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Vibrant life in heart of prairie country

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‘City museum’ – it is a pairing of words almost designed to kill off traveller interest.

As a tourist attraction, it seems destined to be frequented only by civil engineers, architects and the occasional lost Scandinavian.

But in the quirky mid-west US city of St Louis, the city museum is nothing like you would expect.

Envisage giving filmmaker David Lynch and a group of eight-year-olds their head in dreaming up the weirdest and most interesting indoor playground they could image, and you might get something close to the St Louis City Museum.

Housed in a massive abandoned shoe factory and warehouse close to the heart of the CBD, it is the creation of local sculptor Bob Cassilly and a team of 20 artisans who – over many years – created a child’s fantasyland of tunnels, slides, fish tanks, cubby holes, playgrounds, circuses and trains.

Made from recycled and reclaimed building materials, abandoned machinery and sculpted concrete, tiles and glass, it extends through all seven floors and spills over the exterior, encasing the building in a steel web that has also entrapped a couple of decommissioned jet fighters.

From the ground floor adventure playground – where Gaudi-esque walls and ceilings are honeycombed with child-sized tunnels, caves and hideouts – to the rooftop garden complete with Ferris wheel and school bus, it is a full-scale amusement park, but one without the tacky sideshow food or the commercialised hype of Disneyland.

A creation of the inspired and unexpected, it seems oddly appropriate for the city that surrounds it.

St Louis rarely rates much of a mention as a tourist destination, and we barely gave it a thought while planning our trip along Route 66, which begins in Chicago and ends in Los Angeles.

From outward appearances, the city – home to almost three million people – does not appear particularly welcoming.

Big industrial buildings and plants, many of them fallen into disuse, line both sides of the Mississippi River, lending it a gritty and workmanlike character.

Its principal landmark is the Gateway Arch – a giant stainless steel structure soaring almost 200 metres above the ground at its apogee – erected as a memorial to the millions of adventurers and settlers who passed through St Louis on their way to occupy America’s west.

The sleek, shiny archway, visible from much of downtown, sits in stark contrast to the massive edifices of brick and marble that line much of the city’s streets and reflect its former glory days as one of the most important transport and trading hubs in the country.

The city’s fortunes sagged during the latter part of last century but, out of the scruff, a vibrant centre of art, music and culture has emerged.

Once a dangerous destination off-limits to all but daredevil travellers, downtown St Louis has been reborn.

Massive old warehouses have been reclaimed and converted into swank apartments, while once-abandoned shopfronts are now lined with sheik boutiques, galleries, bars and restaurants.

The streets surrounding the City Museum and the Stevens Institute of Business and Art fairly thrum with energy as diners and revellers spill out of pubs and eateries, and corner bars resound to live music and theatre.

Nearby, crowds throng to Busch Stadium, home to the famous St Louis Cardinals, and which seems like the MCG of baseball.

After a couple of days travelling through the quiet back roads of Illinois’ prairie lands, St Louis is an unexpected and intriguing stopover.

It might never budge New York, Washington DC or New Orleans from the top of most tourist itineraries, but those with a taste for the different will find much to like in the city on the river.

Where: St Louis, the capital of Missouri, sits on the Mississippi River, around 475 kilometres south-west of Chicago.

How to get there:

Flying – return flights from Los Angeles start from around $490. Flying time is approximately three hours.

Train –  trains depart Chicago for St Louis several times daily. Travel time is 5.5 hours, fares from $74.

 

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