If grand displays of lights, old-fashioned Christmas traditions and special holiday performances are your things, then meet in St. Louis for some magic this winter. Plenty of family-friendly festivities await you less than two hours away.
The city and nearby spots are bursting with holiday events, according to Catherine Neville, Explore St. Louis' vice president of communications. But some sell out early, so make your plans now.
Thousands of lights are on display at some of your favorite destinations, including the St. Louis Zoo, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Anheuser-Busch Brewery and Grant's Farm. Most displays began in mid-November and run through the end of December or early January.
You can walk amid the animals and plenty of lights at the US Bank Wild Lights at the Zoo from 5 to 8:30 p.m. on select nights from Nov. 25 until Dec. 30. The event includes at least 15 light displays, thousands of lights lining trees and walkways, carousel rides and fire pits to roast marshmallows. Go to https://www.stlzoo.org/events for details and to make an advance reservation.
Southeast of the zoo, you can experience one of Neville's favorites, the Garden Glow at the Missouri Botanical Garden, from Nov. 19 to Jan. 7. More than 1 million bulbs will light up the grounds with plenty of photo opportunities. Santa visits are available some nights and discounts for children happen on family nights.
Visitors can reserve a private fire pit for up to 25 friends or opt for a dinner at the garden. To buy a ticket for the Garden Glow, go to https://glow.missouribotanicalgarden.org.
Brewery Lights at the Anheuser-Busch Brewery may appeal to adults, especially with the one free glass of beer offered to each person over 21. The event includes a 10-minute light show, a 50-foot decorated tree, multiple light displays, fire pits, igloos, a heated tent and a nightly parade featuring the Clydesdales.
Children 5 and under are free and will likely want to head to the Kids Zone, which includes a train ride and ice maze. Brewery Lights is a popular event with up to 5,250 visitors admitted each evening and free parking. Book in advance at https://www.budweisertours.com/brewerylights.html.
If you prefer to stay in your car for a drive-through experience, head to Grant's Farm, where you can listen to holiday music synchronized through your radio. You also can walk through holiday lights, have breakfast with Santa and Mrs. Claus or reserve a fire pit at the Nov. 25 to Dec. 30 event.
The driving tour takes you through the farm's Bauernhof courtyard, by some animals and past a 50-foot tree. Some 1 million lights add to the sparkle. The walking path gets you closer to Santa and the historic Busch family home. You also can take pictures of the Clydesdales and buy holiday food and drinks. More information is available at https://grantsfarm.com
The Polar Express at Union Station is a popular event in St. Louis, Neville says. Families can opt for three levels of seats with varied pricing for the experience, which runs Nov. 18 to Dec. 30.
A specially decorated train pulls out of Union Station for a short ride to the "North Pole" while travelers interact with characters from the movie, listen to the soundtrack and enjoy hot chocolate and cookies. Upon arrival, Santa hops on the train and visits the children.
"Polar Express saw about 70,000 people last year," Neville says, so getting tickets early is important.
On Saturdays and Sundays from Nov. 19 until Dec. 24, visitors can have pancakes with Santa in the station's Grand Hall. Go to https://www.stlpolarexpressride.com for more information and ticket purchases.
St. Charles, just west of St. Louis, goes all-in for the holidays with its month-long Christmas Traditions festival, this year from Nov. 25 to Dec. 24. Activities center on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays but also include a Christmas carol stroll on Wednesday evenings.
You can visit Santa, hear holiday music and find treasures in the shops, but the emphasis is on how Christmas used to be celebrated – or at least how we imagine it was. The festival features carriage rides, chestnuts roasting over open fires, afternoon parades and wandering characters dressing in vintage clothes and telling stories.
Situated along the Missouri River, St. Charles is home to many restaurants, quaint inns and unique stores, so you may want to linger a bit. For more information, go to https://www.discoverstcharles.com/events/christmastraditions/.
The Fabulous Fox Theatre is hosting several holiday-themed performances in December including "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" Dec. 11-12 and "The Nutcracker" Dec. 18-19. Neville says she is especially looking forward to "Elf," the musical running Dec. 20-24. Go to https://www.fabulousfox.com/events for more information.
Over at the St. Louis Symphony, musicians celebrate the season with "A Gospel Christmas" on Dec. 15 and the movie "Home Alone" with a live score on Dec. 22 and 23. Details are at https://shop.also.org.
Mary Bohlen of Springfield writes about travel for the Illinois Times and other publications. She worked as a reporter for United Press International and taught journalism at University of Illinois Springfield.