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updated: 3/1/2013 1:05 PM

Fun and family-friendly St. Louis

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  • The Gateway Arch, the nation's tallest man-made monument, signifies the gateway to the West.

      The Gateway Arch, the nation's tallest man-made monument, signifies the gateway to the West.
    St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission

  • The Gateway Arch, the nation's tallest man-made monument, signifies the gateway to the West.

      The Gateway Arch, the nation's tallest man-made monument, signifies the gateway to the West.
    Burt Remis/St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commiss

  • City Museum in St. Louis is all about cool, artsy things for kids to play on.

      City Museum in St. Louis is all about cool, artsy things for kids to play on.
    Dan Donovan/St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commis

  • JERRY NAUNHEIM JR./ St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission

      JERRY NAUNHEIM JR./ St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission

 
By Cindy Richards
TravelingMom.com

St. Louis so often -- and so unfairly -- gets the short stick in the tourism world. Famous for its hot, sticky summers, this city five hours southwest of Chicago is a reasonable road trip destination that has plenty to offer families in search of a fun and affordable vacation.

Many of the city's best attractions -- those housed in the verdant Forest Park -- are free. Others are imminently affordable. And the city is easy to navigate, with plenty of free or cheap parking, even downtown.

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These five family-friendly St. Louis attractions have something for families with kids of just about any age.

Forest Park

This 1,300-acre park hosted the 1904 World's Fair and is home to a number of St. Louis' must-see attractions, including The St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis Science Center and the St. Louis Zoo. Best of all, admission to these world-class attractions is free, though there are sometimes fees associated with special exhibitions.

Gateway Arch Riverboat Cruises

Jump onboard a 19th century paddle wheel boat for a riverfront tour and history lesson. This narrated tour offers an overview of the area and the role the Mighty Mississippi played in both St Louis's history and current times. The company offers several different cruises. The one-hour sightseeing cruise aboard the Tom Sawyer includes loads of historical information about St. Louis and the river for Mom and Dad and being on the boat is fun for kids.

City Museum

This is hands down the funkiest, most-fun children's museum anywhere. There's a giant pencil poking out of the plain red building, a real yellow school bus dangling off the roof, and endless places for kids to climb and play.

It's not about educational exhibits, it's all about cool, artsy things for your kids to play on. You'll walk from area to area, saying out loud, "That is SO COOL!"

Magic House Children's Museum

It is literally a massive old house -- no crazy-looking building painted in primary colors -- filled with dozens of little rooms, each with a fun, educational themed topic. The museum is open at night, too, and allows you to hold sleepover parties.

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

This memorial park pays tribute to Thomas Jefferson and the explorers -- including Lewis and Clark -- who played pivotal roles in the western expansion of the United States, and includes the Museum of Westward Expansion, and the centerpiece of which is the nation's tallest monument, the 630-foot Gateway Arch.

Budweiser Brewery Tour

Yes, you can bring kids to this tour. And they will want to come because they will have the opportunity to get up close and personal with the famous Budweiser Clydesdales. Everyone can take the Budweiser Brewery Tour, followed by samples in the Hospitality Room (only for guests of legal age, of course).

LaClede's Landing

LaClede's Landing, located on the banks of the Mississippi River and next to the Arch, is downtown St. Louis' oldest district. Find numerous shops, restaurants and attractions at St. Louis' only riverfront entertainment destination.

Where to eat in St. Louis

Pi Pizzeria has three locations in St. Louis both thin crust and deep dish pizzas -- as well as vegan and gluten-free options. (Truly, you can have a gluten-free, dairy free pizza.) And there are some good salads and even hummus. Best of all, there was Apple Pi for dessert with cinnamon ice cream. This was way above average apple pie -- with a delicious cornmeal crust. There's also salty caramel ice cream with a Cookie Pi. The Cookie Pi was a little much, but the caramel ice cream was perfect. A great place for lunch is Fitz's American Grill & Bottling Works. The original owner recently bought back the place from the corporate types that bought him out years ago and he is busy restoring it to its original glory. Owner Michael Alter takes great pride in making his restaurant a place that you want to come back to.

Fitz's Cream Soda is great -- maybe knowing that it was just created on the vintage bottling assembly line that you can see in process behind the glass panels makes it better.

In addition to the fine drinks and floats, there is an array of food, from salad and gumbo to pizza and burgers to sandwiches and a long list of kids' menu items.

No visit to St. Louis is complete without a visit to local favorite, Ted Drew's. This frozen custard joint has been making St. Louisans happy since 1941. Order the "Concrete" which is like a blizzard at Dairy Queen, only better. Much better.

• Cindy Richards is the editor for TravelingMom.com and a veteran Chicago journalist who travels frequently with one or both of her kids.

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