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Whether it’s a last-ditch summer vacation or a fall-break fling, put St. Louis on your to-do list. Though only a four-hour drive from Memphis, the Gateway City feels decidedly different, thanks to its handsome brick neighborhoods, sizeable downtown, and the iconic Arch. Oh, did I mention how much is free? I think you’ll like that.
Friday, 3 p.m. - St. Louis Zoo or Grant’s Farm • Stretch your legs with a walk around the St. Louis Zoo at Forest Park. The zoo covers 90 acres (Memphis Zoo is 70) but it’s not overwhelming and you can see thousands of animals from across the globe. Take a chill in the newly opened Penguin and Puffin Coast. The 45 degree temps keep these four species of penguins happy and their playful antics are entertaining. Just steps away is the new polar bear plunge pool, where wooly Ursus maritimus morph into graceful mermaids. Ready for a break? Catch the Zooline Train for a 20-minute narrated tour. All aboard! • Zoo admission is free. Safari pass: $12 (entrance to some fee exhibits). $15/parking.
Another outdoor option is Grant’s Farm, the Anheuser-Busch family estate and a popular local outing since 1955. A brief tram ride through the front of the property gives you a peek at ostriches and elk that graze, but the real draw here is the petting zoo, where kids can feed pygmy goats with baby bottles or take a pony ride. Don’t forget to explore the beautiful, Bavarian-style barn where the family’s riding trophies and wild game is on display. • Admission is free. $12/parking.
Friday, 5 p.m. - Eats • Are you a pasta lover? Head to the Hill, just a short drive from Forest Park. This Italian neighborhood boasts a bevy of restaurants that will cater to your every whim. I’m partial to Zia’s toasted ravioli but others are yummy, too.
Saturday, 9 a.m. - Soulard Farmers Market • Saturdays are made for exploring the Soulard Farmers Market, just south of downtown. This St. Louis tradition — the market has run since 1841 — offers stalls brimming with fresh vegetables, fruits, flowers, specialty items like alligator meat and spices, even live chickens and rabbits. It’s a perfect place to people-watch while introducing your kids to new foods. Don’t miss the playground on the east side of the Grand Hall, the perfect play break for little ones. • Admission is free.
To get the feel for this vibrant neighborhood, stroll down 9th Street. The sturdy brick houses date from the mid- to late-1800s; a few are pre-Civil War. A few urban pioneers began restoring homes here in the 1980s, back when many buildings were boarded up. Today, that resurgence is flourishing and the neighborhood is home to an eclectic mix of restaurants, bars, and boutiques.
Food options: If you’re partial to seafood, put Peacemaker Lobster and Crab on your list. Located in neighboring Benton Park (about five minutes from Soulard), it reminds me of the seafood houses of Boston. Bulging po’boys, buttery clam chowder, and meaty lobster boils, you’ll dine under the handsome, oversized photos of the actual fishermen who supply the catch. The food is excellent and the assistant manager tells me they serve more lobster than any place outside of Chicago.
11 a.m. - Gateway Arch • From Soulard, you’re just a short drive from the Arch. This elegant, lyrical icon is a reminder that St. Louis was once the gateway to the west. Conceived in the 1930s and completed in 1965, it revitalized the St. Louis riverfront and remains the tallest man-made monument in the U.S. The museum at the base of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is currently under renovation until 2017, but you can still board the tiny trams that transport you, one click at a time, to the top of the Arch. From the enclosed observation deck, downtown sprawls west, the Mississippi and neighboring Illinois is east. Go to the historic Old Courthouse at the top of the mall to purchase tram tickets and view temporary exhibits on the nation’s Westward Expansion. • Admission to Old Courthouse is free. Tram packages vary.
1 p.m. - Eats • You’ll find lots of cool restaurants and affordable eateries along Washington Street as you head towards the City Museum.
2 p.m. - City Museum • Kids will gladly leave behind the history of the Arch to come here, though I remember my 9-year-old son grousing about having to visit yet another museum. Until he stepped inside, that is. A fantastical five-story funhouse filled with climbing structures, caves, slides, a Ferris wheel (atop the 10-story roof), art space for making stuff — it’s a museum you’ve got to see to believe. Architect Robert Cassilly enlisted a band of artisans to transform this former shoe factory using recycled materials and salvaged architectural treasures, and today his vision endures. During my visit, a worker plasters oyster shells around a column; in another room teens twirl on mod chairs near huge architectural friezes by the architect Louis Sullivan. In fact, sculptures and inventive art are slipped in on every floor amidst the fun. Just go, it’s awesome. • Admission: $12. $10/after 5 p.m. Rooftop: $5 per person.
5 p.m. - Missouri Botanical Garden or Forest Park • After the City Museum, trust me, you’ll want a place that’s more serene. Lush and expansive, the botanic gardens fill the bill. A special treat this summer is the Lantern Festival that features huge, fanciful Chinese sculptures made of silk, steel, and porcelain that are illuminated at sunset. August 1-23. • Admission: $8/adults, free 0-12. Lantern Exhibit: $26/adults, $10/ages 3-12.
Another option is to head back to Forest Park to explore, bike, or even paddle along the waterways created during the $100 million park renovation. Here you’ll also find the excellent St. Louis Art Museum and the Missouri History Museum, with a cool hands-on display for kids that examines the history of the city and a wonderful collection of memorabilia from the 1904 World’s Fair, a defining moment in the life of St. Louis. • Admission to park and museums is free.
Sunday, 10 a.m. - St. Charles • If you want to explore something smaller in scale, the city of St. Charles, just northwest of St. Louis, is a charming daytrip. From stepping into Missouri’s first capitol on historic Main Street to riding the Katy Trail, a rail-to-trail bike path that winds alongside the Missouri River, it’s a relaxing way to learn more about this state’s early history. Don’t miss the Lewis and Clark Boat House and Nature Center, where you can learn how the Corps of Discovery started their journey here. The Katy Trail is wide and shaded, easy for little pedalers. Rent your ride at the Bike Stop Café, and stop by afterwards to sample their delicious vegetarian fare. • Admission to Missouri’s state capitol is free. Boat House: $5/adults, $2/ages 3-17. Bike rentals vary.
Explorestlouis.com • The Convention and Visitors Commission for the city of St. LouisHistoricstcharles.com • St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau