Travel guide Moon St. Louis considers City Museum (750 N 16th St, tel. 314/231-2489; $12, free for children under 2; check website for current hours, group rates, and special exhibits) a must-see, but what about parents? Our guest blogger Hannah Sheehan recently took her daughter there and gives us a mom’s view.

Taking Your Kids to St Louis's City Museum

My four-year-old usually resists holding my hand, but as we climbed the grand staircase through a crushing Saturday afternoon crowd, Ada reached for me. Her other hand spun the brightly-painted conveyor belt rollers that supported the banister. We had just walked into St. Louis’s City Museum two minutes earlier, and already it inspired wonder.

We turned right at the top of the stairs, away from a hefty queue for the first of many slides. Between a pair of fluted columns, we found an empty area. My daughter ran a few laps, relishing the freedom after a four hour car ride, and peered out the window at MonstroCity, the sprawling outdoor jungle gym where her acrophobic mother would not be setting foot, thank you very much.

Then it was back into the crowd and around the miniature railroad, through a carnival midway that melted into a diner, and past an actual circus with a live magic act. At a fork in the path, Ada turned left, toward a calm craft corner. My little extrovert explorer spent half an hour there with paint and chalk, a testament to how overwhelming City Museum can be.

There’s an organic quality to this vast and perpetually growing place. At every turn I glimpsed its wrought iron skeleton, twisting tunnels with unpredictable entrances and exits. All those tunnels, catwalks, and slides are an exercise in trust and peripheral vision. Near the entrance, someone three stories above us lost a shoe. It made its way from the ground floor back to its owner in a series of graceful tosses between helpful visitors.

Pterodactyl in City Museum.

Pterodactyl in City Museum. Photo © Hannah Sheehan.

In many places, City Museum seems to be arranged by feel and instinct. The white whale’s connected to the… slanted wooden passage in the ceiling. A model pterodactyl dangles under fiberglass ribbons. The central cavern with its skull-bruising low passages feel very much like the building’s creepy heart, complete with a Phantom of the Opera soundtrack and a chiseled grinning dragon.

All this raises the question of how to define “museum”. There are exhibits, like the insects under glass tucked away near that first open area upstairs, but much more common are curiosities.

There’s nothing within City Museum (except those insects) that can’t be handled, climbed on, stacked, or swung. Its stream-of-consciousness floor plan is ideal for the hummingbird attention of a young child. Had I brought her to an art museum instead, Ada would have had the same experience of saying, “Hmmm,” and moving on to the next spot, but at City Museum, I didn’t have to worry we were missing a profound experience by rushing through. It rewards both speedy exploration and return visits.

City Museum isn’t there to educate us. It’s there to test how comfortable our shoes really are, how strong our sense of direction is, and how much sensory input we can handle in a few hours. It’s there to give us wonder, even if we mostly wonder why someone put all this stuff in the same place. And at the end of the day, City Museum is there for fun. In three hours and six hundred thousand square feet, I didn’t see anyone who wasn’t having a good time.

At the time I visited, City Museum was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays; check their website for current hours and days of operation. On Fridays, the museum is open until midnight. A bell sounds fifteen minutes before closing—have a plan to meet your family in the lobby if you get separated in all those tunnels.

Practicalities

City Museum recommends closed-toed and closed-heeled shoes, and long pants for maximum slide enjoyment. Knee pads are sold in the gift shop. Access for visitors with mobility aids can be provided by museum staff using otherwise off-limits areas. Bag and coat check is available in the lobby. Your wristband allows same-day reentry.

There are no maps, so prepare for adventure.