A Weekend in the Gateway City
Where in the US can you find a culture diverse enough to celebrate the country’s second largest Mardi Gras festival, a lively Cinco de Mayo, and a raucous Oktoberfest? Don’t forget an Annual Pow Wow, an elaborate St. Patrick’s Day parade, a three-day Blues Festival, and a huge Pride Festival. You may not think you would find all of this culture in the Midwest, but guess again. St. Louis has had a multicultural history since its founding back in the 1700s, and we think a St. Louis Getaway is an excellent Weekend Getaway choice!
It may not be smack dab in the middle of the United States, but with its location midway along the Mississippi River it is pretty close. This location has been historically a huge boon to the city, but it modern times, it subjects St. Louis to being overshadowed by some of her bigger “neighbor” cities in the Midwest. Often when a decision is made to go to the city, one of the larger cities are chosen. While all of them are excellent choices, a St. Louis getaway can be a far less expensive option, with equally as many sites to experience.
St. Louis, A Bit of History
St Louis has an interesting history, founded by the French as a fur trading fort, it is named for King Louis the IX and the XV. It was temporarily owned by the Spanish, and later purchased by the fledgling United States as a part of the Louisiana Purchase. The city became the base for westward expansion. For a period it commonly referred to as Mound City, because of the density of Native American Earthworks in the surrounding areas.
Soon after that, the location on the Mississippi River, enabled the city to develop into a large and prosperous port city. It was also a central crossing point for those moving west, which also brought increasing industry to the area.
At one time St. Louis was America’s fourth city, and the biggest to the west of the Mississippi, but throughout its history, it has been a city of biggests and firsts. It was the first US city to host an Olympics, and a World Fair. It can boast the first university and cathedral west of the Mississippi, the first arched steel truss bridge, the first steel dome capital, the world’s first skyscraper, the first interstate highway, and the US first kindergarten. It is the home of the ice cream cone, iced tea, Budweiser beer, 7Up, Dr. Pepper, and Ooey Gooey Butter Cake.
A multitude of famous names also reign from St. Louis. Many have impacted and even changed the world, and most have left their mark upon the city. TS Eliot, Maya Angelou, Joseph Pulitzer, Chuck Berry, Tina Turner, Vincent Price, Betty Grable, Josephine Baker, Nelly, Redd Foxx, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Kevin Kline, Rusty Wallace, John Goodman, Ozzie Smith, Sheryl Crowe, Yogi Berra and Jack Dorsey, all call(ed) St. Louis home. All have left their traces.
Why We Love St. Louis Getaways
Despite all of that significance, since it’s heyday, residents of the city proper have declined, leaving it’s population at a meager 350,000. Since locals have swarmed to the suburbs, this makes the city even more attractive for visitors. There is an abundance of things to do in St. Louis, without a lot of traffic. When there are no festivals, or downtown baseball games, it is almost a small town crowd.
All of the amenities of a metropolis are available in St. Louis: a Symphony Orchestra, an Opera House, and fabulous theaters, such as the Fox Theater, art galleries and museums. You can also find all of the modern tourist type attractions, such as escape rooms, and wax museums. We don’t delve into these, because they can be found almost everywhere these days. We want to share some of the more unique, city specific sites, that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.
St. Louis also has more free activities than any other US city except the Washington DC! This makes the city an ideal destination for those with a tight budget. We were able to take our young family to St. Louis with little more than a tank of gas and a cooler full of sandwiches back in the days when we really struggled with money. We share a number of these options, even if they are not entirely unique, because we want great experiences to be available to all of our readers. On the other hand, there are also sufficient high-end options to satisfy those seeking more luxurious experiences as well.
So, if you are ready, let's look at some of the awesome things that can be experienced during a St. Louis getaway. Our list is nowhere near comprehensive, but we think we give a good enough variety so that potential visitors with varying interests can find some appealing sites.
Tourist Attractions - The big draws, for a reason
- Gateway Arch and the Jefferson National Expansion Monument - this is the one thing new visitors to St. Louis must see! The complete package includes a visit to the Old Courthouse, known for being the location of the Dred Scott trial, among many other historical events. As a part of the National Park Service, there are educational activities, and a junior ranger program. Museums, steamboat rides and helicopter rides, are all part of the experience, but going to the top of the Arch is essential. Yes, it does sway, as it was built specifically to do so, for stability.
- Busch Stadium is home to one of the winningest teams in baseball history. Visitors can get an inside look at America’s national pastime by taking a tour of the stadium, which is offered 3 times a day during the summer. See the dugouts, the broadcasters booth, and the field. While there, a visit to the Hall of Fame Museum showcases the Cardinals winning history, and is a must for any fan.
- The Anhueser-Busch Brewery is a symbol of the American success story, and a national landmark. Opened in 1852 by Adolphus Busch after his immigration from Germany, it has grown from a small local company to an international corporation employing thousands. Beer is still brewed on site, and free tours of the facility are offered daily for those who are of legal age. Each tour includes a trip to the Biergarten, and two complimentary glasses of beer.
- City Museum has become one of the top family attractions in the world. Designed and built by artists, literally from repurposed junk, it is something you must see to understand, because a description that does justice is impossible.
- Lumiere Place, St. Louis downtown casinos, is a popular venue for those wanting to try their luck at gaming. The resort features fine dining options, theater, and upscale rooms, just as would be expected at any upscale gaming resort.
World Class Free Activities
- The St. Louis Zoo located in Forest Park, is one of the US premier zoos, and visiting is entirely free. Periodic special attractions do have a charge, for fundraising purposes. The zoo features small and large animals from all continents, including primates and big cats.
- The St. Louis Science Center located in Forest Park, is a world-class science discovery center, where hands on exhibits make learning fun. There are more than 700 activities, covering everything from space travel to ecology . A planetarium and OMNIMAX theater are also onsite, for a fee.
- The St. Louis History Museum, also located in Forest Park, features a number of exhibits that outline the unique role the city has played in the American landscape, from the early days as a French outpost, to 1904 Olympics and World Fare, and the civil rights movements. Entrance is free, with occasional fees for special exhibits
- Grants Farm, located 10 miles from the city center, features a petting zoo, wild animals, tram rides, and the world-famous Budweiser Clydesdales. General admission is free, although there is a charge for certain activities, such as riding the carousel. A replica of a German farmstead serves traditional fare such as brats and pretzels.
- Purina Farms, located west of the city, is a pet lovers haven. It features a number of pet related areas and displays, as well as farm activities including wagon rides, cow milking demonstrations, and a hayloft play area. Canine performances are particularly popular. Admission is free and a snack bar is available.
Even More Family Friendly Choices
The Frisco and Zephyr sit side by side at the National Transportation Museum,
By Nate Beal, via Wikimedia Commons
- The Magic House is a teacher advocated museum, where experimentation and play are combined to create a fun learning experience. Activities are developed so that all types of learners, from visual and auditory, to kinesthetic and social, can find something that appeals to them. The Bubble Room is one that is talked about for years after the experience.
- Myseum is a newer science discovery center for families, with hands on exhibits and play rooms. Featured areas include an interactive video wall, and magnetic wall and a dino dig.
- Healthworks is a unique museum/theater/experiences, that helps children learn the importance of good health, and what they can do to maintain it. Activities include using Beam Technology to play on floor video games, using age progression software to see your future self, and dental theater.
- The National Museum of Transportation, located about 1 miles from the city center, features exhibits and activities highlighting anything related to land transportation as we know it. The Smithsonian states that the Museum has “one of the largest and best collections of transportation vehicles in the world.” There are extensive displays, and a number of activities including trolley and train rides. This was a new find for us at Gypsy, and it looks pretty cool!
More Unique and Magnificent Museums
- The National Blues Museums tells the story of the most heartfelt of musics. Stemming from African roots and traditions, the blues as we know them originated in the deep south as means of expression the sadness and despair of conditions. Over the decades it has evolved and influenced nearly every aspect of American music culture. The museum tells the story of this evolution, and the influences of geography on blues music. There are also live performances on weekends.
- Soldiers Memorial Military is due to reopen in the spring of 2018 after extensive renovations. The site features a memorial to all lost in war, and our veterans, as well as a museum that will explore the history of the military through both artifacts and state of the art exhibits.
- The Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, presented by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis presents interactive exhibits that detail the timeline of the Holocaust, and the factors which played a role. Racism and bigotry is confronted head on. Survivor stories make the experience personal and real. Entrance is free.
- Inside the Economy Museum is presented by the Federal Reserve Bank, in one of its historic buildings. This unique museum uses interactive exhibits to aid visitors in understanding the economy, and the role that they play. Entrance is free.
- The Griot Museum of Black History and Culture depicts 5000 years of black history with an emphasis on the influence of prominent black citizens in the St Louis area, including Dred Scott and George Washington Carver. The exhibits and collections include artifacts, documents and wax figures, including a life-sized depiction of a slave transport ship.
Outstanding Outdoor Areas
- Forest Park is noted as one of the finest urban parks in the US. Established for the 1904 World’s Fair, the park provides more urban green space than Central Park in New York City. Home to many of the other attractions featured in our lists, as well as a winter ice rink, and a summer theater, it also has picnic and sporting areas, pavilions, lakes, and a hiking trails, and hosts a number of festivals and events each year. Entrance is free.
- Cahokia Mounds, located across the river in Illinois, is the largest earthworks north of Mexico, and left behind by what was once one of the largest and most sophisticated cities in the world. Cahokia protects the land and heritage of the people who once lived there. It has the honor of being a protected UNESCO world heritage site. An interpretive center is on site, and both guided and self-guided tours are available. Entrance is free, but donations welcomed.
- Laumeier Sculpture Park features 72 acres of outstanding outdoor artwork. Short trails traverse the park, including the .75 mile Art Trek, which encompasses all of the 60+ pieces of art in the park. A sighted and sound track is available as a free download, for those who wish to experience a musical interpretation of each piece, as suggested by the artist. Entrance is free.
- The Missouri Botanical Garden was founded in 1859, and is the oldest botanical garden in the US, in continuous operation. Today the Garden is a center for education and conservation, providing general ecology classes, and master gardener classes. Favorite areas include the Climatron Greenhouse, the Japanese Garden, and the Victorian Garden and Labyrinth.
- Tower Grove Park, adjacent to the Botanical Gardens, features another astounding 300 acres of green outdoor space in the midst of the city. Tower Grove is geared more towards community events, with sports fields, numerous pavilions, and a bandstand. It is well-known as a bird-watching area during the spring and fall migration periods. Entrance is free.
Sporting Venues and Events that speak for themselves
- Cardinals Baseball
- St. Louis Blues Professional Hockey
- St. Louis Football Club Soccer
- St. Louis Surge Minor League Women’s Basketball
- Gateway Motosports Racing
Local Secrets that are Not So Secret Anymore
- International Photography Hall of Fame, featuring cameras and prints from throughout the history of photography, as well as a Hall of Fame exhibit hall.
- The World Chess Hall of Fame, highlighting everything chess, including competitions, displays on the masters, and the world’s largest chess piece, and board. Entrance is free, but donations welcomed.
- The Moto Museum features a collection of rare and vintage motorcycles from over 20 countries, and as far back as 1900. Entrance is free.
- Trapeze St Louis provides trapeze instruction for would be performers of all ages. It is an experience unlike any other!
- The World Bird Sanctuary provides a safe haven for injured and endangered species. Guided tours through the safe zones are available, or visitors can hike the trails to make their own discoveries. Seasonal demonstrations and performances are offered. Entrance is free, but donations welcomed.
- Schlafly Bottleworks is a local brewery in the Maplewood neighborhood, with a growing reputation. On weekends brew classes, tasting sessions, and brewery tours are offered.
Historic Homes and Buildings Worth Seeing
- The Ulysses S Grant National Historic Site, maintained and operated by the National Park Service, features tours of the former president’s home, and historical exhibits about plantation life of that era. A Junior Ranger Program is available for children. Entrance is free.
- Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, the oldest basilica west of the Mississippi, housing one of the largest mosaic collections in the western hemisphere.
- The Eugene Field House and Museum, childhood home of poet Eugene Field, and his father Roswell Martin Field, who was the attorney representing Dred Scott in his suit for freedom. The historic home also features exhibits from the diverse lives of both men, and an extensive toy and doll collection.
- Frank Lloyd Wright Ebsworth Park home, known for being one of the few remaining that are still furnished with the original designs and accessories designed by Wright himself.
- Campbell House, the 1851 mansion of wealthy fur trader and entrepreneur Robert Campbell.
Neighborhoods That Must be Experienced - each has its own distinctive character!
- Laclede’s Landing - The oldest neighborhood in the city, with cobblestone streets and 19th century warehouses. Today, these historic buildings have been upgraded and revamped into an intriguing collection of restaurants, breweries, and nightclubs.
- Soulards - Historic red brick homes built by brewery workers who worked nearby, the area has long been a haven for immigrants. It features local shops and boutiques, and restaurants with outdoor dining patios. Wednesday through Saturday the renowned Farmers Market is the neighborhood focal point.
- The Hill - The iconic Italian neighborhood features the bright red and green of the Italian flag in every conceivable way. It is bright and colorful, with an attitude to match. Streets are lined with numerous family run restaurants featuring classic Italian fare, and of course, the dish that originated here, toasted ravioli.
- The Loop - In essence, it is the campus town of St. Louis, with all of the associated hipster options. Vintage shops, coffee shops, record parlors, bookstores and tattoo parlors line the streets. Don’t miss the St. Louis Walk of Fame, featuring many of the famous we named above, and the photo-op murals.
- Cherokee Street and Antique Row - Numerous blocks of boutiques, shops, and galleries, which are all independently owned, giving the area a feeling of entrepreneurship and pride. intermingled with Mexican cafes. Cherokee celebrates both its heritage, with historic mansions tours and antique shops, but it’s Latino heritage as well. Cinco de Mayo is a two-day event in the neighborhood.
Excellent Eateries - There are dozens, but these are some of our favorites for local fare.
- Park Avenue Coffee - Try fresh roasted coffee and St. Louis specialty, Ooey Gooey Butter Cake.
- Imo’s Pizza - featuring classic St. Louis style thin crust pizza.
- Blueberry Hill - Regular cafe style food, in a funky and fun atmosphere, where Chuck Berry performed until his last years.
- Pappys Smokehouse - The best of the world-famous St. Louis BBQ.
- Gus' Fried Chicken - They say it is the best there is, anywhere.
- Broadway Oyster Bar - The best Cajun food outside of NOLA.
- 360 - An upscale twist on pub food and tapas, featuring a rooftop bar with the best views of the city.
Every popular lodging option is available in the city, including all major chain hotels, and all price ranges. There will be no problem finding a place to stay, unless it is a huge festival event, such as the Big Muddy Blues Festival, on Labor Day weekend.
There are some other options though.
- Camping: St. Louis RV Park offers plots for campers and RVs right in the city. There is also a KOA Campground to the north of the city, in St. Charles.
- Hostel: Huckleberry Finn Youth Hostel has dormitory rooms, and is located near the Soulard neighborhood.
- Lodges: The Lodge at Grant’s Trail features a rustic atmosphere with themed rooms, for a unique overnight experience.
- Inn: If you fancy the idea of a historic home converted to an inn, try Napoleon’s Retreat, or the Lemp House Inn.
- Bed and Breakfast: For a luxury stay, try the Park Avenue Mansion, or the Fleur de Lys Mansion.
Ready for a St. Louis Getaway?
We hope we have shared enough about St. Louis to give an idea of how many exciting options there are for visitors, and how many amazing free experiences are available. As previously stated, this is by no means a comprehensive list, rather some of our favorites.
If you want a bit more adrenaline or a bit more culture, we assure you it can be found in St. Louis. In fact, we will most certainly share some of those options in future stories…
Several different interstates cross through St. Louis. With its central location it makes it easily accessible from all directions, and an easy drive from a Several different states.
If you live anywhere in the central US, particularly in the area shown on this map below, you can probably make a drive to St. Louis in less than 6 hours. If timed correctly, you are in the range to enjoy a weekend St. Louis Getaway.
If you live beyond the borders of this map, flying would be probably be necessary to make it to St. Louis for a weekend. Lambert International Airport serves the metro area, and connects with most other major airports across the US. The amount of free stuff there is to do in the city almost offsets the price of airline tickets.