St Louis isn’t somewhere we’d ever talked about visiting. All I really knew about it was that the Arch is there. But while researching this trip’s itinerary, J discovered that St Louis is one of the rare big cities that has a campground in town, close to the sights and neighborhoods and food and drink we want to experience, as opposed to typical big cities where the campgrounds are 20+ minutes out in the suburbs. If we’re going to visit a big city, we don’t want to spend the entire time sitting in the car or Lyft going back and forth into town (like when we took the Airstream to Charleston). We had fun in St Louis–it is a beer town, after all–based at our convenient campground, eating, drinking, and exploring the city, and are happy to have it as an option when crossing the country.
We stayed at St Louis RV Park, a big, quiet (when we were there, at least–we didn’t have many neighbors), full-facility park walking distance to the shops, restaurants, and neat architecture of the Warehouse District, and running distance to the Arch! Yes, running to the Arch was the very first thing Bugsy and I did when the Airstream was set up in the campground.
Diane in the office was incredibly helpful with maps and suggestions. The campground has a pool, obviously closed for the season but nicer than what we see at most campgrounds, and a fitness room that we didn’t see, but were impressed the park offered one. Other than the amenities, though, the campground is basically a parking lot with hookups.
The park also has some crumblier industrial blocks nearby, and maybe it wasn’t smart for Bugsy and me to walk around there at night. We were alert to our surroundings, and my smiley goofball can put on a heck of a show of ferocity when approached by a stranger. How cool is that building, though?
Exploring St Louis
There’s not much at the waterfront other than the Arch; a big new museum/visitor center is opening later this year. But if you go to St Louis, you have to visit the Arch, right? The visitor center is temporarily located in the Old Courthouse, on the non-river side of the Arch, worth a visit for its own impressive history and architecture.
I loved the Arch! Poor B had to pose for a million pictures at all sides of the structure, taken at all angles, and poor J had to do an Arch tour–but I daresay he liked it as much as I did. It helped that we had only two other people on our tour so basically had the viewing area at the top to ourselves.
Forest Park is St Louis’ Central Park, full of museums (art, science, history), a zoo, a performance venue, a golf course, forests, streams, fields… It’s huge and welcoming and a run around the perimeter path is about six miles. Bugsy is pictured above overlooking the park at the World’s Fair Pavilion, built in 1909 with proceeds from the 1904 World’s Fair.
St Louis is a city of neighborhoods, and we had recommendations to visit several: Lafayette Square, Soulard, The Grove, Maplewood, and The Loop were on our list. We only had time to pick one this trip so chose Lafayette Square for its cheerily elegant Victorian mansions encircling the oldest public park west of the Mississippi. If you visit, be sure to include Benton Place, where Bugsy poses in the photo above, in your wanderings.
Actually, I guess we explored The Grove a bit, as we went once during the day for coffee, and once at night for beer. It’s a lively neighborhood with a strip of bars and restaurants.
And we sort of saw Soulard, too, when we got tacos one evening, and drove up and down neighboring streets admiring the architecture. The neighborhood is known for its many bars, but the old French brick homes with intricate details were lovely.
Outside of St Louis, after hiking nearby we walked the historic district of St Charles, full of preserved buildings, including the first state capitol of Missouri. The charming little main street reminded us both of Fredericksburg, VA.
Obviously in St Louis we drank a lot of beer, but we skipped the national breweries and didn’t do the Budweiser tour or visit the Schlafly taproom. My beer hero (beero?) J wrote about the breweries we visited in and around St Louis on our St Louis breweries page, so check that out to see our favorites.
We drank beer outside of taprooms, too: Handlebar, in the Grove neighborhood, has many local beers on tap and a laid back vibe; we also had beers at Broadway Oyster Bar and Mission Taco Joint, which I’ll discuss further in the Eating section below.
The photo above is through a window (it was too cold to actually go out on the patio) (that orb you see over the arch is a light in the bar, not a sparkly full moon) at Three Sixty on the 26th floor of the Hilton St Louis. Pretty sweet view! Cocktails were around $12, and there’s a $10 cover on Friday and Saturday nights, so you’re paying for that view, but you’re not getting much else. The atmosphere felt touristy and hotel-y, but I guess it is a tourist destination in a hotel. Worth it to me, not worth it to J.
We had coffee and wifi in the Grove at Rise, a cool spot to do some work, but there seemed to be a daycare upstairs? Our peaceful coffee time was made slightly less so by crashing, noisy children overhead.
Here are the notes I typed as we dined at Vicia:
“holy cow great tasting menu cocktails wowowowow”
That sums up my experience, but I’ll give you a bit more detail. Vicia is a new, nationally acclamied restaurant focused on fresh, seasonal, local ingredients, with an emphasis on under-appreciated vegetables, and–most exciting to me–the owners/operators worked at Blue Hill at Stone Barns near NYC, where I’ve long dreamed about dining someday. We splurged on the tasting menu (they were happy to do vegetarian for me, regular for J), where they feature more unique items they can only get in smaller batches from the local farmers. Everything was magnificent, including the cocktails with house-made tonics. It was one of the best meals we’ve EVER had. I can’t say enough good things about Vicia; please refer to my quoted thoughts above if you’re unsure of my opinion.
For a very different dining experience, we had beers and oysters at the bar at St Louis staple Broadway Oyster Bar, a neat divey joint in one of the oldest buildings in the city, with live music, yummy oysters, and friendly bar staff and regulars who are happy to dispense St Louis tips. We left before the music got started, but it seemed like a great spot to enjoy a band.
Our friend who grew up in St Louis told us we HAD to try Imo’s Pizza for a real St Louis experience, and that each time he visits Imo’s is the very first place he goes. I had never heard of St Louis-style pizza before, have you? We were intrigued, and optimistic because we were so happily surprised when we last tried another new-to-us pizza variety, Detroit-style, in Austin. St Louis-style pizza uses Provel cheese, which is a processed cheese that has an almost buttery consistency when it’s melted. It was… different. Tasty, and we’re glad we tried it and would recommend it as part of visiting St Louis, but once was probably enough for us!
Pappy’s Smokehouse was recommended to us by both Diane in the campground office and the nice guy next to us at the bar at Broadway Oyster. It’s close to the campground, and J likes to research barbecue, so we got there as they opened (they can get long lines and sell out of stuff) and took a bunch of meat home. J happily ate it all over the next several days, and reported: “this is good but it’s no Franklin.”
It was freezing cold for much of our time in St Louis, which meant poor Bugsy was cooped up in the Airstream more than she wanted to be. We felt guilty for that and so bought her treats at the adorable doggie boutique Four Muddy Paws. How cute is this Mardi Gras pupcake?
The two other places we got food from were Sushi Ai, which took forever to prepare our carryout order, but it was delicious; and Mission Taco Joint in Soulard, a hip and happening restaurant which made me happy with a margarita and fab shrimp taco, and then sad with a bad fish taco, and you know how I feel about fish tacos.
The 7000-acre Weldon Spring Conservation Area is about a half hour drive from downtown St Louis, a quiet, woodsy escape along the Missouri River. From the Lewis and Clark trailhead you can choose the 5-mile Clark Trail loop, or continue from Clark to the Lewis Trail for eight miles total. We chose the Lewis Trail for more solitude, but both trails wind through pretty woods to sweeping views of the river. We recommend boots if it has rained recently–the trail was really muddy when we hiked–and consider hiking the loop clockwise to get the gorgeous views as your reward close to the end rather than early in the hike. Look for the trail by the metal gate to the left, if you’re standing in the parking lot facing the trailhead sign, to hike clockwise.