Saint Louis is one of the best vacation destinations in America, in terms of both fun and affordability. Free options abound, and the sheer number of family-friendly activities to choose from means your biggest challenge will be fitting everything into your itinerary! Downtown hotels are a bargain compared to other major American cities, and many of the tourist attractions are concentrated in specific areas, so you won't have to stop and fill the gas tank too frequently during your visit.
Saint Louis Science Center: This is an attraction kids (and kids-at-heart) will enjoy immensely, and general admission is free. However, special exhibits OMNIMAX and the Planetarium shows are extra. (Senior citizens get discounted rates to these attractions on Tuesdays, and visitors can see the 10 p.m. Omnimax show for free on first Fridays). Avoid the $10 daily parking charge by finding a free spot near the Planetarium entrance in Forest Park. I lived in St. Louis during my daughter's pre-school years, and the Science Center was one of her favorite places. As a young family starting out, the free admission enabled us to visit the Science Center as often as we wanted. If you score free parking in Forest Park, taking the pedestrian bridge over the interstate is a fun bonus for kids, as they can use radar guns to check the speed of the cars driving beneath them.
Saint Louis Zoo: I've lived in several major US cities and can attest to the fact that the Saint Louis Zoo is one of the best in the country. The layout is user-friendly, the attractions are well-maintained, and the diversity of exhibits is impressive. Best of all, admission is free. Similar to the Science Center, the zoo does charge for exhibits such as the Sea Lion Show, children's zoo, carousel and railroad. Keep the visit frugal by limiting yourself to one paid option or buy the Safari Pass ($10 per person), which gives you access to several of the aforementioned exhibits. If your hotel is downtown, public transit to the zoo may be cheaper than the $15 zoo parking charge ($10 in the off-season).
Free Art: The Saint Louis Museum of Art, located in beautiful Forest Park, is always free, and special exhibits are free on Fridays. (The museum is closed on Mondays). Check their website for information on specifics of the free docent-led tours of the museum's collection.
The Citygarden: Located in downtown Saint Louis, this is another terrific place to see free public art, including the whimsical “Big White Gloves, Big Four Wheels” sculpture inspired by Pinocchio. Make sure to throw your kids' swimsuits in your backpack in order to take advantage of Citygarden's spray plaza, featuring 102 vertical jets; free fun appreciated on a hot summer day!
The Arch: No visit to Saint Louis would be complete without seeing the iconic Arch located along the riverfront downtown. This is the perfect location for a picnic. So hit the grocery store for sandwiches and drinks, and bring a blanket. There is plenty of green space to relax while you enjoy people-watching, taking photos of the Arch, and letting the kids run around to expend some energy. Many of my family and friends who came to visit were a bit wary about going to the top of the structure. Those with a fear of heights will miss out on a terrific view of the city, but they'll save some money in the process. The Museum of Westward Expansion, located inside the Arch, is free and a nice way to pass the time while the more adventurous among your group take the tram 630 feet up for the Journey to the Top.
Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis: Those with an interest in architecture, art, or church history will be completely overwhelmed by the beauty of this structure located in the Central West End neighborhood, just a short drive from downtown. The Basilica is home to the largest mosaic installation in the world. Visitors can stop in for a free self-guided tour of the cathedral, as well as visit the museum on the lower level ($1 admission) to learn about the craftsmen and artisans who created this magnificent space.
Grant's Farm: Just a short drive out of the city, Grant's Farm is an attraction owned by the Busch family and is the location of Ulysses Grant's cabin dating back to 1855. The farm also features exotic animals from around the world (including bison and zebras), a Tier Garten where kids can pet and hand-feed a variety of animals, the ever-popular Clydesdale stables and a German-style Bauernhof where adults can sample Anheuser-Busch beer products for free. The $12 parking fee includes admission for everyone in your car; the tram ride and all shows at the park are free.
Free tourist sites are available in almost every city across the country. Here are some tips for finding free tourist attractions:
Travel/Tourist Websites: The official tourism site for the city or state you are visiting is a great resource for fun and free things to do. Each site is run by the local tourism department. If you need help finding free activities, call or send an email. These cities want you to come visit and will happily provide you with all the information you need.
Local Visitor's Bureau: Make the local visitor's bureau your first stop. Tell them you are interested in free local activities, and see what they come up with. Best of all, you'll probably receive a few free maps while you're there (which means that you won't have to ask for directions or buy a map of your own when you get lost).
Ask Locals: Who knows better than residents the best of free things to do. Every town has a few hidden gems, and if you don't ask, you might not find them.
Call Before You Go: Before you head out to a tourist site, pick up the phone and ask a few questions. Many places offer reduced prices or free tickets on certain days and times or have free exhibits available. Don't be afraid to ask for discounts and specials.
TripAdvisor.com: This is a fantastic site with plenty of content and reviews generated by actual tourists. Before visiting an attraction, check out the reviews. Also look for hidden gems and other things to do.
This has been a guest post by Jennifer from Indianapolis, IN
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