When Antoine and Julie Soulard arrived in St. Louis to survey land for the King of Spain in 1770, little did they know that nearly 250 years later, St. Louisans would still be shopping for fresh produce at the outdoor market they established — on the two blocks of land they donated to the community—the city’s first grocery store, so to speak.
Today, Soulard Market is the cornerstone of the neighborhood, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors and tourists each year to bargain for that most exotic spice or cut of fresh meat, or even an occasional pet. Vendors hawk their wares, creating an old-style ambiance unique to days gone by. An adjacent park features a playground and a 1920s bandstand.
Nestled between the Anheuser-Busch brewery to the south, and the market to the North, Soulard is St. Louis’ first established neighborhood– and unlike any that have come since. Its brewing heritage, built on the immigrant migration of the 1800s, is on prominent display. The immigrants, predominately of German, Eastern European and Irish descent, were drawn to the area by the limestone caves and water supply that were so desirable for brewing and storing beer. Remarkably, by 1859, Soulard’s population was 131,000.
The faintest aroma of hops permeates the morning air of this National Historic District. Today, the nearly 40 bars, restaurants and quirky shops that are scattered throughout the narrow tree-lined streets, are housed in centuries-old two-story brick row houses. And every one of them has an elaborate outdoor courtyard, patio or sidewalk area from which to enjoy the amenities. Restaurant and bar flavorings vary from Cajun, Mexican and Italian, to sports, blues and gin joints, among others.
For history buffs, the area plays host to the city’s oldest church (Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church), the oldest building (Hammerstone’s) and for the brave — several haunted houses, including The Darkness, located near the former Welsh Baby Carriage factory. The building that Hammerstone’s is in dates back to pre-Prohibition days in the 1800s. And while it was not always a bar, the building has been open to the public as a drug store, restaurant and, during Prohibition, a rumored bootleg bar. Make sure to ask the owners about the bar’s ghost stories when you visit.
And speaking of houses – Soulard’s diversity in architecture reflects its living history – free-standing homes (French Second Empire), Federal-style Pre-Victorian row houses, alley houses and the rare and unique half-flounder houses.
Red brick is everywhere; the patterns and designs of the brick, in fact, draws the eye to the tops of the buildings that feature decorative cornices and korbles. The French-influenced 19th century architecture also features the second-story wrought iron balconies that adorn so many of the residences, business and churches.
During the holidays guests can tour the bedecked parlors of these beautifully restored homes on the Historic Soulard House Tour. Scented candles and real fir and pine boughs add to the aura. Attendees are chauffeured from house to house in heated shuttle buses.
During the summer, the owners host the Soulard Art in the Garden Tour (June), walking guests throughout their gardens, and discussing the green inspiration, ideas and history behind them. One can also witness a local artist creating a work of art inspired by the garden they are in.
Neighborhood establishments have collected a bevy of awards including: Bogart’s Smokehouse (Daily Meal’s “America’s Best Ribs” list); funky lunch joint Capitalist Pig BBQ (“The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America”), located in the former Third District Police Station; The Porch (“Best Gift Shop”); John D. McGurk’s Irish Pub (“Best Irish Pub in St. Louis”); and Sidney Street Café (James Beard award-winning chef, Kevin Nashan).
But hold on – aren’t we forgetting something? Fast forward to winter – this little historic community knows how to throw a world-renowned party. For modern day revelers, the area plays host to the third largest Mardi Gras Festival in the world. The festivities kick off on Jan. 6, also known as 12th night (12 days after Christmas), and pack in a whopping 11 events through Fat Tuesday, including the Family Carnival, Snow Ball Softball Tournament, Wine & Whiskey Taste, Cajun Cook-off, Taste of Soulard, pub crawls and of course, the main event, Grand Parade Day.
This spectacular Mardi Gras Grand parade, which draws hundreds of thousands of people, includes more than 100 floats, Mardi Gras Krewes, Cajun music, copious amounts of hurricanes, and beads, beads and more beads. Trolleys run from several downtown St. Louis bars to Soulard. If you wish to stay at the party’s epicenter, the neighborhood has a few bed and breakfasts sites, but plan to book these at least a year out.
Remember to bring Fido to Mardi Gras, too. One of the more unique Mardi Gras events is the Krewe of Barkus Pet Parade, certified by Guinness World Records as the largest in the world. Dogs from all over the city are paraded through the streets, with the majority of them decked out in purple, green and gold costumes. Make sure to bring your camera – you’ll not see anything like this anywhere else. Dog treats are tossed to participants from the historic row house balconies. Held the Sunday before the Grand Parade, the event even includes a Weiner Dog Derby.
Other annual festivities include the Soulard Concert Series, which showcases some of the city’s finest Blues bands May through August. During July, Soulard celebrates its French history with several Bastille Day events, as well as hosts watch parties during World Naked Bike Ride – St. Louis. This is followed by the Soulard Oktoberfest, which is held the second weekend in October; get out your lederhosen and knickers – you won’t be the only one.
On any given night, the STL BarCycle’s pedaling bar crawl is a great option for family reunions, company outings or just plain old fun with friends. Groups pedal their way around the Soulard area. Popular stops include: Joanie’s, 1860 Saloon (Best in St. Louis Blues Music), Nadine’s and Duke’s Sports Bar.
Residents and visitors also enjoy an endless section of entertainment year-round, including craft beer at International Tap House, oysters and crawfish on the beautifully-landscaped patio at Molly’s in Soulard, homemade cupcakes at Sweet Divine, Irish stew at McGurk’s, and blueberry-flavored margaritas at Chavas Mexican Restaurant. Pub Crawls are also often held throughout the neighborhood, with many of them benefiting awareness of local organizations; usually, the participating bars and restaurants offer discounts to Pub Crawl participants. On the music front, Soulard offers some of the city’s best jazz, blues, folk and rock music options. For more information, visit www.Soulard.org.
Several parks, including the Soulard Community Garden, provide the green space needed for relaxation between all these festivities. Pontiac Square Park, named for an Ottowan chief involved in the British & Indian conflicts of the 1750s, is the site of the original home of the William Stumpf brewery, now the Anheuser-Busch complex. The park is popular for its bocce ball, kickball, soccer and softball leagues, as well as movie nights and pot luck dinners. The neighborhood’s community garden co-op sprang from a weed and rubble-filled vacant lot into a vibrant space for the neighbors to grow food, flowers and fruits. There are currently 24 individual, and eight, “beds.”
The Frenchtown Dog Park of one of the largest green spaces in St. Louis where dogs can run wild and free. The dog park is also the site for many two- and four-legged social events. And don’t be surprised to see residents pulling up to these festivities in their golf carts, a very common mode of transportation for the locals.
Thanks to these locals – the modern day rehab pioneers — who have worked to revitalize the splendor of Soulard’s past, the neighborhood has received several notable distinctions:
- National Register of Historic Places (1972)
- Historic Neighborhood of the City of St. Louis (1975)
- National Preserve American Community (one of only 104 in the U.S.; 2008)
- 2010 Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust of Historic Preservation
So come to Soulard where you can live history – and have a blast doing so.