Best things to do with kids in this affordable & often overlooked city
St. Louis may not leap immediately to mind when considering great family vacation destinations - but maybe it should! This overlooked city is more affordable than its metropolitan neighbors and possesses world-class cultural, historical, and natural landmarks - many of them free! The Lou could be just right for your family.
750 N. 16th St.
Misleadingly-named as a museum, City Museum in downtown St. Louis has to be one of the wildest and most unexpected, kid-centric destinations that my family has ever visited. Housed in and around a 600,000 square-foot warehouse, the museum is part playground, part funhouse, and part home for reclaimed junk-turned art. The word “eclectic” only begins to describe this attraction, the brainchild of internationally-acclaimed artist Bob Cassilly. Inside, you’ll find a maze of absolute craziness topped off with a ten-story spiral slide (which is better suited for smaller riders, according to my 6-foot-tall, teenaged son) whose entrance must be discovered by exploring a series of caves. My boys actually preferred the outside attractions - a visual cacophony for climbers with a salvaged-then-suspended airplane, caged tunnels, bridges, and a school bus teetering off the corner of the roof. The fun here is in figuring out how to get from point A to point B. Warning: if you’re a nervous Nellie-kind-of-parent, City Museum isn’t for you. Even if you’re a mom or dad who encourages free-range exploration, do keep on watchful eye on your kids; it’s incredibly easy to lose them here. Cost: Youth (2 and under) Free; Other $12; Roof $5 extra/person; discount on Fridays and Saturdays after 5 p.m.
KidTripster Tip: City Museum is an absolute madhouse of the weekends, and the thick crowds will really detract from the experience. Consider going on a weekday or taking advantage of the museum’s late hours on Fridays and Saturdays when it’s open until midnight. Yes, midnight!
2/St. Louis Zoo
One Government Dr., Forest Park
Recently rated as the #1 free attraction in the United States, St. Louis Zoo is indeed a world-class zoo. To reinforce this value, keep in mind that a comparable zoo like the one in San Diego charges $40 and $50 for kids and adults, respectively.
My kids loved the sea lion show, a behind-the-scenes tour where we got to feed lemurs (exactly as awesome as it sounds), and riding the Conservation Carousel. As a parent of youngsters with disabilities, props to the zoo for creating Sensory Saturday sessions for its Wild Wonder Outpost.
We, Midwesterners, do love our food, so you’ll find concretes (super thick shakes), gooey butter cake, and toasted ravioli on the zoo grounds. Meal prices are reasonable; figure on about $10/person. If a family member has dietary restrictions, your best bet is Cafe Kudu.
Admittedly, the zoo does need money to operate, so entry to some attractions like shows and tours is a separate charge, but the animal exhibits are available to one and all. Adventure Passes which get you into everything are $10.95/person and are well worth buying! Parking costs either $10 or $15, depending on the time of year.
KidTripster Tip: If you have a membership at an AZA-accredited zoo, then you can purchase four passes for half off! Bring your membership card.
KidTripster Tip: Be there when the Zoo opens for best parking and go to the Children’s Zoo first. It’s free to enter during the first hour of zoo operation; the rest of the day, it'll cost $4/person (2 & older).
Photo courtesy: David Merritt
3/St. Louis Cardinals
700 Clark St., Downtown
St. Louis loves America’s pastime, and Busch Stadium is a fantastic place to watch a Cardinals home game. As we walked from Magnolia Hotel to the stadium, the excitement built with each block. Everyone on the streets – and I mean, everyone – was in Cardinals gear or at minimum wearing red. Fans were polite, cheerful, and sincerely there for the game (and maybe a beer).
My kids loved the food (especially the loaded nachos), the organ, the between-innings entertainment, and most of all, the game. That night, the Cards managed a ninth-inning, come-from-behind win. Seats start at $19; children 3 and under don’t require a ticket.
KidTripster Tip: Stay at a hotel near the ballpark the night that you are attending a Cards game. We felt very safe walking along 8th Street; my daughter was campaigning to take the horse-drawn carriages that we saw carting folks, however. Missing out on the post-game traffic (and not having to deal with parking) made our experience that much more carefree.
KidTripster Tip: If the Cardinals are not in town during your stay, baseball fans can still take a tour of the ballpark, including visits to the home team dugout and the broadcast booth.
4/St. Louis Science Center
5050 Oakland Ave., Kings Oak
The St. Louis Science Center is a great place to spend a few hours, especially on a wet or hot day. Everything is hands-on. And it’s far more spacious than other science museums that my family has visited. My kids enjoyed the hamster wheel more than I would have imagined, given how philosophically opposed they generally seem to “work.” The over-the-Highway-40 connector between the Planetarium and the Science Center was cool, especially the traffic radar. Cost: Free. Parking: $10-12, but parking at the planetarium is free.
Admittedly, the very best parts of the Science Center do cost money. We saw an IMAX movie, which costs $9 to $10/person. The planetarium shows also requires tickets; figure on $5/person. The Discovery Room is great for preschoolers; a 45-minute session costs $4. The staff (mercifully) limits each hourly session to a maximum of 50 children.
5/The Magic House
516 S. Kirkwood Rd., Kirkwood
The Magic House was a bit more exciting for my family than the St. Louis Science Center, but it’s also a bit more out of the way. My construction-vehicle lover adored (had to be begged to exit) the Construction Zone. My daughter’s favorite part was the 3-story Beanstalk Climber. I thought the Star-Spangled Center was a charming feature. The most memorable part is touching the charged ball and watching your hair defy gravity. Oh, and don’t miss the Kids’ Village. Cost: All (over 1) $10.
KidTripster Tip: Go early in the day. Avoid going on a rainy or super hot summer day. Bring enough adults to monitor your youngsters; managing more than two kids at a time is a challenge here.
11 N. 4th St.
Simple in design while complex in its engineering, the Gateway Arch is one of the most recognizable man-made landmarks in the United States. Sitting on the banks of the Mississippi, the Arch reflects St. Louis’ role in the westward expansion of our country during the nineteenth century. Part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial run by the National Park Service, the park that surrounds the Arch is getting a multi-year makeover. (You’ll need to cleverly frame your photos to avoid construction cranes.) I’d recommend riding the lift system (part elevator, part tram, part ferris wheel) to the 630-foot observation deck. It’s best to purchase timed tickets in advance online, as they can sell out during peak periods. Ride cost: Youth $10; Adult $13.
KidTripster Tip: If are the least bit claustrophobic, skip the Journey to the Top ride. The cars, that seat up to five people, are extremely tight.
KidTripster Tip: Normally, I’m a big advocate of watching the National Park Service videos at visitor centers. However, the video here is not worth your time. I implore the Park Service to update this one! It’s reminiscent of a black-and-white movie that would have been shown in a 1970s classroom. Instead, do yourself a favor and watch Modern Marvels: St. Louis Arch (season 8, episode 38) online before you go. This well-done documentary will give you an appreciation for the Arch.
7/Missouri Botanical Garden
4344 Shaw Blvd., Botanic Heights
Despite the heat and humidity, we adored the Missouri Botanical Garden! My younger child loved the opportunity for hands-on activities in the air-conditioned zone. My teen was all about hunting for carnivorous plants and thought the Climatron was cool. The Japanese and Chinese gardens are extraordinary. The sensory garden was also a family favorite. The Dale Chihuly glass creations were an added treat. Cost: Youth (under 13) free; Adult $8.
The Children’s Garden is phenomenal with four separate “adventures.” It's open April through October only and costs extra. Kids must be accompanied by an adult. Cost: Youth (3-12) $5; Adults Free.
KidTripster Tip: Candidly, we were underwhelmed with our meals at Sassafras Cafe. I’d recommend hitting nearby Union Loafers either before or after your visit. It’s open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. but not on Mondays.
Forest Park is an must-visit St. Louis landmark. More than just home of the zoo, it’s worth another day (or more) of your itinerary. There are year-round, outdoor activities from trails to a skating rink to a boathouse. The Jewel Box (greenhouse) and the Grand Basin (water with fountains) add historical and architectural gravitas to the park.
Culture seekers will love The Muny, the first and biggest outdoor theater in the country. Those on a budget will appreciate the fact that the back 1500 seats are free, no matter what the production. Indoors, culture is on display at both the St. Louis Art Museum and the Missouri History Museum. Cost: Varies by attraction.
KidTripster Tip: Be vigilant of your surroundings if visiting after dusk.
Photo courtesy: Jerry Naunheim Jr.
9/Laumeier Sculpture Park
12580 Rott Rd., Sunset Hills
Laumeier Sculpture Park is 105 acres of contemporary art and open space. It’s a great place to feed your youngster’s need for freedom and fresh air while nourishing the adult’s desire for mental and aesthetic stimulation. There’s truly something for everyone here, including paved walkways, lots of grass, and even a few wooded trails to explore.
A number of the sculptures are accompanied by bronze maquettes (scaled models of the sculpture) to help bring the park alive to those with sight impairments, as well as to kids who crave tactile input. And don’t forget to find the giant eyeball in the park! Cost: Free.
KidTripster Tip: Occasionally, the park will be closed to the public for special events, so check the events calendar in advance.
Photo courtesy: Kevin J. Miyazaki
10/Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis
4431 Lindell Blvd., Central West End
You don’t have to be Catholic or a grown up to be mesmerized by the 75-minute guided tour of the Cathedral Basilica. Granted, my kids (ages 8-17) were the only youngsters on our tour, but they enjoyed our tour guide’s wit, food recommendations, anecdotes, facts, and art history commentary. The wealth of art (spoiler alert: not a drop of paint!) is stunning. Our heads and hearts left filled by the experience here. The gift shop and mosaic museum are nice additions. Cost: Free, but donations are gratefully appreciated.
KidTripster Tip: We attended daily Mass, grabbed a morning treat nearby, and returned for the tour. You should confirm tour availability by calling: (314) 373-8241. Tours gather in the vestibule.
Moira Allbritton was reared about three hours to the north and spent many memorable vacation days with her aunt and uncle in St. Louis. She has a new appreciation for St. Louis' variety of kid-friendly amusements and parent-worthy dining establishments as mom to five children.
This writer received some complimentary activities for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.