IMG_0046The highest endorsement my children give a destination is to ask: “Can I have my birthday party here?” That question is posed at every place we visit in St. Louis.

Since we drive there from Chicago, the excitement builds before we even cross the Illinois-Missouri state line. “There it is! I see it!” my 4- and 6-year-olds will shout as the massive, steel St. Louis arch comes into view and we drive over the massive Mississippi River bridges.

Once we’re there, we’re always overloaded with fun choices. Here are 4 places we’ve visited so far, which I can highly recommend for families:

1. City Museum (citymuseum.org)
Hands down, the funkiest, most-fun children’s museum I’ve ever visited. There’s a giant pencil poking out of the plain red building, a real yellow school bus dangling off the roof, and endless places for kids to climb and pay. It’s not about educational exhibits, it’s about cool, artsy things for your kids to play on. You’ll walk from area to area, saying out loud, “That is SO COOL!”

Favorite part: Seriously, I can not even pick one thing. It is all so creative, unique and awesome. I think my kids’ favorite part was crawling through the artist-designed caves, or sliding down the giant, colorful metal slide near the entrance.

Downside: The museum’s not air-conditioned, and on a hot summer day, you will sweat. A lot.

Best for ages: 3 and up

Cost: $12 per person, for ages 3 and up. Definitely spend the extra $5 per person for rooftop access.

2. The Magic House children’s museum (magichouse.org)
It is literally a massive old house – no crazy-looking building painted in primary colors – filled with dozens of little rooms, each with a fun, educational themed topic. The museum is open at night, too, and allows you to hold sleepover parties there (we saw a group of 10-year-old girls arriving with pillows in hand and had to ask why).

Favorite part: The static electricity ball. Kids can touch it, make their hair stand on end, and then have a funny picture taken ($3 per picture).

Downside: Because it’s such a spread-out place, you will be tired when you leave, especially if you have small children. Granted, we met some friends there mid-visit. But we stayed there for 6 1/2 hours (and the kids still moaned about leaving).

Best for ages: 1-11

Cost: $8.50 per person for ages 1 and up

3. St. Louis Zoo (stlzoo.org)
A nice, FREE zoo with lots of hands-on activities for the kids (when we were there, they were planning to open a stingray petting area).

Favorite part: An enclosed area where you can grab a brush, and then brush the coat of any of the dozen or so goats walking around.

Downside: Zoo smells.

Best for ages: all ages

Cost: Free, but there are charges to do things like visit the children’s zoo or ride the train.

4. The Omni Majestic Hotel, in downtown St. Louis (omnihotels.com)
While mostly for business travelers, this well-located hotel has comfortable, spacious rooms and the most genuinely friendly staff I’ve ever encountered. Even the cleaning crew and the guy who brought us our room service were unexpectedly pleasant.

Favorite part: Something we called “The Dancing Elevator.” Loud, jammin music plays in the tiny elevators, which always prompted my husband, kids and I to dance as we rode up and down. There is no doubt in my mind that the kids will always remember “that hotel with the dancing elevator.”

Downside: There’s no restaurant or convenience store within walking distance.

Best for ages: all ages, but keep in mind there is no pool, game room or babysitting. There is a kids menu in the hotel restaurant, though.

Cost: Room prices start at $159 a night, and there are some good value packages that include meals or other extras.

We’re going to have to go back to St. Louis, because there were so many places — highly recommended by moms — which we didn’t get to see yet. Among them: the new St. Louis Cardinals stadium and the park around it; Meramac Caverns (a cool cave to explore); the St. Louis Science center; and live blues music for kids.

We visited “The Hill,” an area known for its Italian restaurants and bakeries, but the restaurant we tried was horrible. I’m sure there are better meals to be had in this area, but I’m not sure where.

I used to be kinda down on St. Louis, mostly because of my Chicago snobbishness. But St. Louis is winning me over. And the kids are HOOKED.