Two hundred years ago, St. Louis was the last place Lewis and Clark could buy gunpowder before paddling into the Wild West. Today, it has grown into the 15th largest metropolitan area in the country. But while it's matured, the city still has a wild edge reminiscent of the frontier days.
St. Louis contains more than six dozen neighborhoods, each with its own character. Some are more conducive to mingling than others. The Central West End is home to galleries and antiques shops, sidewalk cafes and bars. As the website Explore St. Louis says, the neighborhood is "a little European, a little New York and totally St. Louis." It also boasts the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, which has the world's largest collection of mosaic art.
The St. Louis metro area (population 2.8 million) includes eight counties in Missouri and eight in Illinois. Lots of nice suburbs lie to the north and west in St. Charles County: three of these, St. Peters (55,000), O'Fallon (75,000) and St. Charles (64,000), made the list of best 100 small cities in a 2008 study by Money magazine.
St. Louis is one of America's "most livable communities," according to Partners for Livable Communities, with lots of walkable places. The American Planning Association recently honored the Delmar Loop in University City as one of the 10 Great Streets in America, and the warehouse buildings downtown have recently been remade into glitzy residential lofts. There are also village-style developments out in the suburbs, such as WingHaven in O'Fallon, New Town at St. Charles and Park Plaza in Edwardsville, Ill.
The metro has more than 30 degree-granting institutions, including several community college campuses and seven schools with enrollments of more than 10,000. Washington University and Webster University are private colleges; the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville are public; and Saint Louis University is a Jesuit college.
Nature lovers bask in the city's 105 parks. The jewel of the system is Forest Park, the 1,293-acre site of the 1904 World's Fair and now home to the city's sublime zoo and first-class museums of art, history and science. Forest Park also harbors the Municipal Opera, golf courses, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and facilities for bicycling, boating, fishing, handball, ice skating and more.
Powell Hall, home of the renowned St. Louis Symphony, is a few blocks away from Forest Park. The neoclassical Central Library building anchors a large library system. And Union Station, built in 1892, reopened in 1985 as a hotel, shopping and entertainment complex, and is now a major attraction.
Downsides include bad air pollution and humid summers. But a mug of local beer in an air-conditioned bar or sidewalk cafe can ease both of those ills.