The coolest 'museum' in the world, bar none (pictures)

In St. Louis, thousands of daily visitors come to the City Museum for a unique experience mixing playgrounds with archaeology, building restoration, tunnels, and much more. And a bus hanging off the roof. CNET Road Trip 2013 took in the fun.

Daniel Terdiman
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
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Bus over the edge

ST. LOUIS -- It's a rare museum that has a school bus hanging off the roof, let alone a bus that kids can climb on. But at the City Museum here, that's just one small piece of the fun.

Hardly the kind of institution that would normally be called a museum, City Museum presents visitors with a cacophony of exciting choices: tunnels to climb through, 10-story slides to shoot down, a chance to sit on the world's largest pencil, and so much more.

An ever-changing funhouse that was the brainchild of artist Bob Cassilly, City Museum now draws thousands of people every day who know that a visit means an adventure that will never be the same twice. As part of Road Trip 2013, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman took a trip to City Museum at the behest of friends in California and in St. Louis, and of several readers. And though he had no idea what he was getting into, he has no regrets. And even days later, he's still smiling.

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Climbing high overhead

With the school bus hanging off the edge of the giant warehouse building, the City Museum is impossible to ignore, even from a block away. Cassilly's vision included giving visitors a chance to go beyond the usual things they're allowed to do in public places and to have a great time doing so. After all, who else would allow visitors to climb on a bus sticking out into open space or through a tunnel high over the heads of others?

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Ten story spiral

In the 1920s, the warehouse that is home to the City Museum was the world's largest shoe distributor, and it used these spiral slides to send shoes from the upper floors to those below. Today, it's a slide used by endless numbers of kids -- and adults -- to gleefully shoot from the upper floors to the bottom.

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Spiral slide from below

A look back up at the 10-story slide.

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The City Museum

Who wouldn't want to spend a few hours at a "museum" that announces itself with a huge airplane on a tower and a long open-air tunnel that anyone can crawl through -- if they're comfortable crawling through a tunnel high over the heads of other visitors.

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Rooftop tower and elephant

Everything in the City Museum is reused in some way, and its director, Rick Erwin, is constantly making trips to salvage sales in St. Louis and other cities on the lookout for unwanted goods that would make for exciting new elements of the City Museum.

This tower -- and elephant -- are on the top of the building's roof, and have quite a view of downtown St. Louis. y

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Rooftop ferris wheel

Another attraction on the City Museum's roof is this Ferris wheel, which both kids and adults can ride. The museum is planning to install a kids-only Ferris wheel inside a dome on the roof of the building.

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Egyptian entrance

Rick Erwin, the City Museum director, said that at any given time, there are several new projects under way, including six at the moment. This Egyptian sarcophagus is one of them. Erwin said that he decided that a new Egyptian-themed area had to look like a sarcophagus, and so his builders made the entrance to the space have five-foot-thick walls.

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World's largest pencil

If a giant needed to take the SAT, he or she might use this pencil, the world's largest. At 76 feet long and a weight of 21,500 pounds, this pencil can actually write -- and erase. And since it used No. 2 lead, it could be used, if someone could lift it and write with it, to take a standardized test. It was created by artist Ashrita Furman.

All told, this mammoth pencil contains 4,000 pounds of Pennsylvania graphite and is the equivalent of 1.9 million normal pencils. Its eraser is made of rubber and weighs 250 pounds.

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No. 2 lead

A look at the sharpened lead of the world's largest pencil, at the City Museum in St. Louis.

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Insect room

Among its many varied galleries and exhibitions, this is the City Museum's insect room, which presents visitors with a stunning collection of butterflies, moths, and other bugs.

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World's largest underpants

This is the world's largest pair of underwear, found in the City Museum's area known as the Museum of Mirth, Mystery and Mayhem. Not long ago, the underpants were stolen, only to reappear about a month later, washed, and accompanied by a matching woman's pair.

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Kids climbing

If the City Museum isn't filled with the screams and shrieks of happy children running around and climbing up into various tubes and tunnels, or disappearing into mysterious holes in the floor, then it isn't open for business. Everywhere you look there are different passageways and compartments for people -- kids and adults -- to crawl through, over, below, and into.

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Shoelace factory

One interesting element of the City Museum is that it invites a number of entrepreneurs to open up small businesses inside. Those can range from small eateries to this, a shoelace factory. Using equipment from the building's past, the factory's owner makes brightly-hued laces to sell. Visitors can buy a pair, or just watch as the machinery, which once made laces for World War II soldiers, turns out pair after pair.

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Kids sliding

There are probably too many different slides and tunnels to count at the City Museum. That's no doubt true because builders there are always looking for places to add new tunnels or passageways.

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This bank vault, complete with the fronts of hundreds of safety-deposit boxes, opens up to a hall of mirrors, among other attractions.

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Hall of mirrors

A look down the hall of mirrors.

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Hamster wheel

What kid wouldn't want to run around inside a life-size hamster wheel?

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Climbing through coil

The City Museum transformed old beer cooling coils from the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis into a climbing tube for visitors.

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Made from airplane fuselage

This ceiling installation -- made to look like the crystals inside a cave -- are actually made from the material in a Boeing airplane fuselage.

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What museum would be complete without a pterodactyl?

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The whale

The City Museum's first floor features a full-size bowhead whale for visitors to explore, and find their way around.

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Looking upstairs past the dinosaur

Anyone wanting to climb the stairs from the first floor to the second would have to pass this giant dinosaur and look up above at climbing cages, most likely filled with kids, or kids at heart.

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Ball pit

MonstroCity, a special outdoor section of the City Museum, is "a captivating collision of old and new, architectural castoffs and post-apocalyptic chaos....It is is at once interactive sculpture and playground. Comprised of wrought iron slinkies, fire trucks, stone turrets, airplane fuselages, slides of all sizes and shapes, and a pair of ball pits modeled after the Thunderdome, MonstroCity inspires a child-like sense of bravado in guests of all ages."

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