An expansive green space flanked by an art museum, history museum, and zoo. A botanical garden featuring ornately sculpted landscaping, glass accents, and intoxicating flowers. A world-class symphony, smoky blues clubs, and concert halls that entice the eye as much as the ear. Think I’m speaking of New York, Chicago, or San Francisco? You’d be close, but not quite right. You can find these arts attractions (and many more) in St. Louis.
When you think of St. Louis, you probably imagine the ubiquitous Arch, sports teams such as the Cardinals and Rams, or the region’s famous toasted ravioli. But on a recent visit, I found the city’s thriving arts scene is worth a closer look. Rivaling the majors in excellence (and undercutting most on price), St. Louis may just be the best arts destination you never knew about.
“It’s a well-kept secret,” says Jill McGuire, executive director, Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis. When it comes to the arts, “We have a lot, and the things we have are extremely top quality.”
The city is also a top value destination. “St. Louis is definitely affordable,” says Kara Roca, a lifelong St. Louis resident. “We have many free events and hotels are affordable, [there’s] less traffic, and it’s easier to get around.”
St. Louis is known for the blues, with artists such as Ike Turner, Chuck Berry, and Henry Townsend having written and performed in the city. Today, visitors can catch live blues any night of the week, with choice venues including BB’s Jazz, Blues, and Soups and Hammerstones. And while not exclusive to blues, you may be able to see Chuck Berry, 80 years old and still going strong, at Blueberry Hill. St. Louis also hosts the free Big Muddy Blues Festival each Labor Day, which typically features multiple local bands on five stages.
The city is also a prime destination for theater. Jeff Archuleta, co-owner and innkeeper of Napoleon’s Retreat Bed & Breakfast Inn, says, “We get a lot of live theater at any one time. I’m surprised at how many touring shows come here and don’t go to nearby cities like Memphis [or] Kansas City.” Venues worth a visit include the Fox Theatre, St. Louis Black Repertory Theater, and the Repertory Theater of St. Louis.
McGuire recommends the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for music lovers. “We have a really amazing young conductor, David Robertson, and the selection of music is amazing. He has been wooed and courted by every city, including Chicago, and we got him. We are so excited.”
On my recent visit, I toured the acoustically perfect Sheldon Concert Hall. Concerts typically cover rock, folk, and blues. The venue also holds an art gallery you can tour for free before or after a performance.
I found the Missouri Botanical Gardens serene and contemplative. I especially enjoyed the Dale Chihuly exhibit, running through October 31, in which the famous artist has incorporated his glass sculptures throughout the extensive gardens. Other must-sees: the Victorian Area, which features a traditional Victorian garden and a labyrinth; and the 14-acre Japanese Garden, the largest of its kind in the Western hemisphere. Its quiet setting includes a lake, waterfalls, and walking bridge. Roca also recommends the garden’s free outdoor concerts in spring and summer.
St. Louis blends attractive outdoor spaces with cultural centers at Forest Park. “Most people don’t know it’s bigger than Central Park,” says McGuire. Chief among its cultural institutions is the St. Louis Art Museum, which is always free. Be sure to stop by the Decorative Arts and Design collection, where I saw knights’ shining armor and swords, a wide collection of Tiffany glass, and rooms decorated in a variety of period styles. The museum also holds free concerts on the lawn in the summer.
Both Roca and McGuire cite the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis as a top arts attraction. “The Contemporary is particularly interesting for young people,” says McGuire. “Thursday nights [have] dollar beers, music—it’s a really cool place to be.” Upcoming exhibits include a Jim Hodges/Andy Warhol retrospective and digital video works by New York artist Slater Bradley.
As one who enjoys touring churches (particularly the great cathedrals of Europe), I was enthralled by the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. Designed with both Romanesque and Byzantine influences, the Cathedral holds the largest mosaic collection in the world. Mosaics are used to depict traditional histories and individuals within the faith, but also the story of the Catholicism in America and the city itself. It is quite unique to see this medium used to tell a decidedly American story.
Romanesque influences continue at St. Louis Union Station. Its Grand Hall features a stunning stained-glass window (with hand-cut Tiffany glass) over its main entryway, gold detailing throughout the cavernous expanse, and eye-catching archways. You may be tempted to exit the grand hall for shopping and dining, but I found it worthwhile just to sit and relax, away from the station’s commercial attractions.
And finally, there’s the famous Arch. No trip to St. Louis is complete without a ride to the top. However, claustrophobic travelers beware: The ride, 630 feet up, is via a small pod, or tram. Even alone, it feels like a tight squeeze (five is the limit per pod). Once at the top, though, you can see sweeping views of the city and the Mississippi River. The Arch is also stunning from the vantage point of its base, and the public park grounds surrounding the monument offer a nice setting to while away an afternoon.
Regardless of what types of art you enjoy, St. Louis has an eclectic mix to satisfy a wide variety of weekenders. “[We’re] an extremely friendly town,” says McGuire. “[Visitors] can come to St. Louis and it’s more moderately priced than other cities of the same size. And it’s manageable—it’s easy to go to the symphony and major theaters without a hassle. It’s a place to come and relax. It’s a visual feast for the eyes, doesn’t cost a lot, and is fun.”