Your Strong Towns Travel Guide to St. Louis, MO

Every so often, I’ll get a message from a Strong Towns fan who’s read something I’ve written about my hometown of St. Louis, MO — a city they just so happen to be passing through for a wedding/graduation/professional conference/[insert fun road trip excuse here]. And because Strong Towns fans are nothing if not curious, they want to know: what should they make the time to see if they want to get a sense of what this community is all about through a Strong Towns lens? They know about the St. Louis arch, and our epic free zoo, and everything else you’ll find in your standard travel guide. What are the under-the-radar attractions that can’t be missed? What neighborhoods should they go to if they really want to understand this place’s story?

And of course, the most important question of all: where should they eat?

I love answering emails like these — and I have a feeling that there are a few more of you passing through St. Louis who might want to hear my recs, too. Here are my top five picks for things to do for the Strong Towns-minded visitor to the great city of STL.

1. Saddle up.

I’m a firm believer that the single best way to explore any city is on two wheels — maybe especially if, like St. Louis, not every street is decked out with a bike lane. Especially if you’re a competent and road-confident rider, it’s simply the best way to get a feel for the built environment in a new place, even if sometimes the road can get a little bumpy.

I’ve taken a few visitors on routes like the one above. It takes you through a few core St. Louis neighborhoods, and I think, shows the sometimes vast differences that have resulted from decades of unevenly applied policy and development decisions in our city. Read my notes on the route as you go, or — even better — grab a local to be your tour guide (see item 5). If you don’t have a local to borrow a bike from, dockless bikeshare programs Ofo and LimeBike make sure that your ride is only a few taps away.

This route will take you from North to South St. Louis, from the most highly invested neighborhoods to the least, down the most bikeable blocks and a few that have some room to grow. I hope you have a blast, but more importantly, I hope you soak in the differences you notice. (Not a confident rider? No problem; pick a few sections of this route and walk them.) 

2. Think small.

The cost of real estate in St. Louis is cheap, and for many small businesses, that means the barrier to entry in a commercial or mixed use space is low. Cool, experimental local shops are scattered throughout our neighborhoods, and going off the beaten path can yield big rewards. They might inspire you to think about how we can grow a local small business culture from the ground up.

If you’re interested in how a single neighborhood store can act as a powerful incubator for local artists who aren’t quite ready to set up their own shops just yet, you don’t want to miss spots like Urban Matter in Dutchtown or Union Studio just south of the Grove; both of them are fully stocked with gorgeous wares from local artisans that give a sense of what's going on in St. Louis' abundant studio spaces.

If you want to get a taste of what St. Louis grows (but don’t have the budget for a restaurant), the Tower Grove Farmer’s Market is an incredible way to do it in the warmer months. City Greens Market is also a great model of a small-scale, community-focused grocer that’s open all year round (no need to have a membership for your first purchase).

A good local bookstore acts as a microcosm of the local culture, and St. Louis has an incredible one in Left Bank Books. Founded in 1969 and highly active in local politics, it’s every bit as much a community center as it is a place to grab a good read, and any bookseller or friendly shopper who you might talk to will likely have something insightful to say about the issues STL is facing that moment (and a book to suggest to help you understand the broader context when you head home.)

But if you’re interested in exploring a home-grown business district, Cherokee Street is where you’ll want to be. As Chris Naffziger wrote on our site, this strip organically became a strong block, mostly without the help of the kind of massive tax increment financing that the central corridor enjoyed. The result is a few blocks of cool, punky art galleries, fabulous affordable antique stores, and delicious small-concept restaurants that couldn’t exist anywhere else.

3. Hit the museums.

I know what you’re thinking: what does going to yet another tourist-trap museum really tell me about the city around it?

Climbing around at the City Museum (Source:  andresmh )

Climbing around at the City Museum (Source: andresmh)

Well, let’s just say I’m being a little flexible in my use of the word “museum.”

The one thing I’ll recommend on this list that’s all but guaranteed to show up in your standard St. Louis tour guide is the City Museum. This downtown funhouse is a staple for a reason: it’s a totally unique, hallucinogenic outsider-art playground built in an old shoe factory and filled with indescribable wonders that all ages can enjoy. You really just have to experience, but let me list a few of the treasures inside to whet your appetite: a 10 story slide, the world’s largest pair of underpants, a cave system, a shoelace factory, and a lot of spots to stop and drink a local beer.

City Museum isn’t exactly a museum, nor is it exactly “about” cities. But there are a few places inside that will make you pause and think about how incredible our places can be when we allow them to iterate and grow slowly over time, just like this incredible “museum” is constantly evolving; there’s even one room devoted to repurposed architectural remnants from the surrounding neighborhood that paints a striking portrait-in-pieces of the city as it used to be.

The other must-see attraction—and this is the only moment in this guide when I’ll encourage you to get outside the city limits—is the Cahokia Mounds. Cahokia is the site of what was once the largest urban settlement in North America, and it was founded more than 1000 years before European contact with the continent. Visiting it and learning its history will make you look at the cities we occupy now and the spaces we call “urban” in a whole new way.

4. Eat up.

St. Louis is a highly underrated food city, and many of our restaurants are a testament to what incredible things can happen when we allow small restauranteurs to make small bets and scale from there.

Chuck wrote a great article a few years ago about how difficult is to open a Dunkin Donuts franchise in the average American town, and what that says about the uphill climb of economic development in our top-down economy. So I think you’d do well to start your St. Louis day with breakfast at one of our many, many bonkers-delicious local donut shops. There are far too many to list, but my personal favorites includes the website-less and super old-school World’s Fair (1904 Vandeventer), the similarly non-techy staple and home of the planet’s best apple fritter John’s Donuts (1618 Broadway,) and if you prefer a meal-sized artisan cruller that’ll cost you more than a couple quarters, Vincent Van Doughnut in the grove.

For lunch, my go-tos include Sweet Art, which doubles its economic impact as an art gallery and a vegetarian cafe/bakery that non-vegetarians will still enjoy, and Cafe Osage at Bowood Farms, which helps St. Louis ace item number 8 on the Strong Towns Strength Test; much of their produce comes from the farm just across the street.

And for dinner, I love to eat my way down South Grand, where the a critical mass of immigrant-owned international restaurants has organically grown over the years. South Grand isn’t just the best place to get three kinds of pho and a sampler platter of Ethiopian food that will blow your mind, it’s also a model for how cities can foster a diverse community of local business owners where they already live, rather than arbitrarily designating a "cultural district" and trying to populate it from the top down, like so many cities do.

5. Connect with the locals.   

But of course, the best way to get to know St. Louis is to get to know a St. Louisan. You can always email me to grab coffee, or hop on the Strong Towns local conversations page and hook up with the STL group. We’ve got almost 70 groups all around the country, and you can start your own right now, if only to serve as your city’s own ambassador to Strong Towns fans who might be passing through.

Want to write your city’s guide for Strong Towns travelers? Pitch us.

(Top photo by Sam valadi)