It could be a walk in the park. Sometimes, it’s a walk down memory lane. And if you’re lucky, in the case of a food tour, it could be a cakewalk.
There’s no lack of guided walks (and bus tours — and even a trolley tour) available for the taking in the St. Louis area. And they’re not just for out-of-towners — there’s a lot for locals to learn and enjoy. We found and participated in several tours that took us past a tuberculosis hospital, a giant deer and a half-buried giant tire and through an old graveyard where spirits may join your group.
Talk the talk. Go on a walk.
By Go! Magazine staff
Alton Hauntings Walking Tour
“You can’t have ghost tours if you don’t have history,” our guide said before we headed out on a three-hour walking tour around Alton — a town that bills itself as “one of the most haunted small towns in America.”
Our guide was a great storyteller doing a nice job of weaving history with paranormal experiences. He also told a few jokes along the way. The first stop on the tour was an apartment building at 325 Third Street that was once a station on the Underground Railroad. It later became a hospital for tuberculosis patients; thousands died there during that time. Some of those patients “never left,” causing some apartment tenants to break their lease.
A trip down to the underground tunnel of the building was a hot but creepy experience. Our guide turned out all the lights, and we were left in total darkness as he shared chilling stories.
Did you know Alton was home to the first state penitentiary in Illinois? It opened in 1833 and closed in 1857. It reopened during the Civil War to house Confederate prisoners of war. As you may expect, bad things happened there.
The tour ended back on Third Street at the First Unitarian Church. Did my group see the ghost of the suicidal minister Phillip Mercer dressed in his gray suit sitting quietly in a pew near the back of church? I’m not telling. “We never promise anything is going to happen, but sometimes it does,” our guide said.
Be sure to wear comfortable shoes. The tour goes at a leisurely pace and makes frequent stops, but there are steep hills and uneven sidewalks.
By Norma Klingsick
When Various dates, usually Fridays and Saturdays • Where Alton • How much $25 • More info 217-791-7859; altonhauntings.com
Landmarks Association of St. Louis’ Architectural Walking Tours
It’s not the big-picture information that sticks with you most on the Landmarks Association of St. Louis’ architecture tours. It’s the fascinating small details.
Like the subtle way the possibly unpaid terra-cotta artisans working on the Merchant Laclede National Bank let their bosses — and the entire city — know what they thought.
Like the way a million pieces of mail a day were brought to the Old Post Office on a railroad under the ground.
Like the clever way the renowned architect Philip Johnson designed the General American Building to work around the owners’ stipulation that it be no taller than three stories.
The association’s tour of the downtown area (it also offers tours of significant buildings west of Tucker Boulevard and of Washington Avenue) makes perhaps a dozen stops in front of — and sometimes inside — buildings that have helped make St. Louis what it is today.
The tour kicks off on the steps of the Old Courthouse, where guide Paco Garriga gives a history not only of the building but also of the early days of the city. From there it wends its way to the Old Cathedral (where the history lesson includes the founding of St. Louis University High School), past one of the world’s first skyscrapers and through the old financial district on Fourth Street.
By Daniel Neman
When 10 a.m.-noon Saturdays, April through October • Where Downtown St. Louis • How much $10 • More info landmarkstours-stl.org
Laumeier Sculpture Park tours
You can walk around Laumeier Sculpture Park for free any day of the week. So is it worth paying $5 for a one-hour tour? A friend and I went in August to find out.
A regular outdoor tour is scheduled at 2 p.m. the first Sunday of every month (see the park’s website for group and other tours). Only five tour-takers braved the muggy summer day to walk around the 105-acre park and view many of its 60 pieces of artwork.
Docent Wes Morgan, wearing a Cardinals jersey, says he’s been giving tours for years, but he clearly still loves doing it, happily recalling things like who pursued the purchase of many sculptures and how long the pieces had been at the park. We started at the Aronson Fine Arts Center and soon rambled south, stopping at sculptures to learn more about their history, maker and material.
Sculpture parks’ allure comes not just from how the art is placed in nature, but the sheer size of many sculptures. Against a woody backdrop, a giant deer looks lifelike (if in a science fiction movie). A half-buried tire seems like something one might find on a vacant lot. But when Morgan explains how the artist alludes to both Cahokia Mounds and modern technology, the lowly tire acquires gravitas, and its placement seems perfect.
A clockwise walk around the park allowed us to take in a great many of the artworks, and Morgan was still headed toward more after the hour was long spent. Note that much of the walking was over uneven, slightly hilly ground; people in wheelchairs might need to ask if the tour could be modified.
Laumeier has excellent signage for its collection, so some of what the tour offered could be read on one’s own. What was extremely helpful, though, were answers to questions about previous sculptures (some had been on loan and were gone) and tales about how a few had been damaged by weather or vandalism. The tour offered not only more information and background on the artwork, it propelled us out of the air-conditioned indoors and to a captivating destination that caters to art lovers, families, tourists and even dog walkers.
By Jane Henderson
When 2 p.m. first Sunday of month • Where Laumeier Sculpture Park, 12580 Rott Road • How much $5 • More info 314-615-5278; laumeiersculpturepark.org
St. Charles Ghost Tours
It’s hard to tell a ghost story with muscle cars revving and partiers shouting, but Michael Henry manages to weave tales of history mixed with the right amount of spookiness while Saturday night goes on around him and the 20 or so people on his tour.
Henry, who founded St. Charles Ghost Tours in 2003 and is the only person in St. Charles with permission from St. Charles City and St. Charles Historical Society to give the tours, considers himself both a historian and a scientist. He approaches the tales of apparitions with a curiosity from both disciplines.
For our tour, which takes about two hours and travels several blocks down the uneven sidewalks of Main Street, he talked about the particular ghosts that reappear through history: the Lady in White, the man with the handlebar mustache usually seen on the landing at a restaurant, the father running down Main Street. He used a blacklight to show us what he said was blood encased on a brick wall in an alley, reportedly from a sheriff who killed himself there about a century ago.
The highlight was the rebuilt Borromeo Church, near grounds that used to be a graveyard. Henry went into detail about the history of the church, the architecture of the one-room, vertical log building … and the ghosts said to haunt land around it. In fact, he said, several people on the 7 p.m. tour (we were on the 9:30) reported seeing the spirit of a young boy. Henry let us walk around the structure and look in its open windows. Without a doubt, I felt my skin crawl, but alas, I did not see any ghosts.
By Amy Bertrand
When Reservations required • Where Corner of Jefferson and South Main streets • How much $20 • More info 314-374-6102; stcharlesghosts.com
St. Louis Fun Tours
Even if you think you know St. Louis, you’re bound to learn something new aboard a “trolley” on a St. Louis Fun Tour. There’s no walking on this 75-minute journey, but it does cover 23 miles, giving tourists and locals alike glimpses of the best and most interesting parts of the city: the Gateway Arch, Citygarden, City Hall, Forest Park, the Delmar Loop, the Central West End and Midtown.
This is the tour to take if you’re entertaining out-of-town guests, if you’re not super-familiar with the city, if you’re looking to do something different or you want to entertain a kid.
The trolleys are charming, trimmed inside with wood, arched windows and cushioned, metal-and-wood benches. It’s a little difficult to get a good photo of the sights from inside, though our guide pulled over at the top of Art Hill to allow guests to hop off to snap one.
Our group was pretty quiet, and our guide was dry but informative, dishing out interesting and fun morsels along the way.
Masters and Johnson did their sex research at what’s now the Barnes-Jewish Hospital complex. Ronnoco Coffee was founded by two O’Connor brothers, who came up with the company name by spelling their own name backward. A couple got married inside one of the cars of the Ferris wheel at the 1904 World’s Fair — on horseback.
One strength of the tour is it can provide guests with ideas for things to do later: the free Anheuser-Busch tour with free samples at the end, a splash and stroll through Citygarden, the free attractions in Forest Park, root beer at Fitz’s, and barbecue at Sugarfire and Pappy’s barbecue.
Tourist or resident, you’ll hop off the trolley ready to explore more.
By Valerie Schremp Hahn
When 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Nov. 1-March 1, weekends only in offseason • Where Starts at Lumière Place Casino, 999 North Second Street • How much $22, $10 for ages 2-12, $20 for ages 60 and up • More info stlouisfuntours.com
St. Louis Running Tour
After pitching the idea of doing this tour, I had second thoughts. I had exactly 4.5 miles’ worth of second thoughts. I am a runner, but that’s with a lowercase “r.” Would I be able to keep pace? What if I couldn’t finish? What if it is extra muggy that morning?
The information on St. Louis Running Tour’s website helped ease my concerns, but I was still unsure. So I did what any other runner would do: I asked another runner to take the plunge with me.
St. Louis Running Tour is owned an operated by Joe Michaelree, who offers tours of downtown and Forest Park, as well as customizable routes. We opted for the tour of downtown, which begins and ends at the runner statue in Kiener Plaza. The 4.5-mile route meanders through the streets of downtown and the riverfront, with stops that highlight the breadth of St. Louis history. The tour includes photos taken along the way, and water and a T-shirt at the end, if you so choose. The tour takes about 2½ hours, though it may go longer if you enjoy talking with Michaelree as we did.
As a native St. Louisan, I have a basic knowledge of the city’s history, largely gleaned from history classes and long-forgotten school field trips to the Arch and the Old Courthouse. Michaelree covers these basics and then some, with a wealth of hard-to-forget details and big-picture perspectives on how the events not only shaped the city, but often U.S. history at large. Michaelree’s knowledge of the city is thorough, and it is his clear affection for St. Louis, both past and present, that made the tour so much fun.
Most of the information was new to me, and there’s certainly something to be said for physically standing on the spot. While learning about the deadliest fire in St. Louis history — in which 30 people after becoming trapped on the top floors of the original Missouri Athletic Club building — an aptly timed MetroLink train eerily rumbled beneath our feet.
If you are a runner, get a group of friends together and sign up for a tour. And if you’re not a runner, St. Louis Running Tour is a great suggestion for your visiting runner friends. St. Louis Running Tour has weekly tours through the end of August and will resume private and group tours in October.
By Cara DeMichele
When Various times; private and group tours available • Where Downtown and Forest Park • How much $25-$35 • More info stlrunningtour.com
Sweet St. Louis Food Tours
You can learn a lot about a city — and even a neighborhood — through food.
Yvena Lesperance knows that’s true. It’s why she and her husband, Jordan Atkins, launched Sweet St. Louis Food Tours downtown, where they live, a year ago.
“It’s definitely a city of neighborhoods,” she says of St. Louis. “But this neighborhood in particular is revitalizing. Things are changing, and we’re excited about that and excited to show people.”
You needn’t be an out-of-towner to appreciate a food tour. This one even managed to teach me a few things about my own neighborhood.
The Sweet St. Louis experience begins with a bit about downtown’s past and architecture. A typical excursion covers about 2 miles and hits five or six different spots. Lesperance and “foodie ambassador” Meagan Cleary passed around bottles of water for the hot walk.
For the more introverted, the idea of dining with strangers for three hours may not sound like a picnic. But at our first “meal” — at Hiro Asian Kitchen — Lesperance broke the ice by asking each of us what career we dreamed about as a kid. When spring rolls and chicken satay arrived at the table, there was plenty more to discuss.
At each restaurant, you’ll get a snack-size serving, and it all adds up to a good-size meal. After the fourth stop, Sauce on the Side, many in my group agreed that we were stuffed and could eat no more.
But on the walk to the fifth and final location on our tour, we worked up an appetite. It didn’t hurt that we could smell what was cooking from around the corner. At Pharaoh’s Donuts, we stepped behind the scenes to see how doughnuts — about 500 dozen daily, a longtime employee told us, which also are sold at World’s Fair Donuts — were cut, fried, glazed and decorated. Of course, we each chose a doughnut for the road. (Apple fritter for me.)
That final sweet bite — and a group Instagram photo with some new pals — made for a memorable downtown dining experience.
In addition to its Food and Cultural Tour every Saturday, Sweet St. Louis offers a Booze & Bites Tour on Friday evenings.
By Gabe Hartwig
When 11 a.m. Saturdays; reservations required • Where Downtown • How much $56.99 per person • More info sweetstlouisfoodtours.com
More tours to check out
City Cycling Tours
When Flexible starting times daily, with a set highlights tour daily at 10 a.m. • Where Tours start at visitors center in Forest Park • How much $45-$65 per person, depending on group size; reservations required • More info citycyclingtours.com
These tours cover 10 miles of mostly flat ground and travel at a leisurely pace. The tours stop at 18 locations throughout Forest Park, and you’ll learn about the park’s history as well as its flora and fauna.
Eat St. Louis tour
When 11 a.m. most Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays • Where Soulard and The Hill • How much $54, $40 for ages 12 and under • More info saintlouisfoodtours.com
Eat your way through the Hill or Soulard on these walking tours, which take about three hours and provide enough food to count for lunch. Guides will dish out architectural and historical morsels along the way.
Forest Park walking tours
When Various times and dates • Where Various meeting places in Forest Park • How much Free • More info forestparkforever.org/walking-tours
Go on a wildflower walk, take a history tour, or check out a themed tour that focuses on fall colors or insects courtesy of Forest Park Forever. Guided walking tours for your group and bus tours are also available.
When Times vary; book a private tour, or sign up for the newsletter to hop on a scheduled tour • Where Various locations • How much $20-$35 • More info renegadestl.com
According to the company’s website, all you need to bring on a Renegade STL Tour is a water bottle, a sense of humor and questions to stump the tour guide. Themes and tours vary: Ye Olde North St. Louis, Central West End for Nerds, Disasters and Catastrophes, and Queer St. Louis. Prepare to see the sights and hear stories you’ve never heard before. Bus, walking and private tours are available.
Savor St. Louis food tour
When 11 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays or by appointment • Where Downtown, Central West End, Delmar Loop • How much $54-$64, $40 for ages 12 and under • More info savorsaintlouis.com
These three-hour tours take you on a tasting journey through downtown, the Central West End or the Delmar Loop. Learn fun facts about each neighborhood while sampling from selected restaurants, and enjoy food unique to St. Louis.