St. Louis is known for the Gateway Arch, Cardinals Baseball and the Anheuser Busch Brewery. While all three should be on your to-do list during your visit, that's really just the beginning. And get this: a lot of the coolest things to do in St. Louis are free!
One tip though: St. Louis' public transportation isn't great. Renting a car is usually best, but don't leave all your belongings in plain sight. (Car break-ins do happen.)
1. Forest Park
This is where Judy Garland wanted everyone to meet her for the 1904 World's Fair. Today, the Art Museum building and the bird cage at the zoo are the only two remnants from the fair. It's where you'll find the best of the best when it comes to free experiences in the city.
The St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri History Museum, and St. Louis Science Center are all free, every single day, for everyone. There are some special exhibits that charge an entrance fee, and you must pay to ride the train or see the sea lion show at the zoo. But the prices are reasonable.
In the summer, you can watch soon-be-stars under the stars at The Muny amphitheatre in Forest Park. The last nine rows are free for every performance. Gates for the seats open at 7 p.m.
Movies are shown on Art Hill on Fridays in July and early August, the zoo hosts Jungle Boogie Concerts on Friday evenings from late May through early September, and in June you can enjoy Shakespeare in the Park. Bring a picnic, your drink of choice, and enjoy any of these free experiences.
The Missouri Botanical Garden is home to one of the largest Japanese Gardens in North America. If you're taking a trip to St. Louis with children, there is a hidden gem inside the Garden itself: the Children's Garden is one of the best venues to entertain kids in the entire city. It's so well done. There are places to climb and slide, a general store, and an area where you can make music. It's open from April-October.
The Botanical Garden is free to St. Louis City and County residents every Wednesday and Saturday before noon, except during special admission rate events. In the summer, anyone can get in free on Wednesdays after 5 p.m. for the Whitaker Music Festival. Bring some chairs, a blanket, a picnic basket, and enjoy the evening.
The Fox Theatre is located in Midtown St. Louis and hosts Broadway national tours and other performances. It's a wonderful space with an opulent interior. If you can't catch a show, tours are offered most Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. (Tickets for the tours go on sale starting at 10 a.m.) Each tour lasts about 1.5 hours. The Saturday tour includes an organ presentation, which is a Fox Theatre tradition. (The multi-talented Stan Kann played the theatre's Mighty Wurlitzer for nearly three decades.)
This is another gem, especially if you play (although you don't have to be into the game to enjoy it). The World Chess Hall of Fame is free and open every day, although a small donation is suggested. You'll know you've arrived when you see the World's Largest Chess Piece outside. There are unique chess boards, information about the grandmasters, and other special exhibits that rotate. If you know how to play, you can even join a pick-up game outside!
The free tour at the Anheuser Busch Brewery is well-attended by visitors to St. Louis. It lasts about 45 minutes, and, while learning about the brewery process is interesting, the highlight is seeing the Budweiser Clydesdales and their stables. The building dates from 1885 and a chandelier from the 1904 World's Fair hangs in the center. Of course, the free samples at the end aren't bad either.
Tickets for specific tour times are given out at the brewery on a first come, first served basis, which means you may have to wait a bit. You can also reserve a time in advance, which will cost $5 per ticket. There are other tours with varying experiences and prices available.
Just across the Mississippi River in Illinois, you'll find the largest prehistoric native site north of Mexico. In fact, its population was larger than London in AD 1250, estimated to be between 10,000 and 20,000 people. During your visit, you'll learn about the Mississippian culture, see a reconstructed ancient sun calendar, climb Monks Mound, the largest prehistoric earthen structure in the country. Guided tours are available. Admission is free, but there is a suggested donation.
7. Gateway Arch, Old Courthouse, and Riverboat Cruises
A trip to St. Louis wouldn't be complete without visiting The Gateway Arch. It's the tallest monument in the country. If you're concerned about taking the tram to the top - it's cozy, but that's part of the fun! Once you get to the top, you'll be able to see for miles. If it's windy, there can be a bit of a sway.
The Museum of Westward Expansion, which is under the Arch, has been undergoing major renovations since 2015 and is scheduled to open in 2018. Because of the construction, you can buy your tickets at the Old Courthouse about a third of a mile away.
The Old Courthouse has played a significant role in U.S. history. In 1847 and 1850, Dred and Harriet Scott sued for their freedom here. It's also where Virginia Minor fought for women's rights to vote in the 1870s. There are guided tours throughout the day.
If you want to get on the river, try a riverboat cruise. You can ride either the Becky Thatcher or Tom Sawyer paddle boats. Reservations are recommended.
The Daniel Boone home is about 35 minutes west of St. Louis on a beautiful 300-acre site. As you take the winding roads to get there, you'll wonder how the Boone family made it here in the 1800s. The rooms of the home are very detailed, and the guided tours are fantastic. You do have to pay admission to look inside, but you can walk through the village behind the home for free.
This area of Missouri is also known for its vineyards. There are several wineries in nearby Defiance and Augusta. Chandler Hill Vineyards is actually on the way to the Daniel Boone Home, so you can stop, enjoy a glass of wine, and have a bite to eat.
If you're a music fan, this is a must stop. The museum has several interactive displays which allow you to perform your own blues song. There's also plenty of memorabilia, and, of course, fantastic information about the history of the Blues and how it influenced other styles of music. Be sure to check the events calendar and go when there's a live performance scheduled. The museum is located in downtown St. Louis and charges admission.
St. Louis has a rich aviation history, and there's a fantastic display that many have never heard of. It's the James S. McDonnell Prologue Room at Boeing St. Louis headquarters. You'll be able to see large-scale models of the F/A-18 Hornet and AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, a full-scale model of a JDAM smart weapon, and full-size replicas of the Mercury and Gemini capsules. It's only open during the summer, but it's free. It's located near St. Louis-Lambert International Airport.
11. St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Blues
St. Louis takes great pride in its sports teams. It's fun to catch a Cards game, or see the Blues take to the ice if you're more of a hockey fan. You can get a look inside Busch Stadium year-round just by walking outside.
Across the street, in Ballpark Village, there are bars and restaurants. That's where you'll find the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum, one of the largest team-specific collections of artifacts and memorabilia in the world. If you're a Cards fan, you'll really enjoy taking a seat and calling some of the team's greatest plays. As the late, great Jack Buck would say, "That's a winner!"
12. Ted Drewes and Crown Candy Kitchen
These family run businesses will be your sweetest experiences in St. Louis.
Ted Drewes serves frozen custard on Historic Route 66. Order a concrete and don't be concerned when they flip it upside down before they hand it to you. Just don't try it yourself, especially on a hot summer day. If the lines look long when you arrive, don't worry - they move quickly.
You'll feel like you've stepped back in time at Crown Candy Kitchen, which opened in 1913. You can get a milkshake to go, but try to grab a table, order a BLT or a Rueben, and then order a malt, shake, crown sundae, or the fire chief special. You will be full! If you happen to visit during Christmas or Easter, their chocolate Santas and Easter Bunnies make wonderful gifts!