Day 1: Air, Water, and a Delightfully Odd Museum
We were sorry to visit St. Louis for only one reason -- the immediate realization that we should have made the six-hour drive from our Chicago-area home long ago. My husband, Daniel, and I discovered a city big enough to be taken seriously but sized just right for a long weekend of exploring with our sons, Jackson, age 12, Nolan, 9, and Aaron, 7. We reveled in the perfect family-friendly alchemy of abundant green spaces, museums for every age and interest, and appetizing eats.
A busy day ahead called for a stick-to-your-ribs breakfast at Winslow's Home, equal parts general store and farm-to-table restaurant. The kids dove into pancakes, Daniel tucked into a breakfast burrito, and I savored the quiche of the day. Breakfast from $5. 314-725-7559.
After breakfast, we set out for a tour of the ultimate St. Louis landmark, the Gateway Arch. By arriving early in the morning, we avoided standing in line for the security checkpoint, tickets, and tram ride to the top of the arch (you can wait as much as two hours at peak times; we recommend buying tickets online). Each tram -- a cozy, brightly lit pod -- seats five. Claustrophobes should probably stick to the audiovisual exhibits at ground level; Aaron was nervous at first but perked up when we dubbed the tram a space pod. After a four-minute ascent, we arrived at the viewing deck, where a National Park Service ranger was on hand to answer questions, identify landmarks, and suggest the coolest views. Back on the ground, we explored the terrific free museum about the settling of the American West. Free; tram tours are $10 for adults, $5 for kids ages 3 to 15; 877-982-1410.
Having just seen the river from high above, the boys were eager to experience the mighty Mississippi more directly. The riverboat Tom Sawyer, berthed a short walk from the arch, offered room to roam, close-up views of the turning paddle wheel, and a snack bar with fresh popcorn. On the hour-long trip, just the right length for our kids, the tour guide pointed out historic and scenic points of interest. $14 for adults, $8 for kids ages 3 to 15; 877-982-1410.
Back on land, we made the quick drive to Soulard Farmers Market for picnic supplies. Open Wednesday through Saturday year-round, the market has something for every appetite: locally grown produce, baked goods, cheeses, meats, fresh bread, snacks, and more. 314-622-4180.
We grabbed our goodies and headed to Citygarden, an urban green space dotted with whimsical sculptures, bright flowers, and fountains, some designed for kids' water play. Free.
Full of fresh air and food, we were ready to explore what turned out to be the kids' favorite St. Louis attraction: City Museum. The boys sent up a chorus of "Cool!" "Awesome!" and "Is that real?" when they spotted the school bus dangling from a corner of the old shoe factory that now houses this huge interactive playspace. Designed by an artist and opened in 1997, City Museum looks like a mad scientist's secret hideout and is every bit as fun. "I've never seen our kids get sweaty in a museum before," I said to Daniel, who was also getting a workout following the kids through the tunnels, down the slides, and in and out of hiding places.
Within the main museum are an arts and crafts room, a bank vault, a person-sized hamster wheel, several multistory slides, a series of caves, and a massive tree house. For additional fees, you can see the aquarium and the rooftop exhibits, which include a four-story Ferris wheel and the inside of that dangling school bus. My advice is to spring for the whole enchilada and watch your kids go wild. General admission is $12. It's $5 more for the rooftop and $6 more for the aquarium; 314-231-2489.
Running up, down, around, and through City Museum was fitting preparation for the ample portions we were served at Charlie Gitto's Downtown, an Italian restaurant popular for many years with the locals. Legend has it that Charlie Gitto himself invented fried ravioli -- a St. Louis specialty -- by accidentally tipping some meat-filled pasta squares into a fryer. The five of us split heaping plates of that dish and other types of pasta as the lights of downtown twinkled on, the perfect end to our full day. Entr?es from $8; 314-436-2828.