The arch is, undeniably, the iconic symbol of St. Louis. But there’s so much more to the city—a world-class art museum, a delightful zoo (and we don’t ordinarily visit zoos), the finest botanical garden we’ve seen in our travels (and we’ve been to a LOT of botanical gardens), a cathedral that contains the world’s largest collection of mosaics, and delicious Balkan food. And, of course, there’s Gateway Arch National Park.
From National Memorial To National Park
Formerly known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the arch was upgraded in 2018 to national park status. Along with 91 acres of surrounding land and the historic old courthouse, it became Gateway Arch National Park.
The arch commemorates Thomas Jefferson’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase (which doubled the size of the United States) and his vision of westward expansion, as well as the epic journey of Lewis and Clark, who were charged with the job of fulfilling Jefferson’s vision. Just a few miles from the arch, Lewis and Clark launched their two-year exploration in 1804. (In 2017, we visited the fascinating historic sites that document the westernmost point of Lewis and Clark’s expedition at the mouth of the Columbia River in Washington.)
Exploring Gateway Arch National Park
As part of spiffing up the arch to make it a national park, there’s a recently remodeled underground museum with colorful and engaging exhibits. The museum explores the history of St. Louis, the benefits and problems of westward expansion (no surprise that it was beneficial for the white settlers and the U.S., and detrimental for the Native Americans), and the intriguing story of how the arch was built.
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A Bit About The Arch
In 1948, a nationwide competition determined the design for the memorial. The task for designers was to create something that symbolized westward expansion. Possibilities submitted included giant sculptures of bison and American Indians, an outsized statue of Jefferson, elaborate bridges over the Mississippi, and random abstract works. The winning design—the simple, elegant arch that stands today—was submitted by Finnish-born, American-educated architect Eero Saarinen. The judges definitely made a good call.
Along with seeing the arch in person, the 1967 documentary called “Monument to the Dream” was one of our favorite activities in the park. The 35-minute film documents the building of the arch, and we found it surprisingly enthralling. More accurately, it was anxiety-provoking watching the workers as they grappled with giant buckets of concrete, fitted sections of the arch together, and welded seams, all while working hundreds of feet above the ground in high winds, rain, snow, and scorching heat.
In a synchronized dance of brute strength and painstaking finesse, the men steadily raised an arch unlike anything that had ever before been built. There was no fall protection, no safety gear whatsoever—except for hard hats. (I was thinking, “Why bother?? That hat is not helping AT ALL if you fall off that arch!”)
When the last section, carrying an American flag, was hoisted to the top and slipped into place, the audience erupted into spontaneous applause and cheers. (I tell you, it was a surprisingly moving little film!) If the measurements had been off by as little as 1/64th of an inch, the arch would have been an expensive, embarrassing disaster. Construction began in 1963 and was completed in 1965, for a total of less than 15 million dollars. And while the insurance company speculated that 13 men would die during the project, not one man was lost. Although it was built more than half a century ago, the Gateway Arch is still the tallest monument in the U.S., and the tallest arch in the world.
If you are courageous, you can ride the tram to the top for a bird’s eye view of St. Louis. The park offers a model of the tram so that you can decide BEFORE you commit. The tram travels inside of the arch, and it ascends via sort of an elevator/Ferris wheel mechanism. Each pod is approximately the size of the barrel of a cement mixer, kept upright by the weight of the passengers as it clanks its way 630 feet to the top of the arch. Haha, no way, no no no no NO. We did not do this.
The Historic St. Louis Courthouse And A Very Bad Court Decision
The national park also includes the historic Old Courthouse, which was closed for renovations while we were there. The courthouse is famous as the setting of the Dred Scott case, a landmark legal decision that helped to ignite the Civil War.
The short version is that Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, filed suit for their freedom at the St. Louis Courthouse in 1846. It should have been a simple case, because although Scott had been enslaved, he was taken to Illinois and Wisconsin (both free territories) before being brought back to Missouri years later. Under Missouri’s “once free, always free” doctrine, Scott and his wife sued for their freedom.
Their case dragged on for eleven long years, with several reversals along the way. The ultimate decision, made by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857—and widely regarded as one of the worst decisions ever made by the court—denied the Scotts’ freedom. The court ruled that the Scotts, and all African Americans, were not citizens of the United States, and therefore, not entitled to sue in court.
That decision, as history shows us, did not go over well. I’m thinking that the current court better take note.
Exploring Forest Park
Larger than New York’s Central Park, Forest Park is a peaceful 1300-acre oasis in the middle of St. Louis. In 1904, the St. Louis World’s Fair (AKA “The Louisiana Purchase Exposition”) took place here. Today, the park is home to a world-class art museum, a beautiful zoo, a small history museum, a science museum, and the sweet greenhouse known as the Jewel Box. And they’re all free to visit. We spent two days exploring the park, and could have easily spent more time there.
At the St. Louis Art Museum, we enjoyed seeing pieces by well-known artists, including one of Monet’s Water Lilies paintings (he painted 250 versions of his beloved water lilies). And we also enjoyed works by unknown artists, like the colorful painting by a 12-year-old African American boy who created “Vegetable Vendors” in a class offered by the Works Projects Administration in 1938. There is even a sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy, one of our favorite environmental artists, tucked into an outdoor corridor.
The art museum is located in the only building remaining from the 1904 World’s Fair. All of the other elaborate buildings for the fair were made from plaster of Paris and hemp, were meant to be temporary, and are long gone.
The Saint Louis Zoo
We almost skipped the Saint Louis Zoo. But we were walking in Forest Park, and passed by the striking metal sculpture entrance. “Let’s just go in for a quick walk-through,” I suggested. Four hours later, we finally emerged from our zoo immersion.
After our unexpected day enjoying our encounters with the animals and wandering the beautiful grounds, we understand why the Saint Louis Zoo consistently ranks among the top five zoos in the country. What really stood out for us is the dedication of the keepers to the animals they care for, and the impressive conservation and education efforts of the zoo. Inspiring people to care about how our actions affect the well-being of the creatures who share this planet with us seems like a good reason for zoos to exist.
The open-air metal Flight Cage, originally constructed for the World’s Fair, is the largest flight cage in the world. It now houses an authentic cypress swamp, where we felt right at home with the egrets, herons, ducks, and spoonbills that we see in Florida. A bonus was watching a Great Egret carefully tucking her beautiful blue egg under her wing. All of the exhibits at the zoo are well-done, the animals have plenty of room to roam, and the settings replicate their natural environments.
The penguin and puffin exhibit was one of our favorites. The cold-loving creatures live in a specially constructed cove of rocky cliffs, surging tides, and very chilly 45-degree temperatures. We almost froze coming in from the 95-degree heat wave outside, but the birds were very happy.
The Humboldt penguins, who are native to South America and thrive in warm climates, have a separate outdoor habitat. Watching the keeper trying to clean the penguins’ home while the penguins clamored for her attention was adorable.
The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis
I love mosaics, so we stopped to see one of the largest mosaic collections in the Western Hemisphere. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is known for its beautiful mosaics, and it’s spectacular! Decorating the interior of the cathedral with mosaics took nearly 80 years and more than 41 million pieces of glass tesserae. The largest mosaic piece I’ve ever made was about 12 x 12, and it took me forever.
Missouri Botanical Garden
We’ve been to a lot of botanical gardens in our travels, and the Missouri Botanical Garden is without a doubt the largest. And it’s gorgeous! We spent most of a day walking the trails and appreciating the unique, spectacularly designed and beautifully maintained gardens. Two of the most popular gardens in the park are the Climatron, a geodesic dome filled with tropical plants, and a 14-acre Japanese strolling garden. We also especially enjoyed the wonderful prairie garden, the small Chinese garden, and the shaded paths through the native plant garden. It’s all beautiful.
An Unexpected Find: Great Balkan Food
One of the top-rated restaurants in St. Louis is the Balkan Treat Box, which started off as a food truck, and graduated to a cozy restaurant. The food is delicious and authentic and transported me back to my time in Serbia, where wood-fired bread, roasted red pepper spread, and salads of perfectly ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, and salty feta cheese were everyday fare. We’re still not eating indoors in restaurants, but we liked the food so much we got take-out twice.
Where We Stayed
We enjoyed our spacious electric, shaded campsite at Edmund Babler Memorial State Park. We’ve noticed that once you get into territory where winters are really cold, state parks do not offer water hookups. Which is a pain if you’re staying more than a couple of nights. We try as much as possible to book sites that are close enough to water faucets so that we can run a hose and fill our tanks without hitching up and moving. Site #15 was perfect!
P.S. We are currently in Minnesota, heading up to the Boundary Waters where it’s going to be just us and the mosquitoes, LOL. We’re not expecting to have connectivity, but we’ll be back in a few days and I’ll be responding to blog comments then. As always, thanks so much for coming along with us, and thank you for your wonderful comments!