3 Days of Free and Affordable Activities in St. Louis

St. Louis, Missouri, has both quintessential American and innovative cuisine, a thriving art scene and enough outdoor activities to keep everyone in your travel group contented. The best part? Many activities are free. Whether you stay for a day or spend a week, here’s a selection of itineraries — organized by neighborhood — to make a solo trip or a family adventure easier to plan.

How to Get There

Fly into St. Louis Lambert International Airport, where most places are accessible by car in 20 to 30 minutes.

Day 1: Forest Park and Central West End

Consider dedicating a full day to exploring Forest Park — at nearly 1,300 acres, it’s larger than New York City’s Central Park and one of the largest urban parks in the U.S. Just east of the park is the Central West End neighborhood, an energetic mix of restaurants and captivating homes, like the limestone mansions on Lindell Boulevard.

Morning: St. Louis Zoo

While there are many free things to do in St. Louis with kids, we recommend you start at the St. Louis Zoo. Special attractions like the Children’s Zoo, Conservation Carousel and the Stingrays at Caribbean Cove charge $3 or $4 for entry but are all free for the first hour the park is open. By getting there early, you’re also more likely to grab one of the free but limited street parking spots in Forest Park.

The beloved Asian elephants at the St. Louis Zoo are named Raja, Sri, Ellie, Maliha, Rani, Jade, Priya, Pearl and Donna. Celebrities in their own right, they each follow a custom exercise and nutritional program designed to keep them healthy and gorgeous.

 

Afternoon: St. Louis Science Center

After you’ve had your fill of the outdoors, head inside one of the top 10 science centers in the U.S., according to Parents magazine, where you’ll find 700 interactive exhibits (like the Animal Clinic, where kids can hold large cockroaches). General admission is free, as is parking at the James S. McDonnell Planetarium. Just take the Skybridge that connects it to the main building.

Evening: The Saint Louis Art Museum

Fridays are best for exploring The Saint Louis Art Museum and the 34,000 objects in its permanent collection, which spans all genres and media. While admission is always free (as is the parking in one of the two lots across from the museum), the special exhibits that usually require an entrance fee are free on Fridays. The museum is closed on Mondays and open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Fridays, when it extends its hours to 9 p.m. The last Friday of the month is reserved for SLAM Underground, a lively (and free!) celebration of art and music with activities, live bands, DJs and signature cocktails. Or, if you are traveling to St. Louis in the summer, spend an evening at the Muny. At this 11,000-seat outdoor amphitheater, which celebrates its centennial in 2018, enjoy one of the many theater productions (such as The Wiz and Jersey Boys) offered each summer. The last nine rows (1,450 seats!) are free and available on a first come, first served basis.

Where to Eat and Drink: Dressel’s and Mission Taco

There are many free things to do in St. Louis foodwise, and lots of restaurant deals. Dressel’s (whose tomato bisque and truffle grilled cheese combo was featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives) offers a daily happy hour featuring half-price apps starting at 3 p.m. For late-night munchies, specials at Mission Taco ($2 tacos!) start at 10 p.m.

Day 2: Downtown, Soulard, Lafayette Square

If you’re looking for some Cajun culture, Soulard is home to the largest Mardi Gras celebration outside New Orleans. Downtown’s Busch Stadium is St. Louis Cardinals territory — get discount tickets here. Lafayette Square delivers Victorian and Second Empire-style mansions complete with mansard roofs; glimpse their interiors during home tours in June and December.

Morning: The Gateway Arch

Sitting on the banks of the Mississippi River is the Gateway Arch, the tallest man-made monument in the United States. Its newly renovated interactive museum, located underground, opens in July 2018. The museum is free, and a tram ride to the top of the Arch for epic views of the city is $13 for adults, $10 for children.

Afternoon: Citygarden

This sculpture park on the Gateway Mall includes works from Keith Haring and Julian Opie within a large manicured garden. For a little fun, go wading in the park’s spray plaza, where 102 jets shoot water straight into the air. Entrance to Citygarden is always free — and if you go on Sunday, there’s no charge for metered parking.

Citygarden is one of St. Louis’s plentiful green spaces. Check out the Gateway Arch in the distance.

 

Evening: Union Station/Grand Hall

Union Station, less than a mile from Citygarden, contains the opulent Grand Hall, once the waiting room in this historic train terminal. From 5p.m. to 10p.m. each evening, experience the Grand Hall Light Show, a 3D light adventure, or the Fire and Light Show, where 100-foot waterfalls and fire merge in a visual set to rock music. Shows start at 12:30 p.m. and go until 9 p.m. on Saturdays. Union Station offers self-parking in a nearby lot and a valet.

Where to Eat and Drink: Bogart’s and Cardinals Nation Restaurant and Bar

St. Louis is known for barbecue, so head to local favorite Bogart’s in Soulard for a pulled pork sandwich. In Ballpark Village, kids eat free on Wednesdays from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Cardinals Nation Restaurant and Bar.

Day 3: St. Louis County

West of the city is St. Louis County, a charming collection of towns and sights, like University City’s Delmar Loop, an entertainment, food and shopping destination voted one of the greatest streets in America in 2007 by the American Planning Association.

Morning: Purina Farms

Forty minutes southwest of Delmar Loop, in Gray Summit, Missouri, is Purina Farms, where admission and parking are free. Make friends with the piglets, chicks and bunnies who live in the Baby Animal Petting Zoo on this 300-acre property, or head inside to the arena for a performance of the Purina Incredible Dog Team.

Afternoon: Laumeier Sculpture Park

Roughly 25 miles east of Purina Farms, Laumeier Sculpture Park is part art exhibit, part outdoor adventure,. Always free and open to the public, Laumeier has three easy-to-hike nature trails winding through the largest dedicated sculpture park in the U.S. For a more formal introduction to the park and its sculptures, join the afternoon walking tour offered the first Sunday of each month; tickets can be had for $5 each.

Alexander Liberman’s The Way (1972-80), is made of 18 salvaged steel oil tanks.

 

Evening: The Magic House, St. Louis Children’s Museum

Just 2 miles north of Laumeier is The Magic House, St. Louis Children’s Museum. This popular destination has Free Family Night from 5:30 to 9 p.m. on the third Friday of every month. Kids can climb the three-story Jack and the Beanstalk exhibit or make music with oversized instruments in the Music Play-Play Music section.

Where to Eat and Drink: The Clover and the Bee and Fitz’s

For fancier eats (lamb carpaccio!), drive 4 miles northeast of the Magic House to The Clover and the Bee in Webster Groves. Breakfast is served daily until 2 p.m. (try the cold smoked salmon), and dinner is offered Wednesday through Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m. In Delmar Loop, try Fitz’s, a local purveyor of craft sodas, whose restaurant offers views of its vintage bottling line from the main dining room. Kids meals come with a bottomless mug of the root beer voted one of the best in the U.S. by Food & Wine magazine.

Where to Stay

Convenient to the city and the county, theHomewood Suites by Hilton St. Louis offers free self-parking, Wi-Fi, breakfast (eggs, toast, sausage) and a complimentary evening social Monday through Thursday, with a rotating daily menu — think nachos, salads and sliders. Some suites have kitchenettes, making it a great option for anyone who likes preparing their own meals. Downtown’s Drury Plaza Hotel St. Louis at the Arch offers free hot breakfast (make-your-own Belgian waffles) and Wi-Fi, but perhaps the best freebie of all is the "530 Kickback" from 5:30 to 7 p.m., when salads, hot food and cocktails are free for guests.

Whether you’re planning a week’s family vacation or a weekend getaway, there is no shortage of things to do in St. Louis. Start planning your trip by reserving your rental car and reading our article on things to consider when booking a family vacation.

Once you have started your vacation, don’t forget to capture your memories! Here are some tips to take great family vacation photos.


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