and see the effort through to harvest — the result of which finds its way to the patrons of the Ferguson Farmers Market. The apprenticeship is more than just labor; it's a hands-on education with experienced farmers who will run you through a curriculum that's 12,000 years or so in the making. By the end you'll learn the ropes of sustainable farming, and from there you can join one of the more than 200 gardens in the Gateway Greening Community Garden network (www.gatewaygreening.org) — or even start one of your own. Be part of a community that grows together. You might like it, and at the very least your salads will improve.
17. Make Art
Bob Ross spent a career softly shading clouds and adjusting the mood of his trees, and the guy had it right about art: "Talent is a pursued interest," he once said. "Anything that you're willing to practice, you can do." If it's practice you're looking for, and fellow practicers to practice with, Craft Alliance (www.craftalliance.org) offers one-day workshops or longer classes to suit your creative itch, from pottery to quilting to glass-blowing and pretty much everything in between. Feeling more like an upcycling Martha Stewart? Check out Perennial (www.perennialstl.org). The nonprofit offers classes that will make you take another look at the "creative reusability" of objects around you. If you've found some wooden pallets in an alley, turn them into something cool and useful at one of the regular community workshop days, with staff on hand to lend DIY guidance. And even if your art is useful and sustainable and all that, there's nothing wrong with adding a splash of decoration to that new bookshelf. We suggest some happy little trees.
18. Become a Trivia Champion
Grab some clever colleagues, or at the least some colleagues who've watched a few episodes of The Simpsons, and take advantage of the fact that virtually any day in St. Louis is a good day for challenging yourself to remember pop culture trivia while drinking. For instance, you've got Geeks Who Drink (www.geekswhodrink.com) at Handlebar, Layla and Blueberry Hill, and Tenacious Trivia (www.facebook.com/TenaciousTriv) covering a host of south-city bars, including Ryder's and Tower Pub. Will you win? Probably not. But you can still delight in nailing a thorny question about '90s boy bands, military history or anime — and everyone knows the best part of trivia is picking a train wreck of a pun for your team name.
19. Get Spiritual, or Not
If Abraham could hack it as a stranger in a strange land, so can you, though you probably don't need all the desert wandering that went with it. St. Louis is overflowing with churches, mosques and synagogues, and you've got your pick of traditional congregations. (Boy, are you in luck if you like giant Catholic churches.) And if you're not totally convinced the world is only 6,000 years old and would rather talk about cool science stuff, the Skeptical Society of St. Louis (www.skepticalstl.com) would be happy to have you at its talks and pub meetups. And don't overlook the Ethical Society of St. Louis (www.ethicalstl.org). A humanist congregation, the Ethical Society hosts Sunday services in a breathtaking temple of its own in Ladue, and with a full slate of sermons, mindfulness rituals and community services that prove you don't necessarily need God to deal with the big questions of life and still have hope for the future.
20. Be Funny
The last bastions of scoundrels are the improv stage and the open mic — but if you've got your heart in the right place, a knack for comic timing and a desire to not be the creepy guy who only knows ethnic jokes, then check out St. Louis' comedy scene. The Improv Shop (www.theimprovshop.com) hosts some of the city's most talented and transgressive comics, and you too can your hone your comic timing, build confidence or find a partner to help polish those skit ideas you've been squirreling away for years. Granted, improv isn't for everyone — thank God — but there's something elemental about the open-mic experience that everyone should try at least once. You may not know it, but the crowd at the monthly 90-Minute Mic at Gezellig (www.facebook.com/pg/gezelligstl/events/) is dying to hear your favorite bar story. Don't leave them hanging.