Sleep with the Fishes: St. Louis Union Station

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Historic St. Louis Union Station
St. Louis Union Station houses a historic hotel and new entertainment. Credit: Judy Antell

St. Louis has long had unique family-friendly activities: the amazing Gateway Arch, the indescribable City Museum and the great free zoo. It also boasts a one-stop location for family fun: Union Station St. Louis. From the aquarium to the huge St. Louis Wheel, mini golf and a maxi ropes course – all within a complex that includes a train-themed luxury hotel – you may want to stay here an entire weekend! The luxury hotel is also great for sports fans. It is around the corner from Citypark, a beautiful new soccer stadium, and walking distance to baseball’s Busch Stadium.

Many historic train stations around the country have been transformed into entertainment complexes but none hold a candle to St. Louis Union Station. This once-abandoned building, now a national historic landmark, includes a luxury hotel, multiple entertainment options and interesting places to eat. Union Station had a brief second life as a mall, but its third incarnation, with such a breadth of activity has staying power.

Just a mile from the Gateway Arch, Union Station St. Louis served as a gateway to the rest of the country with the largest train station in Missouri. Like Grand Central in New York, it was technically a terminal. Trains ended here and passengers had to disembark, which is why a hotel was part of the original design.

The train shed behind the sumptuous Romanesque-style building is covered but airy, and filled with enough entertainment options to keep a whole family or group of adults busy for at least a weekend. Spend some time exploring the architectural details of the building inside and out, from stained glass, marble finishes and gold elevators to turrets and stone carvings.

Whispering Arch sign at St. Louis Union Station
The secret is out: St. Louis is loaded with fun. Photo credit: Judy Antell

The Newest and Wettest at Union Station St. Louis

Plan ahead: Tickets to The St. Louis Aquarium, which opened in December 2019, frequently sell out.

The colorful marine exhibits include plenty of local fish from the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers as well as exotic fish from South America, Africa and Asia. There are also lots of sharks, jellyfish, sea dragons, and living coral. The St. Louis Aquarium isn’t just about fish; you’ll also find otters, owls, turtles and sloths.

The train theme extends to a short interactive train ride that brings you from the entrance into the exhibits. Aquarium tickets even look like train tickets.

Blue Lobster at St. Louis Union Station
Lord Stanley, rare blue lobster at the St. Louis Aquarium. Photo credit: Judy Antell

St. Louis Aquarium Tips

If you want to avoid crowds, buy tickets in advance. Timed tickets help reduce bottleneck, but we saw crowds lined up to buy tickets before the 9am opening and agian at 6pm Friday when we visited. You may have to wait a few minutes at the entrance with timed tickets, but you will avoid the bulk of the line.

Crowds thin at lunchtime since you can’t eat inside the facility (there are multiple places in the complex; see below). Plan to stay at least two hours at the aquarium – have a snack before and then a late lunch. The aquarium is open Monday – Saturday, 9am-8pm and Sundays, 9am-5pm.

St. Louis Union Station fish
First exhibit at St. Louis Aquarium, a fishy replica of the Union Station Clock Tower. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Where to Stay at Union Station St. Louis

The landmark St. Louis Union Station Hotel, a Curio Collection by Hilton Hotel, is in an 1894 building that appeals to architecture and train fans alike.

A private gate takes you right to the aquarium. If you are visiting during colder weather, you can leave your coat in your hotel room while you explore many of the Union Station amenities.

This luxury hotel is just two blocks from Citypark, the lovely new soccer stadium. Citypark connects Forest Park, St. Louis’ masterpiece urban park to the Gateway Arch. The hotel is also a short walk from Busch Stadium, long-time home to Major League Baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals.

Free public art: part of Counterpublic is around the corner from the hotel. Photo credit: Judy Antell

The hotel is also near the major civic art project, Counterpublic. This art festival, which is presented every three years, runs until July 15, 2023.

St. Louis Union Station detail
Architectural detail at St. Louis Union Station hotel. Photo credit: Judy Antell

The dog-friendly hotel has 567 rooms. Try to reserve a room in the Clock Tower, a 218-foot structure that has a giant clock on the outside, and rooms where stationmasters had their offices. Doors retain their names from the companies that operated at the station but inside you’ll find plush sheets, fluffy towels and robes, a large flat-screen TV and mini fridge – all the modern conveniences. The first fish tank you see at the aquarium is a watery replica of the Clock Tower.

The Grand Hall, with its 65-foot barrel ceiling, was the main waiting room for the train station. A free nightly 3D light show, designed in conjunction with Cirque de Soleil, includes music. There are 15 different shows that play in rotation, on the hour, every hour from 5 – 11pm. Our room, which was utterly quiet, was down the hall from an atrium overlooking the Grand Hall. We could watch the light show from a private perch.

St. Louis Union Station show
Free evening light show at St. Louis Union Station. Photo credit: Judy Antell

SheBuysTravel Tip: Check to see if there is an event scheduled in the Grand Hall. If there is, the light show is pre-empted.

The Grand Hall also has a whispering arch below the 1894 stained glass window. Get your kid, friend, or spouse to stand 40 feet away and you can hear each other clear as day.

If you are an elite Hilton Honors member, you get breakfast at the executive lounge, and appetizers in the evening. Breakfast included plenty of fresh fruit, yogurt, cereal, eggs and bread. The lounge has an open part that overlooks the lower-level connection to the train shed and aquarium. The indoor/outdoor airy feel is a nice touch.

Get Active at St. Louis Union Station Hotel

The huge outdoor pool at the hotel is open seasonally. Since it is covered by the train shed, you don’t have to bother with sunscreen.

The hotel has a large fitness center, with a Peloton bike and a lot of other cardio equipment. There are also plenty of free weights and mats. One annoyance: there is only bottled water, not a water fountain. In fact, water fountains were scarce in the hotel.

Just for fun at St. Louis Union Station

Date Night Market at Union Station

This Friday night food and drink special event is a bit of a misnomer. There are family date nights, dog-friendly pup date nights and singles date dates. All are free and include meeting local artisans and sampling products.

Soaring above St. Louis

The 200-foot high St. Louis Ferris Wheel has temperature-controlled gondolas so you can stay warm, or cool, on your ride. [Waiting in line, not so much – we were freezing while we waited for our ride]. The LED lights change colors, offering yet another light show.

More to Do

Above the aquarium the extensive rope course lets you climb and swing in a controlled setting. There is a separate rope course for young children.

Ride the 1904-themed carousel and play 18 holes at the mini golf course.

View of St. Louis Union Station from the wheel
View from the St. Louis Wheel at night. Look for the Gateway Arch. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Mirror Maze: This labyrinth puzzle, based on an attraction for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, is fun for all ages.

Fire and Light Show on the Lake: You can watch this free nightly show from anywhere in the train shed. It’s not as elaborate as the Grand Hall light show, but serendipitously seeing flames shooting from the lake can be pretty exciting.

St. Louis wheel
The colorful St. Louis Wheel and the Train Shed. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Bargain Hunting

Tickets to the aquarium are $25-$27 for adults, and $18-$19 for kids ages 3-12. If you are going to visit other Union Station attractions, a combo ticket will help you save money. There are tickets for an aquarium visit and St. Louis Wheel ride, or ones for five Union Station attractions that give you the most bang for your buck.

Attractions Near St. Louis Union Station

City Museum has to be seen to be believed. The indoor/outdoor fantastic creation combines climbing structures, slides up to 10 stories high, caves, a “skate park” without skates, art projects and more. Bring intrepid kids and adults. In the evening, bars open and young adults predominate.

The urban Citygarden has kid-friendly sculptures and seasonal water features. If you need more room, Forest Park, home to four of the best free things to do in St. Louis – the Saint Louis Zoo, Saint Louis Science Center, Saint Louis Art Museum and Missouri History Museum — is just four stops away on the MetroLink.

St. Louis Union Station has a huge parking lot. It also has a stop on the MetroLink light rail.

Indoor/outdoor train shed at St. Louis Union Union Station
The indoor/ outdoor train shed, with the St. Louis Wheel. Credit: Judy Antell

Where to Eat at St. Louis Union Station

  1. Landry’s Seafood: This New Orleans-inspired seafood restaurant has an extensive children’s menu and gluten-free menu. Landry’s has crawfish etouffee, shrimp and grits and more.
  2. Train Shed: This indoor /outdoor restaurant (covered, under the unheated train shed) has pizzas, good veggie sides like smoked cauliflower with romesco sauce, charred broccoli with mushrooms and Brussels sprouts with almonds. Some excellent cocktails, too. The Train Shed overlooks the lake, so you can see the fire and light show while you eat.
  3. St. Louis Union Station Soda Fountain: A  classic soda fountain with real cherry cola, shakes (some boozy) and diner specialties like burgers, hot dogs and egg salad.
  4. 1894 Cafe: Closest to the aquarium, the cafe has sandwiches and salads
  5. Station Grille: Sit-down restaurant in the St. Louis Union Station Hotel with old-fashioned meat and potato entrees.
  6. Grand Hall: While you watch the hotel’s light show, you can get flatbread, hummus, burgers and the St. Louis specialty, toasted ravioli. There are cocktails, and plenty of desserts for the kids.
  7. Grand Hall Market: Also in the hotel, has a Starbucks, snacks and a huge model train display.
  8. The Pitch Athletic Club & Tavern: This sports bar has New York-style deli sandwiches and classic NY desserts like black and white cookies and cheesecake.
  9. Cookies & Cupcakes: This dessert spot also has coffee and fudge.

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