As summer break nears its abrupt end, the cries of Kansas City parents echo through the streets, “But we never squeezed in a summer vacation!” Fret not. Four hours and one state away, St. Louis is the Midwest’s hidden family-friendly vacation destination.
Give me three days, and I’ll give you a guaranteed fun-filled stay in The ‘Lou. Drawing upon my eight years as a St. Louis resident, I’ve crafted the perfect itinerary for a family with young kids. With a healthy mix of well-known must-sees and quaint hidden gems, you’ll get a broad sampling of all St. Louis has to offer. As long as you can stomach the Cardinals baseballs fans, you’re bound to have a good time.
Day 1: Zoo and Science Center
Jewel Box (Forest Park) – This beautiful little greenhouse is nestled in Forest Park, the seventh largest urban park in the United States. The Jewel Box is definitely worth a drive-by, but if you have extra time, it’s also a lovely place to take a stroll.
Saint Louis Zoo (Forest Park) – St. Louis’ zoo is, drumroll please, free! And it’s wonderful. Standouts include the penguins and polar bears. Several paid attractions can enhance your visit, but you’ll have a swell time without them. I suggest grabbing lunch here.
St. Louis Science Center – The Science Center is chock-full of hands-on learning opportunities, and general admission is free. A little cash will get you tickets to the omnimax theatre, planetarium, or Discovery Room. My son still talks about the dinosaurs at this museum, and we haven’t been in over a year.
Fitz’s Root Beer – Located in the trendy Loop neighborhood, Fitz’s is the perfect spot to get a bite to eat. They brew their own root beer, using real cane sugar – it’s to die for. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to watch their vintage bottling line in action.
Day 2: The Arch
St. Louis Bread Company – Panera Bread began as St. Louis Bread Company, so what better place to grab a breakfast from than “Bread Co”? Get your breakfast to-go, and bring it to the next location.
Laumeier Sculpture Park – This free, outdoor sculpture park is really something to see. Don’t miss the giant eyeball and Alexander Liberman’s iconic red sculpture, “The Way.” Each visit is different, as you wander the park’s winding paths and run into a variety of sculptures.
Citygarden – Next, head straight downtown to Citygarden. This one-of-a-kind urban hot spot combines art, gardens, and a splash pad, so bring the kids’ swimsuits if you’re willing to get wet.
Food Trucks – A handful of quality food trucks typically gather around Citygarden at lunchtime. Chow down.
Gateway Arch – You can’t visit St. Louis without seeing the Arch. It’s truly a moving symbol of America’s westward expansion. Though the view from inside the top of the arch is spectacular, it’s not an ideal activity for those of us who get claustrophobic. Instead, our family likes to romp around at the base of the arch and take photos. Couple this downtown activity with the Old Courthouse, where the Dred Scott case was tried, or a riverboat cruise.
Bailey’s Range – Dinner time! The best burger I’ve ever eaten was at this hip gourmet burger joint. Milkshake mandatory.
City Museum – City Museum is a spectacular place, born from the creative mind of sculptor Bob Cassilly. They describe themselves as, “an eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of unique, found objects.” This is the activity you’ll still be talking about when you get home.
Day 3: Missouri Botanical Garden and Magic House
World’s Fair Donuts – I’m convinced that World’s Fair Donuts’ buttermilk cake donut is an actual slice of heaven. Each donut is made by hand in this classic cash-only donut dive. Plus, it’s only a stone’s throw away from your next stop.
Missouri Botanical Garden – With plenty of special events (Chihuly is a favorite), the Missouri Botanical Garden does it right. We particularly love their Japanese and Children’s Gardens.
The Magic House – The Magic House is a hands-on children’s museum that will bring out the child in you as well. You could spend all day there and still have more to see. We never miss the bubble room or the model trains. Grab a sandwich at their cafe before you play.
Imo’s Pizza – Next, indulge in ultra-thin St. Louis style pizza with the distinct provel cheese flavor. I know former St. Louisans who have these pizza shipped across the country to them.
Ted Drewes Frozen Custard – If you’ve followed the above itinerary, you’re almost a full-fledged St. Louisan. Last stop: Ted Drewes. Ted Drewes is always hoppin’. It’s the locals’ favorite spot to see and be seen. Snag a bench across the street to get the best people-watching view.
It would be a crime not to give a special shoutout to the following places, all of which would be great additions to your literary: Butterfly House, Crown Candy Kitchen, Cunetto House of Pasta on The Hill, Frisco Train Store, Moolah Movie Theater, and Sunday brunch at the haunted Lemp Mansion.
There you have it. Now, get a dog sitter, dust off your auto bingo cards, and hop to St. Louis!