St. Louis often astonishes visitors with the richness of its arts and culture and with the breadth and depth of its opportunities for entertainment. Especially in the last decade, there has been an absolute explosion of new energy in theater, music, the visual arts, fashion, and almost every other form of cultural expression.
The reasons are not complicated. As a great American city for a long, long time, St. Louis has an extraordinary cultural inheritance. In 1971, however, the community began to take some of its key cultural institutions to the next level through the formation of a special regional tax district. Then, 14 years later, St. Louis City and County joined in creating another tax-supported group, the Regional Arts Commission, to support arts groups large and small. Meanwhile, several individuals personally spearheaded the formation of new organizations – such as Opera Theatre of St. Louis, the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, and COCA (Center of Creative Arts) – that reflected personal passions. All of these efforts were supplemented by a well-organized program for private funding of the arts through the long-established Arts and Education Council, a kind of United Way for local arts organizations.
The result, especially in the last decade, has been an absolute explosion of new energy in theater, music, the visual arts, fashion, and almost every other form of arts and entertainment.
Many of St. Louis’s cultural institutions are nationally and even world-renowned. They include:
- The St. Louis Symphony, the second-oldest Symphony in the United States and consistently ranked among the best
- Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, whose productions each summer are eagerly awaited by opera fans across the country
- The Saint Louis Art Museum, which features one of the country’s great comprehensive collections and which in June, 2013 opened a new, $162 million wing designed by the celebrated British architect David Chipperfield
- The Saint Louis Zoo, one of the few free zoos in the nation, which in 2012 led all other U.S. zoos in visitors and which is known worldwide for its conservation efforts
- The Missouri Botanical Garden, which is not only one of the world’s leading botanical research facilities, but also a gorgeous urban tableau of plants native to the St. Louis region and Japanese, English and Chinese gardens
- City Museum, which is nearly indescribable, but which many children of all ages might describe as heaven on steroids
- The Magic House-St. Louis’ Children’s Museum, one of the nation’s top children’s museums, and
- Chess – Is chess culture? Well, why not, especially since St. Louis is now the chess capital of the United States. Check out the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis and the World Chess Hall of Fame to see what we mean.
Any short list like this is completely unfair to the long list of other cultural and entertainment jewels in the St. Louis area. That’s because in one artistic and cultural field after another, St. Louis has remarkable assets, equivalent in many fields to that of the nation’s largest cities. For example:
- Food – St. Louis was long known for its Italian restaurants, many of them in the city’s historic Italian neighborhood, The Hill. But in recent years St. Louis has attracted and nurtured adventurous chefs who have breathed new excitement into the restaurant scene, which now has two newspapers devoted to it. St. Louis also features the historic Soulard Farmers Market. But in recent years, Soulard has been joined by dozens of new farmers’ markets – at last count, about 40 of them.
- Museums and Such – Besides the big and famous ones, St. Louis is full of smaller ones that offer tremendous rewards of their own. Click here for more.
- Music – From ragtime (Scott Joplin lived here) and the blues (so did W.C. Handy) to rock ‘n roll (Chuck Berry still does) and classical, St. Louis is really one of the nation’s great musical centers. Click here for the rundown.
- Theater and the Performing Arts– St. Louis has long had several established theaters of top-notch quality. But in the last decade or so, the several independent groups the addition over the last decade or so of several independent groups to the theater and performing arts scene. Click here for more.
All of this only describes only a fraction of what St. Louis provides in culture and entertainment. It’s what you’d expect from a city that’s produced writers like T.S. Eliot and Tennessee Williams; that had two Poets Laureate of the United States, living within blocks of each other; that’s given the country composers and musicians like Scott Joplin, Miles Davis, and Chuck Berry; performers like Josephine Baker and Vincent Price and Dick Gregory; and so many more. For well more than a century, St. Louis has been playing an outsized role in the arts and culture of the United States.
And it still is. Writers like Jonathan Franzen, Curtis Sittenfeld and Sally Van Doren; actors like John Goodman, Kevin Kline, John Hamm and Jenna Fischer; musicians like Jeremy Davenport and Nelly and David Robertson; chefs like Gerard Craft and Kevin Willmann: Something in the water here seems to nurture extraordinary artistic and cultural talent. And keeps on doing it.
Click here to read “101 Things You Must Know About St. Louis: Things to Do, Places to Go and Other Great Stuff” that appeared in St. Louis Commerce, June 2007.
The St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission also offers "must-see" suggestions in its "25 Things to Do in St. Louis" list.