French-speaking settlers crossed the Mississippi River into present-day Missouri and founded Sainte-Geneviève, named for the patron saint of Paris, on its shore in 1735. A flood 50 years later forced a relocation two miles away. At one point bigger than St. Louis, the town sent many tons of grain downriver to New Orleans. The first German settlers arrived in 1820, and a sense of Teutonic order pervades the town and the surrounding farmsteads, set amid rolling fields, pastures and woodlands.
Today, Ste. Genevieve is a sleepy and pleasant place that attracts tourists due to its excellent historic preservation. It works best as an overnight visit attached to a trip to St. Louis or the underrated Missouri Ozarks, but there is enough history, wine and shopping here — and a total solar eclipse passing overhead on Aug. 21 — to make it a worthy addition.
You come here to see history, and you should begin either at the Welcome Center (1-573-883-7097) or the handsome little Ste. Genevieve Museum (1-573-883-3461), with a good collection of artifacts like Mississippian pottery, a Bible printed in Latin and German that survived the flood, and memorabilia from the 1935 bicentennial celebrations headlined by Franklin Roosevelt.
Ste. Genevieve’s walkable downtown is dominated by a massive Catholic church, and many of its brick buildings bear placards with their year of construction. Be sure to visit the sites under the domain of the Felix Vallé House State Historic Site (1-573-883-7102). The titular 1818 Federal-style house has a re-created storeroom and period-appropriate furnishings, and the 1792 Amoureux House is one of only five surviving French-style log cabins in the United States (two others are also here). It tells the story of Pelagie Amoureux, who was born into slavery and owned by her father, then became emancipated and sued townspeople who harassed her because of her race.
Unpleasantly, the historic preservationists I encountered were entirely too eager to say how relatively well Ste. Genevieve’s enslaved people were treated, supposedly due to French custom. In 2017, no attempt, especially by those with who work in public history, should be made to humanize inhumanity.
Any historic town worth its salt has a ghost tour, and Ste. Genevieve is no exception. They meet at 7 and 9 p.m. on most Saturday nights, led by lantern-carrying guides who are true believers in the supernatural tales they tell. Truth be told, some can be a bit shaggy-dog, but many are downright eerie, and the tour is loaded with historical details. Especially spooky is the town cemetery at night, with headstones written in French, German and English (1-314-662-6343).
Luckily, there enough wineries to drink away the fear. My pick of stops along the Route du Vin (a trolley links them to downtown; 1-573-535-1911) is the Cave Vineyard (1-573-543-5284). Try the Norton wine, a dry red made from Missouri’s state grape; the Vino Grande is the same fortified with house-distilled brandy. Buy a bottle and enjoy it in the roomy Saltpeter Cave down an easy path from the tasting room. In town, the Sainte Genevieve Winery (1-573-883-2800) is known for its sweet fruit wines, some fermented from Missouri-grown wild pears or elderberries (drink without worry: it’s “packed with antioxidants”).
While adventurers should check out the 12-mile section of the Ozark Trail between Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park (where the Black River became “shut-in” to a hard rock channel, creating a natural water park) and Taum Sauk Mountain State Park, it’s over an hour away. Hawn State Park (1-573-883-3603) is just out of town and features a 10-mile backpacking trail as well as the short Pickle Creek Trail, which follows exposed granite and sandstone shut-ins. The creek’s source is at the Pickle Springs Natural Area (1-573-290-5730), with even more peculiar geological oddities like natural arches, slot canyons and hoodoos.
Where to shop
The ASL Pewter Foundry is the nation’s largest such mom-and-pop operation (1-573-883-2095). Alongside custom molds, they cast from 250 molds made before 1840; their oldest is from 1630. There are make-what-you-want classes by appointment.
The ghost tours leave from Rustik Sand Kandles (1-573-517-3751), where you can buy candles with unusual scents like heirloom tomatoes alongside old-fashioned lye soap made from lard and artesian well water — and a selection made without animal products, too.
The Show-Me Shop (1-573-883-3096) stocks made-in-Missouri gourmet foods and wine, and What Nots & Oddities (1-573-535-9791) sells wares from 56 different artisans. Look for beautiful quilts and handmade Damascus steel knives.
Where to eat
Audubon’s is the nicest restaurant in town: white tablecloths, big windows and German influences. Get the meat and cheese board, with sausages from a local butcher, and the Chicken Baetje, cordon bleu-style with sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and ham and a tomato cream sauce (1-573-883-2479). The Anvil Restaurant & Saloon (1-573-883-7323) is known for delicious, spaetzle-like beef liver dumplings and homemade pie. The bar was delivered by oxcart in 1855, when a passing steamboat got stuck on a sandbar and needed some weight lifted.
I walked into Cafe Rust and saw owner Shannon McBride wrist-deep in dough. She opened two years ago and prides herself on being a “scratch baker” — the selection of pastries changes daily and often features local fruit. My waffle was excellent — crisp, studded with pecans and served with real maple syrup — as was the choice of single-origin pour-over coffees (1-573-608-5055).
If you can’t stop to sample the Gateway City’s unique culinary offerings, you can find some of them here. Stella & Me has great soups, salads and sandwiches alongside joyously indulgent gooey butter cake. If you’ve never heard of it, come here immediately (1-573-883-3078). Sirros has toasted ravioli alongside an array of bar food favorites, local beer from Charleville Brewing Co. and award-winningly friendly servers (1-573-883-5749). It adjoins the Orris Theater (get it?), a renovated, repurposed movie house with live music on weekends.
Where to stay
This is a bed-and-breakfast kind of town, and the best is the Inn St. Gemme Beauvais (1-800-818-5744; innstgemme.com), where the main house was built in 1848. Each of the 14 rooms has an en suite bath. Enjoy a four-course breakfast at 8 a.m., tea and cake at 2 p.m. and wine at 5.
Ste. Genevieve is not quite 2 hours southeast of St. Louis on Interstate 55, or about 650 miles south of the Twin Cities.
Aaron Gettinger is a writer in Chicago.