Nothing is more “St Louis” than the arch. The iconic part of St Louis’ skyline has been dazzling visitors and locals for almost 60 years and every time I see it I’m even more impressed. I feel like other American structures (the Statue of Liberty, Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building, etc.) get more attention, but MAN…the arch is really something.
The Gateway Arch was built in 1963 as an extended project to revitalize St Louis’ riverfront area. President Franklin D Roosevelt had designated the area as part of the National Park Service in 1935 to build the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The memorial was to celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1804 and Lewis & Clark’s subsequent exploration of the new lands with Sacagawea. On the edge of the American frontier at the time, St Louis was seen as the gateway to the west.
In 1948, a national design competition chose architect Eero Saarinen’s sleek design and in 1965 construction was completed and the memorial officially became the Gateway Arch National Park and included the nearby Old Courthouse where former slave Dred Scott famously sued for his freedom and suffragette Virginia Minor sued for women’s right to vote.
Today it’s the #1 attraction in St Louis and even if you’re adverse to “tourist spots,” it’s one you’re not going to want to miss.
7 Things to do at Gateway Arch National Park
Gateway Arch National Park has a lot more to do than just stand around and look at the arch.
Arch Gazing: But I mean, you’ve got to just stand there and look at it for a bit, right? The area around the arch is a lovely park setting with great views along the Mississippi River and in the spring when the trees are blooming it’s especially lovely. Pretty much everything “to do” at the park is actually underground so the views up top are unobstructed.
Ride to the Top of the Arch: I’m always surprised by how many people don’t know that you can actually go to the top of the arch. Now I’ll be totally honest…I haven’t done it…YET. Partly because you have to plan in advance and partly because the thought of it makes me a teeny bit anxious. But it’s at the top of my list for things to do next time I’m in St Louis. Tickets are $15/adult (16+) and $11/child (3-15) and should be purchased in advance to guarantee you get a spot for the day. I visited during spring break and by noon it was totally sold out but during slower times of the year it is possible to walk up and buy a ticket.
You’ll ride in a small elevator pod to reach the top of the arch. There’s a model in the lobby underneath the arch that you can sit in to see what it’s like. There are five tiny seats in each pod and no room for strollers, wheel chairs, etc. Once you get to the top portion, there are some stairs to climb to get up to (and back down from) the windows and the elevators that will take you back down the other side. In the museum under the arch, there’s a replica of the very top piece of the arch (where the windows are) so you’ll know exactly how big it is up there. It takes about 4 minutes to ride to the top and 3 to ride back down. Trams depart about every 10 minutes.
The arch is designed to withstand earthquakes and in strong gusts of wind (50+mph) it even sways a little.
Monument to the Dream Film: For $7/adult ($3/child) you can watch a 35 minute film about the making of the arch. Tickets can be bundled with tram rides to the top of the arch and even a riverboat cruise. I haven’t done the film yet (there’s a lot to read and see for free in the museum), but I’ll check it out on my next trip.
Museum: The Museum underneath the arch is extremely well done and worth 45 minutes to an hour of your time. It tells the story of the Native Americans who originally called the area home as well as the explorers and pioneers who expanded America westward and the design and construction of the arch.
Get Your Passport Stamped: My favorite part of visiting any National Park or monument is getting my National Parks Passport stamped. I’ve been collecting stamps since a visit to Mount Rushmore in 2009. You can buy one in the gift shop (and there’s a couple of stamps there), but the main stamping station is at the information desk when you first go under the arch. They had four different area stamps and a roll of paper to stamp if you forget your passport (I often do).
Old Courthouse: The inside of the courthouse is currently closed, but it’s something to see even just from the outside. Two landmark cases were tried in this courthouse: 1) This is where Dred Scott sued for his freedom in 1847 (the Supreme Court ruled that slaves weren’t citizens and didn’t have a right to sue), and 2) St Louis suffragette Virginia Minor sued for the right to vote in 1873 (also denied).
Visit the Gift Shop: Like any good national park, there’s a great gift shop underneath the arch. I always like to check out the book selection at places like this because it’s really good. And of course you can find absolutely any kind of merchandise that you can think of emblazoned with the arch.
Things to Know Before You Go
Tickets in Advance: I mentioned before, but if you’re planning to ride the tram to the top of the arch, it’s best to book your tickets in advance. And there are bundles where you can combine the tram ride with the film and a riverboat cruise. Mix and match.
Walking from Downtown: Depending on where you’re walking from, I think some entrances are better than others. There’s an entrance on Washington Avenue and it’s the closest from most of the hotels downtown, but it probably means you’re going to have to walk under I-44 and there’s often people panhandling in the area. When it’s daylight and there’s a lot of people coming and going (the arch is a major attraction so there’s usually good foot traffic), it’s fine but I probably wouldn’t want to do this route after dark. The entrance off Fourth Street (between Chestnut and Market) is the most wide open and I think it’s worth going a little out of your way. Plus you’ll get that impressive straight on view of the arch when you approach.
Where to Park: If you’re driving in, the best place to park is in the Stadium East parking garage at 2nd and Broadway. If you purchase in advance here it’s $9 for 5 hours. If you show up on a game day, it’s going to be a lot more. There’s also a MetroLink stop within walking distance.
You’ll Go Through Security: There’s airport style security that you’ll go through when you go underneath the arch. You’ll go through security before you get to the tram entrance, the film, the museum, the gift shop, and the cafe.
Where to Eat Nearby: I really liked Sugarfire Smoke House at 6th and Washington. Good bbq and very family friendly. Laclede’s Landing (just north of the arch) also looks like a good area to grab a bite.
Where to Stay Nearby: If you want easy walking access to the arch, you’re going to want to stay at a downtown hotel. On my last trip, I stayed at the Magnolia Hotel and it’s a decent budget option. For another (probably nicer) Marriott Bonvoy option, I’m interested in the Hotel St Louis, and honestly the Four Seasons isn’t priced too bad and has amazing arch views and is closer to the river.
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