Christmas in St. Louis: 9 Ways to Celebrate the Holidays

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Gateway Arch light display at St. Louis Zoo
Gateway Arch display at Wild Lights St. Louis Zoo. Photo credit: Amanda Williams

St. Louis has great things to do year round and the holidays are extra special. Because St. Louis doesn’t get too cold in winter you can enjoy outdoor activities without shivering – but  it is cold enough that Santa and his reindeer feel at home. Here are all the way to have fun during Christmas in St. Louis. 

Penguins at the St. Louis Zoo
Penguins at the St. Louis Zoo during Wild Lights, Photo credit: Amanda Williams

Wild Lights at the St. Louis Zoo

One of the best zoos in the country (and one of the few that offers free admission during daylight hours) is illuminated at night with fun themed light displays while the zoos’ residents snooze. This is a not-to-be-missed way to experience the zoo. We LOVED seeing the animals during the day and familiarizing with the habitats and paths before going at night.

If your kids want to see the animals and don’t care as much about the holiday appeal, you should opt for the free daytime visit. Most of the exhibits and halls are closed at night. Whether the animals are tucked away and sleeping or they need some downtime from visitor stimuli, either way, you won’t see a ton of furry faces or scaly tails during the nighttime admission to Wild Lights. But, if the experience of roasting S’mores at the zoo and seeing a snoozing bear is your thing, go at night! Heck, do both! We did!

U.S. Bank Wild Lights at the Saint Louis Zoo is fast becoming a go-to event for families. Stroll through zoo grounds aglow with light displays. Make some s’mores, stop at the fun photo opportunity stations and explore the Insectarium and Penguin habitat.

S’mores kits are available for purchase, along with hot chocolate and other beverages and snacks.

S'mores fire pit
Roasting marshmallows for S’mores at Wild Lights, Photo credit: Amanda Williams

Special Events at Wild Lights

There are opportunities to have Dinner with Santa Claus at the St. Louis Zoo (separately ticketed) but those fun nights do also offer free admission to Wild Lights. Check out the zoo website for all the holiday fun.

Check the official schedule for special dates, closures and changes. The zoo closes from 4-5pm to transition from the daytime experience to Wild Lights.

Read More: Enjoy An Elevated Stay at Four Seasons St. Louis

Garden Glow light display at Missouri Botanical Gardens
Orbs and lighted Christmas trees delight at Garden Glow in the Missouri Botanical Garden. Photo credit: Amanda Williams

Missouri Botanical Gardens “Garden Glow”

MoBot as local call their famous, lush botanical gardens, will leave you agog with millions of twinkling lights across the sprawling property. The crisp night air is refreshing and nighttime is wonderful in the gardens! We found the garden had bottlenecks for the more popular photo backdrops and scenes, and it was a little close for comfort, so thankfully, we were entirely outdoors.

The illuminated paths wind through the Missouri Botanical Garden‘s most iconic locations, including several sites with photo opportunities (which include more than just a typical Christmas tree) perfectly staged for unique family holiday pictures.

Garden Glow carriage
Well-lit signed Garden Glow photo opp near the entrance, Photo Credit: Amanda Williams

My family’s favorite stops: the interactive snow globe and the opulent Victorian Christmas display at Tower Grove House. We ran into short queues (about 10 minutes) to go inside the snow globe and outside the Tower Grove House.

The snow globe is inflated and has an entry door and is backlit so that someone on the outside can capture a photo of the people posing inside, making them look as if they are part of the fun to shake up within. And, each guest gets a minute or so before moving the next family in and out, so it’s more of a fun experience than a perfect set-up for your photo memories.

SheBuysTravel Tip: It was a little tricky to make the pre-lit conditions, nighttime, flash and ambient light inside the snow globe work well with just an iPhone. So you might want to think about bringing your actual camera with some lens options if you’re looking for a high-quality Christmas card photo here. 

Inflatable snow globe
Inflatable snow globe experience, Photo Credit: Amanda Williams

There are a few areas designated for festive drinks for purchase and light bites available as well. In my humble opinion, the best opportunity for a great, well-lit photo that IS card-worthy, is just after the bar when you first enter the Garden Glow. On your right there will be a carriage with a Garden Glow sign and the area is well-lit for more clear, crisp pictures. There is also a giant lighted tree, so it’s gorgeous!

Climatron dome at MoBot Garden Glow
Climatron dome lit up for Garden Glow at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. Photo credit: Amanda Williams

Certain dates feature photo opportunities with Santa (check the website for those official details!)

Polar Express at Union Station
Polar Express Entrance at Union Station, a must-do Christmas in St. Louis experience. Photo credit: Amanda Williams

Union Station Polar Express

This is your ticket to believe! My sons and I watched the family holiday classic movie and then hopped onboard the real thing: an actual train headed for the fictional North Pole. We made it more fun by donning our pajamas for the ride while characters from the movie greeted and entertained us during our journey.

Train rides sometimes make my kids a little queasy, but rest assured, that did not happen this time. The passenger train has comfortable seats and moves slowly enough to enjoy the surroundings and not become ill no matter which direction you’re facing. It’s a wonderful trek to a Christmas wonderland aboard the Polar Express!

SheBuysTravel Tip: Arrive about a half hour prior to your departure to enjoy character appearances, stories, games and photo displays. Go an hour early to enjoy no crowds and easy access for those hard to get photos you might want of your kiddos in their holiday pajamas. If it’s all about the actual ride for you, you’ll be fine arriving about ten minutes prior to the departure.

Union Station Fire and Lights show
Nightly Fire and Lights Display and Show at Union Station for Christmas in St. Louis. Photo credit: Amanda Williams

Union Station Grand Hall Light Show

Union Station is the place to be for Christmas in St. Louis. The Fire and Light show delights visitors on a regular schedule each evening, with popular holiday-themed music synchronized with the flashing light displays and bursts of flame. There is ample seating around the pond and patio area, where you can just enjoy the evening casually, or even feed the koi fish that make the pond their home.

My kids (and I!) were so content to watch this energetic show whenever we caught it in passing. We loved the nightly fire blasts and paused each time to watch and smile. Everyone around the plaza listens and sings and starts taking videos and selfies during this exhilarating show. You have a great view of the show from all the eateries, especially Landry’s Seafood restaurant. Some lucky hotel guests can even see this view from their rooms!

The holiday magic at Union Station is really electric. This is the hub to access the Polar Express event area, the Soda Fountain Diner (where you can get ice cream treats and diner-style meals or candy in bulk), the Train Shed restaurant, the St. Louis Wheel, carousel, St. Louis Aquarium and the mini golf course. The revamped Union Station really is the epicenter of holiday action in St. Louis.

St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station
St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station. Photo credit: Amanda Williams

St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station

We are frequent aquarium goers and have a membership to our local one, but the St. Louis Aquarium is quite special. It packs a lot into the square footage where it sits. We especially loved being greeted by the Doctor fish as our first encounter when we entered. The thought crossed my mind to look into if private households could keep these little guys, as they provide a bit of a spa treatment, nibbling away at skin cells when you reach your hand in. It was oddly enjoyable and the boys agreed, a very neat sensation!

For the holidays, the aquarium stages a special “Dive Chat” featuring Scuba Claus and his elf helper who are doing a little recreational diving at Shark Canyon while answering visitor questions. Check the website for dates and times.

St. Louis Aquarium
Beautiful, large fish tanks for great views of schools, Photo Credit: Amanda Williams

Scuba Claus isn’t the only interactive option here. There’s also a friendly otter Q&A and presentation and a fun bioluminescence pathway. Children can learn about water systems and have opportunities to gently touch many underwater creatures including starfish, sea anemones, stingrays, and limpets. There are educational opportunities to “meet” ambassador animals up close, but we didn’t have any opportunities to hold salamanders or Madagascar hissing cockroaches, like we’d hoped!

SheBuysTravel Tip: Plan to spend at least an hour enjoying the aquarium exhibits and activities. The first ticketing of the morning seemed to be less crowded, but within the first hour, noticeably more folks were flowing into the aquarium. Book the 9:00 slot if you’re able! 

Light and Music at the Grand Hall
Nightly light and sound projection at the St. Louis Union Station Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton. Photo credit: Amanda Williams

Where to Stay for Christmas in St. Louis

Since there is so much to offer in one spot at Union Station, it makes a fantastic base camp. We recommend making your home away from home at the St. Louis Union Station Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton, property. You’ll be right in the heart of the action. You can enjoy the Grand Hall light show and music nightly just steps away from your room.

The Union Station Grille is the place to eat breakfast while staying on-site. Opt for the short stack (the pancakes are dreamy). The enormous portions mean parents can generally have a bite when the kids are bursting full of sugar and syrup at the end of the meal. The buffet offers all the typical breakfast foods you might find and also a made-to-order egg and omelet station. The coffee was exactly what a parent needs to start an ambitious day of touring St. Louis. The place is popular for events, so like everything — go early. Before 8:00 a.m. seemed to be the time to hit breakfast before others roused for the day.

Grand Hall Union Station
Stained glass in the Grand Hall at Union Station, Photo Credit: Amanda Williams

Many private events and fancy to-dos happen at Union Station and the holidays are no exception. We enjoyed watching a couple’s magical first dance and shared the Grand Hall with a basketball team. Sometimes the light and music was changed or cancelled due to a private event in the Grand Hall, so just check with the front desk and plan your viewing accordingly. Conveniently, there is ample seating and a bar in the Grand Hall, so parents and children can leisurely enjoy the space if it’s not booked.

SheBuysTravel Tip: It’s about a 25-minute rideshare journey to get from the airport to Union Station. The hotel entrance was one of the easiest pick-up points for ride share apps that we experienced. Very safe and well-lit with valet attendants present all the time.

Holiday wreath lit up
Holiday wreath through a window. Photo credit: Amanda Williams

Other Great Holiday Opportunities Near St. Louis

There were SO many activities and holiday festivities that with only three nights to pack in the illumination, we physically couldn’t be in all the places we wanted to see. It takes about 20 minutes to get from neighborhood to neighborhood and back again and all of them — downtown St. Louis, Chesterfield, Belleville, Alton and even nearby St. Charles — have a lot to offer.

These are the attractions and events we hope to hit on our next holiday visit to St. Louis.

Winter Wonderland at Tilles Park

Tilles Park hosts one of the best Christmas lights displays in the Midwest. Drive through or enjoy a carriage ride through the park. Closed Christmas Eve. Carriage rides must be reserved in advance.

Anheuser Busch Brewery

Glimmering lights dazzle in one of St. Louis’ historic settings, the Anheuser-Busch Brewery. Tours are complimentary and open to guests of all ages. Roast some s’mores over an open fire with s’more kits available for purchase. You can also rent skates to enjoy the outdoor ice rink or buy kettle corn to munch.

Holiday Lights at Grant’s Farm

Historic Grant’s Farm hosts Holiday Lights with a drive-through or walk-through experience featuring light displays and a gingerbread village. Get a view of Inspiration Hill with the World-Famous Budweiser Clydesdales looking down at you from a distance. Other animals include Cheviot Sheep, yak, camels and llamas.

Six Flags Holiday in the Park

Six Flags St. Louis is transformed into a winter wonderland with thousands of brilliant lights, carolers, appearances by Santa and his helpers, and even your favorite Looney Tunes characters. Enjoy hot chocolate, cider, and fudge, and before you’re too full of treats, make sure to brave the rides!

Way of Lights at Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows

The Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville offers the annual Way of Lights display sparkling across the property. Fun activities include camel rides, a LEGO display and feeding the animals. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.

Places to See and Explore in St. Louis Without a Holiday Theme

As you may have noticed, there is a “lighted/illumination” theme to much of the holiday fun. If you find that your daylight hours are less programmed and therefore wide open for adventure, try one of these really great options for exploring while the sun is shining.

Union Station St. Louis Wheel
Union Station St. Louis Wheel lit up at night. Photo credit: Amanda Williams

The St. Louis Wheel

This attraction is part of the Union Station extravaganza of events and entertainment. Take a ride at night and try to spot the lights of the city any time of year (thought the view really shines during Christmas in St. Louis).

The cars are fully enclosed and warm and offer 360-degree views of the city. You get about five turns around the Wheel, so plenty of time to take photos and spy all the city sights.

City Museum at St. Louis entrance
Entrance to City Museum, Photo Credit: Amanda Williams

City Museum

The behemoth museum and adventure park is rife with pathways, tunnels, stairs, slides and general oddities to keep explorers big and small very busy. Adults will feel like kids again as they try to keep up with the younger crowd through the squeezes and labyrinths of architectural and art installation adventures. A flashlight isn’t a terrible idea for the caverns.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Do take up the front desk on their offer of bracelets with cell phone numbers for kids — within 15 minutes of arrival, and during the epic adventure of the 10-story slide, I managed to misplace my children. However, I had briefed them on this possible occurrence, so they knew the plan for a meet-up and stuck together for safety.

Life-size Nintendo
Life-size Nintendo and several other hands-on games at the St. Louis Science Center. Photo credit: Amanda Williams

St. Louis Science Center

The St. Louis Science Center is a paradise for those who want to geek out on all the STEM-related joys of the world. Visit during the First Friday of the month for special events like the one we enjoyed — Boba Fett and the Mandalorians. We were able to meet so many Star Wars greats — we didn’t spot Grogu but we did see Chewbacca, a Jawa, and an Ewok.

The kids schooled me in all the ways, from the life-size Nintendo controllers to creating electricity to run a fan, and definitely in the world of Star Wars knowledge. This is a special collective of how the world works in first-hand displays and interactive playscapes.

Gateway Arch National Park
Gateway Arch National Park. Photo credit: Amanda Williams

Gateway Arch National Park

Seeing the National Parks and Monuments of the country is a big undertaking on my family’s bucket list, so when we were able to travel to the top of the Gateway Arch at this national park, we didn’t hesitate.

The ride up feels akin to what I imagine when I think of a space launch. It’s not that it is fast. But the white “transport pod” that takes you steadily to the top feels very space-like. It’s only a few minutes to the top and you must have a ticketed time slot. The views of the city from the 32 windows are unmatched and it truly is an architectural masterpiece.

Amanda Williams is a journalist in rural Minnesota. Her stories have been published in Matador Travel Network, Midwest Living, Family Handyman, and several other publications. A solo mother of two young boys, she writes about adventures from National Parks to waterparks. She loves sharing tips and insider information for others to use to make their trip just a little bit better. She and her kids scuba dive and live for new experiences and thrills. Road trips are always on the horizon and she’s embraced van life and has driven from the Midwest to Alaska (via Canada) with her kids encompassing 32 days of wild adventures. Amanda is classically trained as a wildlife biologist and has worked as a National Park Ranger, in addition to other exciting jobs like being a wildland firefighter and even playing the part of a living historian, as a cook in a turn-of-the-century logging camp. Because of these outdoorsy experiences, stories relating to outdoor adventure are often a focus of her writing. She hopes to inspire other solo parents to take on Disney, camping, and trips abroad with their families with the confidence to make those memories, even as the lone adult in the mix! Her most recent obsession is photographing adventures from the land, water, AND skies, as a licensed small unmanned aircraft system (drone) pilot. Learn more about her at https://www.wayfaringmandy.com/ or follow her on Instagram, @WayfaringMandy.
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