Missouri’s vibrant city is an underrated Midwest hub, full of gorgeous public places, kid-friendly activities, and historical monuments in and around the city. Here are 15 things to do around the Gateway to the West.
By Christine Watridge
Like a lot of people who grew up or live on the West Coast, I had never given the city of St. Louis much thought (a quite left/right coast-centric point of view, which I would like to wholeheartedly apologize for). Chicago? Yes! But St. Louis … Missouri? It never really seemed like a place to be—until I moved here for college, and realized that the Midwest has a whole lot more to offer than wacky weather and a rocky political landscape.
St. Louis is less of a Chicago-type “skyscraper” big city and more like an amalgamation of suburban neighborhoods. Each part of St. Louis is so different and fun to explore.
One of the best parts of the city? Its food. Hands down, St. Louis has some of the most delicious, expansive, and relatively affordable restaurants in the game.
Whether you’re traveling with toddlers, touring with grandparents, or even visiting with your teens, meet me in St. Louis for one of these 15 fun outings.
The Best of St. Louis
One of the first things I did in my first semester here was visit the City Museum downtown. I’m telling you, there’s nothing else like it. Essentially an enormous urban playground, the 10-story, 600,000-square-foot old shoe warehouse features slides, caves, nets, ramps, tubes, towers, ladders … and a full-size school bus hanging off the roof!
Each floor has a different vibe, and visitors can spend hours and hours here without covering half the place. I’ve been twice, and I haven’t even made it to the roof yet! It’s an absolute blast for five-year-olds and 25-year-olds alike.
My recommendation: Don’t miss the 10-story spiral slide that takes you from the top to the bottom in less than two minutes.
Forest Park is one of the largest and most-visited urban parks in the country, and home to five public cultural institutions: the Missouri History Museum, The Muny theatre, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Saint Louis Science Center, and the Saint Louis Zoo. The best part? It’s all free (with the exception Muny performances).
Whether your kids are into animals, art, science, history, or all four of these things, they’ll love a trip to Forest Park. The greenery and open space here is breathtaking. I’ve picnicked by the water, scooted across the park to view the spring bloom, watched a balloon glow, paddle-boated in the pond, and run along the edge of the park.
And yes, as an art nerd, I have been to the art museum more times than I can count. There’s so much to do in this park that you really need more than one or even two days to do it all.
My recommendation for beginners: Park at Art Hill to get a beautiful view of the art museum and fountain (pro tip, the special exhibit at the museum is free on Fridays!). Walk to the Boathouse for lunch, and then explore the pathways that wind around the water and its islands.
3. Cherokee Street
Cherokee Street is one of my favorite places to walk around in St. Louis. It’s a historic neighborhood with beautiful architecture, funky shops, and the “haunted” Lemp Brewery. Park near Lemp Brewery to walk around the huge brick structure, or book a tour of the inside. (Near Halloween, visit the haunted house located on the premises.)
There are also a few antique stores, a secondhand book shop, a crystal store, a typewriter museum (worth a stop, really), and a couple of art galleries in the neighborhood.
Grab a drink or a bite to eat at the Mud House, the Cheshire Grin Cat Cafe (this is my personal favorite because you can pet cats! While drinking coffee!), El Chico Bakery, or The Taco and Ice Cream Joint.
My recommendation: Grab a coffee and some purr-fect cat snuggles at the Cheshire, then head a few blocks over to the bakery to try some delicious Mexican pastries, and then pop your head into one of the antique stores. Look up at the murals and interesting architectural features as you stroll.
I am a fan of every single botanical garden I’ve ever visited, from San Francisco to Chicago, but I have to give extra credit to the St. Louis Botanical Garden It’s “the nation’s oldest botanical garden in continuous operation and a National Historic Landmark,” according to the website. And it includes 79 acres of horticultural displays, from a Japanese strolling garden to rare and endangered species to a giant climatron dome. It’s an absolutely beautiful display with plenty of attractions to keep both the kids and the adults interested.
My recommendation: Get to the botanical garden when it opens at 9 a.m. to experience the garden at a calmer and less hot (especially in the summer) hour. When you’re done, eat lunch in the nearby Tower Grove neighborhood and check out the local Tower Grove park. Or if you’re in the garden around dinnertime, eat at Cafe Natasha, a family-owned Persian restaurant, or Brasilia, which features incredible pastels (an empanada-like dish).
5. The Delmar Loop
The Loop area is about a 20-minute walk from Washington University’s main campus. The neighborhood features numerous music venues, clothing shops, cafes, and restaurants, and it’s a great place to grab a bite to eat and browse. If you’re looking to eat breakfast on the Loop, then Blueprint Coffee or Meshuggah Cafe are great options. For lunch or dinner, Salt + Smoke features delicious barbecue and smoked meat, while Seoul Taco, a Korean-fusion spot, includes vegan and vegetarian options. Other great restaurants include Corner 17, where the hand-pulled noodles are the star of the menu, and Turmeric, a modern Indian restaurant.
My recommendation: Browse at Vintage Vinyl. Order Boba at St Louis Bubble Tea and make your way to Subterranean Books and board game store The Wizard’s Wagon. Eat dinner at Salt + Smoke and grab rolled ice cream at Snow Factory. Call it a night (or if you have childcare) go over to Pin-Up Bowl for some bowling and an adult beverage.
You can’t come to the Gateway to the West without, well, actually going to the gateway! The Arch is St. Louis’ most recognizable monument, and it is worth a visit. The Arch lies just along the Mississippi, directly across from the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. The area is lush, green, and expansive, and a museum lies beneath the ground under the actual arch. If you’re not scared of heights or of small spaces, get tickets for the tram up to the top of the arch for an amazing view of the city.
My recommendation: If you’re staying near a metro stop, I encourage you to take the metro to Gateway Arch National Park. It arrives just a short stroll away from the Arch, and you’ll be able to walk along the river.
I had never heard of Cahokia before my freshman year archeology class, when my professor dedicated a whole day to discussing this abandoned mound city. The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is the site of a pre-Columbian Native American city across the Mississippi River in Illinois. Though many of the mounds have been destroyed by city development, some remaining mounds are preserved here. At its peak, the civilization living here was bigger than London’s at the time. It’s an important and fascinating historical site, and the interpretive center features some of the artifacts found nearby. It’s about a 20–30-minute drive outside the city, depending on where you are.
My recommendation: Park in the center and take a one-hour guided tour around some of the most important mounds. Then drive across Collinsville Road to Monks Mound and climb the steps all the way to the top tier.
If you’re into the outdoors and art, then Laumeier Sculpture Park is a great activity. Laumeier is a nonprofit arts organization that was founded in 1976 as one of the largest sculpture parks in the country. The park features walkways and hiking trails across the grounds for all age levels and abilities, and you can explore at your leisure. From an enormous eyeball sculpture to wooden structures and beyond, Laumeier delights and intrigues its visitors. Come see work by famed artists such as Donald Judd, Jenny Holzer, Robert Morris, and many more.
My recommendation: Start with the Art Hike Trail, a .77-mile path that winds around the eastern woodland section of the park, and then make your way back to the center to the Museum Lawn. Mosey as much as you want—there’s no rush.
9. St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station
Sure, St. Louis isn’t exactly the ocean city of fish dreams, but it does have a fantastic new aquarium. With more than 44 exhibits, 13,000 animals, and 120,000 square feet of space, the St. Louis Aquarium is guaranteed to impress you and your kids. The location itself is impressive: It’s housed in the old train station, imbuing the historic building with a modern interior. In the same block is the St. Louis Wheel, an enormous 200-foot-tall Ferris wheel that’s open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. This wheel is worth your money—it’s made up of 42 climate-controlled gondolas that take three or four full turns during the 15-minute ride. View the St. Louis city skyline from a brand new perspective.
My recommendation: Buy tickets ahead of time for both of these activities, ride the metro into downtown, get off at the Union Station stop, and enjoy an afternoon aquarium visit. Grab dinner downtown, and come back for a night ride on the Wheel.
The Soulard district is the first established neighborhood of St. Louis, and the Soulard Farmer’s Market is one of the oldest public markets in the country, having been established in 1779. (Yes, 1779!) The market takes place Thursday–Saturday, and vendors ply fresh meats, veggies, and fruits as well as home furnishings, jewelry, clothing, and more. Be sure to check out all the stalls, and leave yourself plenty of time to browse, taste food, and explore.
My recommendation: I know, I know, you’ve just eaten and bought loads of fresh produce at the market, but hear me out. A couple blocks away, the St. Louis staple, John’s Donuts awaits. Don’t you deserve a sweet treat?
11. Cardinals Game at Busch Stadium
Baseball games are a great way to experience cities, and the Cardinals are an iconic team. Not only is the baseball game fun, but the stadium itself is a must-see. The view of the Gateway Arch from the stands is a reason in itself to buy tickets. Keep the kids occupied for a few hours and enjoy some all-American stadium food.
My recommendation: It’s probably going to be hot. Like, really hot, especially if you’re not in shaded seats. So sunscreen up and grab a few souvenir hats. And by the way, the weather in St. Louis can change at lightning speed, so check a weather app before you go.
12. Eckert’s Farm
I have been to Eckert’s Farm three times in two years, because that’s just how much I love it! The family-run farm allows people to pick fruits and vegetables on a seasonal basis, and pretty much has anything you could dream of picking. I’ve picked apples, strawberries, peaches, cucumbers, corn, tomatoes, sunflowers, kale, and zucchini here. Eckert’s also has a large market store and restaurant, and hosts weekend musicians during the summer.
My recommendation: Pick an early time to u-pick—not only will it be less hot, but you’ll get the best crops of the day.
13. Lone Elk Park
Sometimes, you just want to appreciate nature without actually having to do much work. And that’s where Lone Elk Park comes in. It’s a drivable wildlife area where you have the chance to run into a herd of bison or more than a few elk. You can also park your car and walk the trails if you’re looking for a little more exercise.
My recommendation: The staff feeds the animals in the morning, so the best time to catch a glimpse is to come early.
14. Cliff Cave Park
Another outdoor gem is Cliff Cave Park, an over 500-acre county park next to the Mississippi River. Not only can you catch a glimpse of the cave itself (which is gated to protect both archeological artifacts and the cave critters, including bats), but you can walk along the 5-mile looping trail near the river’s edge and along the bluffs. There’s a beautiful vista near the beginning of the trail as well as a bridge that overlooks the road into the park.
My recommendation: OK, this whole waking-up-early thing is really getting old, but I swear, it really is so much better to avoid the hottest parts of the day. Another option: Wait until late afternoon or around sunset to stroll the park. Just don’t forget the insect repellent.
Sorry kids, this is an adults-only type of activity. Tour the famous 19th century brewery, and taste beer straight out of the cellars. It promises to be a fun way to round out your experience in St. Louis, and to learn more about an American original.
My recommendation: Take public transportation or a rideshare car to and from the brewery!
Where to Stay in St. Louis
Each neighborhood has its pros and cons, but no matter what, renting a car is crucial. Here are my two favorite places to bed down:
Downtown – The Last Hotel is a beautiful boutique hotel that has taken over the International Shoe Company’s building.
Aquarium Area – There’s actually a hotel right in the old Union Train Station. It’s part of the Hilton’s Curio Collection, and is less than one mile from downtown and City Museum. I would also recommend checking out Airbnbs in the area.
College Area – If you want to stay in a more college-town-y area, with access to restaurants on the Delmar Loop, Forest Park, Washington University’s campus, and the metro, then the Moonrise Hotel is a perfect choice. It’s an eclectic mix of bright colors and Art Deco, and there’s a rooftop bar for when the kids are asleep.
Christine Watridge – August 2021
Christine is a college student from the Bay Area who dreams of backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail and visiting all 63 National Parks (15 down!). If she’s not outside, you can find her illustrating, writing, reading a good book, or baking focaccia bread.
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
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