It’s my job to put experiences into words. To describe a place or event so vividly, you can’t help but add it to your must-visit list. However, I’m afraid this article is destined to be the movie version of the City Museum novel.
There are few special places I’d consider so unique it’s worth planning an entire trip around to visit, but City Museum, located in the heart of St. Louis, is one of them. Once you visit, you’ll understand the complexity as you try to explain the experience to your friends. It’s a museum that is equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. A place where you will lose your kids or grandkids a few times and will eventually be okay with it (they always turn up somewhere). A place with unique touches of culture and creativity that are impossible to fully experience in one, two, or even three visits.
This is my best effort to describe the City Museum. It’s everything I mention below, times 10, possibly 75.
This is a museum that sets the tone before you even pull into the parking lot. A concrete serpent surrounds the lot. The employee taking your money for parking hangs out in a castle-like structure, and before you even enter the museum, you’re under it. Specifically, MonstroCity. There are two planes, plenty of mental structures and slides, and more castle-like buildings. While it’s over the entrance, it’s unlikely you’ll start your adventure here because you’ll be over-stimulated by the other opportunities once inside. Oh, and if you see the bus hanging off the side of the roof as you look up, yes, that is also part of the museum.
Floors 1 To 4
I referenced earlier that you’ll lose your children or grandchildren. It could happen right as you step past the ticket windows. One darts up the stairs, the other darts toward the whales and treehouse, you see there’s a bar that’s open at 10 a.m. -- but I digress. This is City Museum. The spindles actually spin, there’s the world’s largest pencil, caves, pipe organs, a skateless park, art, giant underwear, sculptures, and within it all, about three different routes you can take at any turn. Through the many nooks and crannies, I heard one dad exclaim, “We’ve been in there three days!” While that’s obviously not true, it might feel like you’ve worked yourself into a spot where staff may never find you, leaving you to spend the night. That won’t happen, but the feeling is real.
Many, Many Slides
When choosing names for this museum, I’m guessing the first alternate was Slide City. However, the actual number of slides in the museum is a closely held secret. Someone knows, but they aren’t telling. Some have guessed 30. I know we went down more than 15. From a few feet to 10-stories (not kidding), there’s a slide for everyone. You know it’s going to be a great day when you’re asked by the attendant, “Are you going down the five-, seven-, or 10-story slide?” There’s one by the entrance, two more on the roof, and too many to count in between. Just know as parents or grandparents, figuring out where a slide begins and ends is how most of your time will be spent.
It’s strange to tout the roof when you have multiple floors of brilliance inside, but part of City Museum’s greatness is that you can see its genius from throughout St. Louis. It’s the only museum in the world with a school bus hanging over the edge of the building and an old-school Ferris wheel on top. (I don’t know that officially, but I couldn’t find another with a quick Google search.) It costs a few extra bucks to access the roof, but not visiting would be like making it to the lobby of the Empire State Building and not going to the observation deck.
Once on the roof, please go into the bus, all the way to the front. The bus door is open for you to peer stories below, and it’s always fun to test gravity, right? There are more slides and climbing, and unique touches like a giant praying mantis and hippo sculptures to explore on the roof as well.
It seems metal is the material of choice here. It’s been used to create the slides, a swinging bridge, tunnels, and more. It was on my third visit when I finally had to ask just how much rebar is in the museum. According to director Rick Erwin, there’s enough to build an entire highway overpass. Some structures are surprisingly smooth; others feel like you’re climbing on, well, metal.
There’s a love of aquatic life at City Museum. There’s an aquarium area, but there are also various aquariums throughout the museum. In pure City Museum style, you can even crawl inside one of them. Don’t worry, you won’t get wet. From clownfish to catfish, there are 70 species of fish found throughout. And, to give you an idea of the eccentric leadership, when I asked about the number of fish, here are the answers I received. Director Rick Erwin: "We’re not sure how many fish we have; every time we try to count, the seahorses have babies, and have you ever tried to count Seahorse babies?" Not to be outdone, one manager said, "Yes, I have [counted the seahorses]. It's not easy to count seahorses. We should have over 100 babies and about 12 yearlings.”
The building housing the museum was once a shoe company warehouse, so it makes complete sense that there’s a small shop selling shoelaces and cords made in house on antique machines. It feels completely random until you know the history, and then it’s only a little less so. You’ll walk into the shop wondering why you even need colored shoelaces, but you’ll want to buy some anyway.
One other thing I noticed during our visit: While there are plenty of places to relax, other than benches in the bar and a few tables and chairs, there isn’t one normal place to sit in the entire place. The seating areas are built into the different sculptures and theme areas and may not be obvious at first. One is a fish, there are tree stumps, and more. The best part, everything in the museum is made to climb on, sit on, or scale, so if it looks like you can sit on it, do it.
Bar And Tasty Pizza
It may seem odd for a museum that seems so out there to also serve some great cocktails and food. But it’s St. Louis, a city that loves its drinks. The zoo serves alcohol for goodness sake, so it seems like a no brainer that a place where you’re likely to leave with an injury while completely sober serves cocktails as well. Also, St. Louis is famous for its thin-crust pizza, and City Museum actually makes some of the best. We took ours to go and devoured it when we got home. Oh, and another St. Louis treat you’ll find at the super cool Beatnik Bob’s on the third floor is Ronnie’s Rocky Mountain Ice Cream cone. I don’t know why it’s so good, it just is.
Finally, you can’t talk about the City Museum without mentioning its creator. When you walk into City Museum, you’re walking into the genius mind of artist Bob Cassily. You’ll soon realize he never saw a relic he didn’t keep and eventually use in his creations. In the early 1990s, Cassily and his wife Gail took the 10-story, bare-bones shoe warehouse and envisioned “a city within a city.” They designed, created, and molded for four years before City Museum officially opened in 1997. Bob Cassily died in 2011, but his creative brilliance lives on.
Always A Work In Progress
Like Cassily’s creativity, the museum is ever-evolving. During your visit, you’ll see construction areas. They’re not hidden as they would be at most museums; they’re visible for everyone to see and imagine just what could possibly come next for this incredible place. It can be unnerving looking at a construction area next to a place to explore, but it’s also inspiring to know the next visit will be different and new.
I know I missed half of what the museum has to offer, and everyone who explores it has their favorite areas and experiences -- until you visit another time and then you find even more to love.
Pro Tip: When you’ve recovered from your visit to City Museum, check out one of the other fabulous family-friendly attractions in St. Louis. The zoo, art museum, science center, and Arch are all free.