Summer always surprises us -- shocks us, even -- for no one is ever ready for that first humid day when you walk outside and collide with a wall of steam, then gasp as the unrelenting sun crisps your skin into onion paper. OK, so maybe it's not that bad, but it is a matter of civic pride for St. Louisans to complain about the humidity. Ask anyone.
Truth is, we greet summer with grudging admiration. We yearn for the chance to sweat again after slogging through another ice-clad winter. We're enchanted with Forest Park in bloom and delighted by the simple glory of ubiquitous sidewalk cafés. And of course, those festivals -- but just bear in mind that almost all of them aren't Fair St. Louis, and many are worth your time.
This is a city built for summer, a town rippling with beautiful spots that are far more fascinating than your air-conditioned room. This year is a grand reopening for St. Louis, and several groups -- Celebrate 2004, Downtown Now! and Metropolis, just to name a few -- have worked long and hard to show you how the city has awakened. That said, let us give you a heads-up on the big things you shouldn't miss. While this is not a comprehensive review of the summer's festivities, these are proven St. Louis cultural mainstays, pleasant diversions or 2004-only events worth experiencing. Let the list begin:
The Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis seems like it's been with us for decades, but the first performance was in the summer of 2001. This is a prime spot for a group or a date, right in the heart of St. Louis, where with food and drink you may "fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world" (those radiant words are from this year's production, As You Like It). Shows are nightly on the grassy slope just east of the Saint Louis Art Museum from May 28 to June 20, starting with the Green Show at 7 p.m. Visit www.sfstl.com for details.
You can check out the Whitaker Music Festival every Wednesday from June 2 to August 25. Looking for a picnic? Throw your spread down in the luscious grass of the Missouri Botanical Garden, then kick back and enjoy a nationally touring jazz act. Bands in years past have varied from jazz standards to swing to -- well, that's not too much variation. But it's fun, and it's a great date location. And it's best to get there early -- even though the event is on Wednesday nights, the place fills up quickly. Peruse www.mobot.org to see which band is playing on your Wednesday of choice.
Visiting Laumeier Sculpture Park makes for quite a nice afternoon. Wandering around the park (populated with all manner of contemporary sculpture, from giant wood playgrounds to enormous red pipes to six-foot pieces of iron that blend right into the trees) is an illuminating experience. The exhibits are arranged for you to discover on your own as you hike through the park. Laumeier's a favorite venue for dope-smoking teenagers who want to dodge park rangers after dark (the park closes a half-hour past sundown), but during the day, it is exquisite fun -- and mercifully rife with shade-giving trees.
The Central West End Art Fair and Taste springs up on Euclid between McPherson and Maryland the first weekend in June and is the finest of the neighborhood "taste-of" festivals, a distinction that owes as much to location as to the quality of the food. Clayton, Maplewood and other top restaurant districts throw their own "taste-of" parties and art fairs, but none is quite as relaxing as this one on that cool stretch of old Euclid: prime real estate under a canopy of trees, flanked by fine old homes -- and fine restaurants. The fair is June 5 and 6 from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., with live music in the evening. See www.cweba.com for details.
The Ferris wheel in Forest Park will spend the summer next to the greenhouses, a symbol of the 1904 World's Fair intended to draw visitors to the "new" Forest Park. The park's $90 million restoration has returned the jewel of St. Louis to a state of elegance it hasn't seen in perhaps a hundred years, and the top of the Ferris wheel provides a great vantage point from which to take in all its splendor. The Grand Basin at the bottom of Art Hill is especially gorgeous; watching visitors skitter about in rowboats amid the fountains is a nostalgic reminder of that wondrous time. The Ferris wheel is $2 a ride, and it's here through August 19.
Fair St. Louis dwarfs the competition. Though all of the festivals listed here are fairly big, none is as densely populated as this Independence Day behemoth, which fills the space under the Arch with air shows, bands and people for three days. It's a grass-trampling, ultra-organized, tickets-for-beer adventure, but the fireworks never fail to impress. You can see the show from the Hi-Pointe neighborhood (and beyond, probably), but nothing beats getting your ears blasted as the barges let loose over the river. If you haven't yet done this, give it a try. The firework displays begin at 9:45 p.m. on July 2, 3 and 4.
The River Splash concert series, another part of the 2004 extravaganza, is a series of free shows by nationally touring acts. Be sure to check out the "Eats Bridge," a restaurant on Eads' marvel of engineering, which opens at 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays before the concerts. (The stage is under that other, 630-foot marvel of engineering.) Jazz giant Branford Marsalis, DJ Paul Oakenfold, alterna-rocker Liz Phair and hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean are all scheduled to perform. Check www.celebrate2004.org for a full listing. Concerts begin at 7 p.m. every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from July 15 to August 21.
The Saint Louis Zoo may seem an obvious summer attraction -- and with good reason. Generally speaking, animals aren't terribly interesting when they hibernate, and they tend not to hibernate in the summer. The trouble is that most people realize this and flock to the park (squealing offspring in tow) to gawk at animals now too hot to stay awake. If you go in the early morning, though -- the zoo opens at eight -- you'll have the place to yourself, and there's no experience quite like it. Time it right and you can watch the lions feed; it's the only time we're certain they'll roar, and that's a sound you'll never forget.
The Festival of Nations in Tower Grove Park is the benchmark of a resurgent St. Louis, a festival that showcases the ethnic diversity that gives our city character. It begins at 10 a.m. on July 24 with the Parade of Nations -- representing countries from Bosnia to Honduras and every point in between -- and runs through the weekend, until 7 p.m. on Saturday and 5 p.m. on Sunday. Food (and lots of it) is a big reason not to miss this one. Each booth serves its country's delicacies, from Bosnian cevap to the best burrito you've had this year. Stay for the music and dancing, and marvel at one of St. Louis' most beautiful and richly diverse neighborhoods.
The National Poetry Slam finals will be held in St. Louis August 3 through 8, dropping roughly 64 poetry teams from around the country into our midst. A poetry slam, for the uninitiated, is a spoken-word competition, the poetry a fast and loose performance designed to please the audience (or at least get its attention). And the poets will certainly want that attention: Judges are traditionally audience members. Competitions will be held all over town (locations are TBA), organized by our own Words in Motion, who worked tirelessly to bring the nationals to your town. You can keep updated by checking www.poetryslam.com.
Strassenfest reminds us every year that the bulk of the city was settled by the Germans and the French. All the spirits of Dutchtown are present at Memorial Plaza, where the beer's cold and the Bavarian brass bands are sizzling. Seriously, though, the guys in lederhosen are playing some of the world's foremost beer-drinking music, stuff that goes back hundreds of years, and if you get past the kitsch (or embrace it), this is a good time. Check out the 'fest August 6 through 8; details are posted at www.strassenfest.org.
The Japanese Festival in the Missouri Botanical Garden wraps up the summer over Labor Day weekend. What better way to celebrate the American worker than by checking out Japanese art, feeding a few koi and basking in the primordial boom of taiko drumming? The Japanese Festival has been a part of the garden's calendar since 1976 and features authentic Japanese food, dance -- even a tea ceremony. The event is in the Japanese Garden, an astounding and quite beautiful feat of horticultural discipline. The festival is about ten bucks, but the garden is open all summer. See the Web site (www.mobot.org) for details.