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Holiday Magic In St. Louis: A Family Itinerary

St. Louis may draw people year-round for sports teams and the Gateway Arch National Park, but I’m here to argue that the holiday season in St. Louis needs to be a bigger draw. We planned a road trip to St. Louis recently to see how they got into the Christmas spirit, and well, my whole family was charmed. 

Disclosure: My visit was hosted by Explore St. Louis. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own. This post may contain affiliate links.

Kim and daughter in front of a Saint Louis Zoo holiday display

Why visit St. Louis in the winter

Each season in St. Louis has unique offerings. In November and December, the city starts to feel the chill of winter, but residents just bundles up and continues on business as usual. Most attractions remain open, or open with reduced hours for holiday events in the evenings.

November typically sees average temperatures ranging from a high of around 55°F (13°C) to a low near 37°F (3°C). As December rolls in, it gets cooler with averages dipping to highs of about 43°F (6°C) and lows around 27°F (-3°C).

Snow? It’s not a stranger, but it’s not a frequent guest during the holidays either. St. Louis usually gets a dusting, enough to make it feel like winter but rarely enough for major snowball fights.

What I like about visiting in late November/December is the genuine cheeriness of most people we met. Lyft drivers chat freely, sharing restaurant tips and laughs. Families shuffle in groups wearing matching PJs around Union Station. Save for a few surely teens working in the service industry, the people of St. Louis embraced the festive nature of the holidays during our visit.

More seasonal stories about St. Louis 

St. Louis holiday weekend itinerary

I planned a weekend in St. Louis involving both indoor and outdoor activities. It wasn’t 100% holiday stuff, which may or may not suit you. If you want to go all-in with Christmas and plan every second to be merry and bright, visit a few more places mentioned in my St. Louis Holidays Bucket List.

Friday afternoon

We arrived on Friday afternoon and before our first stop (Saint Louis Zoo), we needed some lunch. The zoo is located in Forest Park and there are a few restaurant choices in the large park and outside the park. We opted for The Boathouse At Forest Park. There’s a kids menu, in addition to daily specials.

A full lunch crowd at The Boathouse At Forest Park in St. Louis, and near the Saint Louis Zoo
The Boathouse At Forest Park

The restaurant sits by a lake that offers paddle boating seasonally. Since this is the holiday itinerary, it was not exactly a great time of year for that activity. So, we just ate and went on our way. 

The zoo is pretty close to the restaurant. You can park along the roads of Forest Park and walk to the zoo or pay for parking closer to the zoo. The zoo itself is FREE during the day. At night during the holiday season, you will need to pay for tickets to the special event, U.S. Bank Wild Lights

We arrived at around 2 p.m., knowing we had only until 4 p.m. until the zoo closed briefly before reopening for the holiday event. It was a great time to be there since it gets dark early this time of year and we can get a hint of the spectacular light displays. And we could pose with some of the cute photo opps scattered throughout the zoo.

A girl sits on a gingerbread couch surrounded by gingerbread people in holiday a display at Saint Louis Zoo
U.S. Bank Wild Lights display at Saint Louis Zoo

There was enough daylight for us to see outdoor exhibits, too, like our favorite exhibit, River’s Edge, featuring large windows for us to see three hippos swimming. We were also surprised that the sea lions were active this time of year, and were delighted with the animal playfully swimming by the glass tunnel under their exhibit.

Our next stop was the hotel – St. Louis Union Station Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton – to check in and rest. The exterior was subtly decorated for Christmas (just wait until you get inside, though!). The appearance made my son announce “Welcome to Hogwarts.”

When you enter the hotel, you must first go up stairs leading to the Grand Hall, which has a spectacular Christmas tree you can’t miss. You will, no doubt, be momentarily awed by the view. In the evenings, a 3D light show transforms the ceiling of the Grand Hall of the hotel. It’s held every hour on the hour in the evenings and during the holiday season, it is even more enchanting.

Friday night

We had reserved tickets to Garden Glow at Missouri Botanic Garden, which didn’t start until 5 p.m. so we all got a chance to relax for an hour. We aimed to get there around 6:30 p.m., which worked out well since the early birds to Garden Glow were just leaving the garden at that point and we got a sweet parking spot. 

Garden Glow is an extremely popular event, I discovered. The reserved tickets were sold-out for the night we went, and there was a crowd of people the entire time we were there. Still, it was one of my favorite light displays I’d ever seen and would whole-heartedly return  and deal with the crowds to enjoy it again.

Garden Glow follows a path around the property, and it starts off with an impressively choreographed light display set to songs, and then it just gets more and more enchanting. We walked through light tunnels, weaved through a path surrounded by dangling walls of twinkle lights, and interactive zones. Instagram-worth photo opps abound. 

Several pit stops offered warm drinks (alcoholic and nonalcoholic) and snacks. If you’re thirsty, don’t think the line will be shorter at the next stop. Just go on and get in line. My husband and I tried boozy hot cocoa, and it warmed us both up.

Here’s a list of the Garden Glow food & drink concessions (click to see prices!):

Tip: Hot drinks or not, bring hats, gloves, and even scarves to keep yourself comfortable. Near the end of the path, you’ll find some fire pits to roast s’mores and, obviously, warm yourself up a little.

It’s a much longer path than I’d expected, and it’s well worth the cost of the ticket to see it all. Kids may get a little antsy midway through the path, when the line of people slows to a shuffle. My advice: Bribe them with the promise of s’mores, since the fire pits to roast them are near the end of the path.

Finally, the night ended with a late dinner after Garden Glow – take-out pizza and appetizers from the St. Louis chain, Imo’s.Tired and full of pizza and toasted ravioli, we had no problem falling asleep.

Saturday morning & afternoon

Breakfast was not planned out well on my part (totally unlike me), so we decided to just start walking to our first destination of the day: Gateway Arch National Park. We checked Google for a restaurant suggestion along the way and picked a random one that sounded good enough. It wasn’t. Don’t be like me. Plan ahead.

Kim looking up at the Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis
Kim at the base of the Gateway Arch

After breakfast, we headed to the Arch. I was the only one in my family who’d been to the top of the Arch, so I was pretty excited to see what the others thought of it. Our reserved tickets for a tram ride to the top of the Arch were for 1 p.m., but we arrived plenty early to allow for the line at security and to explore the wonderful museum at the base. Read about the things to do at the Gateway Arch besides riding to the top of it!

Both kids (a tween and a teen) were impressed with the architecture and the view from the top. I highly recommend the trip up, no matter the time of the year! From our perch at 630 feet up, we could see the set up for Winterfest, a free holiday celebration nearby. 

Note: Getting to the top of the Arch is not fully accessible. There are steps in order to access the Tram Ride and there is no seating at the top of the Arch.

Our next stop was another iconic St. Louis attraction: The City Museum. It’s a chaotic wonderland that happens to add a bit of holiday merriment to the wildly creative decor this time of year. Weirdly Wonderful Holidays at The City Museum includes storytime with Mrs. Claus, a chance to meet Santa, and festive decor. 

The festive decor is designed as only the folks at The City Museum would allow, so there’s a fair bit of skeletons with Santa hats, weird alien light displays, and a retro Santa statue by the world’s largest pair of underpants. Fun stuff. 

We ate a late lunch at The City Museum. In a pinch, I’d recommend ordering snack food there, but not making a meal of it. We tried pizza there and split a chicken quesadilla. I saw more people walking around with bags of popcorn that smelled way better than our meal.

Tip: The outdoor area was open at The City Museum, and the smart kids had on gloves to climb around all the metal structures. Before going for the first time, read all of my tips for visiting The City Museum.

Saturday night

Once again, we found ourselves with some downtime before our evening, so we rested a bit in our rooms before heading to the outdoor area of Union Station, where there’s a giant ferris wheel, putt putt golf, and a large water feature that has hourly fire & light shows. That’s a great perk to be a hotel guest there! We didn’t have to drive anywhere that night.

Hanging out by a fire pot with the festively decorated Train Shed in the background
Fire pit at Union Station in St. Louis

We thought we’d be able to find a restaurant for dinner at Union Station that didn’t have a wait. We were wrong. It was a Saturday night and families dressed in matching PJs were everywhere either waiting for their reserved ride on The Polar Express Train Ride or returning from it.

We put our names in at The Soda Fountain and walked around. There’s a fire and light show on the water held hourly and we hoped to catch it during our wait. No luck. So, we strolled around the little market, got some hot cocoa at the bar inside the giant tree, and waited for our dinner reservation.

The Soda Fountain is a bright, festive spot with burgers and ice cream on the menu. The staff is friendly, but the wait for your order can be lengthy, we discovered. It’s hard not to want to order a Freak Shake there…. But alas, we had to rush to our 8:30 p.m. train departure on The Polar Express Train Ride.

Red and white lights decorate the exterior of the Soda Fountain at Union Station in St. Louis
Soda Fountain at Union Station

I wasn’t sure how the ride was going to be, honestly. I was excited, since I grew up loving the book, but who knew how my 12 and 14 year old would react. So, I did what any mother would do: I ordered matching PJs for us all.

They all humored me and wore them!

A chocolate chip cookie and souvenir mugs on The Polar Express Train Ride in St. Louis
Treat on the Polar Express Train Ride

OK, so The Polar Express Train Ride turned out to be pure delight, for me and my family (maybe the 14 year old was a little moody about it, but what 14 year old isn’t?). There’s a palpable excitement boarding the train, which is decorated inside and on each table, a wrapped cookie and souvenir mugs await each passenger.

We are greeted by the chefs and conductor, snap pictures, listen to the story being read and wait to see the Big Guy himself. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in it all. We passed Santa waving from a platform surrounded by light displays. 

Santa eventually boards the train and greets each table. All the while, festive music is playing and a bell is handed to each kid (and adult, because why not). By the end, I was singing along with my 12-year-old and laughing like a loon as the conductor joked with my husband. I was enchanted.

Note: A newspaper article came out recently noting the unfortunate route the train has to take, past derelict buildings and littered areas. Even at night, I noticed it, but I don’t think the kids did. 

Sunday morning 

While I slept in, my husband and youngest wandered around Union Station on Sunday morning. A few things they reported back to me:

  • The ropes course inside Union Station was open at 9 a.m. without any people in line.
  • There was a Pancakes with Santa breakfast that was definitely something that required reservations for (and made far in advance)
  • Santa takes his break at the little cafe near the Grand Hall, so maybe don’t take any littles in there around breakfast time or they may catch Santa resting with his signature red hat off.

Sunday afternoon side trip to Eureka

It was time for us to leave St. Louis, but we had one last stop as we drove westward on our way home: The Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Mo. The stop requires advanced planning, as you can only visit if you have a tour reservation. 

Tip: You might have heard of Eureka already. It’s home to the amusement park, Six Flags St. Louis.

We booked a public tour, which involved learning a lot about the canids that live there first, and then walking around to the different habitats. Some of the animals are rescued from the exotic animal trade, and those came closer to the fences for us to observe them. These included an Arctic Fox named Arty and a Red Fox named Cooper. They made the cutest little sounds.

A girl takes a video of a Red Fox at The Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri
Red Fox at The Endangered Wolf Center

We spotted Mexican Gray Wolves in the distance, and a brief glimpse of a red wolf. The highlight was the pack of African Painted Dogs who had a bit of the zoommies, and ran around playfully chasing each other. It was incredible to watch, and endeared the species to the entire group on the tour.

If this sounds like a place you’d like to visit, I recommend it but also want to point out that a visit during the holiday season is going to be a cold one. Bundle up more than you think you’ll need to and wear boots. My sneakers were terrible for the walking portion of the tour (AKA, all of it).

St. Louis hotel recommendation for Christmastime 

St. Louis Union Station Hotel is a Hilton hotel, which comes with a certain amount of comfort and style I’ve come to associate with the brand. The plus side to Union Station is its downtown location — many families going on The Polar Express Train Ride obviously were staying there. Check out hotel reviews on TripAdvisor.

The impressive exterior of  St. Louis Union Station Hotel with holiday wreaths at Christmastime
St. Louis Union Station Hotel

I stayed there in the spring, and was able to walk to the MLS soccer game a block away from the hotel! The downsides are few but worth noting:

  • You will have to pay for parking, like most parking in downtown St. Louis.
  • Private events are regular occurrences at the hotel, so some nights, you might not be able to watch the light show at the Grand Hall because of one.

Trip conclusion

St. Louis, often celebrated for its sports and iconic Gateway Arch, truly transforms into a winter wonderland, offering a unique blend of festive joy and warm hospitality. From the dazzling light displays at the zoo and botanic garden to the whimsical decor of The City Museum, each moment was a testament to St. Louis’s festive spirit.

Kim and the family meet Santa riding The Polar Express Train Ride
Meeting Santa on The Polar Express Train Ride

Whether it was the laughter shared over hot cocoa or the awe-inspiring view from the top of the Arch, our trip was a reminder of the magic that the holiday season brings. St. Louis proved to be an unexpected gem for my family’s holiday getaway.

Discover the Holiday Magic of St. Louis!  From dazzling light displays at the Zoo and Botanic Garden to festive fun at The City Museum, uncover the best holiday activities St. Louis has to offer. Pin this for your ultimate guide & itinerary to a festive family adventure in St. Louis!

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