St. Louis is known for many things. Great barbecue and gooey butter cake. Professional baseball, hockey and soccer teams. World-class museums. And, probably the most notable landmark of St. Louis, the Gateway Arch National Park.
The Arch is part of the National Parks Services, and millions of tourists and locals visit it each year. The main draw is, undoubtedly, the chance to go to the top of the Arch to look out the windows. But, it’s not the only thing to do while there. Read on to find out what else you can do on a visit to the Arch!
Disclosure: My visits to the Gateway Arch National Park were hosted by Explore St. Louis. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own. This post may contain affiliate links.
Brief history of the Arch
The Gateway Arch is a stunning architectural feat as well as a symbol of America’s pioneering spirit, the vision of its people, and the historical significance of St. Louis in the nation’s expansion westward. Before visiting, it’s important to understand some of its history.
The idea for the monument was first proposed in the 1930s as a way to revitalize the St. Louis riverfront and commemorate the westward expansion of the United States. The concept was to create a memorial dedicated to President Thomas Jefferson, who orchestrated the Louisiana Purchase, and to the pioneers who shaped the West.
A design for the monument wasn’t selected until 1947, when Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen won the design competition with plans to create a 630-foot-tall stainless steel arch. The design symbolized a “gateway” to the West, reflecting the city’s historical significance in the 19th-century westward expansion.
The construction of the Gateway Arch was a remarkable feat of engineering, involving complex calculations and innovative construction techniques, and was completed in 1965. Since completion, it has become an integral part of St. Louis’s identity.
The Arch serves as a vivid reminder of St. Louis’s historical role as a gateway for early explorers and settlers heading westward and symbolizes the courage and spirit of the American people. It’s also a cultural icon, something that is synonymous with the city of St. Louis.
Museum at the Gateway Arch
You can’t get to the tram rides for the Arch without walking through the museum in the vistor center, so you might as well take some time exploring it. Actually, I insist you explore it! Do it for the photo opps if anything else.
The layout is chronological, and following that layout is the best way to move through the museum. It begins with the founding of St. Louis in the 1760s, a time when the earliest inhabitants were French traders and Native American communities. From there, move through exhibits of the country’s westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. The history is not sugar-coated and the effects of government choices on indigenous communities are touched-upon. Other exhibits focus on the 19th-century riverfront and the actual building of the Arch.
I enjoyed exploring the museum at the Gateway Arch more than I enjoyed the trip in the tram up to the top of the Arch. The colorful and interactive exhibits appealed to my kids as much as they did to me. I think my daughter spent more time at the old-school Oregon Trail-esque game than she did looking out the windows at the top of the Arch.
The exhibits are accessibly-designed and engage most of the senses from touch to smell to audio. The inclusiveness of the design cannot be overstated. I haven’t seen such thoughtful designs. All tables and exhibits accommodated wheelchairs, and there were braille guides and large print guides, as well as audio tours available.
The museum is free to visit, too.
The Arch’s Junior Ranger program
Being a National Park, the Gateway Arch has a Junior Ranger program for kids. If you’ve never been to other National Parks and have watched your kids complete the Junior Ranger program there, it’s pretty fun and easy to do! Kids can pick up their Junior Ranger activity book at the information desk at the Gateway Arch National Park Visitor Center. Once they complete the selected activities, they can return to the info desk to receive their badge.
Outdoors by the Gateway Arch
The national park grounds are located in downtown St. Louis, one of the most urban national parks you could imagine. It’s a small park, with the entire park encompassing only 91 acres. It includes the Gateway Arch and grounds, plus another 30 acres for the Old Courthouse, Luther Ely Smith Square, and a portion of the surrounding streets.
The Old Courthouse is under renovation, and currently is closed to the public. It’s a significant site in U.S. history, and I look forward to being able to visit it when it reopens. Two important trials took place there: The first two trials of the Dred Scott case in 1847 and 1850 and Virginia Minor’s case for a woman’s right to vote came to trial there in the 1870s.
Dining at the Gateway Arch
Honestly, you’re not going to go to the Gateway Arch National Park for the food. But, if you’re hungry while waiting for your tram ride, for instance, you’re not out of luck. The Arch Café is located inside the visitor center. It’s managed by velyn Hill, Inc., a concessionaire with the National Park Service that also operates the concessions at the Statue of Liberty. The menu ranges from burgers to hot wings, as well as a few “St. Louis fare” items like toasted ravioli. It’s open when the Gateway Arch is open.
Outside the visitor center, but still on the national park campus, you can get food at Paddlewheel Café on the riverboat dock. It’s a good option if you’re planning on taking a riverboat ride.
Shopping at the Gateway Arch
There’s one gift shop located in the visitors center, just outside of the museum but before you get to the tram ride entrances. It’s a well-stocked gift shop with souvenirs for the Arch as well as St. Louis.
At just a little longer than a half-mile walk, you can find some interesting shops and sports souvenirs at Ballpark Village, including Arch Apparel and New Era.
Gateway Arch FAQs
When did the Gateway Arch become a National Park?
In 2018, the area around the Arch, previously known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, was redesignated as the Gateway Arch National Park. In addition to the Arch, the national park includes a museum, surrounding grounds, and historical buildings.
How tall is the Arch?
The Gateway Arch is 630 feet tall.
How much are tram tickets up to the top of the Gateway Arch?
Tickets cost $13-19. They recommend purchasing tickets in advance, especially during the summer. Thanks to the Every Kid Outdoors program, U.S. Fourth Graders with the pass can receive a $3 discount on a ticket for the tram ride to the top of the Gateway Arch and for the documentary film.