40 Cheap Thrills That Keep Us Loving St. Louis For Less

The Chain of Rocks Bridge: Always a thrill.
The Chain of Rocks Bridge: Always a thrill.

We've learned a few things in our four decades in St. Louis. One big one: how to have a blast without breaking the bank. The people, places and things highlighted in these 40 superlatives keep us laughing, keep us drinking, keep us on a fascinating journey and, perhaps most importantly, keep us excited about St. Louis. Use this list to fill your calendar — and savor all the wonderful little things that together make the fabric of this city.

Best Sound

The crows of Forest Park

There was a time when parents pulled their small children inside when University City's crows appeared in the trees. Standing two feet tall (and appearing larger, depending on your own physical size), the birds weren't so much aggressive as they were menacing. Then came the summers of avian flu, and by 2004 you rarely saw any crows. It's been a long road back, but after more than a decade of sparse sightings, gangs of sizable birds again wing east through the late-afternoon skies. They're all croaks and caws as they pass over the Delmar Loop's buffet of dumpsters, but by the time they end up in the tippy-tops of Forest Park's big old trees, they've settled down for the night. There's something in corvids though that makes them incapable of remaining still even when sleeping. If you find yourself in Forest Park near sundown you'll hear the susurration of their wings as they mutter wickedly in their sleep. It's chilling, but also comforting; these are the everyday sanitation engineers, picking up edible garbage from the streets and over-full dumpsters. And besides that, they're simply beautiful creatures, intelligent and playful. Honestly, some of us prefer them to children.— Paul Friswold

Best Place to Experience the Mississippi

Chain of Rocks Bridge

Intersection of Schillinger and Chain of Rocks roads, Granite City, Illinois

Other than a trip back in time to join a riverboat crew alongside Mark Twain, the old Chain of Rocks Bridge directly north of St. Louis offers perhaps the most memorable encounter with the mighty Mississippi in the world. The structure first opened to automobiles in 1929 and was once the bearer of heavy Route 66 traffic — but now it's a picturesque byway reserved for pedestrians and cyclists. And whether you access the bridge via the Riverfront Trail extending all the way from downtown or the parking lot adjoining the Illinois side, the mile-long, quirkily bending span does not disappoint. Lean over the railing and watch the swirls of water and driftwood below. Imagine a life inside one of the charming intake towers that stand nearby, solid and historic above a fast-moving current. Take a stroll just before sunset and ponder the great river's unfathomable vastness — and take some great pictures while you're at it. Even if your photography skills are next to nil, the setting is so gorgeous that any latergrams you post are sure to make your feed light up with virtual love.—Evie Hemphill

Best Freebie

Tower Tee

6727 Heege Road, 314-481-5818

Dave Swatek is running a power drill on a laundromat coin slot, which he's rigged onto the batting cages at Tower Tee, his south-county temple to golf clubs and baseball bats. Suddenly he springs up and strides over to the 80-mph cage, where a young lefty has just blasted a 30-degree line drive off a small, circular sign at the back of the cage. When the batter's twelve hacks are up, Swatek grabs him, pulls out a point-and-shoot camera, and shoves the unwitting man in front of home plate. "The latest inductee into the Wall of Fame! All right. Hold this baby like that." He gives him a token. "Be proud! All of your peers will walk by and say, 'I know that guy!'" The sign the man has hit contains two simple words: "Cubs Stink." And Swatek, the eccentric man who has manned Tower Tee for 50 years, awards a free round of hits to anyone who can smack the put-down with a well-placed shot. "It's a family-friendly place, right? So it doesn't say 'Cubs Suck,'" he says. Inductees — there's a new one every couple days or so — have their photos plastered on the Wall of Fame by the service desk. It may not be Cooperstown, but it's the closest any of us will ever get.—Robert Langellier

The DeMun Oyster Bar.

Best Happy Hour

DeMun Oyster Bar

740 DeMun Avenue, Clayton; 314-725-0322

There are two kinds of happy hours in the world: the discount drink joints and the half-price appetizer establishments. Sometimes, the two converge, but rarely with panache, let alone an atmosphere that recalls the last undiscovered café in the French Quarter. The DeMun Oyster Bar presents a third option: the freshest oysters in a landlocked city at the mouthwatering price of just a buck a shuck. What's more, the venerable Concordia Park-side establishment considers an hour an afternoon, as the bargain runs through the daylight, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. And while the bar, which first opened its wide, garage-style windows in 1999, is best known for its succulent West Coast oysters, the happy hour selection focuses on medium-sized East Coasters, similar to the classic Blue Points, just a little creamy and delicately brined. Like all of the bar's finest offerings — the Purple Mountains, the Miyagis and the Miradas — these molluscs were harvested in the morning, flown direct to Lambert, and met at the airport every day at 6 p.m. sharp. Few restaurants in town can match the freshness. Of course, you'll want a cocktail or a bottle of wine with the three dozen (hell, at this price, make it four) you order, and the classy but casual bar serves a great ginger Manhattan and, if you're lucky, a tomato shrub, with bloody mary-infused vodka and sweet green sriracha. It's a killer pairing with the main attraction. —Roy Kasten

Best Trip to Brazil

Radio Rio

KDHX (88.1 FM) on Mondays, noon to 2 p.m.

Andrea Dunn has hosted Radio Rio since October 2001, enough time for her to get to know her audience really, really well. With a show that's moved across different days and times over those many years, she can recall the experience of fielding calls from her most devoted fans with each move. (Those who listened on Saturday nights, she recalls, consistently told her "how they enjoyed listening while they cooked dinner.") Along the way, the show has become a soundtrack for many St. Louisans and, for others, their first concentrated exposure to Brazilian music. Dunn notes that the two-hour program does touch on new works, which she finds through internet searches or via labels supplying music to the community station. But a big part of the show is given over to the important performers and composers in the Brazilian music canon, several of whom burst onto American airwaves in the 1960s and '70s, "which makes it a little bit of an oldies show," she says, adding, "I even have listeners in Brazil, who don't hear these songs on the radio there." Though she's taught herself a modest Portuguese vocabulary, this mother of two and KDHX donor relations point-person says that she hopes someday to visit Brazil, preceded by some language immersion. In the meantime, she'll speak the universal language of music, with a listenership that spans the globe.—Thomas Crone

Best Place to Get Wet

St. Vincent Water Park

7335 St. Charles Rock Road, 314-615-8788

St. Vincent Park, established in 1978 after the county purchased 130 rolling acres from the Catholic church, is among our most underappreciated public spaces. Nestled between two cemeteries in Normandy, the park's ball fields, tennis courts, and hiking and biking trails are excellent and rarely crowded, though on a steamy summer day, the coolest attraction becomes a family-friendly party like no other green space in town. Part of the St. Vincent Community Center, the aquatic park is modest in size but vast in fun: The shallow pools feature sprawling hammocks for swinging or chilling; volleyball nets for spiking; and jets, pipes and fountains for spraying, like Water Wiggles gone mad. Thumping R&B mixes provide the soundtrack as a twisting, 30-foot slide launches kids into a pool with a howling splash. Admission is cheap: $4 for adults, $3 for kids ages twelve to five, and toddlers are free. The water park is open Memorial Day through Labor Day, but only on weekends in August. It's not exactly a read-a-novel-under-a-parasol kind of pool. This is a party cove built for kids — and oldsters, if they can keep up with the action. —Roy Kasten

The Penrose Park Velodrome. - FLICKR/STRAIGHTEDGE217
The Penrose Park Velodrome.

Best Place to Chase Your Tail

Penrose Park Velodrome

4200 North Kingshighway Boulevard, 314-289-5300

You wouldn't think riding a bicycle around in a circle would be all that difficult — but that's because you haven't tried doing so on a 28-degree bank. Not that you couldn't have tried — after all, the Penrose Park Velodrome is right here in north city. A rather unique piece of St. Louis history, the cycling track is one of only 27 such structures in the United States, and the only one in Missouri. Designed by Olympic cyclist Frank Burlando, the track sits on land donated to the city in the early 1960s when the velodrome at Forest Park was demolished to make way for Highway 40. The track is perfect for bike races or exercise or simply seeing what it's like to balance upright on an angle. Who'd have thought riding a bicycle the same one-fifth of a mile over and over and over again could be so much fun? —Daniel Hill

Best Handheld


951 South Greenmont Road, Belleville, Illinois; 618-233-0513

You hear a lot of chatter about the wonders of Georgia peaches, but for an ardent contingent, nothing can surpass the taste of peachflesh grown in southern Illinois. Many and devoted are the St. Louisans who look forward to the day Eckert's peaches show up in grocery stores, waiting impatiently for the heat of summer to finish ripening the golden harvest. There is an interminable stretch when June turns into July and the bins are all still labeled "California peaches," but the faithful are certain that their great reward will arrive by their next grocery visit. And then that day finally comes: You walk through the doors and spy a double-wide bin of Eckert's peaches. You will see elderly women and young mothers standing side by side as they root through the first harvest, handing each other ripe peaches to hold and judge, reminiscing about how good they were two or ten or twenty years ago. This year's crop was nothing to sneer at, rife with fat little hand-fillers bursting with sweet juice. Eckert's is rightly famous in these parts for its apples, but this year's peaches will go down in local history for their succulence and their well-balanced flavor. —Paul Friswold

The Capitalist Pig's pork belly BLT. - MABEL SUEN
The Capitalist Pig's pork belly BLT.

Best Trip to the Slammer

Capitalist Pig

2727 South 12th Street, 314-772-1180

If your street cred needs a little buffing up, we suggest locking yourself away at Capitalist Pig, where you can go to jail for the price of a pulled pork sandwich. This counter-service lunch and Sunday brunch spot is located inside Mad Art Gallery, which is housed in what used to be the city's 3rd District Police Station. The barbecue joint is sustainable in every sense of the word, sourcing from local and regional farmers who grow organic produce and raise their animals humanely on a primarily vegetarian diet — and you can taste the difference. Take a menu and get in the line forming up to the window to order from Capitalist Pig's variety of sandwiches, platters and sides. Then grab a sauce or three from the wide assortment on the nearby counter before grabbing a table in one of the prison cells. Don't worry, you can enter and exit at will. The rustic feel combined with low lighting will make you swear you're in an old Western movie. And when your meal arrives? Let's just say prison food has never tasted this good. —Elizabeth Semko

Best Place to See the Future

The Fortune Teller Bar

2635 Cherokee Street, 314-776-2337

As a bar, Fortune Teller could stand on its own, but the raised window booth on site for tarot card readings was a master stroke. Every night, a revolving cast of readers takes its perch behind a small table and welcomes the curious to peer into the future. Screw pool or darts. This is by far one of the best drinking activities in the city. You don't even have to get a reading to appreciate it. Just grab a cocktail, position yourself with a decent sight line, and enjoy the before-and-after view of people who partake. Sure, a lot of people climb those stairs on a lark, but more than a few exit the tiny, semi-private stage with the look that comes from wrestling with some heavy business. (Our favorite might be the couples; now that they know what they know, should they run for the hills?) You could search a long time and never find people-watching this compelling. But be prepared to go from spectator to participant by the end of the night. It's nearly impossible to watch the parade and not wonder what's really going on up in that booth. —Doyle Murphy

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