When we decided to visit St. Louis for four days over Memorial Day weekend I wasn’t over-the-moon excited. I was looking forward to some quality time with dear friends we hadn’t seen in years, with their baby we’d never met. I knew next to nothing about the area except that racist cops got away with murder there and no one who knew the place seemed particularly surprised. And we are not baseball fans.
But we love to travel and there’s always something exciting about going somewhere new.
It turned out to be an incredible trip and we came away with a few tidbits to share. We spent time in the county and walking around downtown. We explored Forest Park and the zoo, the state history museum, the Wabash, Frisco, and Pacific Railroad, City Garden, the Gateway Arch, City Museum, Union Station, the St. Louis Transportation Museum, and the Laumeier Sculpture Park (kind of). We missed the botanical gardens, which was supposed to be cool. We rode the Metrolink and went to Sauce on the Side (twice. omg).
This is a great city for families. You should stay downtown and go on a holiday weekend. St. Louis is not, at the moment, a major tourist destination so on holiday weekends it experiences a net loss of population. You’ll have the town more to yourself and things like the arch and the zoo that are often crowded or hard to park at on the weekends will be more accessible.
Some things to watch out for:
- You can drink anywhere, just about. Including in the front passenger side of a moving car, for example. While it’s nice to be somewhere that you can carry your beer around while chasing your kids, it’s also good to be aware of if that would pose difficulties.
- People don’t breast feed in public so if you aren’t used to that and are a nursing family, be ready to perform a “protego” shield charm around yourself (as my mother says) and get your guard up. I mostly just got dead eyed looks from exhausted mothers of newborns who had just come out of the bathroom after nursing their baby on a toilet and didn’t know how to deal with me sitting there with my tatas al aire. I almost cried but just gave long distance hugs.
- St. Louis is highy segregated by race and income. Most of the major investments in public infrastructure and up-and-coming public spaces are on the western/southern side of town. We spent a fair bit of time in these spaces as well as downtown, where most of the people we interacted with were people of color. Those were the richest, warmest, and most memorable interactions we had during our trip. St. Louis is one of the most segregated cities in the country and if you are paying attention (or if you aren’t white), you’ll notice. You can read more about the history of segregation in St. Louis here, here, and here, as well as many many other excellent places.
It’s free! My friend announced jovially as we entered “socialism at its best!” (she’s a political theorist). The two ladies who I thought were there to tell me where to pay (but were really there to help if I needed to find things) looked unsure whether to call Homeland Security or not. We moved on.
It has trains. And animals. The Forest Park that surrounds it is lovely and walkable and we did it for a mile and a half with kids in strollers. Parking is normally horrific on the weekends but was fine for us, no lines or crowds either.
The History Museum
Its restaurant is fancy but the café has coffee and normal food and there are a set of tables out of the way of everyone else so if you–like us–choose to park there with babies for several hours of napping and boobying, conversation, and coffee, you can be pretty anonymous.
It’s not a children’s museum (even though there is a section for little kids) and if your kids start running people will give them the stink eye and tell them to chill. Your spawn may or may not take heed.
Time to go! My, what a nice fountain they have out front!
This recently renovated downtown space was our absolute favorite. It’s beautiful, accessible, alcohol free, well supervised with life-guardy type city employees, and really diverse. When our 6 year old tore up his leg running across the stepping stones, parents we’d never interacted with came to check in with us and wish him well. We went two days in a row. Every city should do this.
It’s as cool as you would hope but might worry it wasn’t. Order tickets online at the website, they leave every 10 minutes. It’s very retro and funky inside and there are all kinds of opportunities for exploring engineering with kids as you go. Looking out from the top is neat and you feel sort of like you are on a space ship.
We walked from our hotel to the Metrolink and took the train to Union Station. There are stroller-friendly elevators and everything was easy to manage. The trains aren’t super frequent…it’s not a city whose population today would merit a subway system. But the city and its infrastructure were designed for a lot more people.
Union Station in St. Louis is considered one of the most beautiful central stations anywhere. It was turned into a mall in the eighties and is currently a hotel. But it looks like a freaking castle and is enormous. Renovations are currently underway to shift toward restaurants and entertainment, which should be a more vibrant use of this incredible historical space.
This place is unreal. Really really unreal. If you have a toddler you may ask yourself whether it is a good idea. Do it. You might give yourself a concussion trying to keep them from doing something ridiculous, but you won’t regret it. If you can remember it.
The brainchild of sculptor Bob Cassilly, this place was built from salvaged materials all over the city. And by salvaged materials I mean things like the enormous marble façade of a school. It has a very Tim Burton-esque feel about it. If your kid is afraid of heights or loud noises, this is probably not the place for them. The more likely scenario is that your children will be in heaven and you will nearly die of sensory overload. The place is meticulously constructed and you will not find a spot where a small person could fall through, but everything is made of metal so any bumps or knocks will be hard. If it’s raining the roof top will not be open. They don’t do reciprocal memberships and it’s often packed. But this was the most unique and memorable thing we did.
Wabash, Frisco, and Pacific Railroad
We are a family of train lovers, so we always seek out train activities anywhere we travel. This 12 inch railroad runs live steam and diesel on Sundays, May through October. It’s lovely and unlike many of these types of railroads, the trip is long enough to really be worth it. Also good for putting babies to sleep. The line can get long so try to get there for the first train or so.
St. Louis Transportation Museum
My husband waited until we were on the way to drop the bombshell news that this museum has a Union Pacific Big Boy. There are only 8 remaining of the original 25 and we’ve been waiting years to see one. The museum is a bit outside town and there’s not much else there. It’s in full sun so try to go first thing in the morning. While some of the locomotives are under a covered shed, that was even hotter. They have a garden railway and bumper/pedal train for kids, which were all fun.
The collection is first rate, with the best signage I’ve ever seen. For nerdy engineering types, you can actually see all the locomotive parts well labeled. If you care, they have cars and airplanes too, but our kids were singleminded.
Our toddler cried bitterly when it was time to go, wailing “choo choo!” in the saddest way. His big brother (who has never let him touch one of his G-scale electric trains) decided to gift him his Polar Express. We didn’t really believe it would happen, but it was the first thing he did when we got home.
Laumeier Sculpture Park
We parked there to nurse through a 3 hour car nap. The kids refused to leave the car when they woke up, but it looks neat from the parking lot and has clean bathrooms.
Where we stayed
We stayed at the downtown Hyatt, which is literally under the arch. Hyatt’s are our favorite in general because they focus on quality food, with quite a few local and organic ingredients (every one we’ve been to grows its own culinary herbs–this one in a hidden spot on an interior roof I only found because I was looking for it). We travel on reward points and the Regency at the arch is an awesome deal. It’s only listed as a Category 2 so we could get an executive suite for cheap. The layout was great and very toddler friendly.
The lounge serves amazing food with healthy options so we ate many meals there for free (lounges vary tremendously hotel to hotel and this is the best one we’ve used). The lounge also has a spectacular view of the arch. Everyone there was great and the brew pub downstairs keeps local drafts on all their taps (beers in the lounge were $3 craft brews!).
St. Louis for the win! We can’t wait to go back.