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St. Louis has long had unique family-friendly activities: the amazing Gateway Arch, the unique City Museum and a top-notch free art museum. Now it has a one-stop location for family fun: St. Louis Union Station. From the new aquarium to the huge St. Louis Wheel, mini golf and a maxi ropes course – all within a complex that includes a train-themed luxury hotel – you may want to stay here an entire weekend! Whether you’re flying into St. Louis or making this a stop on a Midwest road trip, there’s a lot here to explore.
Brands mentioned provided some consideration.
Many historic train stations around the country have been transformed into entertainment complexes but none hold a candle to St. Louis Union Station. This once-abandoned building, now a national historic landmark, includes a luxury hotel, multiple entertainment options and interesting places to eat. Union Station had a second life as a mall, but now, its third incarnation, with such a breadth of activity could have sticking power.
Just a mile from the Gateway Arch, St. Louis Union Station served as a gateway to the rest of the country with the largest train station in Missouri. Like Grand Central in New York, it was a terminal. Trains ended here and passengers had to disembark, which is why a hotel was part of the original design.
The train shed behind the sumptuous Romanesque-style building is covered but airy, and filled with enough entertainment options to keep the whole family busy for at least a weekend. Spend some time exploring the architectural details of the building inside and out, from stained glass, marble finishes and gold elevators to turrets and stone carvings.
The Newest and Wettest at St. Louis Union Station
The St. Louis Aquarium, which opened in December 2019, is a huge hit. The train theme extends to a short interactive train ride that brings you from the entrance into the exhibits. Aquarium tickets look like train tickets.
The colorful marine exhibits include plenty of local fish from the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers as well as exotic fish from South America, Africa and Asia. There are also lots of sharks, jellyfish, sea dragons, and living coral. The St. Louis Aquarium isn’t just about fish, and you’ll also find otters, owls, turtles and sloths.
For a local touch, check out Lord Stanley, a giant blue lobster. He’s named for the St. Louis Blue hockey team, winner of the 2019 Stanley Cup.
St. Louis Aquarium Tips
If you want to avoid crowds, buy tickets in advance. Timed tickets help reduce bottleneck, but we saw crowds lined up to buy tickets before the 9am opening and at 6pm Friday when we visited. You may have to wait a few minutes at the entrance with timed tickets, but you will avoid the bulk of the line.
Crowds thin at lunchtime since you can’t eat inside the facility (there are multiple places in the complex; see below). Plan to stay at least two hours at the aquarium – have a snack before and then a late lunch. The aquarium is open Monday – Saturday, 9am-8pm and Sundays, 9am-5pm.
The aquarium has large touch tanks, where you can get up close and personal with rays and horseshoe crabs. I was happy to find hand washing stations near the interactive elements, not vats of hand sanitizer, near the interactive elements. Soap and water are better for the environment as well as better for your skin.
Where to Stay at St. Louis Union Station
The St. Louis Union Station Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton, offers a private gate that takes you right to the aquarium. If you are visiting during colder weather, you can leave your coat in your hotel room! This luxury hotel is also convenient to Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This dog-friendly hotel has 567 rooms. We stayed in the Clock Tower, a 218 foot structure that has a giant clock on the outside, and rooms where stationmasters had their offices. Doors retain their names from the companies that operated at the station but inside you’ll find luxury sheets, plush towels and robes, a large flat screen TV and mini fridge – all the modern conveniences. The first fish tank you see at the aquarium is a watery replica of the Clock Tower.
The Grand Hall, with its 65-foot barrel ceiling, was the main waiting room for the train station. A free nightly 3D light show includes music. There are 15 different shows that play in rotation, on the hour, every hour from 5 – 11pm. Our room, which was utterly quiet, was down the hall from an atrium overlooking the Grand Hall. We could watch the light show from a private perch.
TravelingMom Tip: If there is a wedding or other event scheduled in the Grand Hall, the light show does not happen. Check ahead to avoid disappointment. There was a wedding on the Saturday night we stayed at the hotel, so we made sure to catch the show a couple of times on Friday night.
The Grand Hall also has a whispering arch below the 1894 stained glass window. Get your kid, friend, or spouse to stand 40 feet away and you can hear each other clear as day.
If you are an elite Hilton Honors member, you get breakfast at the executive lounge, and appetizers in the evening. Breakfast included plenty of fresh fruit, yogurt, cereal, eggs and bread. The lounge has an open part that overlooks the lower level connection to the train shed and aquarium. The indoor/outdoor airy feel is a nice touch.
Get active at St. Louis Union Station Hotel
The huge outdoor pool at the hotel is open seasonally. Since it is covered by the train shed, you don’t have to bother with sunscreen.
The hotel has a large fitness center, with a Peloton bike and a lot of other cardio equipment. There are also plenty of free weights and mats. One annoyance: there is only bottled water, not a water fountain. In fact, water fountains were scarce in the hotel.
Just for fun at St. Louis Union Station
The 200-foot high St. Louis Wheel Ferris Wheel has temperature controlled gondolas so you can stay warm, or cool, on your ride. [Waiting in line, not so much – we were freezing while we waited for our ride]. The LED lights change colors, offering yet another light show.
Rope Course: above the aquarium the extensive rope course lets you climb and swing in a controlled setting. There is separate rope course for young children.
A 1904 themed carousel and 18-hole mini golf course are just steps away.
Mirror Maze: this labyrinth puzzle, based on an attraction for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, is fun for all ages.
Fire and Light Show on the lake: You can watch this free nightly show from anywhere in the train shed. It’s not as elaborate as the Grand Hall light show, but serendipitously seeing flames shooting from the lake can be pretty exciting.
Tickets to the aquarium are $25 for adults, $18 for kids. If you are going to visit other Union Station attractions, a combo ticket will help you save money. St. Louis Wheel is $15 for adults, and $10 for kids; a ticket to both is $35/$25. If you want to experience the carousel, ($5) mirror maze, ($8) mini golf ($10) and ropes course ($15 /$5) the all inclusive ticket gives you the best deal: $50 for adults, $40 for kids for all 6.
Attractions Near St. Louis Union Station
City Museum has to be seen to be believed. The indoor/outdoor fantastic creation combines climbing structures, slides up to 10 stories high, caves, a “skate park” without skates, art projects and more. Bring intrepid kids and adults. In the evening, bars open and young adults predominate.
The urban Citygarden has kid friendly sculptures and seasonal water features. If you need more room, Forest Park, home to four free attractions: the Saint Louis Zoo, Saint Louis Science Center, Saint Louis Art Museum and Missouri History Museum, is just four stops away on the MetroLink.
St. Louis Union Station has a huge parking lot. It also has a stop on the MetroLink light rail.
Where to Eat at St. Louis Union Station
- Landry’s Seafood: This New Orleans-inspired seafood restaurant has an extensive children’s menu and gluten free menu. Landry’s has crawfish etouffee, shrimp and grits and more.
- Train Shed: An indoor /outdoor (covered, under the unheated train shed) has pizzas, good veggie sides like smoked cauliflower with romesco sauce, charred broccoli with mushrooms and Brussels sprouts with almonds. Some excellent cocktails, too. The Train Shed overlooks the lake, so you can see the fire and light show while you eat.
- Soda Fountain: A classic soda fountain with real cherry cola, shakes (some boozy) and diner specialties like burgers, hot dogs and egg salad.
- 1894 Cafe: closest to the aquarium, the cafe has sandwiches and salads
- Station Grille: sit down restaurant in the St. Louis Union Station Hotel with old fashioned meat and potato entrees.
- Grand Hall: while you watch the hotel’s light show, you can get flatbread, hummus, burgers and the St. Louis specialty, toasted ravioli. There are cocktails, and plenty of desserts for the kids.
- Grand Hall Market: also in the hotel, has a Starbucks, snacks and a huge model train display.