Fun Places to Visit
Gateway Arch—A Fun, Fascinating Place (St. Louis, Missouri)
By Phil Dotree — March 25, 2011
“I guess I don’t like that many people wouldn’t know or recognize the city without the Arch, but if it were removed, Downtown would look a lot like Cleveland.”—Ryan Miller, Middled: Learn to live in the Middle West
Note: For a more elaborate historical analysis of the Gateway Arch and its architecture, see Richard Grigonis' article.
There’s no more famous symbol of St. Louis than the Gateway Arch, or “Gateway to the West,” a monument built as a tribute to the westward expansion of early United States settlers. It’s the tallest man-made monument in the United States (630 feet, or 192 meters) and an instantly recognizable part of the city’s skyline. It’s also one of the only “must visit” tourism destinations in town, so it’s a big part of St. Louis’ identity.
The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, on the west bank of the Mississippi River, as seen from the River.
(Photo: © Wei-chuan Liu | Dreamstime.com)
The Gateway Arch is the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, built on the west bank of the Mississippi at St. Louis, Missouri as a monument to the westward expansion of the United States.
The Gateway Arch’s beginning go way back to the Great Depression and a St. Louis attorney and civic booster named Luther Ely Smith (1873–1951), who intended to make a monument that would restore the city’s riverfront area and inspire tourism (mission accomplished—over 4 million people visit the monument each year). Both the city of St. Louis and the federal government collaborated on building a memorial to the explorers who had pushed the boundaries of the American frontier, including Lewis and Clark (who started their journey in St. Louis), and Thomas Jefferson.
Detail of south leg of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. The arch is a casual meeting place and a focal point for many leisure activities in the area, not to mention a magnet for 4 million tourists a year. (Photo by Phil Dotree © richard grigonis)
A competition was held during 1947–48 to find the best design for the Memorial, and the winner was the Finnish-American architect, Eero Saarinen, who would later design such landmarks as the TWA Terminal building at John F. Kennedy Airport. However, because of the usual bureaucratic goings-on, it took a long time to actually alter the landscape and build the Memorial. The Gateway Arch itself wasn’t built until the period 1962–1965, several years after Saarinen had died.
A walkway that leads around the gateway arch. The surrounding 90 acres of land were carefully landscaped and are also part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)
Most visitors take a more traditional approach when touring the structure. On a visit to the Gateway Arch, you can learn about the history of St. Louis, the American West, and the Arch itself. You can even travel to the top of the monument for a few minutes via a system of special trams that travel back and forth to an enclosed observation area.
After parking (which costs six dollars if you decide to use the Arch parking lot), visitors can walk up to the arch, where a large park between the two legs hosts football games, joggers, picnics, and plenty of tourists taking snapshots. This area is kept fairly untouched and affords a great view of a few other St. Louis landmarks, such as the new Busch stadium and the courthouse.
The entrance to the Visitors Center of the gateway Arch. (Photo by Phil Dotree © richard grigonis )
There are two entrances to the Arch, one at either leg, which lead underground to the visitor’s center. To enter, visitors are subjected to a security check. Each security checkpoint has X-ray machines for luggage and bags and a metal detector that visitors have to pass through, so there’s about a ten minute wait to get into the Arch on average and the possibility of a longer wait on busy days.
The underground part of the Arch has two gift shops, two giant movie screens which show documentaries about the Arch and St. Louis history approximately every hour, and the Museum of Westward Expansion.
Security checkpoints are present at both entrances to the gateway arch. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis )
For educational visits, the Museum of Westward Expansion is an essential stop. It features wax-like robotic figures which relate historical stories and facts to visitors, which honestly look a bit creepy, as well as numerous exhibits that show how early Americans and Indians lived, worked, and the chances that they took to expand past the Mississippi river. The museum is deceptively large and the helpful staff clearly enjoy their jobs; when we asked one for his favorite exhibit, we ended up in a half-hour long discussion about old American coins (which was much more fascinating than it sounds).
a menacing stuffed bear outside of the Museum of Westward Expansion, under the gateway arch, st. louis, missouri. (Photo by Phil Dotree © richard grigonis )
There’s also a lot of information about the Arch itself and its construction, although the museum’s emphasis is on what the Gateway Arch represents rather than the monument’s architectural specs.
The two theaters in the visitor’s center shows documentaries about St. Louis figures, notably Lewis and Clark. The Odyssey Theater is particularly notable for its size: it’s about four stories tall. Unfortunately, movies cost extra, but they’re a great way to finish or start a trip to the Arch, and each lasts less than an hour.
Talking animatronic mannequins dispense stories and speeches to educate visitors to the museum of Westward Expansion. here we see a surprisingly interesting exhibit that teaches visitors about early american coins. (Photo by Phil Dotree © richard grigonis )
Of course, no visit to the Gateway Arch is complete without a trip to the top of the structure. It’s a very, very good idea to buy tickets online, as the Arch is one of the most popular landmarks in the United States. Getting tickets early will allow a visitor to pick the time of the tram ride and also includes free parking. Try to get to the Arch visitor’s center at least a half hour before a scheduled tram ride to allow time for the aforementioned security checks and lines.
Visitors should be prepared for a wait, even if they’ve bought tickets in advance. Eight tram cars may run up either leg of the Arch, but each seats only five people. Therefore, there’s a lot of waiting for a space in a cramped, five-foot diameter tram, although there are additional exhibits about the Gateway Arch and St. Louis history for visitors to enjoy while they wait.
One of the waiting areas in the museum of Westward Expansion for the trams to the top of the gateway arch. (Photo by Phil Dotree © richard grigonis )
The tram ride to the top of the Gateway Arch takes about four minutes, and visitors spend about 15 minutes at the top. On a busy day the whose system can move about 440 people an hour up and down the Arch.
It’s hard to justify the long wait until you’re at the top of one of the most famous landmarks in the world. The view is beyond stunning.
a view of your destination: the top of the gateway arch. see those 16 little windows up there? that's the observation room, 630 feet above the ground. There are also 16 windows on the other side, too. (Photo by Phil Dotree © richard grigonis )
The Gateway Arch sits on the riverfront, right inside the St. Louis city limits. It overlooks the Mississippi River and Illinois to the east and the city proper to the west, and when looking out of the windows at the top of the structure, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the view, especially if you're accustomed to flat Midwestern territory as I am.
You’re able to see for about 30 miles on a clear day, and while there’s not a lot of remarkable stuff on top of the Arch—apart from the windows, there are just a few tired-looking security guards and bland carpeting—the view can be awe inspiring, and it’s certainly worth the ten dollar tram ticket.
The sometimes crowded deck of the observation area atop the gateway arch in st. louis. (Photo by Phil Dotree © richard grigonis )
Pictures at the top of the observation area provide a comparison between the St. Louis of the 1960s and the St. Louis right outside the area’s windows, which can be fun and educational.
The observation deck of the Gateway Arch is 630 feet in the air. The structure was designed to move a bit in heavy winds, as this allows for better structural integrity and protection from earthquakes (people often forget that St. Louis sits near the New Madrid fault line). On a windy day, you can feel the Arch sway slightly beneath your feet, but the enclosed observation deck feels extremely safe and secure. Visitors with a fear of heights shouldn’t worry.
The observation area of the gateway arch gives viewers about 30 miles of visibility on a clear day. here we see st. louis and, just below the center of the photo, the old courthouse where Dred Scott sued to obtain his freedom in 1847, which eventually led to the abolition of slavery. (Photo by Phil Dotree © richard grigonis )
The entire trip to the top of the Arch and back down takes about a half hour and the line to get to a tram takes another half hour, possibly more on busy days. It’s worth the time for a few minutes on top of St. Louis. Children will be especially amazed.
The Gateway Arch is the type of monument that every person should check out when they’re near St. Louis. It’s like the Empire State Building or the Sears Tower, but it’s something more than that. The Arch isn’t just tall. It’s a massive piece of art, a symbol of exploration. It was built to be inspiring and breathtaking, and it’s sometimes hard to remember that when living in the St. Louis area.
The st. louis gateway arch sits on nearly 91 acres of land, formerly urban sprawl that was transformed into this great memorial. (The park's original landscape design was created by Dan Kiley, at the time one of america’s leading landscape architects.) the combination of the gateway arch, the view from its observation area, the museum and theaters (including an imax theater) make for both an entertaining and informative experience. (Photo Kingjon | Dreamstime.com)
The Gateway Arch is living history, and with its stunning views and architectural significance, it basically is Saint Louis to a lot of people. It’s a very cheap way to spend half an afternoon and a must-see stop for tourists and people with school-aged children.
Phil Dotree, a St. Louis native, has written over 2,000 articles on various subjects for many websites and news sites (Fark, Digg.com, etc.). He has been featured on the Howard Stern show and CNN.com.