A view of the Climatron from the Arch
The Climatron’s geodesic structure and the year-round rain forest inside. Below: A view from the Arch

DESTINATION St. Louis, Missouri

Forget about singing on the trolley. For one thing, St. Louis’s public transportation system is now mostly a matter of buses. For another, not a single frame of Meet Me in St. Louis—the 1944 film wherein Judy Garland famously warbled about the clanging vehicle—was actually shot in the city. The iconic song may be a sham, but St. Louis is home to plenty of riches. Wanna rock? Longtime resident Chuck Berry performs every month to a packed house at Blueberry Hill. Wanna roll? At 95, Saratoga Lanes is the oldest continuously operating bowling alley west of the Mississippi, a joint that since 1916 has been a noisy, friendly, beery, slightly smoky example of community. There is also the Arch, of course. But lesser-known charms include a year-round rain forest, a six-block boutique shopping district that rivals Bucktown and Wicker Park, a microbrewery where you can enjoy a poetry reading along with your pumpkin ale, and a cathedral bedazzled with mosaics. Here is a two-day itinerary for exploring a city that—apologies to Judy—is so much better in real life than in reel life.

A waterfall in the rainforest inside the Climatron

On post cards, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (11 N. Fourth St.; 314-655-1600), more commonly called the Gateway Arch, looks about as substantial as ribbon. Up close, it’s a colossus—more than 42,000 tons of steel and concrete soaring to twice the height of the Statue of Liberty. It’s a rachety ride to the top, where on windy days you may find yourself swaying up to nine inches in either direction. The panoramic views are, of course, nothing like the vistas Lewis and Clark beheld in 1804 when they set off from St. Louis on the nation’s first official cross-country road trip, but they are gasp-inducing nonetheless. For more down-to-earth beauty, head to the Missouri Botanical Garden (4344 Shaw Blvd.; 314-577-5100), where you can immerse yourself in the tropics 364 days a year. Nestled within a 79-acre spread that until 1859 was the carefully cultivated backyard of the hardware baron Henry Shaw (he left the whole place to the city), you’ll find the Climatron, which looks like a gigantic golf ball or a leftover from the set of an old sci-fi flick. But the Climatron is home not to Martians but to a rain forest. In the constant 85-degree temperature and 85 percent humidity, the Climatron’s walking paths wind past a succulent array of 1,400 species of plants, including sources of ancient medicinal remedies such as the kapok tree (used to treat diabetes) and the multipurpose neem leaf (combats dental plaque, prevents pregnancy, and eradicates lice!). Check out the nearby Bug Store (4474 Shaw Blvd.; 314-773-9251) for its selection of exquisitely framed tarantulas. LUNCH: Duff’s (392 N. Euclid Ave.; 314-361-0522) has terrific small plates, with vegetarian options.

After a quick, decadent stop at Bissinger’s Chocolatier (32 Maryland Plz.; 314-367-7750), head to the 103-year-old Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis (4431 Lindell Blvd.; 314-373-8242), a house of worship with more glitz than four entire seasons of Toddlers & Tiaras. The place that hosted Tennessee Williams’s funeral mass is fittingly flamboyant: 83,000 square feet of mosaics made of 41 million tiny pieces of glass in 7,000 colors. Our favorites: the two west chapels, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Williams, now residing in St. Louis’s Calvary Cemetery (5239 W. Florissant Ave.; 314-381-1313), is hardly the only celebrity from the St. Louis area. Vincent Price, Maya Angelou, Shelley Winters—the long and pleasingly random roster of the city’s famous people is memorialized in the Walk of Fame, handily built right into the sidewalk of the Delmar Loop neighborhood. It’s handy because while reveling in a bit of history, you can shop. There are 140 boutiques, galleries, and clubs in the six-block nexus, where you can find everything from a handmade hookah to a high-powered divorce lawyer. DINNER: Schlafly Bottleworks (7260 Southwest Ave., Maplewood; 314-241-2337) offers locally sourced casual dining, microbrews on tap, and a diverse schedule of events, including poetry readings, screenings of independent films, and art exhibits.

A boy looking down at the city from the Arch

For a tranquil stroll, the idyllic Forest Park (5595 Grand Dr.; 314-367-7275) offers a 1,371-acre swath of green that is also home to the city’s art museum, history museum, planetarium, science center, and zoo—all free. At the visitors’ center, you can pick up an iPod that will narrate a tour exploring the history of the park. We could have happily spent a day puttering about the museums; the history museum, in particular, is a fascinating resource for anybody interested in the Lewis and Clark adventure. (A new exhibit on the Civil War opens on November 11 to commemorate the war’s 150th anniversary.) But our favorite stop was the Jewel Box (5600 Clayton Ave.; 314-531-0080), a hail-proof greenhouse filled with lush horticultural gems in a hundred shades of emerald. LUNCH: MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse (3606 Arsenal St.; 314-865-2009) does a nice job with espresso, black bean burgers, and patty melts.

Plan on a late night of hot blues. St. Louis, after all, nurtured musical legends such as Scott Joplin, Miles Davis, and Chuck Berry. At Blueberry Hill (6504 Delmar Blvd.; 314-727-4444), Berry performs on the first Wednesday of every month. There are many other raucously wonderful joints congregated on the 700 block of South Broadway, including BB’s Jazz, Blues, and Soups (700 S. Broadway; 314-436-5222), Beale on Broadway (701 S. Broadway; 314-621-7880), and Broadway Oyster Bar (736 S. Broadway; 314-621-8811). DINNER: Charlie Gitto’s on the Hill (5226 Shaw Ave.; 314-772-8898) invented toasted ravioli, a St. Louis mainstay that in an ideal world would be the foundation of the food pyramid.

Getting There

The drive from Chicago to St. Louis, most of it straight south on I-55, takes roughly five hours. Or you can fly—at presstime, roundtrip tickets on Southwest Airlines from Midway and on United from O’Hare started at $168.

WHERE TO STAY The new spa at the Four Seasons (999 N. Second St.; 314-881-5800) will make the dust of the road evaporate in a restorative cloud of eucalyptus-infused hot towels and deep-tissue massage; nightly room rates start at $235. The Cheshire (6300 Clayton Rd., Clayton; 314-647-7300) is a lovingly restored boutique hotel, where the décor is based on the works of famed British authors; rates range from $140 to $350 a night. We loved the opulent Victorian-era styling of the Oscar Wilde Suite, which, instead of a Bible, offered a leather-bound copy of Wilde’s Salome.