The shiny steel structure glinted in the October sun. Dapples of refracting light danced up and down the shimmering façade as the aerial cranes attached to creeper derricks strained to wedge that last 8-ft., 9-ton keystone piece of stainless steel into position. Hundreds of architects, engineers and construction workers, along with 10,000 St. Louisans, gathered at the riverfront and crossed their fingers. Thousands more were glued to their black-and-white television sets, listening to the live broadcast by baseball Hall of Fame announcer Jack Buck. I was one of them. I was just shy of seven years old when the crowning achievement known as the Gateway Arch was completed in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, and the final triangular-shaped section was squeezed into place. I stand now, nose pressed up against the glass, peering out those same innocuous windows that looked so minuscule on my TV back in 1965. I gaze out over the western banks of the mighty Mississippi and the St. Louis skyline. Here are some of my favorite ways to enjoy family fun in St. Louis.
Ascending the Gateway Arch
After five times, the $10 ride to the top of the archway has lost some of its thrill for me, but I remember vividly that first time on the tram. The anticipation…the sensation of claustrophobia as the tiny elevator doors whirred open and five of us—family and strangers—sat kneecap to kneecap in the tiny bubble. A bubble that ascended like a swinging car on a Ferris wheel, frequently adjusting to the curvature of its rail line.
As we step into the observation deck, I can feel the slightest ounce of sway playing throughout the structure—outside, it is, after all, a blustery April afternoon. Through the windowpanes, I can see pedestrian and motor traffic on the Eads Bridge. The Tom Sawyer, an old-fashioned paddle-wheeler reminiscent of the early frontier days, steams slowly past the causeway. Its movement is nearly imperceptible in the rapidly-flowing river current. For a few bucks and an hour of your time, the riverboat plies tourists up and down the Mississippi. Over the July 4th holidays, throngs of fireworks worshipers, over a couple hundred thousand strong, crowd these same shores.
Exploring the Mississippi Waterfront in St. Louis
As evening draws near, I stroll along the stone walkways near the water’s edge with my husband and son. The glow of old-fashioned street lamps on every corner cast fascinating shadows across the cobbled streets. Its vintage turn-of-the-century warehouses revamped and updated, Laclede’s Landing offers a plethora of fine-dining establishments and local eateries.
We opt for the Morgan Street Brewery, with its house specialty hickory bacon-wrapped meatloaf and a fancy golden pilsner. Afterward, we wouldn’t dare miss a stop at Ted Drewes for a taste of his famous frozen custard, a St. Louis time-honored tradition.
Visiting Anheuser-Busch St. Louis Brewery
The next morning, we drove a couple of highway miles from the Arch to the Anheuser-Busch St. Louis Brewery for an insider’s look at the beer-making process for all ages. We follow its inception as yeast, hops, malt, and water go through the beechwood aging. We marveled at this fine-tuned distillery. Right down to the eardrum-piercing, teeth-chattering cacophony of bottles clattering along a serpentine assembly line. Best of all, the brewery tour and the Clydesdale horse stables, plus the sudsy samples and snacks (soda for the kiddies) at the end, are completely free. No cost at all. Nada.
We headed across the overpass to Gus’ Pretzels and savor edfresh, just-out-of-the-oven goodness for 55¢ a twist. With a bag of salty deliciousness in tow (and Gus’ delectable honey-mustard dipping sauce), we steered headed out for more great free family fun in St. Louis.
Free Family Fun in St. Louis
Our first stop was Forest Park, a free 1371-acre playground and home to five cultural institutions. If you enjoy painting and sculpture, there’s the St. Louis Art Museum, located on the pathway around the Grand Basin. If you love chronicling the past, saunter up to the Missouri History Museum. For theater lovers, follow the multi-colored flags to the front doors of The Muny. Summer concerts at the amphitheater offer complimentary seating in the last nine rows. For discovery enthusiasts, check out the Saint Louis Science Center with its animatronics T-Rex and Triceratops life-sized robotic dinosaurs. For my family, though, the St. Louis Zoo is calling our names.
We meander past the gorillas at the Jungle of the Apes, the rhinoceroses, and hippos at the River’s Edge. We observe majestic lions and tigers in their natural habitats at Big Cat Country and the gracefulness of antelopes at the Red Rocks exhibition. Dozens of pink flamingoes and playful ducks cavort in the enormous ponds sprinkled throughout the zoo, clacking and quacking up a storm. We pause to enjoy a feeding at Sea Lion Sound, amidst the barking and flipper-flapping of the furry marine residents, as we wind our way up the hill to the herpetarium.
We come in through the main portico of Mediterranean stucco and stroll through the central atrium, where an ornate courtyard of columns with sculpted latticework, ferns, and foliage cordons off a bevy of spectacled caimans. We edge closer to the glass enclosures—to the rock-and-vine enclaves of the vipers, skinks, monitors, even a venomous Gila monster. I don’t have a penchant for snakes, but am quite content to study the 700-plus animal species of the Reptile House from the relative safety behind the protective glass.
Winding our way back through the exhibits, we pass the Grizzlies at the Bear Bluffs, languishing on a rock, napping in the sun near their pool. Next door, at the Penguin and Puffin Coast, dozens and dozens of bright-orange-beaked pelagic seabirds dive into the frigid waters of their massive aquarium in search of food. This is the only chance I’ve ever seen these ‘auks’ in real life; when we visited Iceland, where they normally nest in massive flocks along the coastal cliffs, they must have been hiding, because we didn't see a one. Equally fascinating—and adorable—are the lumbering penguins, tuxedos and all, as they waddle across the ice.
When You Visit St. Louis
St. Louis—the Gateway City—is ever in transition, ever changing…always dabbing an extra hint of makeup onto its chameleon face.
Even now, as an adult, I still preen a bit with mock vanity about my hometown, about how it has remained steadfast on the cutting edge of technology and urbanization. Just like I felt that twinge of star-spangled pride as a little girl, waiting in suspense, heart-pounding like the rest of the nation, as the heavy equipment hoisted that last critical chunk of steel to be fitted into the apex of the Gateway Arch. We held our breaths as Vice President Hubert Humphrey inaugurated the long-awaited marvel of modern architecture. A symbol of our city’s commitment to modernization…an icon that hopefully will extend far into the future. You can check in with the official St. Louis website at Explore St. Louis. We also welcome you to read more about Missouri from our Wander authors.