Saint Louis is a sprawling metropolitan area that’s home to nearly three million people living on both the Missouri and Illinois sides of the Mississippi River. But if you don’t want to travel far and wide during your stay in this iconic Midwestern city, no worries -- there’s plenty to do without leaving downtown. Here are some great ways to spend a day in the Gateway City’s central corridor.
Take It To The Top
Of course, no visit to Saint Louis would be complete without a trip to the Gateway Arch, the centerpiece of the Gateway Arch National Park. The entire 5-acre area recently underwent a massive renovation and now boasts paved trails, plenty of green space, and a brand-new interpretive history museum that focuses on the Native Americans who first lived in the area, the explorers and pioneers who stopped by, and the process of westward expansion. Admission to the museum is free.
Eero Saarinen’s 630-foot stainless-steel architectural masterpiece is truly a marvel; the views at the top are worth both the temporary claustrophobia and the price of admission ($12 for adults). Before or after your ride, be sure to catch a screening of Monument To The Dream, the fascinating award-winning film that tells the story of the landmark’s construction. Plan on spending a couple of hours at the park to experience the museum, movie, and tram ride; reservations are recommended.
If you’d like to make a full day of the Gateway Arch National Park, grab lunch at a food truck (they’re often parked on nearby Market Street) and add the next two stops on this list to your itinerary.
See The Old Cathedral
From the Arch, head across the park grounds for a quick stop at one of the city’s oldest and most beloved buildings. The Basilica of Saint Louis, King, also known as the Old Cathedral, is the fourth church that has existed at this site; the current structure was dedicated in 1834. In its early years, the church was the only spot in Saint Louis for Christians to gather and pray, and it became known as a welcoming spot for the French, British, and German settlers who came through town. The Old Cathedral was the first cathedral built west of the Mississippi, and it was the only building spared during the development of the Arch grounds. It’s well worth a visit for the history.
The Old Cathedral is open Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Keep in mind that it’s still an active parish, so be respectful during your stop.
Learn About Legal History
For another downtown destination steeped in history, walk over to the Old Courthouse. It too is part of the Gateway Arch National Park, and it is best known for being the site of the first two trials of the Dred Scott case. In 1847, Scott and his wife sued for and were granted their freedom at the Old Courthouse. The United States Supreme Court eventually took up the case and reversed it, setting the stage for the Civil War.
The Old Courthouse, constructed in 1839, is an architectural gem. As you wander through the courtrooms and check out the exhibits, be sure to take in the design details, including the incredible dome.
The Old Courthouse is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and there are ranger-led tours available. Admission is free to all.
Snap Some Photos At The Mural Mile
Art lovers will want to check out Saint Louis’s Mural Mile, located south of the Gateway Arch. More than 250 graffiti artists lent their talents to this project, which is constantly evolving. Every Labor Day, artists flock to this spot to redecorate it. An entire mile of the floodwall is adorned with tags and designs of all colors, and as you can imagine, it’s a terrific place for photos. That said, it is a bit remote, located in an industrial stretch of downtown sandwiched between the railroad tracks and the river. We wouldn’t recommend going there alone, or visiting after dark (you wouldn’t be able to see the art anyway!).
Experience The City Museum
For the truly adventurous, Saint Louis’s City Museum is not to be missed. Located in the western part of downtown, this century-old warehouse has been reimagined with an artsy, funky flair. During the day, it’s filled with area families who climb up, down, and around the museum’s art installations and exhibits. Daytime admission costs $16.
At night is when things get really interesting, with City Nights on the Roof during the summer months. The events feature live music, rides on the Ferris wheel, and adult beverages and yummy snacks. Tickets are just $10 at the door.
The City Museum is open seven days a week. Take an Uber or cab from your hotel, or make the 20-minute trek from the heart of downtown. You won’t miss it: It’s the building with a school bus dangling from its roof! Plan to spend at least a couple of hours at the museum -- you won’t want to leave.
Shop And Stroll On Washington Avenue
If shopping is at the top of your vacation agenda, head to Washington Avenue. This former garment district was redeveloped in the 1990s and is now home to lofts, condos, shops, galleries, and cafés. The architecture and old-world charm remain, but this area definitely has a vibrant feel. From grabbing a hookah to perfecting your game at Flamingo Bowl to hitting up the bar-movie theater mash-up MX, there is truly something for everyone there. Washington Avenue is well worth a stroll while you’re in Saint Louis.
Get The Blues
The blues might have been born in the South, but Saint Louis has long been home to the genre -- the city’s hockey team is even named for this uniquely American music. To learn more about this distinct genre’s roots, how they took hold, and all the ways the genre has influenced nearly all music since, visit the National Blues Museum on Sixth Street downtown. The museum’s mission is to preserve the history of the blues, as well as to support the artists who keep the art form thriving. It features various multimedia and interactive exhibits, as well as concerts and periodic open jam sessions.
The National Blues Museum is open seven days a week, and admission costs $15 for adults. This spot is worth a couple hours of your time.
Explore Union Station
To get a feel for where old meets new in Saint Louis, head to Union Station. The first train pulled into this grand building in 1894, and the station has been constantly evolving ever since. While no longer an active train station, the building is home to some terrific amenities that seamlessly blend the past and the present.
Grab a cocktail in the Grand Hall, with its barrel-vaulted ceiling and magnificent detailing. Check out the Allegorical Window, a stained glass Tiffany masterpiece dedicated to the grand era of train travel, with New York, Saint Louis, and San Francisco all represented. Soon-to-be-added features at Union Station include The Saint Louis Wheel, a 200-foot Observation wheel that will provide panoramic views of the city, and the Saint Louis Aquarium, which will feature thousands of different species from around the world.
Grab A Bite To Eat
There are plenty of breakfast, lunch, and dinner options to be found downtown.
For some of the best breakfast in the entire city, head to Rooster. The restaurant specializes in crepes -- both sweet and savory -- slingers, and fantastic French toast. It’s open every day and also serves weekend brunch. If you’re more into grab-and-go breakfasts, consider Pharaoh’s Donuts for a sweet start to your day.
Lunch can be as simple as a food-truck stop -- the trucks can be found most weekdays parked on Market Street near Citygarden, another great place to wander. Also consider Bailey’s Range for burgers and to-die-for shakes.
Summer cocktail hour is sublime at the Sky Terrace at the Four Seasons downtown, and Cinder House is a dinner hot spot no matter the time of year. For a terrific view of the city, consider a quick nosh and sip at 360 STL at the top of the Ballpark Hilton. And for an old-school, Mad Men-era downtown dining experience, Al’s Restaurant is a must. Steaks, chops, and seafood are all house specialties at this Saint Louis institution. Don't forget reservations and a dinner dress and jacket!