St Louis & Kansas City, Missouri

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March 28th 2014
Published: March 28th 2014
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St Louis – Missouri

It’s up at 7am to get ready and get the Greyhound from Nashville to St Louis. We get a cab from the hostel and bid farewell to Ron the owner. The cabbie is an Indian guy from Bangalore who’s moved here from California and it’s really interesting to hear his view of the difference between the 2 parts of the US; California is expensive, more liberal and kinky while Nashville is easy going but safe, conservative and cheaper.

The bus is pretty full and the trip takes us through the Great Plains (miles and miles of it with isolated and very clean, shining farms – shades of the Amish in Pennsylvania and we do see a sign saying Amish Food for sale. We travel through Kentucky, Indiana & Illinois into St Louis Missouri where we arrive at 5.30pm

The St Louis Bus station is integrated with Amtrak and in Downtown – a first. They could do with an information point as we struggled to get any info on how to get to the Hotel for a while. The hotel hadn’t been too helpful either when we had emailed them before all they could suggest was catch a cab. However, it seemed like we could do a Metro Link train nearer the place and either walk or catch a bus. A black woman who sees that we are struggling offers some help and then gives us 6 tickets (2hours bus travel on each) to get the train and bus in town as she gets these at work free. Wow – welcome to St Louis hospitality. We get the Metro Link train – a sort of over ground Tube to Grand Station 3 stops away then a 70 bus as advised by the station staff to The Water Tower Inn on the St Louis University campus site. Its a nice room on the 6th floor with great views of the Water Tower and the St Louis skyline, however there’s no fridge or microwave but breakfast is included for the $75 per night. There’s a good choice of stuff including some fruit but the quality of most of the food is crap. It’s basically a University run enterprise and isn’t very professionally run but great value.

The South Grand Boulevard is 1 mile away and full of eateries so we head off there as we are starving (only had some homemade rolls/crisps on the bus) – mainly ethnic food (Thai, Ethiopian, Persian, Moroccan, Vietnamese etc). We couldn’t find a bar in sight – amazing given that the Uni is not far. We end up in The City Diner – a really nice place and have some local Schlafly beer – really good, which was recommended by Tyson our waiter – good call as was the grilled Catfish & St Louis bbq ribs – what else. We go down there again the next night after a disappointing trip to find a local IMO’s famous St Louis Pizza (we’re not sure one table in a take out shop constitutes a restaurant!). This time it’s junk food – Chilly dog & Philly Cheese sandwich – the latter is ace. Though we do try a local speciality for starters – Fried Ravioli – better than we expected. Another local speciality we tried as a snack for lunch was the Gooey Butter Pie – it’s actually really good.

We take a trip into Downtown after breakfast at the Inn. We get a lift from the Inn courtesy bus to Grand station and get into Downtown on the Metro Link Train. The Riverfront area (along the Mississippi River) has buildings that reflect St Louis’ history – many of the old warehouses have been converted to Hotels, bars and restaurants, but quite a few still stand derelict.

The main sight of the city is The Gateway – a massive arch to reflect the city’s place in the US as ‘the gateway’ to the west during the depression when folks travelled to California due to the gold rush. The arch has an internal trolley that takes folks up to look out via small openings in the structure at its apex. Whilst it seems a folly – it’s quite impressive and can be seen from various spots downtown.

The city itself was founded by a French Fur-Trapper called Laclede who named the city after King Louis the then king of France. The city itself has only 350K dwellers, but the greater metropolitan area has 2.5million and it’s the 18th largest city in the US. The area has a number of neighbourhoods which are spread over a vast area. The only way to really see and enjoy the city in a short time is to have a car. As we are reliant on public transport we have to prioritise where we go and what we see. However, to get an overview and good orientation we get the Trolley tour run by The St Louis Fun Tour Company which is useful but we have done better tours.

Areas we are impressed with but won’t have time to explore are Forest Park – definitely a go to spot but you need a car and lots of time. It’s larger than Central Park in NYC. There are many attractions here and most of them free e.g. the city zoo, The Art Museum etc. There are 2 golf courses there (which have to be paid for), the site of the 1904 Olympic games and just off here some amazing homes of the rich and famous. The Hill is an Italian neighbourhood, and the Washington University Campus is also interesting but we’ll not have time to visit.

The city has been regenerated a lot since the bad old days of the 70s and 80s when gangs ruled significant sections of the city. However, it has got it’s act together, reinvented itself very well and the city is clean and safe. Many areas are now trendy and have bars, music clubs and restaurants. The area we stayed in is considered bohemian – South Grand; other areas we explore are Lafayette Square which is definitely a lovely place to live; Soulard next door is up and coming (a sort of Hackney on the way up), it has a large farmers market; Downtown is where a lot of the main sights and The Arch is; The Loop and Delmar– which is pretty funky and retro with a music scene.

Many great musicians played or were from here – The Rat Pack visited, & Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry still lives here (aged 85) and plays once a month at the Blueberry Hill Club on The Loop, Miles Davis was born here as was Scott Joplin. Tennessee Williams was born here as was Maya Angelou – both famous authors.

On our last day, the weather is amazing and we buy a $7 each Metro day ticket so we can explore more areas. We go to Lafayette Square and get a Gooey Butter Cake from Park Ave Coffee – really good place. Then Soulard’s and the Farmers market where a couple of young Amish guys are selling their produce. It’s a mix of fruit and veg, snacks, beers, fish and handicraft stalls.

We walk to town for the St Patrick’s Day parade via the Cardinals (Baseball team) Stadium with impressive sculpture of some of their stars. Market Street is the main parade venue and it’s a sea of green with friends and families having a great time in the sunshine and enjoying the parade. We also visit the area when it’s quiet and its quite attractive with lots of street sculptures and small parks. We then visit The Loop area and try another St Louis speciality – a frozen custard – a sort of thick custard ice cream – pretty good really. The famous one is Ted Drewes but it’s too far to get to without a car. Then it’s a train ride into Illinois (just because) – which is across the river and back again.

For our last night’s dinner we finally go to an Imo’s that is a restaurant for a St Louis style Pizza - an extra thin crispy pizza invented here many years ago and very popular and we can understand why.

Overall, St Louis was a nice place to visit, but not somewhere to go back to as a tourist.

Kansas City – Missouri

We are up at 5am to catch the 7.30am Greyhound bus from Downtown to Kansas City. The weather is now cold (23 degrees) and the forecast is for snow. The bus gets off ½ hr late and is a pretty good ride and we get to Kansas City on time. As it’s been sleeting we catch a cab to our Motel – America’s Best value Inn on 32nd & Boulevard. It’s basic but comfortable, at a good location and affordable – booked via It’s a great location for bus travel around town if you don’t have a car. The breakfast is pretty crap, though there is a fridge, microwave and TV in the room.

Surprisingly the weather improves & the sun comes out so we go to The Plaza – a very newish and rather strange Country Club Plaza which is American in every way. It’s designed like a Spanish town – shades of Seville, with colourful tiles and fountains, but looks so contrived and expensive – Burberry, Tiffany, Marc Jacobs are all here. It’s a sort of flash the cash plaza. Not quite us. After an hour walking around we pass and go home.

Nearer the motel is Westport, a trendy middle class area with lots of cafes and eateries and an Irish community neighbourhood which makes it the heart of the St Patricks Day parade. We find within walking distance of our pad a great Mexican place – Sol Cantina for dinner – good crab cakes, awesome quesadillas filled with bbq burnt ends and a Cubana – a pork belly sandwich, really fab.

Yeah – it’s St Patrick’s Day and the sun is out. The local parade starts from outside our place – looks like fun but lower key than St Louis. After a few pics we head off to see the delights of KC Downtown. First stop the Financial District – not much to say other than it’s noticeable that US cities have less banks and and hardly any Estate agents on their main streets than the UK. There are some interesting older buildings though.

Down to the Riverfront (the river Missouri flows by on which the steam boats brought trade and people) and learn that the City is actually named after a local American Indian Tribe. The settlers here seemed to have more of a trading relationship with the local Indian tribes than elsewhere even if they did believe in slavery. Much of the labouring done for the building of the city was by Irish workers.

There is a River Market and a City Market by the river but most of it seemed closed as it’s busy only weekends. KC looks like a city being renovated – it’s sprawling over miles and miles but the old industrial areas still look derelict. There seem to be more Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern immigrants here. There’s even have a Chinese Diner (Drive Thru as well). Another fashionable thing seems to be ‘The Hookah Bar’ – both in St Louis and KC.

Next we get to the Power & Light District which is a small block of bars and restaurants – relatively new near the new look home of the KC Monarch’s Baseball stadium. There is the local Theatre with acts such as Diana Ross, Katy Perry, etc due. The place is definitely into music – Jazz and the Blues – and food – they have allegedly 650 restaurants listed on trip advisor. It seems to us that it’s ‘the in thing’ for US cities to become centres of culinary excellence as part of their reinvention.

The Crossroads Arts District is next but it’s no Wynwood (Miami). You have to look hard for the Art though we do find a few nice murals. Then we make our way to the Historic Jazz District at 18th & Vine – as the Museum is closed we’ll be back but go for lunch at the ‘World Famous Arthur Bryants BBQ’. It’s pretty busy and boy do they serve big plates for about $10 or £6 each and really cool beer. We try combos of their Pulled Pork & Brisket Burnt End with fries and Brisket Sandwich with spare ribs and beans. The winners were Brisket Burnt Ends and Brisket sandwich & the fries (not forgetting the jugs of beer). Well worth the trip.

To give you an idea of how exciting KC is we are prepared to spend about an hour on the bus to get to Walmart (and 45 mins getting back) – miles away but on the local bus routes. We pass many neighbourhoods – some pretty run down, some others a bit more upscale. The Day bus pass is only $3 each so see the city if you have time to kill by riding various buses to various destinations.

What is noticeable here is that the level of obesity seems to be higher than elsewhere and the majority of folks travelling by bus are black people or poorer white folks and people with a disability.

On our last day here we take the bus to the Historic 18th and Vine District where the American Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum are located in a predominantly black neighbourhood. During the segregation years the city rules did not permit black folks to live beyond certain streets of the City. (Interestingly, while we are here Obama awards 24 Medals of Honour to those who were passed over because of racial discrimination during the Korean & Vietnam Wars. We are repeatedly struck by the way the US has tried to re-write history to present itself in only a positive light. At last it seems the re-writing is correcting this.)

The neighbourhood is famous for its Jazz roots and Bird Charlie Parker was born here and there is a memorial to him in the back. Other greats who performed here or were influenced by the Kansas City Jazz sound (whose roots were in Blues music), were Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louie Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald to name a few. This was in the 1930 to the 50s. They referred to KC as ‘The Paris of The Plains’. KC was along with New Orleans, Chicago and New York, one of the main centres of Jazz.

The museum is a fitting tribute to the many Jazz artists and provides a good history and insight into the evolution of Jazz though the years, from ‘Soundies’ (the earliest videos of songs in the 1920s ), through the movies, bebop and then modern Jazz.

Later we go to the other ‘World Famous Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ’ which is in a gas station across the state line in Kansas. Even at 3.30pm it’s pretty full. It’s had a load of good press (including Anthony Boudain) so we felt we had to try it even if it meant a mile long walk from the bus stop.

We have the Z-Man Sandwich which was reasonable with Brisket, smoked Provolone & Onion rings fried, the rest – chips and brisket sandwich were a real disappointment. Arthur Bryant wins hands down for us. It seems the guys are just trading on their name & the food quality has suffered. Ah well – such is life & we will try reviewing both of them on trip advisor.

In hindsight we’re not sure why we came to KC – other than its reputation for good BBQ. It was definitely worth going to the Jazz museum but other than that it’s just another city.

Memphis, here we come!

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