Visiting the St Louis Arch
October 10, 2019
WOW! Whoa! Cool!
These words tumbled out of every grinning visitor as they spilled out of the tram pods and into the viewing area at the top of the St Louis Arch. Even the lady who said she suffered from severe claustrophobia and a fear of heights couldn’t suppress her excitement.
A visit to the top of the St Louis Arch – definitely an experience worthy of the bucket list.
- Why visit the St Louis Arch?
- What to do at the St Louis Arch?
- What is is like to ride the tram to the top of the St Louis Arch?
- When to visit the St Louis Arch?
- How long does it take to visit St Louis Arch?
- How much does it cost to visit St Louis Arch?
- Where to eat near St Louis Arch
- Where to park near Gateway Arch Park
- Is it safe to visit Gateway Arch Park?
- Fast Facts
Why visit the St Louis Arch?
The Gateway Arch, often referred to as the St Louis Arch, is visible from many of the highways that run through St Louis, Missouri. I know I am guilty of admiring it from the car at highway speed and mentally checking it off as “been there, done that”.
Well, a drive-by is not the same as a visit. An actual visit allows you to learn about the construction of the arch, the history of the area, and be spell-bound by the views from the top of the arch. Oh, and the tram ride to the top of the arch is an experience unto itself.
What to do at the St Louis Arch?
Take the tram to the top of the St Louis Arch
If you do nothing else, take the tram to the top of the 630 foot arch.
Purchase a ticket and then get in line to ride the tram to the top of the arch.
Once you are at the top, you can stay as long as you like. Plan for at least 45-minutes to take the tram to the top, enjoy the view and take the tram back down.
There are sixteen narrow windows on each side of the arch. The windows facing west overlook the Old Courthouse, the ballpark for the St. Louis Cardinal baseball team, and downtown St Louis. The windows facing east showcase the Mississippi River and the state of Illinois.
Insider tip: Stand at the window facing the Mississippi River. Hold your camera pointing straight down. Even though you can’t see it while standing there, you can get a photo from the top of the arch with both arch legs in the picture.
The ranger at the top is open to answering questions. We tried to stump our ranger. We couldn’t.
Explore Gateway Arch Park
The park surrounding the arch is designed for exploration and relaxation.
Walk through the park on the curved sidewalks to see the arch from different viewpoints. Admire the reflection pools and the river.
If the light is right, the arch might be reflected in one of the pools or the river.
Visit the Gateway Arch Museum
It is free to visit the museum.
Plan at least an hour to explore the displays. You could easily spend 2 to 3 hours exploring the museum.
The museum has six galleries. The galleries include a variety of exhibits ranging from the history of the area, to the competition and selection for the design of the arch, to the background of the architect Eero Saarinen and building of the arch and gateway park.
I recommend the “Building the Dream” gallery. This gallery explains how both the arch and the tram were built. The exhibit outlines the steps in the process from design to engineering to actual installation. The timeline quickly makes you understand how much was “fake it till you make it”.
For example, the arch was selected as the winner of the design competition. But then an engineering team had to figure out how to actually build the arch both from a structural and a logistical perspective.
Another example that shows the “figure it out as we go” mentality is the tram to the top. At the time the arch was chosen as the final design, the question of “how do we get people to the top” had not actually been answered. So they committed to building the arch before they knew how they would take visitors to the top.
Watch the Documentary
Purchase a ticket and watch the 30-minute movie titled “Monument to the Dream”.
Prepare to be wow’d at the amount of engineering that was required to turn the plans for the arch into reality.
This film includes actual footage taken during the building of the arch. One of the scenes in the movie shows workers hanging over the edge of a beam hundreds of feet in the air with no safety ropes attached to them. Their token nod to safety was the hardhats they were wearing. I’d bet the hard hat would have had limited value if they got knocked off the beam.
There is a quote in the movie that really stood out for me. The paraphrase of the quote is they expected to “lose” 13 workers during the building of the arch. But they actually did not have any workers die during the entire project. It’s hard to imagine that human loss is projected as part of a construction project.
Take a Riverboat Cruise
One-hour narrated riverboat cruises are available.
We did not take the cruise based on time constraints.
Explore the St Louis Riverfront Trail
If you are a cyclist or an explorer, allow time to walk or bike the 12-mile paved St Louis Riverfront Trail. You can take the trail from the St Louis Arch to the Old Chain of Rocks bridge and cross over the Mississippi River from Missouri into Illinois.
What is is like to ride the tram to the top of the St Louis Arch?
What is it like to ride the tram to the top of the St Louis Arch?
Exhilarating. Hilarious. Cozy. Claustrophobic people might want to think twice about getting in the tram.
It a 4-minute bonding experience for everyone in your tram pod. Hunched over with your knees nearly touching, everyone in the pod is forced to laugh, chat, and share the awe.
The process to ride the tram to the top and then back down involves several steps.
First – Buy a ticket to ride the tram.
Second – Go through an airport-style security system.
Knives, mace, etc are not permitted in the arch.
Third – Stand in line.
It wasn’t busy when we visited so we were able to get on the next available tram instead of waiting for our assigned ticket time. You will be handed a boarding pass. That is your group number.
Fourth – Before you get on the tram, the concessinor has you:
- Listen to a brief talk by a guide (not a park ranger)
- Watch an odd 5-minute movie. If you are an adult and have a background in US culture, you’ll understand the references. If not, it’ll be an even stranger movie for you.
- Stand in front of a green screen so the photographer can snap your party’s picture. After your visit to the top, stop by the photo desk to view printed photos of you with the arch in the background. You can, of course, purchase the photos from the vendor.
Fifth – Ride the tram to the top.
The guides will tell you which pod to get into and when to board.
The tram is not for folks who are claustrophobic. Imagine a pod that looks like a 5-person enclosed Ferris wheel. The curved ceiling mandates that at least one person will smack their head getting into the pod. It is a 4-minute ride to the top and a 3-minute ride down.
Sixth – Enjoy the views from the top of the arch.
Exit the tram and find a spot at a window to enjoy the views.
Read the placards above the windows.
Ask the ranger any and all questions. The ranger we had was very welcoming and seemed to be enjoying all the ‘wows’ as people stepped off the tram.
Seventh – Take the tram down.
You can stay at the top as long as you want. When you are ready, get in line for the tram back down. The guide at the top will tell you what pod you will board.
When to visit the St Louis Arch?
Things to consider: crowds, the weather, and the lighting for photography.
We visited mid-day on a Monday on a day that had intermittent rainstorms. That gave us limited crowds and interesting photos.
If possible, visit on a weekday. Avoid holidays.
The park ranger advised that weekends are the worst for crowds.
The top of the arch has a capacity limit of 130 people. Thus on weekends and holidays, you may be waiting in line for the tram to the top of the arch until spots open up at the top of the arch.
Time your visit to the weather. The view from the top of the arch would be less dramatic if the arch was socked in with rain or clouds.
Our adventure (by chance, not by planning) was between morning and afternoon rainstorms. The ranger informed us we got lucky. The rainstorms meant fewer people at the top so we weren’t competing for space at a window at the top. But Mother Nature cooperated and gave us partially sunny weather while we were at the top so we did get great views.
Our visit did not coincide with a time that the St Louis Arch is reflected in the Mississpi River.
We did luck out and have partially sunny skies with a few dramatic puffy clouds as the backdrop.
How long does it take to visit St Louis Arch?
Allow for at least three hours. That is the bare minimum (assuming you aren’t waiting in long lines) to enjoy some of the offerings at the Arch and in the Park.
Allow more than three hours if you will:
- Take the riverfront cruise
- Visit on a weekend or holiday and be waiting in queues
- Spend time in the museum exploring all the exhibits
- Photograph the St Louis Arch and the Gateway Arch Park beyond just snapshots
How much does it cost to visit St Louis Arch?
Portions of the experience are free, while other items require ticket purchases.
It is free to explore the Gateway Arch Park and the museum inside the park.
Tickets are required to ride the tram to the top, watch the documentary, and for the river front cruise. Ticket prices vary based on day (e.g. weekends and holidays have higher prices than a non-holiday weekday). There are discounts for children, America the Beautiful pass holders, and combination packages. Check their official website for current pricing.
If you pay a small processing fee, then you can reserve tickets online in advance. The vendor recommends advance ticket purchase on crowded days. Not knowing what to expect, we bought advance tickets but could have just walked up to the counter in real-time based on the limited crowds.
If you buy a combination package, allow enough time between events to allow for crowds and general exploration. Two hours between the tram ride and the movie start time was sufficient on the day we visited.
It cost us approximately $72 for two adults to visit the Gateway Arch. Cost included:
- Tram/Movie combo package, 2 adults on a Monday. Advance purchase: $39
- Parking: $7
- Lunch: $25
Where to eat near St Louis Arch
There is a cafe in the St Louis Arch visitor area. It looked like it offered standard fare at park prices. Convenient but not very exciting.
Thus for lunch, we recommend Mas Tequila Cantina located within walking distance of Gateway Arch park. Their street tacos are unique, messy and delicious. Once we finished eating, the waitress suggested next time we try the shrimp tacos. Those are supposed to be even better than the street tacos that we had.
We can’t personally vouch for this but our waitress at our lunch stop recommends Broadway Oyster Bar. She says it is her favorite seafood restaurant in downtown Saint Louis.
Where to park near Gateway Arch Park
Since our van is over-sized (tall), I did a lot of research on parking options.
Many search results indicated that parking in general is an absolute nightmare anywhere near the Arch.
Our experience parking? It was a breeze.
We pulled right into the Laclede’s Landing Parking lot and handed the parking attendant $7. Our visit was mid-day on a weekday so perhaps a weekend would be a different experience. From the parking lot, it was a short walk to the start of Gateway Arch Park.
Is it safe to visit Gateway Arch Park?
From a safety perspective, we felt safe and saw nothing that was a cause for concern.
When I was searching for parking options, search results gave a lot of gloom and doom of the area. If you see similar results in your searching, I can only say that was not our experience.
- Trip Date: August 2019
- Name: Gateway Arch National Park
- Location: St. Louis, Missouri
- Cost: free to $
- Family friendly: yes