Fair warning: I'm from Missouri, so pardon me if I wax poetic about the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. The curvy stainless-steel landmark turns 50 years old today, on the anniversary of "the moment when builders set in place the landmark’s crucial keystone." That's the uppermost part of the Arch, the impossibly thin tip-top of the structure—a lookout point that affords incredible views, up to a 30-mile radius, paying special attention to the west (the Arch is an homage to Westward Expansion) and to the Mississippi River in the east.
When you visit St. Louis, swallow your claustrophobia and go all the way to that 63-story-tall keystone via the Journey to the Top tram ride. Today, admission is $1, the original price when tickets were first sold in 1967, and the arch will be lit in gold-tone floodlights. Otherwise, tickets are $10, which is a steal for what you get.
I'm from Southwest Missouri, a good three and a half hours by car to St. Louis, and I went twice, 20 years apart: Once in 1992, as a child, when my parents brought me, and once in 2012, long after I moved out east as an adult, because I wanted to go back. Couldn't get it out of my head. Here are five reasons you should go:
1. You've GOT to experience the crazy tram ride to the top.
When I describe what it feels like to go to the top of the Arch, I end up saying something like this: "You stand in line on stairs, and when it's your turn, you step into what looks like a giant human-sized cylindrical clothes dryer. You sit inside on a bench with a few other people, and as you go skyward, the whole thing tilts...then clicks. Then tilts...and clicks. And suddenly you're at the top, standing on a thin strip of carpet, peering out at two different states with only a handful of other people."
There are more technical terms for this experience ("enclosed tram," "the viewing area can hold up to 160 people," etc.—the National Park Service's website is an excellent resource for specifics), but going to the top of the Arch feels more personal than that, and that's a good thing in an age of selfie sticks and swarming crowds.
2. Midcentury-modern legend Eero Saarinen designed it.
If you've ever watched Mad Men and admired Roger Sterling's office—the marble-topped "tulip"-shaped table and matching stools in particular—you'll be pleasantly surprised to note that the same guy who designed those designed the St. Louis Arch. Rust issues aside (hard to notice unless you're looking for them), the beauty of the design holds up. Seeing it silver and soaring from the ground up is one of my favorite recent travel memories.
3. You can walk from the Arch to get fried ravioli. (Enough said.)
The Arch area is eminently walkable, a pleasant Midwestern surprise. Take a stroll along the well-kept grounds to the nearby downtown, and sit at an old-school restaurant like Caleco's, for St. Louis specialty fried ravioli dipped in marinara sauce (just trust me on this one) and a menu of seemingly unlimited incarnations of Budweiser. Or, head to the South Broadway location of St. Louis chain Imo's Pizza. Locals love it. Fervently.
4. The movies alone—even if you don't go to the top—are worth the trip.
The filmstrip shown while you're waiting in line to hop the cylindrical tram to the top has the retro charm of a grade-school film strip—heavy on Mark Twain references (this is Missouri, after all) and scratchy execution—but, again, that's not a bad thing. If you decide not to go up to the top, the documentary film Monument to the Dream (included with admission to the top of the Arch and to the grounds) captures the construction of the Arch and Eero Saarinen in all his glory.
5. If you want Americana, this is it.
I adore Paris (obviously). I live in New York City and love it accordingly. But big-city hooplah can get overwhelming when you're trying to have an authentic travel moment, and there's a quaintness to the Arch that feels like discovery.
I'm biased, of course. I'm now a city girl through and through, but in 2012, after I went to the top for the second time, 20 years after my first visit, I couldn't resist buying an official Gateway Arch photograph, with the Missouri capitol building and the Arch digitally superimposed over my and my now-husband's beaming faces. The photo company throws in a few smaller copies too. Today I cut one out for my husband to put in his wallet.
Here's how happy I was right before I boarded the tram (the woman to the left was excited too, I promise):