I first visited St. Louis two years ago. It was late November, baseball season had been over for weeks and many Americans were likely still comatose on their couches from their Thanksgiving feasts. But despite it being near the start of winter, it was a beautifully warm day. My older sibling was flying out of Lambert Airport, but he and I were able to spend a few hours sightseeing downtown before he had to board his flight home.
I had expected the museums and indoor tourist attractions to be closed for the holiday, but to my surprise a vast majority of the area surrounding the Gateway Arch was under heavy construction. The Arch was beautiful from a distance, but since it was inaccessible, finding a restaurant to watch our rival college football teams play became the highlight of our evening.
This spring, I was invited to tour some of the best tourist destinations in St. Louis, including the $380 million renovation of the Gateway Arch National Park that was underway during my previous visit. This was an opportunity to see what I had missed!
The tour began on the steps of The Old Courthouse where we met park ranger John Pellarin who would be our tour guide. It was clear to see that this building has stood as one of St. Louis’ most prominent landmarks for more than 150 years. Its white exterior walls and cast iron dome make it an architectural focal point in an area surrounded by high rise business centers.
The lobby of the courthouse is even more mesmerizing. Tall wooden pillars outline each floor of the dome’s center and its Greek revival design has remained true to its last remodel in the 1860s.
Much of the building is used to feature historic photographs, relics and four exhibit galleries to reflect the its rich history. The courthouse also includes a historically-accurate courtroom that closely resembles where Dred Scott petitioned for his freedom from slavery and where Virginia Minor presented her case for women’s right to vote.
The tour continued through Luther Ely Smith Square, which was constructed as a land bridge to cover a section of Interstate 44. This allowed the Gateway Arch to be connected directly to downtown for the first time.
Taking a pathway through lush gardens of the square, we eventually came to the glass walls of the new west entrance that leads you directly below the Arch’s center. Although the new entrance is only a way to access the Arch, the single entrance system allows guests to partake in interactive experiences offered within the Arch Museum.
Guided by Erin Hilligoss-Volkmann, director of education for the Gateway Arch National Park, we were brought through the Colonial St. Louis Gallery where the indigenous and creole cultures before the Louisiana Purchase are represented.
A few members of my group took advantage of a good photo opportunity to snap some photos inside a French Colonial home replica and an aboriginal dugout canoe. However, the collection of artifacts within all six galleries truly fascinated me.
Artifacts such as dishware, inkwells, beverage bottles and a mustard pot from Paris that date back to before the St. Louis Fire of 1849 and believed to be from the Jefferson House Hotel are among some of my favorites after I learned they were recently found while digging to make the new entrance to the Arch. The museum also showcased a Wells Fargo Stagecoach from 1866 and the forceps, specimen containers and a buckskin outfit worn by Titian Peale on the Long expedition of 1819.
If the contents of the museum weren’t impressive enough, the redesign of the 46,000 square foot space now includes digital enhancements with enlarged text panels, touchable tangibles, audio descriptions, touchscreen games and short educational presentations that guests of all ages can appreciate.
After some time well spent in the museum, my group and I walked a short distance to the Mississippi River for a special riverboat lunch. Unable to take a cruise due to high water levels, we remained parked at the dock. Still, there was a spectacular view of the Gateway to the West.
For more than 50 years, the Arch has been America’s tallest man-made monument standing at 630 feet high. It was designed to celebrate the westward expansion in the United States. Even at such height, it only takes a few moments in a small elevator to reach the Arch’s center. When we took the trip up ourselves, the view over St. Louis’s seemed to expand beyond the horizon making it a once in a lifetime experience I would encourage everyone to try. If you aren’t a big fan of heights, you can still find a replica of the center room located at the base of the arch that includes a live camera view from the top.
Before heading back to our hotel rooms, my group and I hit one last destination to the new Hotel Saint Louis rooftop bar for another great view of city. While enjoying their cocktail hour and apps, we also had the pleasure of meeting with representatives of Explore St. Louis who would be touring us on our second day to see some of the best family-friendly destinations the city has to offer.
One of these destinations, which I feel can be often overlooked, was the National Blues Museum. This museum serves as a public charity and works with the Music Makers Relief Foundation to provide traveling exhibits geared toward educating children about the musical traditions that became the bedrock for American music today.
While the museum traces the worldwide impact of the blues, we were also able to explore through several listening stations, touch one of the world’s largest harmonicas and even digitally create our own songs that we could save to our email.
I was pleased to learn the museum has become part of the St. Louis nightlife with live music performances every Friday and Sunday located in their Lumiere Place Legends Room, which I hope to visit soon.
The most family-friendly destination that we visited was the City Museum. Although there are plenty of art aspects for adults to enjoy, this destination is definitely one for the kids. Built inside and around a 100-year-old warehouse, the museum features four floors of chutes, caves and nearly 30 slides, including one that stretches the length of 10 stories. The building also includes a large outdoor playground and a rooftop Ferris wheel, but all rooftop activities are only open during the summer months.
My favorite destination of the day was visiting Union Station to get an up-close look at construction progress for the new St. Louis Aquarium. The aquarium will stand under a 500,000-square-foot train shed originally built for the station and will provide two floors featuring more than 13,000 aquatic animals from fresh water and marine environments around the world.
The aquariums largest feature is Shark Canyon, a 250,000-gallon tank with an acrylic J-shaped wall that will expand overhead and house a variety of sharks, rays, brightly colored surgeonfish and schools of sardines.
There will also be two smaller tanks in the “Global Rivers” section equipped with bubble windows to view a family of otters in one tank and school of piranhas in the other. A variety of interactive exhibits such as touch tanks and a virtual train ride that takes you through the history of Union Station and into the Mississippi and Missouri rivers to learn about the fresh water species who live there will also be
In addition to the aquarium, the $187 million renovation project will transition the station into
a family entertainment complex that will include a 200-foot-tall observation wheel with 42 climate-controlled gondolas, a classic merry-go-round, 18-hole mini golf course, a rope course featuring a zip line that runs above the aquarium, three new restaurants and a nightly fire and light show.
Project leaders hope the complex will be set to open before the end of the year, but delays may postpone the opening by a few months.
Like many of the destinations on our tour of St. Louis, I feel there will be something new to discover with each visit to Union Station and I can’t wait to see the finished project.
For more information and updates on new attractions, you can visit www.explorestlouis.com/discover.