Driving into St. Louis at sunset, I was awestruck by the site of the imposing arch, glistening against the orange-hued sky and reflecting on to the Mississippi. It only took that and a brief drive along Market Street -- a wide sculpture, trees, and historic architecture-lined promenade -- to convince me that instead of staying overnight, we should stay a few days and discover this surprising mid-west city.
It turned out to be one of the best decisions of our five-week family road trip across the country, and it was certainly the city that I thought offered the most interesting and entertaining options for young children. St. Louis has undergone a massive city-wide resurgence and beautification program of late and it definitely shows. On a sunny summer's day, everything shined, the streets were spotless, and the kids were in for a fantastic two days of fun, adventure, and education. Here are four St. Louis family-friendly must-sees:
Stop number one on any family trip to St. Louis has to be its world-class zoo (www.stlzoo.org). The zoo is the perfect example of how to get corporate sponsorship right and not too overwhelming. Yes, there are logos and naming rights on every exhibit and enclosure, but as a result, entry is free and with prices of comparable zoos hovering at $20 per person elsewhere in the country, it was a breath of fresh air (and the $10 per car parking fee wasn't too unreasonable). While admission is free, there are a couple of things that do have a cost attached, like the Children's Zoo which is $4 per person, but free for the first hour the Zoo is open and for children under two; The Conservation Carousel ($3); the Zooline Railroad ($5); and the Stingrays exhibit which is $3, but also free for the first hour of the day. Alternately, you can pick up a Safari Pass which includes all of the above for $10.
St. Louis Zoo promotes itself as the country's most-visited zoo and although it was a little crowded, you never felt overwhelmed and claustrophobic. My two- and four-year old daughters were enamored with the closeness of the enclosures and the fact that you more often than not, didn't have glass between you and the animals. The best exhibits were the primates, the hippos, and the penguins -- where the creatures were just inches away from you. There were two baby elephants that frolicked in the summer sun and entertained children of all ages with their antics. You can easily spend an entire day here or condense it down to around four hours. There is a labyrinth of road construction going on around the zoo with the I-64 extension, but following the makeshift signs to the zoo isn't that difficult (even if you do have to circle and back-track a bit). If you don't have a car, you can get to the zoo, located just west of the downtown by bus #90 or take the Metrolink train to Forest Park and switch to the #90 bus.
The next kid-friendly stop on our whistle-stop tour of St. Louis was its most recent addition, Citygarden. I had spotted Citygarden when we first drove into town (actually my kids saw it and screamed with excitement "Can we go there ... please?"). Citygarden consists of three acres of environmentally sustainable landscaped urban space carved out in the downtown area along the northern side of Market Street. Featuring modern sculptures, video installations, reflecting pools, a café and a "spray plaza" water park, the children loved this spot the most.
Everything was accessible -- no fences, admission fees or fuss. There was even a "lifeguard" on duty at one of the water areas to help parents oversee their young ones' wading activities. The splash plaza zone is a paved field of 102 vertical jets that project water up to ten feet in the air making it an irresistible draw card for children and adults alike on warm days, and at night it transforms into a water and light show. Citygarden only opened this summer and although plans aren't yet formalized for its usage in winter, the space is inviting, exciting, and visually stunning. Don't forget to dry off and check out the sculptures, including Jim Dine's Big White Gloves, Big Four Wheels (a homage to Pinocchio), Tom Classen's Untitled Two Rabbits, Donald Baechler's Scarecrow, and Mark de Suvero's Aesope's Fables.
One of the things I had looked forward to the most while traveling in the south and mid-west was a paddle wheel boat ride along the Mississippi, so I was quite disappointed to learn that these old queens of the river have all but disappeared (except for miscellaneous dinner cruises and casinos). My consolation was the mock paddle steamer riverboat cruise in St. Louis that departs from just beyond the Gateway Arch. The aptly named Gateway Arch Riverboats (www.gatewayarch.com) takes you out on an hour-long cruise along the mighty Mississippi as it makes its way northwards along the Missouri-Illinois border. The boats themselves, the Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher are replicas of 19th-century steamboats and provide ambience and historic charm.
The kids loved sitting out on the top deck, watching birds fly by and traveling under bridges. The one-hour cruises depart six times daily starting at 10:30am and cost $14 per adult and $8 for children aged three to 15. Of course there was the requisite tourist photo before you boarded the boat, but prints were pretty cheap and they made for a fun memento of our experience.
Not far from the zoo, you'll find the St. Louis Science Center (www.slsc.org) which is a fascinating destination for children with plenty of interactive activities, educational programs and exhibits. Although admission is free, individual attractions have entry fees including the Omnimax Theatre ($8 for adults, $7 for kids); Lego Mindstorms ($3); the Discovery Room ($3), The Space Show ($5 and 44); Segway courses ($5 to $35); and the Science Café ($20 and $10). Car parking is $8. The best way to experience the Center in my opinion is to go online and research exactly what you want to do before you arrive and narrow it down to a few age-specific activities. In the case of my young children it wasn't difficult to identify what they would enjoy the most.
The Discovery Room is aimed at young scientists aged three to seven (although you could possibly sneak in your two+ year old) with a range of interactive exhibits. Children can experiment with magnets or the water table, dress up at the medical area or Native American area, and read books. The room focuses on the fundamentals of science and technology and provides a learning resource with 45-minute program sessions beginning each hour. The Space Show is a 40-minute dark sky Planetarium show in the Orthwein StarBay with a live presentation exploring the current evening's night sky wonders. In between star shows take a self-guided tour of the Boeing Space Station and learn about living and working in space or try your hand at various space missions in the SBC Learning Center. My children are obsessed with dinosaurs so the Dinosaurs Alive Omnimax presentation was a must. The film follows American Museum of Natural History paleontologists as they explore some of the greatest dinosaur finds in history and the computer-generated animation brings the dinosaurs to life on the giant IMAX screen.
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