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.
Daniel and I don't normally endorse eating cake for breakfast, but we made an exception for a St. Louis specialty: gooey butter cake. Park Avenue Coffee serves about 80 varieties of this rich, flat coffee cake, along with delicious, locally roasted brews. $2.50 a slice; 314-621-4020.
We purchased a box of gooey butter cake mix to take home, then set off to walk every inch of the sizable St. Louis Zoo, located in the green oasis of Forest Park. At the Emerson Children's Zoo, the kids could pet chinchillas, bunnies, and other friendly animals, but the highlight for train-loving Aaron was a ride on the Emerson Zoo Line Railroad. Sitting in back near the conductors earned the boys the privilege of calling "All aboard!" at each of the four stations. $10 for a multiple-attraction Safari Pass; 314-781-0900.
For lunch, we headed to the bustling Delmar Loop, a nearby neighborhood with a bohemian, college town vibe. Jackson was the one who spotted Cheese-ology, a specialty mac-and-cheese restaurant with a menu as appealing as its name. Each of us selected a cheese, a meat, and a vegetable to pair with our mac, and our orders arrived a few minutes later in steaming hot skillets. Kids' meals from $5.50, adult portions from $7; 314-863-6365,
Next, it was back to Forest Park to nerd it up at the St. Louis Science Center. This multilevel, hands-on science museum is a curious kid's paradise. Among the attractions: a giant robotic T. Rex, a flight simulator, a planetarium, an Omnimax theater, rotating special exhibits, and a great gift shop. Free general admission; special exhibits and shows $3 to $35; 314-289-4400.
We ended the day back in the Delmar Loop, at Fitz's American Grill. Fitz's Root Beer is popular locally, and the restaurant's four-scoop floats are a great accompaniment to comfort-food dinners like meat loaf and brisket. Kids can watch the bottling process through a huge window as they wait. Floats and kids' meals from $5, entr?es $8 to $10; 314-726-9555.
Our first stop on our final morning in St. Louis was Lafayette Fire Company No. 1, a bustling, casual restaurant run by local firefighters. There we filled up on authentic firehouse cuisine, including the yummy Brickhouse French Toast. Breakfast $7 to $10; 314-621-5001.
Our next destination, just a short drive from downtown, was the Magic House, a renowned children's museum. Located in a restored and expanded Victorian mansion, it offers engaging hands-on exhibits throughout its many levels and wings. The boys immediately raced to the three-story Jack and the Beanstalk Climber; eventually we made our way to the mystery exhibit to play crime fighters. Although the Magic House would seem to offer more for the 7-and-under set, 12-year-old Jackson got a kick out of the hunt for clues and the hidden passage behind the bookcase. The kid-sized Children's Village captivated Aaron's attention. $9.50; 314-822-8900.
Before leaving St. Louis, we had to try an eatery universally recommended by friends who know the city: Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. This isn't a place you visit for the ambiance, but the friendly service at the retro walk-up windows hints at something worthwhile to come. Presented with a dizzying array of toppings and custard flavors, we each ordered our own unique "concrete" (custard with toppings mixed in) and found the treats to be even richer and creamier than custards we have at home. From $1.80; 314-481-2652.
After more than a decade of family adventures, Daniel and I measure a trip's success by the number of times we hear "Can we go again?" During the half-day drive home, the tally for St. Louis reached an all-time high, ensuring that we'll be headed there again very soon.
Drury Plaza Hotel at the Arch is in the heart of downtown, near the city's signature landmark. Doubles from $145; suites from $170; 314-231-3003.
Get a family-friendly suite (breakfast and WiFi included) and hit the pool at Hampton Inn & Suites St. Louis at Forest Park, located near the St. Louis Zoo. Suites from $149; 314-655-3993.
The Moonrise Hotel takes its lunar theme seriously, with space memorabilia throughout the premises. Doubles from $169; 314-721-1111.
Go to Explore St. Louis (explorestlouis.com), the official website of the convention and visitors' bureau, and stlouisarch.com, which has information about the city's downtown attractions.
Toni McLellan (makearoo.com) is a writer who also hosts retreats for creative people.
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of FamilyFun