Maria Bassett shares her family’s experience visiting St. Louis, Missouri. They even rode a tram to the top of the Gateway Arch. This trip is a fun and educational destination for the whole family.
St. Louis, Missouri is rich in American history. From the Louisiana Purchase, to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, to fur trappers, and wagon trains setting out in search of land or gold, St. Louis played a critical role. Today we can learn how our country was shaped throughout the westward expansion of the 1800s, by visiting the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, home of the famous Gateway Arch.
The history of St. Louis
The Jefferson Expansion Memorial and surrounding area is undergoing extensive renovation. During the construction, the Museum of Westward Expansion has relocated many of its exhibits to rooms in the Old Courthouse, approximately a 10 minute walk from the Gateway Arch. Admission to the exhibits in the Old Courthouse is completely free. This is a great place to begin your day in St. Louis!
In these exhibits you can learn about the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) which stopped for its final supplies and winter camped near St. Louis before setting out over uncharted land. You will also learn about St. Louis’s role in fur trapping and trade, and how those trappers became guides for others heading west. St. Louis also played a pivotal role for people headed west in search of land for homesteads, or wealth in the gold rush, by serving wagon trains as a final supply stop and last taste of civilization before heading out west. The Old Courthouse contains other historical exhibits as well, including information about the Dred Scott case, which was heard at this courthouse and decided in 1857. Many say this provided fuel to ignite the civil war.
During the construction, the Old Courthouse also serves as the ticket center to purchase tickets to enter the arch and to ride the tram up into the arch. So you’ll want to get your tickets before heading down the walk to the arch. Even though we got caught in the rain, we didn’t mind the walk. Its downhill and very easy.
Visiting the Gateway Arch
The Gateway Arch is a 630 foot arch sitting on the Mississippi River in St. Louis, serving as a monument to the massive westward expansion this country experienced in the 1800s. But its more than just a metal arch, you can actually ride to the top inside the concrete and steel structure via a tram. Guests enter small pod-like cars that seat 5 at the bottom of the arch for the ride to the top. As you ride to the top, you can see bits of the mechanics working to bring you to the top through the windows on your car’s doors. Once at the top, you exit the cars and can walk in the top of the arch for spectacular views of St. Louis and across the Mississippi River. When you have had enough of the views, you head back down the arch in the same way you came up. The tram ride to the top was by far the highlight of my children’s day in St. Louis!
Note: This is NOT a ride for claustrophobic people, and it is not a wheel chair accessible OR stroller accessible ride. Folks who have mobility problems may find it difficult to climb in through the car’s narrow and short doors. You definitely have to duck to get in. However, small children are allowed to sit on parents’ laps. In this way, our family of 6 was able to stay together in one car.
If you’re looking for something else to do, consider one of several river cruises. You can also purchase tickets for these at the Old Courthouse. However, my family found that the Old Courthouse, the Gateway Arch, and the walk through the park around the arch, was really plenty to do for one day. If you are staying in the area for several days, you might also want to check out the St. Louis Zoo, which has free admission!
Tips and Pointers for visiting the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial
Plan for crowds, especially in the summer. Give yourself plenty of time to visit exhibits and get through ticket lines. (You can purchase tickets in advance here. This is highly recommended in the busy summer season, as the trams will fill up and sell out.)
Make sure to arrive at the arch about 30 minutes before your tram ride time, as guests have to go through security similar to an airport, removing jackets, passing through a metal detector and putting all bags through an x-ray.
Strollers will not fit on the tram, so plan to either leave your stroller inside the arch basement or utilize a wearable baby carrier instead.
St. Louis is a big city, with all the usual big city traffic. Consider staying at a hotel within walking distance to the memorial to avoid traffic and parking delays. We stayed at the Drury Inn near the Convention Center, which has an indoor parking garage, and found it to be an easy walk to the Old Courthouse and the Gateway Arch.
Would your family love the history found in St. Louis?