From St. Paul to St. Louis with Kids!
My kids have had a ton of adventures while growing up here in the Twin Cities – so many adventures that they’ve hardly noticed they had actually never been outside of Minnesota and Wisconsin!
I had been to many states growing up, but there are actually many I have not been to myself right here in the midwest. So this summer we decided to take a family road trip to a place we had all never been to before: St. Louis, Missouri!
Why did we choose St. Louis? For a few reasons:
1) Its metro area is similar in size to the Twin Cities: 2.8 million vs. 3.3 million.
2) It’s rich in history – especially the Gateway Arch, of course, which was built as the “gateway to the west” as it is located near the beginning of the famous Lewis & Clark Expedition (1804 – 1806).
3) And there are some super unique family attractions to visit, many of which are FREE!
Plus, driving to St. Louis from the Twin Cities meant we could be traveling through a total of 5 states (yay, more my kids could say they could see!).
We could just go directly south to Missouri through Iowa, but I decided to take a more interesting route. What we did was we made it a 5-day trip with a stop overnight in the Wisconsin Dells on the way there, and a stop in Iowa on the way back. Both ways were about the same distance, and overall, it worked out very well.
And fortunately there was an opportunity to visit St. Louis with some fellow bloggers this summer and explore some NEW attractions opening up this year, so we scheduled our trip for that weekend and I will tell you, I don’t know who was more excited, my kids or me!
To Drive or to Fly?
I looked into the costs for driving vs. flying from St. Paul to St. Louis, and honestly, I estimated that the costs are pretty comparable for a small family. In general, driving is cheaper than flying, but you can actually get a round-trip ticket from St. Paul to St. Louis for $120 – $150, especially if you book in advance. For a family of 4, that’s around $500 – $600.
If you drive, staying somewhere along the way each way and doing some sightseeing on the way, your costs between lodging, gas, food and entertainment can easily get to around $500 – $600, especially if you stay in the Dells.
We chose to drive because we wanted the road trip experience!
On the Road!
We left on a Thursday afternoon and it took about 3-1/2 hours to get to the Dells. We had been to the Dells several times before, as it’s been one of our favorite family destinations in the midwest. But this was a quick stay overnight.
We stayed at the AmericInn hotel in the Wisconsin Dells, since our AmericInn hotel stay in Duluth earlier this year was so enjoyable, and yes, this location was definitely worth it, as it also had a lovely lodge look to it and had a pool, fitness center and free breakfast. We didn’t have time for attractions this time but we did eat dinner at our favorite restaurant there, Buffalo Phil’s, where a model train brings your food to your table! In the evening, we went to downtown to shop (there’s always so much to see here).
If you’re thinking of heading to the Dells this summer, be sure to visit Noah’s Ark Waterpark – I’ve recently written that they’re celebrating their 40th anniversary with special events all summer long!
To St. Louis!
The next morning we headed out and drove the remaining 5 hours to St. Louis, with a few stops on the way. (I’m glad we did this in two days as with kids and many interesting places to stop along the way, the overall drive can easily take extra time.) We even tried our first “Steak ‘n’ Shake” burgers, as they were all over Illinois and we don’t have any in Minnesota.
The Union Station Hotel
When driving into St. Louis, I’m so glad we experienced our first glimpses of the Gateway Arch driving from Illinois over the Mississippi river into St. Louis. It was stunning and quite the welcome!
We shortly arrived at our hotel in St. Louis about 5:00pm. We stayed at the Union Station hotel which is just down the street from the Arch and is probably the most impressive hotel in the area. And it looks like a castle!
The Union Station hotel has quite the history since it first opened in 1894 as a travel hub with 22 railroad tracks and 10,000 passengers passing through every day. It closed its doors as a train station in 1978, and then in 1985 it was opened as a AAA Four Diamond hotel with 539 rooms, a shopping center, and various restaurants. The beautiful, original architecture remains though, as we saw firsthand.
The hotel has many amenities including a beautiful outdoor pool, a gigantic fitness center, and some unique entertainment I’ve never experienced in a hotel. There are nightly shows on the Grand Hall ceiling with images and music, and there’s an outdoor fire & light show on the pond by the pool.
Watch my 4-minute video of the fire & light show:
Now the Union Station hotel is expanding with a brand new Aquarium, ferris wheel and new restaurants opening later in 2019. There’s also the Polar Express Train Ride, an annual St. Louis tradition featuring real train rides from St. Louis Union Station to the North Pole in November and December. Riders get to dress in their pajamas and enjoy photo opportunities, a visit with Santa and his elves, Christmas carols, a Polar Express story and other activities.
We enjoyed a delicious dinner prepared by the hotel’s head chef as we watched a ceiling light show with a Polar Express theme.
Watch my short video of parts of the Holiday Light Show:
Breakfast at the Station Grille
In the morning we enjoyed a delicious buffet breakfast at the Station Grille right inside the hotel. Then our group met for a hard hat tour of the NEW St. Louis Aquarium which was being built right there at the Union Station.
We got to preview the St. Louis Aquarium and learn about the features such as:
- 13,000 aquatic animals from fresh water and marine environments around the world
- more than 60 sharks and rays in a vast 250,000-gallon saltwater environment
- Visitors will enter the Aquarium via a 3-D virtual reality train ride that honors the history of St. Louis Union Station’s railroad past
They are also building additional attractions including the St. Louis Wheel, a 200-foot tall ferris wheel; a Carousel; Mini Golf, a Mirror Maze, a Ropes Course and new restaurants. It will be quite a hub of excitement for families!
Now, once these attractions are open, this would be a wonderful way to spend your first full day in St. Louis. But since they weren’t open yet, we explored other areas of the city!
Lunch at the Boundary
Lunch was at The Boundary at the historic Cheshire Inn on the edge of
St. Louis’ Forest Park. The food is “a modern interpretation of comforting classics” and the menu included many comfort foods but with an elegant twist. There is an extensive beverage program with a large bar, dim lighting and leather couches.
Though it seemed upscale, it was very family-friendly.
We enjoyed a meal from the brunch menu – my kids had sandwiches and fries, and I had blueberry pancakes with ricotta, lemon curd and berry balsamic glaze. The pancakes were huge and the lemon curd was amazing. I also had a Shirley Temple drink (a bit early in the day for me for booze).
Free Attraction: The St. Louis Zoo
There are actually many free attractions in St. Louis, and one is the St. Louis Zoo! We visited in the afternoon for a bit and saw everything from gorillas to seals to elephants.
We rode the train, which goes around the entire zoo. You have to pay for the train but it’s worth it to see the whole place and get a break from the hot sun (or rain) for a while.
There is a children’s zoo which is a must-see for kids. It’s another part of the zoo you have to pay for (yeah, it can add up), but it had a ton to do, including an area where you can brush and interact with goats!
My kids also loved the insect and butterfly buildings, especially showing me all the creepy, crawly stuff and getting “eek!’s” from me.
Dinner at Bailey’s Range
Dinner was at Bailey’s Range in downtown St. Louis, a popular place to get great burgers and shakes. They specialize in 100% grass fed, grain-finished American range beef, and they even make their buns and ice cream in-house too.
They had a great menu with many burger and shake options to pick from. My kids had grilled cheese sandwiches. I enjoyed a chicken burger and salad, with a Hawaiian Breeze drink, made with coconut rum, peach nectar, lemonade and cranberry juice.
I also enjoyed a cinnamon shake which was way yummier than I expected, and we got a glimpse of one of their amazing burgers.
The Gateway Arch
Now, no trip to St. Louis is complete without a trip to the Gateway Arch. And it was as magnificent as we could hope for.
There are actually a variety of ways to experience the Arch. The grounds are open from 5:00am – 11:00pm year-round. The Old Courthouse, built in 1839, is open 8:00am – 4:30pm. Both of these you can enjoy for free.
The visitor’s center has a museum that’s also free to the public. It covers 201 years of history about the westward expansion of the United States. It’s very interactive, with activities even for the youngest kids.
Paid attractions include the Tram to the Top and the Riverboat Cruises. Yes, you can actually ride to the top of the Arch in a tram (watch my video below to see what it is like!).
Want to see what it’s like going to the top of the Gateway Arch? Watch my 2-minute video of our experience!
Brunch at the Three Sixty Rooftop Bar
After such a busy and fun previous day, we slept in a bit the next morning (aaahhh…sleeping in in a beautiful, comfortable hotel room!). Then we enjoyed a late morning brunch at the Three Sixty Rooftop Bar at Hilton St. Louis at the Ballpark.
Now this restaurant is a must-see. It’s at the top of the Hilton hotel and you can view the city from all the sides, both indoors and outdoors. And the food is delicious. We ordered from the brunch menu which included a Barbacoa Benedict, Traditional Breakfast with eggs and sausage, and Buttermilk Pancakes. (It was all good but the coffee was my favorite part.) The prices were reasonable too, considering the great views you get. Brunch prices were around $10-12 per meal.
The views were amazing. We could see everything including the Arch, the Old Courthouse, and Busch Stadium (yes you can watch a Cardinals ballgame from here).
Free Attraction: Science Center
After our brunch we checked out and decided to visit another attraction before starting our journey home. We wanted to see the City Museum, which I heard is a must-see, 100-year-old warehouse filled with repurposed pieces of cities. But we didn’t have enough time to really give that attraction justice this time, so we headed to the Science center.
The Science Museum, like the Zoo, is FREE, with additional attractions you can pay for within. We spent about an hour here, but we could have easily spent a whole day here.
There are literally over 700 interactive experiences here. My kids were really engaged in the many activities like learning about video games in GameXPloration, and controlling a rocketship in Mission to Mars. And it was a great place to stay cool as it was about 96-degrees outside today! (St. Louis definitely gets a bit warmer than St. Paul in the summer.)
Heading to Iowa
Around mid-afternoon we left the Science Center and hit the road to Iowa, where we would sleep for the night. We ate at St. Louis Bread Company on the way out of St. Louis (did you know that St. Louis Bread Company is also Panera Bread)?
We drove a few hours to Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, which was a good midpoint. We wanted to get to Cedar Falls, Iowa, which was a bigger city and was closer to home, but Mt. Pleasant had some decent hotels, so we stayed at an AmericInn there and had a Pizza Hut pizza party in our room.
Avenue of the Saints
Did you know that U.S. Route 61 is known as the Avenue of the Saints, because it connects St. Louis to St. Paul? It’s a 550-mile, four-lane highway. There are many cities along the way to visit.
The rest of our drive from Mt. Pleasant to home was about 5 hours and it was a quiet drive through farmland. It was quite the contrast from all the excitement we had in St. Louis, but we were excited to say we had traveled now through 5 states!
Overall Thoughts and Recommendations!
Whew! As you can see, this was quite a trip! We saw SO much and so can you!
- Stay in St. Louis at least 3 days to really take it in. You definitely want to see the Gateway Arch, at least 2-3 other attractions like the Zoo, Science Center and City Museum (we’re going there next time), and of course, the Aquarium when it opens.
- Plan to visit anytime of year, but ideally after the St. Louis Aquarium opens, which will be later in 2019. Check out their website for updates.
- Stay in the Union Station hotel if you can. It’s so historic, so memorable, so appealing, and that’s where even more of the action will be once the Aquarium opens. Watch for package deals as the Aquarium’s grand opening approaches.
- Dine in places like we did if you can. They were all amazing. I especially recommend the Three Sixty Rooftop Bar to get some great views of the city.
- Visit “Explore St. Louis” for more information and to plan your trip!
To replicate our trip, budget at least $1300 for a family of 4. That’s about $500 for travel to and from St. Louis, and about $800 for expenses there. If your budget is smaller, there are many ways you can do this or a similar trip for less.
Our travel expenses were about $80 – 100 per night at the AmericInn each night, plus gas, some shopping, and food (mostly fast food and we brought our own snacks).
Hotel: The Union Station Hotel rates range from $150 – 250 a night for the room we had, depending on the time of year you visit. This includes a lot, as there are many amenities. They do have discounts, such as for AAA, and there are package options. There are many extras including valet service.
Attractions: The Gateway Arch’s Tram ride to the top starts at $12 for adults, $8 for kids. The museum and grounds are free. There are other attractions you can buy individually or combine for package deals.
The Zoo and Science Center were free to visit, but you do pay for parking onsite ($12-15 per day). There are also attractions within that are at cost.
Other free attractions include the Missouri History Museum, the St. Louis Art Museum, Forest Park (which is actually bigger than New York’s Central Park), Grant’s Farm, and Laumeier Sculpture Park, to name a few. Learn more about these attractions in St. Louis on the Explore St. Louis website.
For a frugal trip to St. Louis, you could spent a significant amount of your time going from free attraction to free attraction and have an amazing vacation.
Transportation: St. Louis has excellent public transportation. You can take a bus or train to anywhere and there is a free shuttle bus between the free Forest Park attractions (like the Zoo and Science Center) on weekends.
Dining: Our meals were worth approximately $50 each for the 3 of us, and it was all fantastic. If you don’t want to spent that much though, there are grocery stores and fast food places in downtown St. Louis, and there’s a cafe with some grab and go options in the Union Station hotel.
Do you have questions about our trip? Let me know!
And be sure to follow my blog for more about St. Louis and the soon-to-open aquarium!
(Disclosure: This post has been sponsored but as always, all opinions are 100% my own.)