IMPORTANT: The pictures in this blog are from multiple visits to Saint Louis throughout the years and are not from a single trip.
I’ve been to Saint Louis (STL) more times than I can remember, starting from when I was very young. I did not explore STL much while growing up, because it was, and still is, considered a dangerous place. It repeatedly makes the list of “Most Dangerous Cities in America” on those yearly lists. I say this because I think it’s important for every single person to be educated and fully aware regarding any place they are visiting. Anyway, I’m grown now, so I assume the risk. I know STL gets a bad rap, but you can’t stay away from places (especially those with sooo much history) due to fear of what might happen. And to be fair and honest, nothing bad has ever happened to me any of the times I’ve visited STL. It is a bit depressing that a city so important to the development of the United States and steeped in history is now plagued by corruption and crime; however, if you stay in the more “touristy” areas, you should be fine.
There are many things to do in STL, and many are family friendly. Obviously, the main attraction is the Saint Louis Arch, but there is also the City Museum, Saint Louis Zoo, Cahokia Mounds (technically in Illinois, but extremely close by), Saint Louis Science City, Missouri History Museum, the Old Courthouse, and much more. In this blog, I’ll be covering my visits to the Arch, the zoo, the Old Courthouse, the Delmar Loop, and just my time spent there in general.
Located at 11 North 4th Street
St. Louis, MO 63102, I’ve gone up the St. Louis Arch two times, once with Kristi and another with my mom when she was there for work (and I was 8-months pregnant at the time… the worst). Both were pretty much the same, minus the big belly the first time. The Arch is open from 9am to 6pm, there is a $3 entrance fee, and it costs $10 per ticket to ride to the top. To get to the observation deck of the Arch, you must first go underground and then trust your life to the engineers and elevator mechanics who built it. There is a special kind of fear you’ll experience while inside one of the arch’s elevators. They’re small egg-like pods (officially called a “tram”), snugly fitting 5 adults, which take you up to the top at an angle (because the Arch is at an angle, of course). There are no windows, and if you are legitimately claustrophobic, I don’t think it’s a good idea.
You’re literally encased inside this egg and all you hear is the mechanical noises of the elevator going up. There are multiple other pods (6 or 7) going up and down all around you at the same time. Both times I’ve gone it’s been PACKED, so getting out of the elevators is a ridiculous process. There is only so much space at the top, and the elevators are positioned so they are at a downward angle with a staircase leading all the way down along the side. The people waiting at the top to get on an elevator crowd the staircase, trying to secure a spot, and you must literally push through them because there is nowhere else for them to go. I don’t know who’s in charge of controlling the number of visitors allowed up at a time, and if “the Arch people” are somehow reading this – seriously, you need a better system.
Once you “This is Sparta” the people out of the way and make it up the stairs, the actual observation room is considerably bigger than the narrow staircase (it’s still not very wide, but noticeably better), and you can see for miles. To the west is STL, and to the east is its uglier cousin; East Saint Louis, Illinois. There’s really nothing to see on the ESTL side, except a view of the Mississippi River (but that’s literally right next to the Arch anyway, and you can see it from the ground). On the STL side, you can see a lot: all of downtown, the Old Courthouse, “The Dome at America’s Center” (the L.A. Rams’ former football stadium; side note: they will ALWAYS be the Saint Louis Rams to me), Busch Stadium (home of the Cardinals baseball team), the Mississippi River, the Wainwright Building (of the first skyscrapers in the world, although it wouldn’t be considered a skyscraper by today’s terms), and much more.
One thing about the Arch: it sways. It sways while you’re up there, and you can feel it. However, don’t be alarmed. Be sure to watch the video offered in the base of the Arch which explains its history and construction (highly recommended). It’s designed to sway and without that design element, it wouldn’t be able to stand the test of time. Speaking of the base, the whole area of the Arch that’s meant for visitors is underground, smack dab in between the two bases of the Arch. There’s a very mild slope that goes down into it, and that’s where the museum, educational video, gift shop, bathrooms, vending machines, and access to the top are all located.
The Old Courthouse is located at 11 N 4th St, St. Louis, MO 63102, within walking distance of the Gateway Arch National Park and the Arch (they’re so close to one another, MapQuest will tell you it’s 0.0 miles away). You can stand at the entrance to the Arch and easily lay eyes on it. You just walk up a small hill and you’re there. It’s open daily from 8am to 4:30pm.
It was constructed in 1816as a combination federal and state courthouse, and was known as the tallest building in STL from 1864 until 1894. The land for which the courthouse would be built upon was donated in 1816 by Judge John Baptiste Charles Lucas and Auguste Chouteau, the founder of St. Louis. They only required that the land be “used forever as the site on which the courthouse of the County of St. Louis should be erected.” While court sessions are no longer held here, there will, technically, forever be a courthouse on this site. It’s now part of the Gateway Arch National Park and is operated by the National Park Service.
It was also the site of a famous battle regarding slavery and slave rights. Outside of the Old Courthouse is a statue of important American historical figures Dred and Harriet Scott. This courthouse is where the famous slave tried to win his and his wife’s freedom back in 1846. Their case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unfortunately ruled that Scott did not have the right to sue because he wasn’t considered a citizen. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since then. The Old Courthouse is no longer used as a courthouse and is now a national landmark and museum.
There are multiple rooms inside the courthouse that you can explore, including one that is completely reconstructed to show what a 19th century courtroom would’ve looked like.
St. Louis Zoo
Another major attraction in STL is the Saint Louis Zoo, located at 1 Government Dr., St. Louis, MO 63110 and open daily from 9am to 4pm. I do not like this zoo. It’s free to enter, and you can only imagine what that means, especially during summer. It’s damn near impossible to do anything or get anywhere because of the unholy crowds. However, even though admittance is free, you must pay fees to see any of the shows, enter special areas (like the Children’s Zoo, Stingrays at Caribbean Cove, Wild Wonder Outpost, etc), or ride the Zooline Railroad. This zoo is built on hilly terrain, so you will be getting a workout while walking around. I went with Kristi on one of our various visits, and all I can remember seeing was the monkeys and reptiles, and we were there for a solid couple of hours. Many animals were removed for various reasons (like health issues or “habitat redesign”), so that was a major disappointment. I asked a worker at a kiosk when was the best time to visit to avoid the ridiculous crowds, and I’ve never forgotten her answer: “Only when it rains”.
Parking is extremely limited around the zoo, so we ended up parking in a lot almost 1/2 a mile away near the Saint Louis Art Museum (bonus: if you park here, you get to see Apotheosis of Saint Louis). There are no trolleys or trams to the entrance of the zoo (so be aware; you’ll be walking a lot). The good news is, if you’re an art fan, you can hit both spots in one day with limited-to-zero difficulty. Another important note regarding the zoo: they serve alcohol, and you’re allowed to walk freely around with it. I don’t picture anyone getting sloppy drunk at a zoo surrounded by children, but this world surprises me every day, so never say never.
Another area to visit is the Delmar Loop, known as a progressive and artsy “entertainment and dining hub”. Their website markets it as “one of the 10 great streets in America”, and while I don’t know about all that, there is definitely A LOT to do there. The “Saint Louis Walk of Fame” is there, as well as a theater paying homage to the Tivoli Gardens in Denmark, the Pageant music venue, University City City Hall, Fitz Restaurant and Bottle Company, and much more. It’s worth at least one trip, and if you go at night, it’s absolutely buzzing with life and lights.
Lastly, if you’re ever in STL and looking for genuine, “down-home” type BBQ, you must go to Sugarfire Smoke House. It’s open daily from 11am to 9pm and is one of the best BBQ I’ve ever had. They have two locations in STL. One is smack-dab inside downtown, about an 11-minute walk from the Arch, at 605 Washington Ave, St. Louis, MO 63101. This is the one we went to (the other is located at 9200 Olive Blvd #114).
My mom learned of this place because she met an employee from there on the Metro-Link, who was a guardian angel for my mother, basically taking her under her wing because the Metro-link isn’t exactly known for being a friendly place. Sadly, it’s known for its high robbery and assault rates, with many tourists and STL natives becoming victims, and it was glaringly obvious that my mom was the typical oblivious, west coast tourist. When I came to visit a couple days later, my mom told me about the woman and the place that she worked, and we figured we’d give it a try. As luck would have it, she was working that night, so we were able to eat dinner with her, learn more about her, and I thanked her profusely for looking out for my innocent, if not completely oblivious, mother.
Overall, Saint Louis is a city everyone should visit at least once, if the opportunity arises. There is quite a bit of history here, given that this city was legitimately seen as the “Gateway to the West” at one point. The shopping in STL rivals shopping in L.A. or any other major city, and the number of things to do with kids is endless. Do I think you should make it your sole vacation destination…? Maybe not… unless the Arch is on your “must see” list. BUT, if you’re ever in the area, or have a long lay over at Lambert International Airport, then yes, you should definitely visit STL, or at the very least, the Arch.