On a budget? It’s a St. Louis free-for-all

11/17/2012 12:00 AM

11/14/2012 1:07 PM

Traveling on a budget doesn’t mean you have to give up on all the best stuff a city has to offer.

The proof? St. Louis.

Next time you’re thinking of an urban destination that won’t cost you a fortune, consider this Midwestern metropolis that boasts more free attractions than any other major U.S. city outside of Washington, D.C.

“We have so much free stuff here, we’re spoiled,” said a visitor in the lobby of the Saint Louis Art Museum. “We’re always shocked when we have to pay for something!”

The free stuff isn’t just for residents; visitors get in on the free-for-all, too. Much of the best stuff is in the lush and lovely 1,300-acre Forest Park, a city park dotted with attractions. But there’s a lot more.

Here are some free things you can do in this lively town on the Mississippi River:

•  Gateway Arch: This artful arch dominates the city’s skyline and represents its pivotal past. At one time, it was the gateway to the West, where pioneers and adventurers began their journey into the great unknown. This stunning ribbon of steel soars 630 feet above the ground. After your neck gets tired of craning to see the top, descend underground on a gradual ramp into the free Museum of Westward Expansion, which helps you understand how this seemingly impossible feat of engineering was accomplished. If you want to know more, pry $7 from your wallet ($2.50 for kids, who won’t appreciate it) for an amazing film, made during the arch’s construction. And if you’re feeling flush, a ride to the top costs $14 per person. Caveats: Don’t do this if you are claustrophobic, averse to tight spaces or afraid of heights. Five people cram into each egg-shaped conveyance for the ride (think of five yolks in one shell) and once you’re at the top, it’s hard to see out of the aged window panels (especially for kids or short adults). Details: 877-982-1410, www.gatewayarch.com.
•  Citygarden: This urban Eden is filled with plants, flowers, trees, sculptures and murals. Located downtown, it’s a great place to relax, people-watch and take photos. Sit near the sculpture of a hollow, decapitated head lying on its side (more whimsical than grim) and catch shots of people who go inside it and peek out of the eyes. Details: 801 Market St.; www.citygardenstl.org.
•  Saint Louis Zoo: One of the nation’s older, most highly rated and lushly planted zoos, it offers a day full of animal-watching for free. That’s right, just walk on in. Parking costs $15, unless you get there between 9 and 10 a.m., then it’s also free. (There’s also lots of nearby, free street parking.) They have well-marked, easy paths (handicapped accessible) leading to the usual suspects, from primates to big cats to giraffes and elephants. They also have a children’s zoo with programs (that’s $4, unless you arrive before 10 a.m., then it’s free) and a little red Zooline Train that chugs around the zoo (another $5 per person — kids 2 and younger free), and relieves families with small children from some walking. There’s also a stingray show ($3) and a sea lion show ($4), a movie and some other special attractions. If you plan to do all those, buy a Safari Pass for $10 and it gets you into everything, including the carousel ride ($3, or free before 10 a.m.). But you don’t have to spend a cent to have a really good time here. Details: 1 Government Dr.; 314-781-0900 or 800-966-8877; www.stlzoo.org.
•  St. Louis Art Museum: Located in Forest Park, home of the 1904 World’s Fair (“Meet Me in St. Louis”), this free art museum outshines many other city museums that charge admission. Set in a spectacular historic building, itself an immaculate work of marble and gilt, where you’ll find everything from the great European masters to relics of the Ming Dynasty. Check out family Sundays, with free hands-on activities for kids. And don’t miss the statue of St. Louis out front. Here, you can park and grab a free shuttle to other attractions in the park. Details: 1 Fine Arts Dr.; 314-721-0072; www.slam.org.
•  Missouri History Museum: Also in Forest Park, this free museum includes an exhibit devoted to that famous World’s Fair, as well as prehistoric displays, the mountain man days, the historic Dred Scott decision, the history of the blues and some of its musicians, famous sports figures (such as Stan Musial) and much more. Always free, it’s also a good place to have a gourmet lunch (hardly free, but delicious). Details: 314-746-4599; www.mohistory.org.
•  Saint Louis Science Center: You’ll likely come to a dead stop when you enter this popular, free Forest Park attraction. A three-story metal maze of tracks has moving parts that will fascinate young and old alike. Lots of interactive stuff goes on — kids digging for fossils, playing with microscopes and checking out the Boeing Space Station at the McDonnell Planetarium. Big kids welcome, too. Details: 5050 Oakland Ave.; 800-456-SLSC or 314-289-4400; www.slsc.org.
•  Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis: If you never set foot in another church, make time to stop and see this one. It is beyond spectacular, rivaling any of the great old churches of Europe. Every inch of its 83,000- square-foot interior is covered with glass mosaics; the installation lasted from 1912 to 1988. It shines, glimmers, glows with 41 million pieces of tesserae in 8,000 colors, lovely beyond words. See for yourself. Details: 4431 Lindell Blvd.; 314-373-8200; www.cathedralstl.org.

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs.

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