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Travels in the Heartland: Exploring St. Louis

Posted at 1:51 PM, Mar 17, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-17 14:51:17-04

Lisa begrudgingly dragged me to St. Louis for the first time more than 20 years ago. She worked for a hotel company at the time and a new franchise in the city offered us a few complimentary nights. It took less than a day for me to fall in love with the city.

Over the next decade, we made several trips to the Gateway to the West City. Each visit required a stop at The Gateway Arch and a few other attractions. We eventually made our way to other cities, foregoing our annual visit there.

St. Louis has really changed over the years and you'll want to plan a long weekend to explore the updated look of the Paris of the West (nickname given to the area by a French fur trader).

Gateway Arch National Park

A look at the St. Louis Arch during a walk around the national park. Photo by Tim Trudell

Any trip to St. Louis requires a visit to The Gateway Arch. Located on the banks of the Mississippi River, the Arch has long been downtown's focal point. The National Park Service renamed the attraction Gateway Arch National Park, adding a walking path to The Old Courthouse, site of the Dred Scott trial legalizing slavery. It's easy to spend hours at the national park.

Museum at the Gateway Arch
Located at the base of the attraction, the Museum at the Gateway Arch offers an interactive look at the region's history, from the days when Native Americans were the original inhabitants on to French traders, as well as the launch of the Lewis and Clark expedition of the Louisiana Purchase. With authentic exhibits and reproductions, the Museum at the Gateway Arch also offers a look at colonial St. Louis.

Note: The Museum at the Gateway Arch is a nice area to visit while you wait for your tram ride to the top of the Arch. The museum, which doesn't charge admission, is open to the public.

The Arch
After purchasing tickets for the tram, enjoy your ride in an egg-shaped capsule as you travel 630 feet above the ground to the top of the Gateway Arch. Almost 65 stories tall, the Gateway Arch offers views stretching 30 miles on both the Missouri and Illinois sides of the Mississippi River, where you can see local landmarks such as Busch Stadium, Union Station and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

Plan to spend at least two hours at the Arch, from visiting the museum, rides to the top and back, as well as about 20 minutes at the top of the Arch. The National Park Service limits visitation time at the top. Note: The tram and Arch observation floor are not accessible to wheelchairs. People need to be able to walk at least 96 steps for the tram and then at the top level.

Walk the park
Following its makeover a few years ago, the Gateway Arch National Park features a tree-lined walking path, always including impressive views of the Arch. You can also follow a route that takes you along the Mississippi River during your walk.

The Old Courthouse

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The Old Courthouse was the site of the famous Dred Scott decision legitimizing slavery prior to the Civil War. Photo by Tim Trudell

As you tour the Old Courthouse, you'll learn it was the site of two major court decisions impacting civil rights.

The first case involved a slave's lawsuit for freedom. Known as the Dred Scott decision, Scott and his wife, Harriet, sued for their freedom after having lived in the north despite being slaves. After an initial victory, the US Supreme Court ruled that Blacks weren't American citizens and couldn't sue in federal court. The Dred Scott case essentially supported slavery prior to the Civil War.

With the Old Courthouse featuring exhibits from the 19th century, including the courtroom where major trials were conducted, you'll also learn about an 1872 case involving women's right to vote. Virginia Minor, a leader in the suffrage movement, lost her civil suit after being denied the right to register to vote. Taking the legal battle to the US Supreme Court, she came up short again.

The Old Courthouse's architecture makes it perfect for exterior photos. I recommend going to the park behind the courthouse and photographing it centered with the Arch in the background.

Note: The Old Courthouse is closed for renovation, but its grounds are open to the public.

St. Louis Union Station
The former train depot — St. Louis Union Station once saw more than 100,000 travelers pass through daily - has lived and nearly died through several reincarnations, including as a shopping mall and entertainment venue. But, its current line-up of attractions seems to be the perfect solution for the classic building.

St. Louis Aquarium

River otters make for a cute view at the St. Louis Aquarium. Photo by Tim Trudell

With more than 13,000 animals, the St. Louis Aquarium quickly became the anchor of
the revamped Union Station. Explore dozens of exhibits featuring animals from rivers and oceans around the world including zebra sharks, sting rays, paddlefish and river otters.

A distinctly St. Louis attraction, grab a seat aboard a train exhibit and enjoy a virtual tour around St. Louis taking you deep below the surface of the Mississippi River as you watch the scenes from the train's windows. The attraction's fun is narrated by St. Louis native and actor John Goodman.

Ropes Course
Climb three stories as you navigate 30 obstacles on the Ropes Course. As you climb and maneuver the course, with its wooden bridges, tightropes and other features, the challenges take you high above Union Station's lobby floor, bringing you near the depot's train shed.

Afterward, consider riding the SkyRail zipline, traveling 100 feet as you hang about 50 feet above Union Station's lobby.

Mini Golf
Located just outside Union Station, the 18-hole Mini Golf course challenges your putting skills with obstacles along the way. Navigate the course with its interactive challenges and beautiful design. The course is ADA accessible.

Mirror Maze
Relive a popular attraction from St. Louis' 1904 World's Fair as you find your way through Mirror Maze’s hallway of mirrors, each offering humorous reflections along the way. You'll encounter interactive exhibits reflecting on World's Fair history and trivia.

Grand Hall Light Show
Located on the second floor, the Grand Hall Light Show features 3D productions with images and designs flashing on the ceiling of the Great Hall. Featuring the music of popular acts such as The Beatles and Queen, you'll find yourself singing along as you watch in amazement as animations illuminate on the hall's 65-foot-high arched ceiling. Shows, which last a few minutes, run hourly 5-10 p.m. daily. Enjoy appetizers and drinks at the Grand Hall during your visit.

St. Louis Wheel
Enjoy a unique view of the city as you enjoy a ride on the St. Louis Wheel, with 42 enclosed gondolas that can each seat four people. The 15-minute ride takes you 200 feet high, offering impressive perspectives of St. Louis.

Grant's Farm

The log cabin used by Ulysses S. Grant and his wife early in their marriage is a featured attraction at Grant’s Farm. Photo by Tim Trudell

Once the home of future President Ulysses S. Grant, Grant's Farm offers a look at history mixed with wildlife viewing. While you'll find the Grants' log cabin on the grounds, the family lived there for a short period. Today, Grant's Farm is owned by the Busch family, which uses its mansion as a private retreat. Public tours include an exterior view of the mansion.

The main attractions at Grant's Farm are the animals. The famous Clydesdale horses are kept on site in comfortable stables with plenty of hay and water. Check out the stables and other animals during your visit.

Reserve a spot on an open-air trolley that takes you around the farm. A drive through Deer Park wildlife reserve brings you up-close to animals such as bison, black buck antelope, zebras and longhorn cattle. Enjoy an opportunity to hand feed the animals.

Note: Adults 21 and older are offered a free sample of an Anheuser-Busch beer.

City Museum
Calling City Museum a museum may be an overstatement. It’s more like a giant playground for kids of all ages. And I do mean all ages. City Museum has something for everyone, from a treehouse and caves created from repurposed metal to an aquarium with large replicas of sharks and whales. That’s just the first floor. You can explore three floors of curiosities – including the world’s largest pair of men’s underwear - and an homage to St. Louis’ classic architecture, with pieces of buildings destined for demolition given a home. While at City Museum, explore the outdoor attractions, including a rooftop slide and Ferris wheel, as well as a school bus that extends over the edge of the building. The museum truly is an adventure.

Canoe the Mississippi River

Enjoy a canoe adventure on the Mississippi River with Big Muddy Adventures. Photo by Tim Trudell

Relive the tales of Mark Twain as you take your own adventure on the Mississippi River with Big Muddy Adventures. Whether you prefer a canoe or kayak, the Mississippi River is inviting to water enthusiasts. Beginning at a spot near the foot of Gateway Arch National Park, you’ll paddle your way upstream to the Chain of Rocks Bridge, along the old US Route 66. Then, head downstream as you navigate the river’s waterway along with barges, paddleboats and other water vessels. You’ll see St. Louis from a view few people do – the Arch, Laclede’s Landing (original location of St. Louis) and other historic attractions.

Budweiser Brewery tour
Long known as the "King of Beers," a tour of the Budweiser Brewery is a must. The Walking tour takes visitors through the beer making process to create Budweiser and
other brews. Check for the foxes on the rooftop corners that played a role in the brewery's survival during Prohibition. Tours also include a stop at the stables where you'll get an up-close view of the Clydesdale horses used to pull the famous Budweiser wagon. Will you see a dalmatian dog? Following the tour, guests can enjoy a free drink or two at the gift shop lounge. Children are allowed on the tour, and the lounge includes soda and water for people younger than 21.

St. Louis Zoo
Considered one of the best zoos in the world, admission is free to the St. Louis Zoo, but visitors do pay for parking and some attractions. The St. Louis Zoo is home to about 16,000 animals and several outstanding exhibits - it's easy to spend an entire day there - including sea lions, where as you walk through a tunnel, one may decide to take a break and lay atop it, giving you a unique look. The penguin exhibit is impressive, sans glass enclosure, taking you within a few feet of the Antarctica creatures.

Whether you've never visited or it's been awhile since your last excursion there, St. Louis has some new looks and refurbished favorites that invite you to take a long weekend and explore the Gateway to the West.

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