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Christmas in St. Louis is all about the lights, the fire, the s’mores and a scuba-diving Santa. Here’s where to find them all, from a walk through a botanic garden to Christmas with the animals at the zoo to a ride on the city’s Ferris wheel and a chat with a scuba-diving Santa.
The writer was hosted.
Meet me in St. Louis! There is no shortage of wattage around the city during the holiday season. This insider list tells you where to see the best of the Christmas season and beyond.
Wild Lights at the St. Louis Zoo
One of the best zoos in the country (and one of the few that offers free admission during daylight hours) is illuminated at night with fun themed light displays while the zoos’ residents snooze. This is a not-to-be-missed way to experience the zoo. We LOVED seeing the animals during the day and familiarizing with the habitats and paths before going at night.
If your kids want to see the animals and don’t care as much about the holiday appeal, you should opt for the free daytime visit. Most of the exhibits and halls are closed at night. Whether the animals are tucked away and sleeping or they need some downtime from visitor stimuli, either way, you won’t see a ton of furry faces or scaly tails during the nighttime admission to Wild Lights. But, if the experience of roasting S’mores at the zoo and seeing a snoozing bear is your thing, go at night! Heck, do both! We did!
U.S. Bank Wild Lights at the Saint Louis Zoo is fast becoming a go-to event for families. Stroll through zoo grounds aglow with light displays. Make some s’mores, stop at the fun photo opportunity stations and explore the Insectarium and Penguin habitat.
S’mores kits are available for purchase and a “Family 4-pack” for $13.95 gets you 8 marshmallows, two full Hershey candy bars and two full graham crackers. You must also get roasting sticks at the shop window when you get your kit. Hot chocolate and other beverages are available for purchase, along with other snacks and drinks.
TravelingMom Tip: Due to Covid-19 protocols, you MUST purchase tickets in advance and arrive during your time slot. Even the free daytime admission currently requires a ticketed timed reservation.
Special Events at Wild Lights
Look for live performances on select nights. Watch “The Polar Express” movie in the 4D Theater. Enjoy the Frozen Forest (with a maze and appearances by Disney princesses Anna and Elsa) and find your way to the St. Louis cityscape and mini lighted Gateway Arch for an iconic holiday photo.
December 13 is Sensory Friendly Night for individuals with sensory sensitivities and includes sensory maps, quiet areas and trained zoo staff to assist in those with sensory needs.
There are opportunities to have Dinner with Santa Claus at the St. Louis Zoo (separately ticketed) but those fun nights do also offer free admission to Wild Lights. Check out the zoo website for all the holiday fun.
Check the official schedule for special dates, closures and changes. The zoo closes from 4-5pm to transition from the daytime experience to Wild Lights which is separately ticketed.
Missouri Botanical Gardens “Garden Glow”
MoBot as local call their famous, lush botanical gardens, will leave you agog with millions of twinkling lights across the sprawling property. The crisp night air is refreshing and nighttime is wonderful in the gardens! We found the garden had bottlenecks for the more popular photo backdrops and scenes, and it was a little close for comfort, so thankfully, we were entirely outdoors.
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The illuminated paths wind through the Missouri Botanical Garden‘s most iconic locations, including several sites with photo opportunities (which include more than just a typical Christmas tree) perfectly staged for a unique family holiday pictures.
My family’s favorite stops: the interactive snow globe and the opulent Victorian Christmas display at Tower Grove House. We ran into short queues (about 10 minutes) to go inside the snow globe and outside the Tower Grove House.
The snow globe is inflated and has an entry door and is back lit so that someone on the outside can capture a photo of the people posing inside, making them look as if they are part of the fun to shake up within. And, each guest gets a minute or so before moving the next family in and out, so it’s more of a fun experience than a perfect set-up for your photo memories.
TravelingMom Tip: It was a little tricky to make the pre-lit conditions, nighttime, flash and ambient light inside the snow globe work well with just an iPhone. So you might want to think about bringing your actual camera with some lens options if you’re looking for a high quality Christmas card photo here.
There are a few areas designated for festive drinks for purchase and light bites available as well. In my humble opinion, the best opportunity for a great, well-lit photo that IS card-worthy, is just after the bar when you first enter the Garden Glow. On your right there will be a carriage with a Garden Glow sign and the area is well-lit for more clear, crisp pictures. There is also a giant lighted tree, so it’s gorgeous!
Masking is currently required for indoor areas but make sure to check policies for the event. Certain dates feature photo opportunities with Santa (check the website for those official details!)
TravelingMom Tip: There is some crowding at popular photo spots, so plan accordingly and be respectful of others also out enjoying the festival of lights at Garden Glow. There are quite a few hand sanitizing stations around the property.
Union Station Polar Express
This is your ticket to believe! My sons and I watched the family holiday classic movie and then hopped onboard the real thing: an actual train headed for the fictional North Pole. We made it more fun by donning our pajamas for the ride while characters from the movie greeted and entertained us during our journey.
Train rides sometimes make my kids a little queasy, but rest-assured, that did not happen this time. The passenger train has comfortable seats and moves slowly enough to enjoy the surroundings and not become ill no matter which direction you’re facing. It’s a wonderful trek to a Christmas wonderland aboard the Polar Express!
TravelingMom Tip: Arrive about a half hour prior to your departure to enjoy character appearances, stories, games and photo displays. Go an hour early to enjoy no crowds and easy access for those hard to get photos you might want of your kiddos in their holiday pajamas. If it’s all about the actual ride for you, you’ll be fine arriving about ten minutes prior to the departure if you simply want to board and not partake in the pre-trip options.
Union Station Grand Hall Light Show
Union Station is the place to be for Christmas in St. Louis. The Fire and Light show delights visitors on a regular schedule each evening, with popular holiday-themed music synchronized with the flashing light displays and bursts of flame. There is ample seating around the pond and patio area, where you can just enjoy the evening casually, or even feed the koi fish that make the pond their home.
My kids (and I!) were so content to watch this energetic show whenever we caught it in passing. We loved the nightly fire blasts and paused each time to watch and smile. Everyone around the plaza listens and sings and starts taking videos and selfies during this exhilarating show. You have a great view of the show from all the eateries, especially Landry’s Seafood restaurant. Some lucky hotel guests can even see this view from their rooms!
The holiday magic at Union Station is really electric. This is the hub to access the Polar Express event area, the Soda Fountain Diner (where you can get ice cream treats and diner-style meals or candy in bulk), Landry’s seafood, the Train Shed restaurant, the St. Louis Wheel, carousel, St. Louis Aquarium and the mini golf course. The recently revamped Union Station really is the epicenter of holiday action in St. Louis.
St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station
We are frequent aquarium goers and have a membership to our local one, but the St. Louis Aquarium is quite special. It packs a lot into the square footage where it sits. We especially loved being greeted by the Doctor fish as our first encounter when we entered. The thought crossed my mind to look into if private households could keep these little guys, as they provide a bit of a spa treatment, nibbling away at skin cells when you reach your hand in. It was oddly enjoyable and the boys agreed, a very neat sensation!
For the holidays, the aquarium stages a special “Dive Chat” featuring Scuba Claus and his elf helper who are doing a little recreational diving at Shark Canyon while answering visitor questions. Check the website for dates and times.
Scuba Claus isn’t the only interactive option here. There’s also a friendly otter Q&A and presentation and a fun bioluminescence pathway. Children can learn about water systems and have opportunities to gently touch many underwater creatures including starfish, sea anemones, stingrays, and limpets. There are educational opportunities to “meet” ambassador animals up close, but we didn’t have any opportunities to hold salamanders or Madagascar hissing cockroaches, like we’d hoped!
TravelingMom Tip: Plan to spend at least an hour enjoying the aquarium exhibits and activities. The first ticketing of the morning seemed to be low-crowding, but within the first hour, noticeably more folks were flowing into the aquarium. Book the 9:00 slot if you’re able!
Where to Stay to for Christmas in St. Louis
Since there is so much to offer in one spot at Union Station, it makes a fantastic base camp. We recommend making your home away from home at the St. Louis Union Station Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton, property. You’ll be right in the heart of the action. You can enjoy the Grand Hall light show and music nightly just steps away from your room.
The Union Station Grille is the place to eat breakfast while staying on-site. Opt for the short stack (the pancakes are dreamy). The enormous portions mean parents can generally have a bite when the kids are bursting full of sugar and syrup at the end of the meal. The buffet offers all the typical breakfast foods you might find and also a made-to-order egg and omelet station. The coffee was exactly what a parent needs to start an ambitious day of touring St. Louis. The place is popular for events, so like everything — go early. Before 8:00 a.m. seemed to be the time to hit breakfast before others roused for the day.
Many private events and fancy to-dos happen at Union Station and the holidays are no exception. We enjoyed watching a couple’s magical first dance and shared the Grand Hall with a basketball team. Sometimes the light and music was changed or cancelled due to a private event in the grand hall, so just check with the front desk and plan your viewing accordingly. Conveniently, there is ample seating and a bar in the Grand Hall, so parents and children can leisurely enjoy the space if it’s not booked.
TravelingMom Tip: Due to the pandemic, a lot of hotels have suspended their shuttle service from the airport. It’s about a 25 minute rideshare journey to get from the airport to Union Station. The hotel entrance was one of the easiest pick-up points for ride share apps that we experienced. Very safe and well-lit with valet attendants present all the time.
Other Great Holiday Opportunities Near St. Louis
There were SO many activities and holiday festivities that with only three nights to pack in the illumination, we physically couldn’t be in all the places we wanted to see. It takes about 20 minutes to get from neighborhood to neighborhood and back again and all of them — downtown St. Louis, Chesterfield, Belleville, Alton and even nearby St. Charles — have a lot to offer.
These are the attractions and events we hope to hit on our next holiday visit to St. Louis.
Winter Wonderland at Tilles Park
Tilles Park hosts on of the best Christmas lights displays in the Midwest. Drive through or enjoy a carriage ride through the park. Closed Christmas Eve. Carriage rides must be reserved in advance.
Anheuser Busch Brewery
Glimmering lights dazzle in one of St. Louis’ historic settings, the Anheuser-Busch Brewery. Tours are complimentary and open to guests of all ages. Roast some s’mores over an open fire with s’more kits available for purchase. You can also rent skates to enjoy the outdoor ice rink or buy kettle corn to munch.
Holiday Lights at Grant’s Farm
Grant’s Farm hosts the 2021 Holiday Lights Drive-Through Experience featuring light displays and a gingerbread village.
Get a view of Inspiration Hill with the World-Famous Budweiser Clydesdales looking down at you from a distance. Other animals include Cheviot Sheep, yak, camels and llamas.
Six Flags Holiday in the Park
For the second year in a row, Six Flags St. Louis will be transformed into a winter wonderland with thousands of brilliant lights, carolers, appearances by Santa and his helpers, and even your favorite Looney Tunes characters. Enjoy hot chocolate, cider, fudge, and before you’re too full of treats, make sure to brave the rides!
Way of Lights at Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows
The Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville offers the annual Way of Lights display sparkling across the property. Fun activities include camel rides, a LEGO display and feeding the animals. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.
Places to See and Explore in St. Louis Without a Holiday Theme
As you may have noticed, there is a “lighted/illumination” theme to much of the holiday fun. If you find that your daylight hours are less programmed and therefore wide open for adventure, try one of these really great options for exploring while the sun is shining.
The St. Louis Wheel
This attraction is part of the Union Station extravaganza of events and entertainment. Take a ride at night and try to spot the lights of the city any time of year (thought the view really shines during Christmas in St. Louis).
The cars are fully enclosed and warm and offer 360 degree views of the city. You get about five turns around the Wheel, so plenty of time to take photos and spy all the city sights.
The behemoth museum and adventure park is rife with pathways, tunnels, stairs, slides and general oddities to keep explorers big and small very busy. Adults will feel like kids again as they try to keep up with the younger crowd through the squeezes and labyrinth of architectural and art installation adventures. Masks are required indoors, a flashlight isn’t a terrible idea for the caverns.
TravelingMom Tip: Do take up the front desk on their offer of bracelets with cell phone numbers for kids — within 15 minutes of arrival, and during the epic adventure of the 10-story slide, I managed to misplace my children. However, I had briefed them on this possible occurrence, so they knew the plan for a meet-up and stuck together for safety.
St. Louis Science Center
The St. Louis Science Center is a paradise for those who want to geek out on all the STEM-related joys of the world. Visit during the First Friday of the month for special events like the one we enjoyed — Boba Fett and the Mandalorians. We were able to meet so many Star Wars greats — we didn’t spot Grogu but we did see Chewbacca, a Jawa, and an Ewok.
The kids schooled me in all the ways, from the life-size Nintendo controllers, to creating electricity to run a fan, and definitely in the world of Star Wars knowledge. This is a special collective of how the world works in first hand displays and interactive playscapes.
Gateway Arch National Park
Seeing the National Parks and Monuments of the country is a big undertaking on my family’s bucket list, so when we were able to travel to the top of the Gateway Arch at this national park, we didn’t hesitate.
The ride up feels akin to what I imagine when I think of a space launch. It’s not that it is fast. But the white “transport pod” that takes you steadily to the top feels very space-like. It’s only a few minutes to the top and you must have a ticketed time slot. The views of the city from the 32 windows are unmatched and it truly is an architectural masterpiece.