October 23, 2017

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The St. Louis Vacation, pt. 1: Downtown

Getting ready to go on vacation can be time-consuming and stressful. After you decide which city (or cities) you’re visiting, you’ll need to decide which attractions you want to visit, where to sleep and eat, your vacation budget, and most importantly, how to avoid as much whining and complaining as possible from the backseat of the car. It’s not a job for the faint of heart, especially if you’re going to a lively area like St. Louis.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be easier. This series of articles seek to outline several activities you can choose from to schedule a full vacation’s worth of memorable activities that your family.

Downtown St. Louis

Ever since St. Louis was founded, the downtown area has been a bustling spot. Although it no longer has a thriving fur trade, like it did in the 1760’s, it is full to overflowing of shops, tourist attractions, and entertainment. This makes it a fantastic place to begin your vacation!

#1: The Gateway Arch

Of course, one of the first places you should visit is St. Louis’ crowning glory, The Gateway Arch, which can easily be described as an architectural masterpiece. Measuring at 630 feet tall, it’s a marvel to behold, especially when the sun glints off the three stainless steel sides. But more spectacular still is seeing St. Louis from the observation deck at the pinnacle of the monument. Unfortunately, due to limited space on the deck, only so many sightseers are allowed up at a time. Therefore, you want to be sure to get your tram ride tickets early, as they often sell out quickly. These tickets can be purchased either at the visitor center, which is located underneath the arch, or at The Old Courthouse.

While you wait, enjoy the shops under the arch and watch the historical orientation videos. One explains how the Arch was constructed and the other explains the evolution of the Greater St. Louis area. Check out the Museum of Westward Expansion, which tells the story of America’s push into the untamed wilds beginning in the pre-Lewis and Clark era through the complete settlement of the “Wild West.” With interactive and lifelike displays, you won’t want to miss stories of Indian raids and daring pioneers, details about how and why different treaties didn’t work, and archaeological discoveries in the local area. This fun museum requires at least two or more hours to explore properly, so plan accordingly!

#2: The Old Courthouse

A corresponding museum to (and within walking distance of) the Gateway Arch is The Old Courthouse. This museum is completely free, and brings history to life by highlighting the Dred and Harriet Scott Case (an African American man and his wife who sued his master for their family’s freedom and won). Although it’s not a very big museum and only takes about an hour to view, it has received hundreds of very positive reviews. Even kids enjoy it!

Besides the fascinating history, this building has been restored to its historic glory. Visitors are awe-struck by its elegance and character, and are especially drawn to the decorative dome and artwork tastefully placed around the premises. Besides, in between looking at murals and displays, you can purchase tickets for the Gateway Arch observation deck and avoid the line at the visitor center!

#3: Tour Busch Stadium

Whether it’s ball season or not, the Cardinals’ home field is always open for guided tours. Enjoy viewing the field from places the public typically isn’t allowed to go, like the radio press box and the Cardinals’ dugout, as well as the Champion’s Club to see the World Series trophies. Once everything is said and done, you even get a discount at the Officials Cardinals Team Store with your ticket stub!

If you decide to take your trip to St. Louis during baseball season, please note that these tours are not offered on home game and special event days, so be sure to call ahead first. Tickets can be purchased online, by phone (314-345-9000), or day-of at the Gate 3 ticket window.

#4: Cardinals Nation

But of course, after a tour of the Stadium, everyone’s sure to be hungry. Head over to Cardinals Nation, a unique restaurant/sports bar with all sorts of toothsome dishes. While you’re there, look through the Cardinals’ Hall of Fame, which has memorabilia from across the ages. You’ll be able to sit in a replica of the radio press box, and hold actual bats used by some of the most famous baseball players on the team. If you consider yourself to be any kind of Cardinals fan or you really like a good burger or quesadilla, you really should check this place out.

#5: Citygarden

Citygarden is another attraction within walking distance of the Arch. It’s filled with all sorts of really cool features like fountains, perfect for wading. And all along the wide sidewalks, there are sculptures, a varied collection that is definitely worth viewing. To make sure you see everything, download the free Citygarden App, which gives you a guided tour via a GPS map.

#6: Downtown Carriage Ride

These 30- or 60-minute relaxing little trips are offered every weather-permitting evening and you don’t even need a reservation! Begin your journey in front of the Gateway Arch, the Spaghetti Factory, or in front of the Hyatt Hotel and see a view of the city from a slower-paced perspective. Take it from someone who can speak from personal experience: your kids will never forget riding in a shimmery coach and driving by stores, sites, and the river with the cool evening breeze blowing gently past their faces.

#7: A Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Factory Tour

Okay, I want you to think about the first time you watched or read Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Did you wish that you could have been one of the people on the tour? Well, even though it’s not a chocolate factory imagined by Ronald Dahl, the Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Factory (one chocolate for each child in the founder’s family) does offer tours almost every half hour between 9 AM and 3 PM. This free tour takes you to the factory floor to let you watch professional candy makers form chocolates by hand and even allow you to taste a sampling of the chocolates and candies made there. Then, if you’re interested in more, you can purchase tickets to see the tasting room, where you can receive more chocolate samples! Reservations are not necessary, but close-toed shoes are required in order to take the tour.

#8: The Botanical Garden

The Missouri Botanical Garden is a glorious haven set on 79 acres and functions as a rich, natural habitat for flora and a calming oasis for humans. Featuring an amazing array of domesticated flowering and non-flowering plants alike, this park is a center for scientific advancement. It contains attractions like an archaeological wonder in and of itself, the Climatron, that is a climate-controlled geodesic dome housing a year-round greenhouse for tropic plants (like banana and cacao trees) and some rarer ones like endangered orchids and the double coconut.

#9: The Butterfly House

Also on Botanical Garden grounds is the Butterfly House, a popular attraction that allows visitors to interact with over 60 types of tropical butterflies year-round! These tame, exotic creatures aren’t afraid to land on your arm; nor is it uncommon to watch a butterfly emerge from its cocoon, watch as a caterpillar eats a leaf. You can also go outside to one of the butterfly gardens and observe local butterfly species live out their day.

#10: Go Rock Climbing at The Upper Limits

Although it’s not for everyone, rock climbing at the Upper Limit is a fun activity to do with your whole family. And if you’ve never climbed a rock wall before, that’s not a problem. A staff member will give you a brief orientation on climbing and safety. The goal is simple: get to the ceiling or as close as you possibly can. The better your fancy footwork and upper body strength, the higher you’ll get. The family fee of $45 (or $14 for adults and $12 for kids under 10) is good all day, so you can test abilities over and over!

#11: Go on a Riverboat Cruise

Ever wondered what it was like for Mark Twain and his contemporaries to travel by riverboat? Book a cruise on a riverboat that will take you up and down the Mississippi to find out. These boats will take you back 150 years to a time when river travel by paddle-wheel boats was the way to go. There are a variety of cruises offered: one-hour cruises, dinner cruises for a romantic evening, as well as several specialty cruises.

#12: See a Performance at the Fox Theatre

In today’s day and age of the silver screen, many people forget about the magic of the stage. What would be a better time to enjoy a musical than during your vacation? Head over to the internationally renown Fabulous Fox Theatre. Although it is rather unassuming on the outside, the inside is extremely ornate and feels very much like an old vaudeville stage. Broadway productions only takes up half of the Fox’s performances; the other half of the performances are famous entertainers like Riverdance, PianoGuys, and Andy Cohen & Anderson Cooper. .No matter what you get to see, it’ll be an experience you won’t forget.


This post originally appeared on Daring Penguin Travel Blog, published January 10, 2016. It was part of a larger article, 30+ Places to Check Out in St. Louis.

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