As the port that launched the Lewis and Clark expedition and a major trade route along the mighty Mississippi, St. Louis knows a thing or two about adventure. While best known for the stainless steel arch that marks the skyline, this city has much more to offer families who are eager to set off on their own explorations.
The Gateway Arch, gleaming 630 feet above the Mississippi, is the obvious place to begin your adventure in the Gateway to the West. Hop aboard the Space-Age pods that carry you to the top of the monument for the best views of the city. Back at the base, you can experience the grit of the Old West with a visit to the Museum of Westward Expansion (opening on July 3) before climbing aboard a 19th-century paddle wheel boat replica for a narrated cruise down the river. After the arch, beat the summer heat with frosty faves from Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, including the famed “Terramizzou” sundae.
Take in some modern culture (for free!) at Citygarden, an urban park that features two-dozen sculptures from renowned artists like Keith Haring and Ju Ming, plus a video wall that screens everything from daily garden activities to movies and Cardinals games. Bring a change of clothes for the kids—the park is full of water features, including 100 computer-controlled spray jets.
When it’s time to turn in for the night, the boutique Moonrise Hotel in the vibrant Delmar Loop offers luxury in a great locale. Away from the riverfront, you’ll be situated to explore another side of the city that includes the St. Louis Zoo and the St. Louis Art Museum. Kids and adults will love the quirky touches, such as a rainbow-lit stairway and the space-themed guest rooms. Bicycle rentals allow families to explore the nearby Forest Park, one of the nation’s largest city parks. Don’t miss a trip to the Rooftop Terrace Bar, where you’ll find stunning views of the city.
The Gateway Arch
Ted Drewes Frozen Custard 314/352-7376; teddrewes.com
If a band of artists and inventors got together for a party in a junkyard, the result would probably look something like the City Museum. You could easily spend days getting lost in the nooks and crannies of this fun house, but be sure not to miss climbing out onto the junked airplane that hangs three stories above the street, riding on the rooftop Ferris wheel and sliding down the 10-story musical slide.
Climbing among the giant jungle gyms of the City Museum will work up a thirst, and Fitz’s Root Beer can quench your cravings. Walking into this St. Louis icon is like taking a step back in time to a 1950s soda shop, but with the added element of a factory tour: As you enjoy your burgers and fries, you can watch 3,000 bottles an hour whiz around the antique bottling mechanism at the center of the restaurant.
Fitz’s Root Beer
Take in the pretty sights of the Show-Me State with a visit to the Missouri Botanical Gardens. While your brood can spot floral faves like daffodils and water lilies, families of all ages will love the Doris I. Schnuck Children’s Garden (open April–October). Be sure to check out the garden’s online calendar for daily hands-on activities.
Families who want to commune with animals while taking in St. Louis’ rich history can pay a visit to Grant Farm. The spot was once owned by Ulysses S. Grant and now belongs to Anheuser-Busch, so not only can you tour the cabin that was once home to Grant and his wife, but you can also meet the famous Budweiser Clydesdales. While the kids enjoy the stables, you can sample a variety of Anheuser-Busch products. Best of all, the entire attraction is free. Keep a lookout for food trucks on Fridays through Aug. 24.
Before heading out of town, get your kicks at Meramec Caverns, the oldest attraction on Route 66. Guided tours of this ancient limestone cave are the highlight of the visit, but you can also soar through the treetops on a zip-lining adventure or pan for “gold.”
Missouri Botanical Gardens 314/577-5100; missouribotanicalgarden.org
*Updated on May 22, 2018 with additional reporting from Lisa Salinas