Located in America’s heartland, St. Louis, Mo., is a major modern metropolis full of history. Founded in 1764 by French fur traders, the city was a melting pot of cultures from the Spanish, French and English settlers and traders who lived there.
The city’s most famous icon, the Gateway Arch, which sits along the west bank of the Mississippi River, memorializes the discoveries, exploration and westward expansion of the U.S. in the 1800s, including the Lewis and Clark Expedition that set out from St. Louis on its mission to explore the Northwest.
St. Louis has hosted both a Summer Olympics and a World’s Fair. It is the home of professional sports teams, major international corporations and major institutions of higher education. It is a world class city with an affable sensibility that is ripe for exploration. St. Louis offers a wide range of activities for visitors, many of which are free. It’s an excellent destination for family travel.
Here are the Top 10 Free Things to Do in St. Louis
Climb Ancient Native American Mounds at Cahokia Mounds
At one time, St. Louis and the surrounding area was home to the largest settlement of the Mississippian culture of Native Americans. The largest city of this pre-Columbian group was Cahokia, located in present day Collinsville, Ill., just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. In 1250 Cahokia was larger and had more people living there than London, England. Cahokia Mounds, the largest and most complex archaeological site north of the pre-Columbian cities of Mexico, is a National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Key features of this civilization were large earthen mounds. The site originally contained 120 of these mounds, 80 which remain today. Monks Mound is the largest and is believed to have been the centerpiece of the ancient city of Cahokia.
You can climb to the top of Monks Mound and get a unique view of the St. Louis skyline, my favorite part about visiting Cahokia Mounds.
Also be sure to check out the exhibits at the Interpretive Center and take a guided tour of the grounds. The entire complex is administered by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. The Interpretive Center is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The grounds are opened daily from dawn to dusk.
Walk Across the Mississippi River at Chain of Rocks Bridge
If you’ve ever wanted to walk or bike across the Mississippi River without having to compete with motor traffic, you can do so via the old Chain of Rocks Bridge. If you followed Route 66 to St. Louis, the Mother Road of America, from 1936 to 1966, you did so by crossing the Chain of Rocks Bridge. The bridge gets its name from a 17-mile shoal (rocky rapids) called the Chain of Rocks that begins just north of St. Louis. Before modern technology simplified navigation, the Chain of Rocks made this stretch of the Mississippi River one of the most dangerous sections on the entire river.
The bridge closed in 1970 after the new Chain of Rocks Bridge was built. It was assumed the old bridge would be demolished, but the high cost to do so prevented that from happening. The bridge got a bit of new life when it was used as the setting of the “69th Street Bridge” in the 1981 movie “Escape from New York.” But it wasn’t until a major renovation in 1998 led to the Chain of Rocks Bridge being transformed into one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world.
It was named to the National Register of Historical Places in 2006. The bridge is more than a mile long. Gas pumps, signs, benches and even parts of cars remind walkers and bikers of the bridge’s connection to Route 66.
It’s a strange feeling walking across the old bridge and seeing the mighty Mississippi flow beneath you and listening to the sounds of the river splashing on shores below. In mid-January, the group that operates the bridge offers Eagle Days, a weekend where visitors can watch bald eagles as they fish, ride ice floes, and soar in the winter weather.
The bridge is open daily for cyclists and walkers from 9 a.m. to dusk.
Go Wild With the Animals at St. Louis Zoo
Located within historical Forest Park, the St. Louis Zoo is a world-class zoo recognized for leadership in the areas of animal management, research, conservation, and education. The zoo started shortly after the 1904 World’s Fair when the city of St. Louis purchased the Smithsonian Institution’s Flight Cage exhibit after the fair ended.
The actual zoo itself was established in 1910 with the Flight Cage being the Zoo’s centerpiece for several years. Now the St. Louis Zoo is home to more than 17,000 animals, many which are rare and endangered, from all seven continents.
Visitors can see cold-natured birds at my favorite, the Penguin and Puffin Coast; get creepy with bugs in the Insect House; stroll through the original 1904 Flight Cage from the World’s Fair; hang out with gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans at the Jungle of the Apes; or watch tigers, cheetahs, and lions lying around in Big Cat Country.
More than 3 million people visit the St. Louis Zoo each year. It’s been voted both America’s Top Free Attraction and Best Zoo in USA Today’s Reader’s Choice Awards. The zoo is normally open year-round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours during the summer.
See “Water Lilies” at St. Louis Art Museum
Works by Matisse, Gaugin, Picasso and Van Gogh can be viewed at the St. Louis Art Museum in Forest Park. The museum is housed in the 1904 World’s Fair Palace of Fine Arts.
More than 30,000 pieces comprise the museum’s collection, dating from ancient times to the present day, and a visitor can easily spend a full day strolling through each of the museum’s galleries. One of the most popular pieces is Monet’s “Water Lilies.” In addition, the museum has the world’s largest collection of pieces by the German artist Max Beckmann.
One of the best things about the St. Louis Art Museum is the view. The museum sits atop Art Hill overlooking the Grand Basin. It’s one of the best overlooks in all of Forest Park.
Other than certain holidays, the St. Louis Art Museum is open year-round, Tuesdays–Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours on Fridays.
Visit Outer Space and Prehistoric Times at St. Louis Science Center
You can visit both outer space and prehistoric times at the St. Louis Science Center, one of the largest science centers in the world. More than one million people visit the center each year, and it is one of the only free nonprofit science museums in the country. The campus has 10 galleries with more than 700 interactive activities.
Also located in Forest Park, the Science Center is filled with hands-on activities for both children and adults. Visitors can explore what it’s like to live and work at the International Space Station at the exhibits in the Boeing Space Station at the Planetarium, listen to a Tyrannosaurus Rex roar as he prepares to eat a Triceratops, attempt to build a replica of the Gateway Arch with blocks, or see real Mercury and Gemini spacecraft (both of which were built in St. Louis).
What I like best at the Science Center is the walkway across Interstate 64/U.S. 40. There are radar guns on the bridge where you can track the speed of the cars racing below.
The Science Center is open every day, except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Hours are Monday – Saturday 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Watch a Musical at The Muny
Visit St. Louis during the summer and you might overhear someone saying “Meet Me at The Muny.” Another of the great attractions in Forest Park, The Muny has approximately 11,000 seats and has hosted musical theater performances for more than 100 years.
The Muny performs shows between June and August. The back nine rows of the theater (about 1,500 seats) are free, on a first-come, first-serve basis. Free seats like these have been a part of Muny history since its inception as a way to allow all people, regardless of their economic status, to experience the joy of live theater. The casts of the shows are a mixture of local actors and big-name stars. Productions in recent years have included “Jersey Boys,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Kinky Boots,” “A Chorus Line” and “Newsies.”
I’ve been to the Muny several times and usually sit in the free seats. I can honestly say that the stage is so big, there really isn’t a bad seat in the house.
Explore History at Missouri History Museum
History lovers visiting St. Louis can explore both St. Louis and Missouri history at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. The museum includes exhibits that feature displays and artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition; Charles Lindbergh’s historic transatlantic flight in 1927; the 1904 World’s Fair, and Missouri’s connection to Route 66.
Visitors can also explore St. Louis’ love affair with baseball, from the Browns to the Cardinals, and discover what life was like along the Mississippi River during the 1800s.
Interest in St. Louis and Missouri history was particular high after the 1904 World’s Fair. Proceeds from the fair led to the construction of the distinctive Jefferson Memorial, the home of the Missouri History Museum. This building is the first national monument to Thomas Jefferson that recognized his role in the Louisiana Purchase.
Other than certain holidays, the museum is normally open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours on Tuesdays.
Gaze at Deer at Grant’s Farm
If you want to see some wild animals, but avoid the crowds at the St. Louis Zoo, then check out Grant’s Farm, which is on land once owned by Ulysses S. Grant before the Civil War. President Grant built a home here with his own hands and named it Hardscrabble. Hardscrabble still stands on the property, and is the only building left standing that President Grant built himself. You can visit Hardscrabble at Grant’s Farm as well as see a host of animals, including buffalo, camels, kangaroos, donkeys, goats and peacocks.
In addition, there’s a whole section of the park that contains all kinds of deer. Most of these animals can be seen via a tram that takes visitors from the park entrance to the Bauernhof, a German beer garden. Some of the famous Clydesdale horses are also located here but are kept in a barn and stable near the parking lot. While on the grounds, visitors of legal drinking age are also given two free beverages.
The Bauernhof is a great place to get a bite to eat or grab a drink. It’s like the Germany Pavilion at the World Showcase at EPCOT, but on a much smaller scale.
Grant’s Farm offers many other activities, such as tours and camel rides, but these all come with an extra charge. Also, while Grant’s Farm itself is free to enter, parking is not. Grant’s Farm is open on a varied schedule, which can be found online.
Drink Free Beer at Anheuser-Busch Brewery
St. Louis is a beer-drinking and beer-loving city. Before Prohibition, the city was home to more than 30 breweries. Only a handful of these survived Prohibition and re-started beer production after the Repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Anheuser-Busch gained the lion’s share of beer business after the Repeal and became a prominent player both nationally and internationally.
You can examine how this came to be by taking a general brewery tour of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery. The free tour lasts approximately 45 minutes, and tour guests 21 and over receive a couple of complimentary beverages.
While on the tour, guests can observe the brewing process, get to feel the cool Beechwood Aging Cellars, and see the Clydesdale horses. The architecture of the various buildings are impressive, with many red brick Romanesque structures with crenelated towers. Three of the buildings on campus are listed on the National Register of Historical Places: the stables, where the Clydesdale horses are kept, the Old Lyon Schoolhouse, and the Brew House.
The Anheuser-Busch Brewery is open year-round, except Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The hours change on a bi-monthly schedule.
Wander Through Laumeier Sculpture Park
Stroll through Laumeier Sculpture Park and the thing that is most impressive is the massive size of many of the sculptures, whether it’s the park’s signature piece, Alexander Liberman’s “The Way,” or Tony Tasset’s “Eye.” The sculptures force visitors to walk around, under and through them. They also make for some pretty impressive Instagram photos.
Laumeier Sculpture Park, founded in 1976, was one of the first dedicated sculpture parks in the country, and, with 105 acres, it is also one of the largest. There are more than 60 outdoor sculptures on the property. In addition, there is an indoor gallery and another building that houses educational facilities.
While it’s located smack in the middle of a residential area of the city, the park feels more like a part of nature. It’s a great place for a daily walk or to spend an afternoon with family.
Laumeier is open from 8 a.m. to 30 minutes past sunset daily. except during special events: Laumeier is closed the Thursday–Sunday of Art Fair weekend in May and on Christmas. Visitors are asked to check in at the Visitor Center in the Aronson Fine Arts Center during regular building hours.
Author Bio: Tom Varner is a freelance writer living in southern Illinois. He’s lived in the St. Louis metro east area for much of his life.