You’ve Probably Skipped This Midwest City—and It’s Your Loss
World-class food, museums, history, architecture, and one of the oddest sights you'll find anywhere—what more could you ask for?
I’ve never judged a city by its graveyard, but after visiting St. Louis I just might. After all, what better measurement of a city than the people who have called it home (forever)?
Wandering the verdant hills of the Bellefontaine Cemetery towards the end of my three-day whirlwind tour of this historic city, I found it captured the concentration of, for lack of a better word, awesomeness that St. Louis has achieved. The graveyard is a high-low win. In the esthetic sweepstakes, there’s a mausoleum designed by architect Louis Sullivan that is one of his most extraordinary works, and there are also first-class celebrity sightings: Among the countless boldfaced names buried there you will find William Clark (of Lewis & Clark), suffragist Edna Gellhorn, and author William S. Burroughs.
While many readers would no doubt skirt by St. Louis on a road trip (as I have in the past) or scarcely dream of it as a weekend getaway because of its troubled recent history, you’d be missing out on one of the greatest concentrations of things to do—food, art, architecture, history, nature, and oddities—you’ll find anywhere. Which is why St. Louis is the latest selection for our twice-a-month feature series on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World.
Some might say St. Louis peaked in 1904 with the 1904 World’s Fair and Olympics, but this mercantile area has been a significant player for thousands of years.
Even when I skipped past St. Louis in recent years, I’ve tried time and again to visit Cahokia, the giant grassy mounds that are all that remain of an enormous ancient pyramid city that thrived until the first millennium A.D. Stymied previously by rain, COVID, or just poor planning in the past, I was exceptionally keen to go this time.
The ruins are located on the Illinois side of the St. Louis metropolitan area. My first stop after driving over (do be prepared to Uber/drive a lot in St. Louis as things are quite far-flung) was the interpretive center, which has an iconic mural of what experts think the city looked like. While Cahokia was just one of thousands of mound communities built around the continental U.S. over at least 5,000 years, it was the largest, with estimates of 20,000 people. From 700 until the early 13th century, in fact, it was larger than London.
The interpretive center is well worth devoting a couple of hours to—there are fascinating exhibits on food sources, construction, family life, religion, architecture, and also the various strange fates to the main mound pyramid in the centuries after the city was mysteriously abandoned. Climbing to the top, the clear view of downtown in the distance conveys just how much this structure stood out in this flat landscape. (And I do have to wonder what the hell people who happen to look while driving by on 55 think it is!)
Much of St. Louis worth seeing today, however, comes from its heyday in the late 19th century and early 20th century. My first stop after landing was to one of that era’s crown jewels—its central library. With funds donated by Andrew Carnegie and designed by one of that era’s most prominent architects, Cass Gilbert, the library was a monumental statement to the city’s status. “There is no library in Europe that has been developed on a like scale in the same length of time,” the St. Louis Globe-Democrat declared. (It also has an incredible secret treasure inside.)
From there I checked into my home for the next few days, the Hotel St. Louis. Part of Marriott’s Autograph collection, it’s housed in the formerly vacant Union Trust Company Building, also a Louis Sullivan creation.
The hotel is downtown, which is where most first-time visitors to the city will likely flock, given that the famous Gateway Arch is right there and so is the iconic Wainwright Building (depending on how you define it, one of the first skyscrapers, and also a design from Sullivan’s firm; only Chicago possesses more Sullivan jewels). But St. Louis is a city in which the attractions are far-flung (representative, as one person observed, of a midsize city that is really more a collection of distinct small cities), and so my first visit was a couple miles away at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
To be honest, wandering its grounds, I’m a bit envious as a resident of D.C. that our country’s capital lacks anything to compare with this. Yes, we have big open parks and some mansions with lovely smaller gardens, but nothing on this scale. Modeled after Kew Gardens in London (and like Kew a research center), the garden is the second largest botanical garden in the U.S. While I was there, the azaleas, dogwoods, and redbuds were in full bloom and the tulips were on their last legs. While it’s certainly worthwhile timing a visit based on certain blooms, all seasons have something special about them (including winter, as the Japanese garden in snow is supposed to be spectacular). When you go, see if the little museum on the grounds has any exhibitions on—an upcoming one is about the garden’s horticulturists’ central role in discovering the pest that destroyed Europe’s vineyards in the 19th century.
But the best way to dive into 19th century St. Louis history is back in the city core. If there’s one thing we love at Beast Travel, it’s a house with a scandalous tale to tell. And, boy, does Campbell House fit that to a T. The Italianate townhouse in the Lucas Place neighborhood was home to the wealthy mercantile Campbell family and is one of the few buildings left from the brief era when this was the elegant part of town. (St. Louis expanded so rapidly at the close of the 19th century that ritzy spots often weren’t very soon.) Thanks to some photographs from 1885, the house is nearly exactly as the Campbells had it. Think Victorian clutter, elaborately carved dark wood, smoked glass, and unfathomable oddities tucked here and there. (While I wouldn’t necessarily decorate with one, I did find the art of lithophanes fascinating.)
The family’s scandalous story begins with the romantic interest on the part of Robert Campbell (31) and future bride Virginia (13). Eventually they married and she gave birth to 13 children, only three of whom (Hugh, Hazlett, and James) survived into adulthood. None married. James became part of the artsy set in Paris in the late 19th century before dying at 30 of the flu. Hazlett was likely severely mentally ill, and never left the house. One result of his illness is that the house remained untouched in terms of its decor for years and remained as such when the family was no more (Hazlett outlived Hugh).
After the tour (truly an A+ tour) I was starving, so I headed to Balkan Treat Box to see what all the fuss was about. It’s a fast-casual restaurant that grew out of one of the country’s most critically acclaimed food trucks. I tried the döner (meat, onion, cheese, cabbage, tomato, and sauce in the Balkan somun bread ) and the sutlija (rice pudding with pistachio and rose petals). Both were delicious and made me miss the Balkans.
My daytime activities culminated in a location so hard to describe that I’m almost at a loss for words: City Museum. A physical embodiment of the capacity for imagination, it’s a complex inside the old Industrial Shoe Building where artists have used and repurposed pieces of building facades, planes, buses, cars, aquariums, banisters, memorial markers, and art to create a place for people (young and old) to explore and play. It’s weird, it’s fascinating, and it’s totally a place you can be somebody a little more playful than you might be in your ordinary life.
That night, I was reminded how idiotic anybody sounds who is surprised by how good restaurants are in the middle part of America. Instead, people with the myopic view that only exciting food is being made in big coastal cities are actually missing out on some of the most delicious menus going. The reason I was reminded of this was the superb meal I had at Vicia in the city’s burgeoning Central West End. They weren’t fussy or excessively complicated—just delightful and fantastic for bringing me to appreciate ingredients in ways I hadn’t (I’d never ever savored a radish before).
The other restaurant that I cannot say enough great things about during my visit was iNDO, a spot in Botanical Heights focused on South Asian fare. (The Isaan Hamachi was to die for.) My final evening was spent walking from iNDO to Lafayette Square, a neighborhood with beautiful rowhouses from the late 19th century and chic restaurants and bars. I was there, though, for the ice cream at Clementine’s.
Before flying home the next day I had two final classic tourist stops. The first was at the Gateway Arch, the world’s tallest arch and the Western hemisphere’s tallest man-made monument. Designed by Eero Saarinen, it soars more than 600 feet above the Mississippi River and now has a brand new (free) museum attached that I wish I’d had more time to explore. There are exhibitions on the city’s role as a gateway to the West, on the historic neighborhood that was demolished to make way for the Arch (a decision that forever cut the city off from the river), on the fight over racial equality in the building of the arch, and the competition for its design. Then you can go up the arch itself in tram cars (if you’re even slightly claustrophobic, steer clear).
While the Pulitzer Foundation was sadly closed while I was there, I was able to get a taste of other parts of that family’s art history legacy as a significant portion of the collection at the St. Louis Art Museum is from the Pulitzers. Held in a Cass Gilbert-designed building inspired by the Baths of Caracalla and an expansion by David Chipperfield, the collection makes it one of the best regional art museums in the country. It has everything from the gigantic Matisse Bathers with a Turtle to Horace Pippin’s Sunday Morning Breakfast. Needing some fresh air and a bite to eat, I grabbed a scooter and zoomed along Lindell Boulevard to gaze at some of the mansions it’s famous for before heading back across the park to Nomad to quickly grab one of its famed pastrami sandwiches (lived up to the hype) before heading to the airport.
Getting on the plane, I texted a friend who also does many cross-country trips and is always trying to decide where to stop. St. Louis, I told him, is a must.
STAY: Hotel St. Louis
EAT: Vicia, iNDO, Balkan Treat Box, Nomad
SEE: Bellefontaine Cemetery, Cahokia, Wainwright Building, Botanical Garden, City Museum, Campbell House Museum, Central Library, Gateway Arch, St. Louis Art Museum, Lafayette Park