One of the key things to do in St. Louis, Missouri is see the Gateway Arch. The arch, designed by Eero Saarinen, remains a top tourist draw. Even if you’ve been up the arch several times, the Gateway Arch Museum, renovated in 2018, deserves a return visit.
Riding to the top of the St. Louis Gateway Arch can be your introduction to the Midwest. Getting to the arch used to involve crossing highways and breathing diesel fumes, but in the last few years, the downtown area around the signature stainless steel arch has been turned into parkland. Rolling hills and landscaped gardens make the approach more beautiful and welcoming. The CityArch River Project, a $380 million renovation, added 11 acres of parkland and over five miles of walking and biking paths.
To go along with the makeover, the area was rechristened. Formerly the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the renamed Gateway Arch National Park spearheaded a downtown St. Louis renaissance that includes the glorious refurbished St. Louis Union Station. Whether you’re taking a Midwest road trip or a city break, there’s so much to see here.
Visiting the St. Louis Gateway Arch
You need timed tickets to ride the tram to the top of the Gateway Arch. Buy these in advance, allowing time to get through security at the new entrance. The museum remains free, and you will want to spend at least an hour here. If you have little kids, you probably want to see the view, then explore the museum. If the kids are getting squirmy at the museum, they won’t get as much out of the exhibits.
With tweens and teens, see the museum first. You can learn about the architecture competition, won by the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen. You can also see exhibits on the engineering and building of the museum. Here, you will learn the key word, catenary curve, which describes the arch. Don’t worry if you run out of time before your tram ride. You can always go back into the exhibits after.
Once you get to the top of the Gateway Arch, you can spend as long as you want soaking in the view. Look for the new St Louis Wheel (a Ferris Wheel), the bridges that cross the Mississippi River to Illinois, and Forest Park, Missouri’s answer to New York’s Central Park. You can spend an entire day exploring Forest Park, which has four free family-friendly attractions: the St. Louis Zoo, the Science Center, Art Museum and the Missouri History Museum.
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The Ride to the Top
The tram is now a Disney-like experience. A guide shows you a few short video clips about the arch before you board, similar to the popular EPCOT ride Soarin’ Around the World. The videos have a vintage feel, which fits in with the 1960’s era arch.
Claustrophobic? You will be OK (I was)
The pods that transport you to the observation deck are claustrophobic, but I was able to swallow my fear and concentrate on the view awaiting me. The tram ride is blessedly short (four minutes up, three down) and you can position yourself on the outside of the pod to be last in, first out.
Even the observation deck feels slightly claustrophobic, particularly if people are lingering up there while waiting for the next tram to arrive.
Wheelchairs, scooters and strollers aren’t allowed on the Observation Deck, and you have to be able to walk a few steps to board and exit the tram.
The St. Louis Gateway Arch – More things to do
You can spend the entire day at the arch. The park grounds extend to the water and the St. Louis Riverfront Cruise. The one-hour riverboat cruise explores the muddy Mississippi. Riverboat cruises operate March through November. On the narrated cruise, you pass under several bridges and see the historic Laclede’s Landing entertainment district and the Soulard area. Soulard is worth its own trip. The area features a huge farmer’s market and the Anheuser-Busch Brewery tour.
There is a discount on a riverboat cruise and tram combo. There are also family-friendly brunch and dinner cruises. Adults can take a Blues Cruise and dance to live blues music.
Strolling, biking or scooting along the waterfront is another way to explore the area. Dockless “Lime” scooters can be unlocked via your phone, and left anywhere.
The Old Courthouse is also part of the Gateway Arch experience. Surprisingly my husband, a lawyer, had never toured the courthouse during his five years in St. Louis. Don’t make this mistake. National Park Rangers lead free tours, or you can look around on your own.
The gorgeously restored building is worth a visit just for the history and historic architecture. The Old Courthouse is where Dred Scott unsuccessfully sued for his freedom and his wife’s freedom from slavery. The Dred Scott case is a famous case that gave momentum to the anti-slavery movement and served as a stepping stone to the Civil War.
St. Louis Gateway Arch Museum
The free Museum at the Gateway Arch received a royal makeover. The Gold LEED certified expansion and renovation is the first real update to the museum, which opened in 1976.
The museum, formerly called The Museum of Westward Expansion, traces St. Louis history, from Native Americans to colonial times, up to the building of the arch. Interactive galleries and reproductions of artifacts make the experience attractive to a broad range of visitors. You might have learned about the Lewis and Clark expedition and Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the westward expansion of the United States. The Gateway Arch Museum brings it all to life.
Monument to the Dream Movie
This 35-minute movie requires timed tickets. The movie, about the construction of the arch, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short in 1967. It is slightly hokey, but charming as well. If you visit the Gateway Arch off season and can’t take a riverboat ride, the short movie enhances your experience.
Riding the tram is $12, $14 or $16 per adult, depending on whether you are buying peak, standard or value tickets. During the summer and around holidays there are only peak tickets available. Children’s tickets are $8, $11 or $12.
There are combo tickets with the tram ride, cruise and movie, staring at $33 for adults and $18 for kids.
Keep in mind National Park Service free days. April 18, August 25 and September 26, November 11, 2020. Tram ride and documentary movie ticket fees are waived on NPS free days.
If you are feeling flush, you can take a helicopter tour. A two – three minute tour is $43, with prices going up to $169 per person for an 18-20 minute tour.
The St. Louis Gateway Arch renovation greatly improved pedestrian access. Since several nearby parking garages turned into urban parks and the addition of more landscaping around the Arch, driving is not the way to go. Hop on the MetroLink light rail instead. The closest stops are 8th and Pine Streets or Laclede’s Landing.
The MetroLink is based on the honor system. You buy and validate your ticket before boarding, but there are no gates and no one checking your ticket on board. Random checks keep riders honest. There is a fine if you are caught riding without a valid ticket.
The Gateway Arch is also an easy walk from several downtown hotels. The St. Louis Union Station Hotel, two stops by MetroLink or a one-mile walk, gives a sense of the railroad industry in St. Louis. Closer to the river, steamboats ruled. At Union Station, the ornate building reflects St. Louis’ former importance.
Where to Eat Lunch
The Arch Cafe, in the Visitor Center Lobby, has burgers, BBQ pulled pork sandwiches, panini and veggie burgers. St. Louis specialties include toasted ravioli. This green cafe uses compostable plates and flatware.
The Paddlewheel Cafe (open April through October) is located on the water and has similar sandwiches, but also cheesesteaks, veggie wraps and fried pickles. Try the local Clementine’s Creamery ice cream.
You can also walk a couple of blocks to Citygarden, which is a garage turned park. Kaldi’s Coffee, a local chain, has all day breakfast with avocado toast, breakfast burritos, and a delicious vegetarian hash made with “faux rizo.” There are also sandwiches, salads, a kid’s menu and gluten-free options.
If you are a vegetarian or vegan, St. Louis has plenty of options, including several near downtown.