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St. Louis: A Landmark City Reloads

If  you haven’t been to St. Louis recently, you don’t know what you’re missing.

Many travelers have stopped for photos in front of the Jefferson Expansion Memorial, also known as the Gateway Arch, and some groups have gone in to visit the on-site museum and take the tram ride to the top of the arch. But St. Louis is not the city that it was even two years ago, as widespread development and innovation have brought a number of new attractions and activities that are reinvigorating this classic American city.

St. Louis today enjoys a number of great new museums, including the highly anticipated National Blues Museum, which opened in April. And even longtime favorite visitor activities, such as the Anheuser-Busch brewery tour and the Arch itself, have seen significant new developments that are reshaping the visitor experience.

I spent three days exploring the city’s new developments early this spring and was excited by what I saw.

A Marquee Museum

My visit to St. Louis, coincidentally, took place just days before the opening of the National Blues Museum at the beginning of April, and I was delighted to get a sneak peek before it debuted to the public.

The museum has been in the works since 2010, when a number of enthusiastic blues fans and professionals conceived the idea. Today the museum stands as a hip, educational and interactive tribute to the blues, which is an important part of the St. Louis cultural landscape.

The museum’s galleries trace the origins of blues from their West African roots to their development in the Mississippi Delta and their migration upriver to St. Louis and beyond. Along the way, displays highlight influential performers such as Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry and feature instruments played by luminaries like B.B. King. Galleries continue to trace the evolution of blues into the modern era and explore its influence on other genres, such as contemporary country and rock ’n’ roll.

While the exhibits themselves are great, what makes this museum stand out is its state-of-the art interactive experiences. Visitors have the opportunity to create their own short blues riffs as they explore the museum by choosing guitars, pianos and other musical instruments at special interactive stations throughout the museum. At the end of the tour, they can mix all the elements together to create audio files, which they can email to themselves to keep. The museum also includes a number of social media stations where visitors can photograph themselves onstage in classic blues clubs, and an interactive game lets them try their hand at playing together live in a four-piece jug band.

Groups should try to schedule their visits to coincide with some of the many live musical performances scheduled to take place in the museum’s on-site, high-tech jazz club.

An Icon Improved

If you have previously taken people to see the Gateway Arch, you might remember the large underground museum beneath one foot of the monument or the expansive view from the tiny windows at the top. What you might not remember is that accessing the Arch has not always been easy. But a massive new project under way in St. Louis called CityArchRiver aims to reinvigorate the Arch, the downtown neighborhood and the riverbanks surrounding it.

The project entails six agencies and a number of private donors, and when it is completed, it will amount to a $380 million investment into the National Park Service site and the surrounding downtown blocks. One of the most important parts of the project is a new land bridge that crosses over a busy highway, making it easy for visitors to walk back and forth between the Arch and the nearby Old Courthouse Museum through a beautiful manicured park. The main entrance to the Arch and the museum beneath is moving, too, and will be much more accessible to downtown visitors.

In addition to the exterior changes, the museum at the Arch is getting its first significant overhaul in decades.

“They’re doing a 46,000-square-foot expansion of the existing visitor center under the Arch,” said Ryan McClure, director of communications for CityArchRiver. “They are completely redoing the museum and opening it when the new entrance opens next summer.”

In addition to these improvements, the project is revitalizing a 1.5-mile stretch of the Mississippi River front. Landscapers will plant some 3,000 new trees, and crews are creating a new outdoor amphitheater at the site that will seat 2,000 people.

The Economy Illustrated

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis seems like an improbable place to take a tour group; the highly secured building houses major financial operations, and visitors must show identification and walk through a metal detector just to enter the front lobby. But the security process is worthwhile if you’re on the way to visit the bank’s Inside the Economy Museum, a fascinating museum opened in the fall of 2014.

“We wanted to incorporate a high-tech, hands-on museum into this historic place,” said museum director Tom Shepherd. “This is the only museum in the country that focuses on the economy in the interactive way that we do. It takes a look at your everyday life and relates economic concepts to the decisions you have to make.”

Visitors can learn about the intricacies of the national economy, as well as the Fed’s role in it, by perusing the exhibits and participating in interactive stations throughout the museum. Highlights include a game that allows multiple players to experience the fast-paced work of commodity trading, as well as a station where visitors can smell the scents of commodities that have been traded throughout history.

On the way into and out of the galleries, visitors pass through historic areas of the bank and see original teller windows that date back to the building’s 1925 opening. And many stop for photos in front of the Million Dollar Money Cube, which depicts the size of a box required to hold 1 million $1 bills.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.