Family fun: 5 can’t-miss attractions when visiting St. Louis

By: Kristin Finan
January, 2022

To marry someone from St. Louis is to get an instant education on the Gateway to the West. To develop deep passions for beloved local staples like toasted ravioli, gooey butter cake, frozen custard and Provel cheese. To root for the St. Louis Cardinals. And to have an appreciation for celebrities who are also St. Louis natives, such as John Goodman, Sterling K. Brown and Nelly. Over the course of our 20-year relationship, my husband and I have trekked to St. Louis regularly to visit family and take in the famous sights and sounds. After nearly two years away due to the coronavirus pandemic, we returned once again last month – this time with family fun on the itinerary – and were relieved to find that all of the places we love were still standing. 

The St. Louis Gateway Arch is a must-see attraction in St. Louis, Missouri. Contributed by St. Louis Gateway Arch

Below are some of our favorite attractions to visit during a trip to St. Louis. As always, check websites or call ahead before you go, as information and schedules may change due to the pandemic. 

St. Louis Gateway Arch

Twenty years ago, during my first visit to St. Louis with my new boyfriend over the winter holiday, we donned ice skates and held hands as we took a spin around the ice skating rink in Kiener Plaza in the shadow of the famed St. Louis Arch. Last month, we returned to the rink after 15 years of marriage with six kids in tow and marveled at how much has changed over the course of two decades. What remains the same, however, is the spectacular sight of the St. Louis Arch, which never fails to take my breath away. Standing 630 feet high, the St. Louis Arch was completed in 1965 and is the tallest monument in the United States; it was even designated a national park in 2018. Visitors can join the millions of others who have taken a tram ride to the top to appreciate incredible views of the city stretching for up to 30 miles. At the base of the park, be sure to visit the Museum at Gateway Arch, which traces the stories of Native Americans, explorers, pioneers and rebels who made America possible. https://www.gatewayarch.com/

Ice skating at Kiener Park is a fun winter activity in St. Louis. Mirielle Badgley-Finan photo

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St. Louis Zoo

We could feel the tiny droplets of water as they flung from the back of a Humboldt penguin that groomed itself on the rocky shore of the Dennis and Judy Jones Family Humboldt Haven. We could see the polar bear’s chest rise and fall as it slept peacefully at Polar Bear Point. And when a gorilla felt the need to regurgitate its just-eaten lunch back into its hands, well, we were front row for that, too. The St. Louis Zoo is my favorite zoo in the country, not only for the incredible education it provides about its 12,000 animals that represent 500 species, but also because the access it allows families is truly unparalleled. Added bonus: Admission is always free, although advance reservations are currently required. https://www.stlzoo.org/

Six Flags St. Louis

Located about 30 minutes from downtown in the suburb of Eureka, Six Flags St. Louis is set on more than 300 acres and plays host to dozens of thrill rides, attractions, shops and restaurants. The amusement park, which in 2021 celebrated its 50th anniversary, is typically open during the summer season but also opens over winter for its Holiday Lights Spectacular, which features breathtaking light displays in every color of the rainbow, dancers performing to Christmas classics and holiday-themed food, drinks and souvenirs. We loved getting a bird’s-eye view of the park from atop the Colossus, a 184-foot Ferris wheel that features a slow-and-steady 12-minute ride with panoramic angles of the park. Roller coaster enthusiasts will appreciate American Thunder, a towering wooden coaster that offers speeds of 50 miles per hour and kicks off with an 80-foot drop that turns at a 90-degree angle. One spin around American Thunder was more than enough excitement for my daughter and me, but my husband decided to take advantage of the nearly nonexistent lines by then crossing the park to take on BATMAN: The Ride, which reaches speeds of 55 miles per hour and features an 11-story climb, followed by a 360-degree loop. In summer, the park is also home to Hurricane Harbor, a tropical-themed waterpark that includes splashy rides, a sprawling wave pool and a children’s play area. https://www.sixflags.com/stlouis

Six Flags St. Louis is open for a limited time during the winter break. Patrick Badgley photo

City Museum

Easily my favorite interactive museum in the country, the City Museum is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. If you’re traveling with kids, you’ll love the experience of hearing their groans of displeasure about the idea of visiting a museum transform into squeals of delight as they spy a sprawling rooftop playground that includes a Ferris wheel and carved-out school bus. Set inside a 100-year-old warehouse in downtown St. Louis, the City Museum is a haven for artists who transform unwanted artifacts into explorable tunnels, slides, bridges, ball pits and secret passages. Opened in 1997 and set within 10 stories and 600,000 square feet, the City Museum describes itself as “a mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion and architectural marvel made out of found and repurposed objects.” Seeing is believing when you come to the City Museum, and trust me, you’ll want to see this. https://www.citymuseum.org/

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St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station

St. Louis’ Union Station was once one of the largest and busiest passenger train terminals in the world, but these days it’s filled with a variety of different species as home to the St. Louis Aquarium. Opened in late 2019, the 120,000-square-foot aquarium houses more than 13,000 animals, from zebra sharks to alligator snapping turtles. Don’t miss Shark Canyon, the aquarium’s largest attraction that includes more than 80 sharks and rays. The aquarium also features the 200-foot-tall St. Louis Wheel, a carousel, an 18-hole mini-golf course, a mirror maze, a ropes course, a train park and restaurants. Advance ticket purchase is required. https://www.stlouisaquarium.com/

If You Go

Getting there:

Multiple nonstop flights are available from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to St. Louis Lambert International Airport. If you’re driving, it will take you about 12 hours from downtown Austin.

Stay:

Moonrise is a gorgeous and unique boutique hotel conveniently located in The Loop shopping and entertainment district. https://moonrisehotel.com/

Do:

For adult-only fun, St. Louis is home to a variety of casinos offering slots, table games, poker and shows. Attending a St. Louis Cardinals game is another must-do if you’re in town during baseball season.

Food and drink:

St. Louis is famous for a variety of its food staples, including toasted ravioli and gooey butter cake, a bright yellow dessert with a cake-batter crust that’s dusted with powdered sugar. Local institutions include Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, where one bite of a perfectly blended concrete will settle the question of what’s superior: ice cream or frozen custard. Imo’s Pizza, topped with the brand’s signature Provel cheese, is another must. Craving pasta? The Hill, St. Louis’ long-established Italian-American neighborhood, is the place to go. And don’t miss 4 Hands Brewing Co. for great beer, delicious food and free arcade games.

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