Family-Friendly St. Louis {A Visitor’s Guide}

This post is part of a sponsored relationship with Gateway Arch National Parks and Explore St. Louis. It's our pleasure to share what we learned on our trip and help our readers plan their own adventure!

 Family Friendly St. Louis

Whether you’re from Cincinnati or anywhere in the midwest you’ve probably made a list of other midwest cities you’d like to check out with your kids. Us too!

Having a chance to explore a city without our kids before we explore it with them is just about the best idea ever, but it’s not always possible, so we took lots of notes for you. Let’s start with the basics…

| Family-Friendly St. Louis | 

What’s it like? Honestly, it’s a lot like home. The history and development and architecture are similar (with more French influence). It’s also a river city, so it feels like home, until you see the Arch or taste the barbecue. 

How far is the drive? Five to five and a half hours away, which (for us) makes it a reasonable driving distance for a family trip. With Indianapolis as a mid-way stop, it was an easy trip. 

How long should you stay? No less than two full days, three if your kids are 6+. There is a lot to do, but 48-72 hours will allow you to choose a handful of experiences that will be meaningful for your family based on your interests, and of course, there’s more than enough to make a full week of it!

When should you go? Any time, but here’s some helpful info: winter means fewer crowds, summer means more outdoor fun, less busy times like weekdays and winter can mean lower prices. 

Best ages to take kids? Any age.  Any time. Our assessment is that our kids are in one of two “sweet spots” – the first being the 6-9 age range and the second being 12-14. St. Louis has a balance of history and experiences so older kids will find different things to enjoy, which means you get to come back as they grow!

Where should you stay? We recommend downtown, closer to the river and Gateway Arch, somewhere that includes a big breakfast (we stayed here and liked it) or try an eclectic airbnb.  We found some terrific loft spaces and entire apartments that would comfortably fit a family of four for $100-125/night with breakfast during busy season and less than $95/night in the winter. 

Where should you eat? There are tons of terrific local spots to check out (ask a friendly local – they’ll point you in the right direction) but I can say with 100% certainty that you should eat at Sugarfire. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. It’s loud and messy and the portions are huge and the kids will love it. The food was worth the whole trip. 

Is it expensive? No. With so much to do that’s free our recommendation is to choose a few paid activities and fill in with no-cost experiences. Parking was plentiful and often free in the various areas we explored, and a good deal is walkable. 

| Family-Friendly St. Louis |
–Experiences Worth the Investment–

Below we’ve offered an overview of three of the experiences we believe are worth the investment as well as a quick list of free activities for your planning purposes.
For consistency, we used a family of four with two children between the ages of 3 and 15 in our estimates, but please use the links provided to personalize your planning.

Investment: 2-3 hours + $40-62

Family Friendly St. Louis
Gateway Arch

This is non-negotiable. It’s an architectural and engineering marvel and an absolute do not miss. The “full” Arch experience includes a museum, a movie, the ride to the top with a stop at the observation deck. The museum is FREE, and a terrific look at the history of St. Louis from the perspective of different people impacted by the settling and development of the area. This is a quick experience for littles and could take up to 60 minutes with older children and includes some interaction and lots of history. After the museum, we highly recommend the 30-minute documentary (even for small kids!). It’s a fascinating look that’s entirely real footage of the design, build and assembly of the arch.

Family Friendly St. Louis
Family Friendly St. Louis
Family Friendly St. Louis

After the movie, make a quick trip to the bathroom before riding to the top (no potties up there!). The tram cars are small (and hot) so be prepared to be really snuggly for four minutes up and three minutes down, but the temporary discomfort is absolutely worth it. 

Family Friendly St. Louis
City View from the Arch

Save: Visit on a value pricing day to save the most on tickets, then pack a picnic and enjoy it on the large field under the arch overlooking the river. 
Spend: Grab a meal at the on-site cafe.
Splurge: Take a Riverboat cruise and take in the sights from the water and enjoy a meal from their cafe (::cough:: try the chocolate chip cookies ::cough::).

CMB Tip: Order tickets online and choose your movie and tram times in advance so you can avoid the lines. (The earlier in the day the less the crowd.)

Investment: 2-4 hours + $60

Family Friendly St. Louis
Family Friendly St. Louis
Family Friendly St. Louis

If you’re a free thinker, enjoy unstructured play, are okay without maps, and don’t panic if your kids are out of eyesight then you will LOVE the City Museum. If you aren’t any of those things, it’s worth stretching your comfort zone for the experience. I’m not sure I could have even imagined the exploration available there, but I’m sure glad someone else did. The name “museum” often makes you think of exhibits and touch-screen immersion, but there’s not really any of that here (well, except the actual old museum that spills over into the fun). No tech, no fancy light show, just physical climbing and crawling, sliding and swinging for parents and kids alike – oh and a circus ring and a ferris wheel on the roof, because they can. No matter how long you stay, this is one experience that is sure to result in a great night of sleep for all involved.

Family Friendly St. Louis
Family Friendly St. Louis

Save: Go after 5pm for $2/ticket savings. No outside food and drinks allowed, but you can come and go through the day, so pack a picnic (there’s a park right around the corner). 
Spend: Grab a meal at one of the many on-site spots.
Splurge: They have grown up drinks for grownups. 

CMB Tip: Bring knee pads and a headlamp. We are not kidding. 

Investment: 1.5 – 4 hours + $TBD

Family Friendly St. Louis
St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station (rendering)

Opening late 2019! They are building an aquarium in a historic train station! Sound interesting? It sure is! We had a behind-the-scenes tour that included an overview of some of the attractions and entertainment and we can’t get enough. Otters! Sharks! Rays! Octopus! So many different species to explore, but also some interactive technology. If you’ve ever been to one of those audience-interaction shows (like Turtle Talk or the Laugh Floor at Disney) they’re going to have one with an otter (so cute!) plus an area where kids can draw a sea creature then see their design added to the virtual sea! There’s also hands-on opportunity to engage with creatures with touch tanks, so plan to get your hands wet! 

Family Friendly St. Louis
Family Friendly St. Louis
Family Friendly St. Louis

Save: There’s no cafeteria in the aquarium, but you can pack a lunch and enjoy it around the grounds. 
Spend: Grab a meal at one of the many food spots around Union Station.
Splurge: Pay extra for a small group animal encounter!

CMB Tip: The aquarium is just one part of the fun at Union Station. There will be a carousel and a ferris wheel, putt-putt and more – so think about spending a half a day or more here.  

| Family-Friendly St. Louis |
–Free Experiences–

Investment: 60 minutes

Family Friendly St. Louis
Family Friendly St. Louis

If you love American history (and even if you don’t) we think this is a must-see. As part of Gateway Arch National Park, it’s literally feet from the Arch, and while you can walk around on your own, we recommend a tour with a ranger (John P. is the best!) because the behind-the-scenes perspective on the architecture and the history is super-valuable to the experience. The Dred Scott case was heard here and has a gallery all its own that will surely start or continue some important conversations for your family about our history (and our present for that matter).  

CMB Tip: Ask for a Junior Ranger Activity Sheet to help kids engage. They can earn a badge by completing the activities!

Investment: 60-90 minutes

Family Friendly St. Louis
Kiener Plaza

These parks are refreshing green space in the middle of downtown, equipped with unique playground equipment, splash pads, and fountains. Warmer months often mean festivals and food trucks nearby too!

CMB Tip: Pack a change of clothes and towel for yourself too so you can join in the fun!

| Family Friendly St. Louis | 
–Free Local Recommendations–

With only two days we could never have seen it all, so we asked a handful of locals their favorite free spots to visit with kids and here’s what they said: The St. Louis ZooSt. Louis Science CenterHistory Clubhouse at the Missouri History MuseumFamily Night at the Magic House and (in season) The Muny outdoor theater. 

Ready to start planning?

Bookmark this and this, then feel free to ask us questions!
If we don’t know the answer, we met the people who will and we’re happy to answer back!


  1. There is a Sugarfire in Union, Kentucky. Also, many of the things you mentioned in the last paragraph are not free. But the zoo is and it is located in Forest Park which should not be missed.

  2. Hey Jenn!

    We’re thrilled about that local option to visit Sugarfire – yum!

    All the activities in the last paragraph were recommended to us as free by the locals we met. We did check the sites as well and it looks like everything we listed has free admission, free visit days, free rows, or free evenings available. One catch we missed though is the Botanical Garden – that’s only free certain days for St. Louis residents (which explains why they told us it was free!), so we’ll update the paragraph to remove that option.

    Thanks for reading!


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