Photograph by John Elk III, Alamy
Nestled just below the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, St. Louis has a rich history of trade, travel, and adventure. This city was once the launching point for Lewis and Clark's famed expedition. As America's population spread rapidly westward, St. Louis was a riverside gateway to the wild frontier. Today, it is a study in 21st-century urban renewal that buzzes with much of its old energy. Here are some suggestions to help you make the Gateway to the West your own personal gateway to free entertainment, exploration, and fun.
Admission to the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis is free for all visitors on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Formerly called the First Street Forum, this museum is dedicated to interpreting culture through contemporary visual art.
The Laumeier Sculpture Park and Museum boasts more than 80 works of contemporary sculpture in indoor and outdoor galleries that are free and open to the public all year round. Picnics are always welcome on the park's 105 acres of natural landscape. Free docent-led tours are available on the first and third Sundays of May-October. In the summer, don't miss "Music Movies" at the Laumeier Outdoor Music Amphitheatre, a series of outdoor movie screenings preceded by local bands, all for free! You can even skip pricey concessions and bring your own food and coolers.
From the city's founding in 1764, to Miles Davis, Cardinals baseball history, and more, the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park offers free general admission, with some fees for special exhibits.
The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, featuring exhibits on art and architecture, is free and open to the public on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
The Saint Louis Art Museum is now housed in what was originally the Fine Arts Palace for the 1904 World's Fair—the only one of the event's large, neo-classical exhibition palaces that was not a temporary structure. Today, the building hosts collections that showcase a wide variety of cultures and time periods. It has the distinction of being the first publicly funded art museum in the country and admission is always free.
The Saint Louis University Museum of Art is located in a four-story French revival mansion. Many of its pieces reflect the city and school's Jesuit Catholic roots. Admission is always free.
Zagat recently ranked the Saint Louis Zoo as the #1 zoo/animal park in the nation. General admission is always free, and early birds can often find free parking along the streets of Forest Park to avoid paid lots adjacent to the entrance. This year, check out the Zootennial exhibit as the Saint Louis Zoo celebrates its 100th year of operation.
St. Louis Union Station was once the largest and busiest passenger rail terminal in the world. Today, it has been repurposed as a lively mixed-use marketplace with more than 85 retail stores and restaurants. If you have the willpower to avoid a shopping spree, free guided tours of this National Historic Landmark are available. Also be sure to check out the Memories Museum, featuring model trains, railroad china and silverware, uniforms, timetables, and other artifacts and memorabilia from Union Station's glory days as a major railway hub; the museum is free and open to the public.
Remains of the largest and most sophisticated prehistoric city north of Mexico are yours to explore at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, just fifteen minutes east of St. Louis. Cahokia was a thriving ancient metropolis that rivaled the largest cities in Europe at the time. Its ruins have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Prehistoric Cahokians resided in the area from about A.D. 700 to 1400, at which time the city was virtually abandoned. Despite much study, the exact fate of the city and its people remains a mystery—one that you can explore today at the site's interpretative center and museum galleries. Admission is always free, but donations are suggested.
The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis is a stunning piece of architecture in the heart of the city that showcases St. Louis' Catholic heritage. It boasts the world's largest collection of mosaic art. A museum in the cathedral's lower level has displays on how the mosaics were made along with historic vestments and objects used during Pope John Paul II's 1999 visit to the city. The Cathedral Basilica is open daily for Mass and free self-guided tours, but a donation of $2 is requested to view the mosaic museum.
Learn about the nation's 19th-century judiciary system at St. Louis' historic Old Courthouse, the scene of the famous Dred Scott trial. Galleries inside depict the history of St. Louis from its French and Spanish roots to its role in westward expansion. Trial reenactments (with visitor participation) and tours are offered daily, and admission is always free.
Stroll Hollywood-esque sidewalks with more than 120 brass, inlaid stars and informative plaques along the St. Louis Walk of Fame on Delmar Boulevard. Each star bears the name of a famous St. Louis native or long-term resident, such as T.S. Eliot, Maya Angelou, Joseph Pulitzer, Bob Costas, Yogi Berra, Betty Grable, and Tennessee Williams.
Say cheers to St. Louis' rich brewing heritage at the Anheuser-Busch Consumer Hospitality Center. Enjoy a free brewery tour and tasting (if 21 or older) and view the Budweiser Clydesdale stables, lager cellars, and packaging plant.
For a more intimate experience, take a free tour of the smaller Schlafly Bottleworks brewery, offered Fridays-Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. This tour also concludes with complimentary tasting (if 21 or older).
The Delmar Loop Planet Walk is a scale model of the solar system with informative markers about each planet. It turns the 6100 to 6600 blocks of Delmar Boulevard into a free, three-billion-mile walk from the Sun to Neptune where kids can learn about celestial bodies (while they exercise their own).
Grant's Farm, just south of St. Louis, was once the property of President Ulysses S. Grant. Today it is part of the Busch family estate, and the area has been transformed into a 281-acre wildlife preserve and family attraction that showcases more than 900 animals from six continents. Kids of all ages will love the animal shows and petting zoos. The farm is open annually from mid-April through October. While general admission is always free, there is a charge for parking.
Admission fees at the Magic House, St. Louis Children's Museum are waived every third Friday evening of each month from 5:30 to 9 p.m. This nationally acclaimed museum offers hundreds of interactive educational exhibits for kids of all ages.
Purina Farms offers hands-on activities and animal demonstrations from mid-March through mid-November. Kids can pet barnyard animals and play with the dozens of dogs and cats Purina houses at its pet center. The farm also contains an impressive canine competition center. Admission and parking are always free, but there may be a charge for special events.
General admission is free at the Saint Louis Science Center, which offers more than 700 hands-on exhibits perfect for young scientists and explorers. Shows at the center's IMAX theatre and planetarium have fees, but there are plenty of free activities to enjoy instead—kids can climb in a giant kaleidoscope, see what it's like to live on the international space station, and learn about the construction of St. Louis' iconic engineering marvel as they try to build a foam replica of the Gateway Arch.
The Camp River Dubois Lewis & Clark Illinois State Historic Site is just up the Mississippi from downtown St. Louis in Hartford, Illinois. It marks Lewis and Clark's exact point of departure for their famed expedition and is designated as site #1 on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Admission is free to everything on the property, including the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, replica of the 1804 winter encampment, and special reenactment events.
At the heart of the city, check out Forest Park, one of the nation's largest urban parks. It is roughly 500 acres larger than New York's Central Park and was the site of the 1904 World's Fair that drew more than 19 million visitors from around the world. Today, you can enjoy some of St. Louis' best monuments, historic buildings, wildlife, waterways, and landscapes in this free public space. Also enjoy free special events, such as the annual Great Forest Park Balloon Race.
Just across the Mississippi in Alton, Illinois, check out the National Great Rivers Museum alongside the Melvin Price Locks and Dam. The museum is operated by the Army Corps of Engineers and is dedicated to telling the story of how the Mississippi River has affected the people who interact with it. It includes an aquarium featuring species of fish that inhabit the river. Admission to all the museum's facilities is free of charge.
Located along the original Route 66 corridor, the Route 66 State Park is a short drive from downtown in Eureka, Missouri (free parking available). Celebrating the historic highway once called the "Main Street of America," the park boasts miles of trails for walking and biking and a free museum with memorabilia from the days that made Route 66 a cultural icon. When you've had your fill of nostalgia, head back across St. Louis and tackle the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. Once Route 66's link between Illinois and Missouri, the bridge is now a pedestrian bridge, free and open daily to hikers, bikers, and horseback riders.
Entry to the World Bird Sanctuary, which showcases eagles, owls, hawks, and more, is always free with free parking. The sanctuary, located in Valley Park, also offers hiking trails, picnic areas, and educational entertainment.
The annual Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis offers free public performances of the Bard's best at Forest Park's Shakespeare Glen each spring.
The Muny Theater's 1,500 free seats are available on a first-come, first-serve basis for each performance during its summer season of Broadway revival musicals. The outdoor theater is the oldest and largest in the U.S. But get there early—the free seats go fast!
Nat Geo Traveler All Access
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!