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A Day in St. Louis - 2/8/2001

Our neighbors to the north have themselves quite a fine city.

Paul Gerald

I love playing tour guide," Suzanne said as she cranked up the car. "It's like seeing the city all over again."

We started with coffee. It was a December day in a city that always seems a lot colder than Memphis, colder than a mere four-hour drive north should be. Perhaps not coincidentally, St. Louis is also a little ahead of Memphis on the hip coffee shop scene. We went to a neighborhood called Soulard, an old French district with wrought-iron rails like the ones in New Orleans and with a farmer's market that dates back to 1779. Soulard also shows signs of urban pioneer activity: a high density of bars and restaurants. We had lattes and fresh bagels under contemporary art and got back on the streets.

Along the way we saw Tower Grove Park, opened in 1868, where you can rent gazebos decorated in the style of different countries. We saw the big fancy houses, in the city's trademark red brick, of Compton Heights and Lafayette Square, and it occurred to me that all my life I had it wrong about St. Louis. I grew up thinking two things about the city: I hated the kids because they always got snow (and therefore no school) when we got rain, and it was a backward Memphis: East St. Louis is scary, West County is nice.

But St. Louis is a lot bigger, much older, and on the face of it seems far more cosmopolitan. Its parks seem bigger, its old houses are more impressive, its history goes farther back. Lewis and Clark started and ended their trip here almost 200 years ago, and the West looms in the city's attractions like the blues and Elvis do in Memphis.

So to honor that history, we did the one thing you have to do in St. Louis: We went to the Arch. There's a decent museum at the base, and if you time it right there will be fewer than a million people in line to go to the top. But claustrophobes be warned: They put you in these little egg-shaped capsules with four other people, with knees touching, no room to stand, and a tiny window. It can be a long few minutes in that egg. At the top you're in a tiny room 630 feet above the river, so acrophobes beware too. It's worth the ride, though, if only to check it off the "to do" list.

Still downtown, we swung by the Bowling Hall of Fame, because if there's anything this traveler loves it's a goofy museum. Did you know the history of bowling goes back 5,000 years? And can you name a pro bowler other than Earl Anthony? Well, there are hundreds of others to choose from and admire here, as well as a bowling-pin car and a chance to bowl a few frames on an old-timey, non-automated lane. It's also conveniently located in the same building as the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame.

Suzanne then showed me Laclede's Landing, a sort of Beale Street by the river, before we went over to The Hill for lunch. The Hill is the city's Italian neighborhood, where every restaurant has checkered tablecloths and even the fire hydrants are painted in the colors of the Italian flag. They still play bocce here -- more bowling -- and in a grocery called John Viviano & Sons I counted 12 varieties of olives and probably two dozen olive oils. Their Web site lists 75 pastas.

The main activity for the afternoon was a visit to the City Museum. I have never visited a place so poorly named. Admit it: When you read "City Museum," you envision historical displays, old pictures, and portraits of white men. You didn't imagine, I'd wager, an enchanted forest with explorable caves. Or an interactive circus. Or a guy blowing glass. Or a display of hundreds of doorknobs. Or a slide from the mezzanine to the first floor. Or a treehouse accessed by crawling up a hollow log. Or the Museum of Mirth, Mystery and Mayhem. The City Museum rocks the socks off every other museum on earth.

For dinner we had Thai in the Central West End, near Forest Park, site of the 1904 World's Fair and now a 1,400-acre setting for trails, lakes, museums, a zoo, and a golf course. If Overton Park were four times bigger and 10 times more developed, it would be Forest Park.

For dessert, at the end of our day in St. Louis, we had to go to Crown Candy Kitchen. Any place which has, since 1913, made all its own ice cream and "still practices the venerable art of confectionery" must be visited. They do not mess around at Crown Candy: I had a Crown Sundae with fudge and caramel sauces and butter-roasted pecans. We didn't go for the Malted Challenge: If you can knock back five 24-ounce malts in 30 minutes, they're free and your name goes on the wall.

We had already gotten our fill -- me of St. Louis and Suzanne of being a tour guide -- and the next day it was back on the road. But at least now I know a little more about our neighbors to the north.
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