Last Updated on July 24, 2023

St. Louis.

Beer and baseball.

That’s what this most American of American cities is best known for. Budweiser and the Cardinals.

There’s more to the Gateway City however than suds and Stan (Musial).

On my most recent of many visits to St. Louis in spring of 2023, I fell in with some locals who took me off the beaten tourist path. Consider this “secret St. Louis,” an insider’s adventure. Don’t worry, you’ll still have time to see the Arch.

The Missouri Botanical Garden is hardly a secret, but its herbarium is. A herbarium is like a library of plants. It’s primary source material, dried and labeled plant specimens arranged for researchers allowing for easy retrieval access and archival storage.

The Missouri Botanical Garden’s herbarium is the second largest in the U.S. with nearly seven million plants catalogued. To put that figure into context, 500,000 is considered a lot.

Gardens and Nature

MBG Herbarium staff members outreach around the world contributing to plant science and conservation. Similar to top zoos, Missouri Botanical Garden’s mission isn’t merely displaying beautiful plants to the public, it’s a leading research institution.

The MBG Herbarium doesn’t have walk-in visitor hours, but if you’re interest in plants trends toward the extreme, or you’re with a conservation organization or educational group, contact them about arranging a tour.

An MBG “secret” everyone can take advantage of is its Whitaker Music Festival held Wednesday nights throughout the summer in the garden’s amphitheater. It is the only time when picnicking is permitted anywhere in the gardens.

One more. Each year on Labor Day weekend, the MBG hosts a Japanese Festival in its largest in North America Japanese Garden. It’s the only time visitors are allowed on the Garden’s Japanese tea ceremony island.

Japanese gardens at Missouri Botanical Gardens with Dale Chihuly special exhibition glass art installation.
Japanese gardens at Missouri Botanical Gardens with Dale Chihuly special exhibition glass art installation. Photo by Chadd Scott.

If, like me, your interest in plants centers around native plants, ecology, restored habitats and natural settings, the MBG also operates the Shaw Nature Reserve 35 miles west of the main gardens. Here, trails wind through 2,400 acres of prairie, woodlands and wetlands offering a small taste of what this former wonderland of biodiversity looked like.

On your way to the Shaw Nature Reserve, you’ll pass right by the World Bird Sanctuary. On 305 wooded acres, aviaries house birds from around the world – hawks, eagles, owls, vultures, parrots – plus reptiles and other animals.

The MBG additionally has under its care the Butterfly House 18 miles west of the flagship location. The 8,000-square-foot Conservatory Gardens serve as home to 60 tropical butterfly species with the surrounding grounds welcoming local and migratory varieties to its landscape of native plants. The Butterfly House opened in 1998 and became the first dedicated insect facility in the world to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the gold-standard organization overseeing facilities holding animals captive.

Nature lovers could easily spend a full day between Shaw, WBS and Butterfly House.

Another one for plant lovers.

Back in town across the street from the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, visit Park-Like, a previously abandoned half-acre paved lot painstakingly returned to a landscape benefiting pollinators, birds and people. Even micro-spaces like this can provide meaningful support of biodiversity, stormwater filtration, flooding mitigation, clean air, reduction of the urban heat island effect and community beautification. Park-Like should be repeated 100,000 times across America.

The Pulitzer Arts Foundation also manages Spring Church, 100-yards away, ideal for a striking Instagram photo. Both sites are free and open from sunrise to sunset.

Be sure to stop into the museum as well where admission is free and you can send a complimentary Pulitzer Arts Foundation postcard anywhere in the U.S.

Food and Drink

The botanical library at Still 630 distillery.
The botanical library at Still 630 distillery. Photo by Chadd Scott.

St. Louis has more than 60 craft breweries, but it’s also home to the world’s best gin for 2023 as decreed by the American Distilling Institute. That would be Still 630 Confluence Gin which incorporates horseradish, Durango root and pink peppercorn into the botanical mix.

The distillery is so named for the measurement in feet of both the height and width of the Gateway Arch which looms over the former Hardee’s restaurant it calls home. The horseradish takes inspiration from Collinsville, IL, a 20-minute drive to the east and the horseradish capital of the world.

Founder and distiller Dave Weglarz makes all his spirits on site including the award-winning gin, rye whiskey, bourbons, rums and more with open hours to the public Friday nights from 5:00-9:00. Free samples! Tours of the distillery with Weglarz can be scheduled online.

Gin is a decidedly grown-up taste, for expertly prepared “kid food,” visit 4 Hands Brewing Co. four-tenths of a mile from Still 630 and seven-tenths of a mile from the Cardinals’ Busch Stadium. While the tots, potato chip nachos and bologna sandwich may make you long for Saturday morning cartoons, the giant fish sandwich – paired with a brew – reminds that adulting can be fun, too.

Adulting is especially enjoyable at The Lucky Accomplice where it’s Turning Red cocktail with tequila, raicilla, roasted red pepper, mandarin, chili and lime stands out as one of the best mixed drinks I’ve ever had. Put it together with the decadent Focaccia bread with sunchoke miso butter.

On the subject of bread, Chef Gerard Craft is nearly as revered in “the Lou” as the ballplayers. The first-ever St. Louis honoree of a James Beard Award for “Best Chef: Midwest,” Craft has been shaking up the food scene here for over a decade with restaurants he either cooks at, consults for or advocates on behalf of across town.

At the Cinder House fine dining restaurant in the Four Seasons hotel overlooking the Mississippi River, a special recipie recalling Craft’s childhood is always available to order, but not on the menu. This is “Dia’s Cheese Bread,” so named after the chef’s Brazilian nanny who served the specialty to him as an after-school snack growing up in the Washington, D.C. area.

Made from tapioca flour – meaning it’s gluten free – parmesan, cheddar and eggs, cooked in a specialty oven, the buns have a crunchy, salty crust and a rich, doughy, chewy middle.

I don’t have a sweet tooth, but I do have a “carby” tooth. If, like me, you can’t get enough baked goods, drop by Turn for a flight of brunch biscuits!

Tower Grove Farmer’s Market is the best in the city if you want to do you own cooking.

Blueprint Coffee and specialty roaster serves up the No. 1 cup of Joe in St. Louis and the pastry case is strong as well.

At Bulrush, you’ll experience a culinary crusade unlike any other. Devout epicureans should do themselves a favor and secure a prized seat at Rob Connoley’s table for his Ozark tasting menu. The two-time James Beard semi-finalist is researching historic food ways in the region, foraging, and cooking in the round Thursdays through Sundays. Reservations are a MUST!

Art and Culture

Henri Matisse, Bathers with a Turtle (1907-08). Saint Louis Museum of Art.
Henri Matisse, Bathers with a Turtle (1907-08). Saint Louis Museum of Art. Photo by Chadd Scott.

I cover the arts for a living, but even I was unaware of the painting St. Louis Art Museum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Simon Kelly considers “the best Matisse in America.” That would be SLAM’s Bathers with a Turtle (1907-08), a clear response to Picasso’s Les Demoiselle d’Avignon – notice the faces recalling African masks. The hefty figures are a departure for Matisse.

The St. Louis Art Museum is no secret, it’s one of the best art museums in the U.S., but admission is free so drop in anyway. The Lou’s “secret” art museum is the Kemper Art Museum at Washington University. Here you’ll find paintings from Willem de Kooning, Max Ernst, Marsden Hartley, Picasso, Jackson Pollock and others as good as anywhere.

Admission at the Kemper, like SLAM, is also free. St. Louis’ defining characteristic for visitors may be the unequaled number and quality of free attractions, without question the most and highest caliber in America, additionally including the city’s world-class zoo.

Washington University also hosts The Black Rep. Since 1976, the Black-founded and Black-led theatre company has been putting on productions from Black writers with Black performers.

Back over by Bulrush, Turn and Blueprint Coffee – all within a block of each other – the Walls Off Washington mural project is one of a series of efforts by the Kranzberg Arts Foundation to turn the Grand Center neighborhood into the most exciting arts district in America. There’s also a one-ring, open air, circus big top here hosting performances and events (no animals) on the other side of Josephine Baker Blvd. – she’s a St. Louisan, so is Nelly, Cedrick the Entertainer, John Goodman, Maya Angelou, Jon Hamm, Jenna Fischer, Betty Grable, Vincent Price, Miles Davis, Red Foxx and Chuck freaking Berry!

I digress.

The Pulitzer Arts Foundation and Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis are a half-mile away. In between, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra calls Powell Hall, one of the most striking performing arts venues in the nation, home. SLSO is the nation’s second oldest symphony orchestra and one of the handful of its best. Powell Hall closed for a $100 million renovation after the 2023 season, but  will reopen in 2025.

A host of other creative spaces for visual artists, recording artists, performance artists and Sophie’s Artist Lounge nightspot call the neighborhood home.

Ornate ceiling inside Powell Hall foyer.
Ornate ceiling inside Powell Hall foyer. Photo by Chadd Scott.

And don’t miss the Paint Louis graffiti festival held each Labor Day weekend where hundreds of artists from around the nation converge on the Lou to paint its 20-foot-tall, 2-mile-long downtown flood barrier wall.

Black History

One last “secret” St. Louis stop that’s a secret even to most locals.

This city may be best known for baseball, but it has soccer in its bones as well. St. Louis has long been a hotbed for the sport in America. It had an old North American Soccer League team from 1968-1977.

St. Louis City Soccer Club debuted as a Major League Soccer expansion franchise in 2023. That’s the top rung of professional soccer in North America.

The team premiered in a brand-new open-air stadium in the middle of town in front of 22,000-plus already rabid fans. The stadium sits in the former Mill Creek Valley neighborhood. This was a once-thriving African American community before being devastated by racist “urban renewal” efforts which targeted such communities across the country – another in an unending sequence of violence and abuse perpetrated against Black people since European colonizers first landed on what is now called America.

Right outside the stadium, an art installation – Pillars of the Valley commemorates the mostly-forgotten neighborhood and its residents.

Let Mill Creek Valley be a secret no more.

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