Photograph by Jeff Roberson, AP
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The newly renovated Gateway Arch anchors the United States’ 60th national park, where waterfront green space and a top-tier American history museum thrive in downtown St. Louis.

Photograph by Jeff Roberson, AP

What to do at Gateway Arch National Park

The famous St. Louis landmark, renovated and newly named a national park, offers stunning views and rich history.

In the half-century since its construction began, Missouri’s Gateway Arch has been many things: a monument to Thomas Jefferson’s historic frontier, a commemoration of Lewis and Clark’s epic expedition—and, most recently, a national park.

Redesignated on February 22, 2018, the former Jefferson National Expansion Memorial’s new status confuses many: At 91 urban acres, the United States’ 60th national park doesn’t resemble its fellows. But massive renovations and a state-of-the-art American history museum highlight the significance of this monumental landmark. Here’s how to plan for your next visit.

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Why go now

Something new: $380 million went into renovating the Arch and laying out 91 acres of waterfront green space laced with walking trails. Interpretive signs dot the paths, which connect to downtown St. Louis to make the Arch more accessible than ever before.

The massive changes are worthy of the area’s upgraded status: A parking garage is now an amphitheater; a pedestrian bridge now crosses the interstate. The glassy, futuristic visitor center complements its interior, a complex homage to the country’s complex past—much like the Arch itself.

See the view from the top

It took seven years, $13 million, and 43,226 tons of stainless steel to build the world’s largest man-made arch. Though you can’t climb its 1,076 steps, a four-minute tram ride (after a longer wait in line) takes you up through the arch’s hollow legs to the 630-foot-high viewing booth. A clear day offers 30-mile views over the St. Louis skyline and the Mississippi River.

You’re welcome to stay at the top for as long as you like. But you’ll probably also want to see the Arch from its many angles, including on a one-hour Mississippi riverboat cruise or via helicopter tour. Same-day tickets are available, but consider advance reservations in the busy summer months. (Mississippi River flooding has temporarily suspended riverboat and helicopter tours, which are expected to resume in June 2019.)

Walk through history

In Thomas Jefferson’s time, St. Louis sat on an international border; it was the third-busiest port in the country, marking the edge of Jefferson’s unknown.

The newly renovated American history museum, easily one of the best of its kind in the country, brings each visitor into that hard-to-grasp mindset. Its six distinct sections are part new-age Oregon Trail and part reality check: To fulfill Jefferson’s plans of westward expansion, this land was taken by force from Native peoples, many times over. The museum reminds visitors that Jefferson’s dream was a dream for some, but not all. (Visit other great park museums in North America.)

The forced displacement of Native peoples isn’t the only dark chapter of American history the national park confronts. St. Louis’ Old Courthouse—a short walk to the Arch through the park’s new trail network—memorializes the scene of two landmark cases: Dred Scott v. Sandford, which argued for African Americans’ equality, and Virginia Minor v Happersett, which argued for women’s rights. Both cases lost. Venture inside to see the ornate rotunda, the restored courtrooms, or listen to a talk from a park ranger.

Museum admission is included with any tram ride ticket. Certain ticket packages include the 35-minute documentary, Monument to the Dream, which shows footage from the 1960s construction in a gripping reminder that men built the structure in the wind and rain, hundreds of feet in the air, with a razor-thin margin for error.

Eat, drink, and stay

North of the park grounds you’ll find Laclede’s Landing, the oldest district in the city, now full of renovated warehouses and riverfront patios. For dining with a view, sit down at the James Beard–recognized Cinder House, atop the Four Seasons, or grab a more casual bite at Kimchi Guys, Ozzie’s Burger Bar, or Morgan Street Brewery.

To get a view of the Arch from your pillow, book a stay at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis or the Drury Plaza Hotel St. Louis at the Arch. In the mood for more sightseeing? Explore the family-friendly exhibits at City Museum, catch the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, or roam Citygarden Sculpture Park, each less than 10 minutes away.

Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer, photographer, smoky mezzo, and Midwestern advocate. Find her on her website or on Instagram @j.kehoe.