Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis houses the largest mosaic collection in the world outside Russia.

7 Hidden Gems in St. Louis

Wednesday February 28, 2024

By Rachel Huffman

First-time visitors to St. Louis won’t want to miss iconic attractions such as Gateway Arch National Park, Busch Stadium, City Museum, Forest Park and Grant’s Farm. If you’ve hit the highlights, though, it’s time to explore these hidden gems in St. Louis.

Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum in St. Louis is a great place to take a walk.

Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum

With more than 170 years of history, Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum is not only a tranquil burial site; it’s also a beloved local landmark and a shining example of environmental stewardship. Perched on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the cemetery consists of 314 acres, containing more than 9,500 trees that represent 560 species. “[As an accredited Level III Arboretum] our purpose is to conserve trees – like you would an artifact – to support native species and to educate people about the importance of trees and other woody plants,” Sherry Smith, president and CEO of Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum, explains. “It’s a concerted effort to strategically plant and cultivate trees to minimize our ecological footprint and maximize our positive impact on our neighborhood and our city.”

As you wander among the mature trees, take note of familiar names on some of the headstones, monuments and mausoleums. American explorer William Clark and co-founder of Anheuser-Busch Adolphus Busch are among the most notable people buried here, and you can spot surnames that identify St. Louis buildings and parks, including Barnes, Bixby, McMillan, Shaw and Wainwright. Hosting more than 300 events throughout the year, Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum also educates visitors about a range of topics from history to horticulture. “We’re always uncovering new pieces of history,” Smith says, “and we get to share that information with residents and visitors alike in tours and events so that they can better understand how St. Louis culture evolved.”

The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis is a distinguished work of art.

Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis

Did you know that the largest mosaic collection in the world outside Russia can be found in the Central West End? The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is not just a Roman Catholic Church; it’s a distinguished work of art – and one of the most spectacular hidden gems in St. Louis. With its lofty vaults and radiant mosaics, the sheer scale of the building’s beauty is awe-inspiring. In its creation, more than a dozen architects’ and artisans’ concepts coalesced into a magnificently well-integrated and harmonious whole.

In 2023, a transformative lighting design project illuminated the interior of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, revealing more than 30 million pieces of mosaics, artworks and architecture that visitors couldn’t previously see in such detail. In some areas, the light was elevated by almost 300 percent! “If you’ve been to the cathedral, but you haven’t been back since the new lighting,” Monsignor Henry Breier said in a St. Louis Magazine article, “[you haven’t seen] the mosaics in all their glory.” An artistic, interpretive approach was also used to highlight the cathedral’s marble statues, drawing attention to elements that tell its story.

The Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park has an open living room and a central hearth.

Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park

Frank Lloyd Wright is widely recognized as the greatest American architect of the 20th century, and at the Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park, you can experience one of his unique designs firsthand. Nestled on more than 10 acres of grassy fields beside a grove of persimmon trees in Kirkwood, the 1,900-square-foot residence was built for Russell and Ruth Kraus in the 1950s, and today, it remains an excellent example of Wright’s democratic vision, meant to provide middle-class Americans with beautiful architecture at an affordable cost.

For his Usonian homes, Wright developed a unit system based on geometric shapes; the Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park is based on an equilateral parallelogram with a complex floor plan of intersecting parallelograms. Inside the house, tidewater red cypress lines the walls and ceilings, while red-hued concrete slabs cover the floors. Wandering from room to room, you’ll encounter stained glass designed by Russell Kraus and beds shaped like parallelograms, alongside other zany features. Tours of the home are available year-round, and advance booking is recommended.

A variety of phones are on display at the Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum.

Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum

Whether you remember rotary dial phones or not, you’ll have a blast poking around the Jefferson Barracks Telephone Museum. The self-guided history museum in Jefferson Barracks Park has hands-on displays alongside an extensive collection of telephones manufactured from the late 1800s through 2012. You can also marvel at military telephones from World War I through the Gulf War, operator switchboards from the 1920s and 1960s, a variety of novelty telephones and a telephone poll complete with climbing equipment.

“We try to immerse people in the exhibits,” assistant curator Sharon Krist says. “We have a pay phone demonstration, for instance, where you can drop coins into the telephone while learning that telephone operators used to listen to the sounds of the coins to determine how much money was added. Back in the day, there wasn’t a mechanism to tell the operators how much money you put into the pay phone – that’s unbelievable, isn’t it?”

By acquiring, preserving and exhibiting telephone-related artifacts, the museum aims to engage visitors in experiences that inspire interests in the fields of history and engineering. Its exhibits also invite people to reminisce about the comical lack of privacy on a party line, the juvenile joy of three-way calling, the newfound freedom of cordless phones and other happy memories of telephonic communication. In the last room of the museum, don’t miss the character telephone exhibit where phones take the shape of Snoopy, Pac-Man, the Keebler elf, the Jolly Green Giant, bumper cars, corn on the cob and more.

The Saint Louis University Museum of Art is one of the top hidden gems in St. Louis.

Saint Louis University Museum of Art

One of the best university art museums in the U.S., the Saint Louis University Museum of Art boasts an impressive permanent collection of works by modern masters. Pop art by Andy Warhol, avant-garde glass by Dale Chihuly, paradoxical pieces by Roy Lichtenstein, abstract portraits from Chuck Close and more sit inside the stunning Beaux-Arts building, which dates to the turn of the 20th century.

A vibrant mural by Cbabi Bayoc welcomes guests to The Walls Off Washington.

The Walls Off Washington

Neighboring The Fabulous Fox, The Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries, Jazz St. Louis, The Big Top and The MOTO Museum, The Walls Off Washington is an inspirational backdrop for the Grand Center Arts District. Visitors can enter The Walls through Sophie’s Artist Lounge at 3333 Washington Ave. and tour the murals, beginning with Lift As You Climb, a vibrant work by Derrick Adams that depicts eye-catching figures helping each other climb colorful ladders to the top of the building.

“We’re carefully curating this mural experience so that it shines a positive light on St. Louis,” Gina Grafos, director and chief curator of visual and literal arts at Kranzberg Arts Foundation, says. “We believe St. Louis should be respected; it should be loved.”

The Walls Off Washington encompasses 20 murals, all within a walkable space, and its ultimate goal is to bring people together. So, gather your travel companions, and check out other highlights such as J’Ai Deux Amours by C215, in which St. Louis native Josephine Baker wears beads and an endearing smile; The Bear by Burlesque of North America, which features strong symbols of St. Louis; and Cave Lady Vs T-Rex, which delights kids and adults alike. Along with the art, you can enjoy a coffee drink from Blueprint Coffee at High Low, which provides the “canvas” for Kranzbergville, a playful mural that prolific international artist Kenny Scharf finished in 72 hours for The Walls Off Washington.

A group of owls pile on top of each other.

World Bird Sanctuary

Encompassing more than 305 acres of hardwood forest and housing more than 200 birds of prey, World Bird Sanctuary teaches visitors about all manner of winged friends through one-of-a-kind wildlife experiences. Meet a proud eagle, talk to a colorful parrot, encounter an emu and come to appreciate vultures, as they’re key to preventing a human health crisis. The sanctuary’s crows and ravens even put on a show that teaches people to recycle.

“We try to deliver serious messages in fun ways,” former CEO Dawn Griffard said in a 2023 interview with Explore St. Louis. “By exposing kids to birds at a young age, we’re dispelling their fears and doubts. So many kids live in concrete jungles; we’re introducing them to nature and getting them comfortable with wild animals such as birds. Who knows from where the next great naturalist will come? It could be a kid who visits World Bird Sanctuary.”

This is one hidden gem in St. Louis that you’ll want to unearth, and we recommend planning ahead to join a guided tour. You can learn about birds’ vital role in our lives – and you might learn to love them as much as the staff and volunteers.