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Flavorful pulled pork, sliced smoked turkey and jalapeno infused links at Sugarfire Smoke House in St. Louis, Mo.

The pod is cramped — very cramped. As I slid my 6-foot body onto one of five 1960s expressionist-designed seats, I leaned back only to smack my head against the curved ceiling. My wife, with her compact frame, simply smiled.

Our three companions, an Illinois mother and her two children on spring break, already had settled into their seats. The young man quietly expressed his hope it was safe, as the small, rectangle doors slid shut. His sister exclaimed it was perfectly safe or they wouldn’t have let us on it. I certainly hoped she knew what she was talking about.

There’s hardly a more recognizable landmark in the Midwest than the Gateway Arch and seeing its towering profile far off in the distance compelled my wife to cry out, “I see it!” as we drove through the Illinois countryside toward the Mississippi River.

Completed in 1967, the Eero Saarinen-designed, stainless steel clad monument celebrates America’s westward expansion and honors St. Louis as the gateway for that migration.

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The Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis, Mo.

However, before a four-year, $380 million remodel project completed in 2018, a highway divided the park from the downtown area, essentially isolating it from the very city it was meant to honor.

Today a broad public parkway spans Interstate 44 creating an uninterrupted expanse from the Old Courthouse, the site of the infamous Dred Scott decision, past the Arch and leading down to a broad river walk on the bank of the Mississippi.

And, inexplicably, this was the first visit for either of us to the iconic monument. I had visited St. Louis previously but never really explored it. Several business trips, an occasional ball game, in-and-out, gone. A recent weekend was our first trip to discover the Gateway City just for the sake of it.

As our pod lurched into its four-minute, 630-foot trip to the top, the realization of how small, did I mention cramped, our little chamber was enveloped me as I beat down a momentary rise of dread. The capsule constantly adjusted to the Arch’s curvature creating a sensation akin to an enclosed Ferris wheel ride.

Upon exiting at the top, with just a hint of relief etched on everyone’s faces, we realized we were not walking on a flat surface; it continues to arc upward. We walked uphill, then downhill — depending on how we moved about the narrow interior.

There was a bit of an uncoordinated feeling at first. However, this quickly evaporated with our first look out of one of the 32 windows, 16 on each side. The narrow viewing ports afforded us spectacular views of downtown St. Louis and the rain-swollen Mississippi River.

Entry to the Arch is reached through an artistic glass-fronted, curving wall below ground level that leads to a revamped visitor’s center and museum that pays homage to those intrepid pioneers, businessmen and visionaries, such as President Jefferson and Lewis and Clark, who helped to create the city and settle the west.

Also on display, a red stagecoach with yellow wheels used by Wells Fargo & Co., which has operated in St. Louis since the 1850s. The 2,800-mile trip between St. Louis and San Francisco took 25 days.

Don’t miss the 28-minute film documenting the history, the hair-raising construction and the men who helped to create Gateway Arch.

Beyond the Arch, downtown St. Louis continues to reinvent itself. Busch Stadium (the Redbirds were visiting the friendly confines in Chicago), and its surrounding Ballpark Village entertainment complex with restaurants, event spaces, a giant sports bar with a 40-foot LED screen, and the Cardinals Hall of Fame & Museum provides a fan-centric experience.

A few blocks south of the stadium on South Broadway, several boisterously wonderful joints provide entertainment and nourishment. We found ours at BOB,, as it affectionately is called by its many fans.

Broadway Oyster Bar, hidden away in one of the oldest buildings in St. Louis, is decidedly eclectic with its funky décor and a covered outdoor patio with live music and a menu leaning heavily toward Cajun and creole. We settled on gator tacos and a St. Louis interpretation of a New Orleans staple, the muffuletta sandwich.

As Evan Cole, a home-grown American Idol contestant, launched into a very good rendition of “Like a Rock,” we hoisted a couple of local brews and toasted the evening.

St. Louis enjoys a rich musical heritage; W. C. Handy published “St. Louis Blues,” based on a hard winter in the Gateway town, in 1914. On our second day, dodging a continuous drizzle, we walked to The National Blues Museum.

Housed in a former department store, the compact but quite entertaining and informative institution, takes visitors from the music’s African roots and the field chants of slaves to the electrification of the blues by Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry’s duck-walking into early rock ’n’ roll.

If you have a creative bent, there are interactive stations throughout that help you compose an original blues song. If you go, check out Uncle Frank’s “muddy water blues.”

Right next door, a bright orange road-side sign announced barbecue was being served. The lunch crowd lined up all the way outside Sugarfire Smoke House. A flavorful pulled pork, sliced smoked turkey and jalapeno infused links with a side of sweet tea hit the spot. Sugarfire only stays open until the Q runs out.

There is no avoiding St. Louis’ brewery heritage. The historical influence of Anheuser-Busch alone gives the city barley and hops credibility.

Located in the Soulard neighborhood, it’s one of the oldest breweries in the country, and it certainly is worth it to see some of their historic buildings. The tour itself is very impressive. More importantly, it has the Clydesdales stabled on the grounds.

Until you’ve had a 17-hand tall, 1-ton Clydesdale named Chief nuzzle you, you haven’t lived. I mean, what else do you need to know?

Besides the power-house A-B, the craft-beer scene has been flourishing in St. Louis for some time with more than a dozen craft breweries and brew pubs dotting the landscape.

Just 10 minutes away from the home of the Clydesdales in the Tower Grove South neighborhood is Civil Life Brewing Company. Housed in a nondescript commercial building, its tap-room is a cozy, wood-paneled space with a long bar and a communal table. It’s American Brown Ale with its dark roasted, malty flavor was a favorite.

For a less heady but just as flavorful brew, we slid onto a couple of stools at Fitz’s Root Beer for a frosty mug. Fitz’s is a unique craft soda microbrewery located in the diverse Delmar Loop neighborhood and is a perfect spot for lunch.

Whether enjoying one of their impossibly huge floats, or munching on a hamburger, you can watch their ancient bottling line in action as it processes more than a dozen different soda flavors.

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A cold mug of root beer from Fitz’s Root Beer, located in the Delmar Loop neighborhood of St. Louis, Mo.

On our final evening, we found ourselves in the Hill neighborhood, famous for its Italian markets and restaurants. It’s said the origin of toasted ravioli, a St. Louis delicacy, involves a harried line-cook at Charlie Gitto’s who mistakenly dropped hand-made pasta into oil instead of water. Whether true or not, it was a serendipitous success.

Dim lighting and secluded booths make Charlie Gitto’s a great place to be romantic and celebrate an anniversary. An order of their aforementioned deep-fried delight, classic Margherita pizza, a glass of Merlot and candlelight created a wonderful atmosphere and a splendid finish to our day.

With its vibrant neighborhoods, captivating riverfront and revitalized downtown, St. Louis provides a gateway to a wonderful weekend.

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