While there are many things to do in STL, obviously the main attraction is the Saint Louis Arch. I’ve gone up the Arch twice, once with my friend and another time with my mom when she was visiting for work (and I was 8-months pregnant at the time. 🤰🏻🥴). Both experiences were pretty much the same, minus the big belly the first time.
Located at 11 North 4th Street St. Louis, MO 63102, it’s right across the Mississippi River, and can be seen from miles away, in both Missouri and Illinois. It’s officially called the Gateway Arch National Park, but it’s rarely ever called that. Every single person that I know who lives in the area simply calls it “The Arch”. It’s open from 9am to 6pm, there is a $3 entrance fee, and costs $10 per ticket to ride to the top.
The Arch sits right on the river, and there are many areas to park around it. If you don’t get lucky and snag a street spot, there is a large parking garage nearby, although you will have to walk a bit. To get to the observation deck, you must first go underground. There’s a very mild slope that goes down into it, and that’s where the museum, gift shop, bathrooms, vending machines, and access to the top are all located. The Museum at the Gateway Arch covers around 201 years of westward expansion with an emphasis on St. Louis’s role in it and is very interesting. There is a great informative video inside the museum that covers the history and construction of the Arch (something I highly recommend before going up it).
The history of the Arch is interesting, as St. Louis played a major role in the expansion of the United States, when the city was considered to be a literal “gateway to the West” (now the Arch’s nickname). In fact, the Arch is located near the starting point of the famous Lewis and Clerk Expedition, which is widely considered responsible for the continued push out West. It was designed by Eero Saarinen (a Finnish-American architect) and built by Hannskarl Bandel (a German-American structural engineer). It was designed in 1947, but construction didn’t begin until 1963. It took only two years to build, completing in 1965, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places just one year later, in 1966. It took 52 years for the federal government to upgrade it to a National Park, which they finally did in 2018.
As for going up it; you definitely trust your life to the engineers and elevator mechanics who built it and it’s elevators. There is a special kind of fear you’ll experience while inside one of the 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 guys, 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 Wainwright Building (one 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! As mentioned above, be sure to watch the video offered inside the museum which explains its history and construction. You will find out that it’s designed to sway and without that design element, it wouldn’t be able to stand the test of time. As you can see from the picture on the right, the middle part is very thin at the tip-top, and that is where the observation deck is located. This photo illustrates well the curvature the small elevator pods must take to reach the top.
Overall, if you’re ever in St. Louis or the surrounding area, take a few hours out of your day to visit this magnificent feat in structural engineering. The Arch is such an iconic American landmark, and one of the easiest National Parks to traverse, passing it up would be a shame. There is more to do around the Arch, like the Old Courthouse (one of the oldest buildings in St. Louis and the site of the infamous Dred Scott case) and various shops and restaurants in nearby downtown. If you’re on a road-trip, the Arch is literally right off the highway, so no excuses! Don’t pass up this historical mindbender.