After paying for airfare and accommodations, admission to attractions can quickly become another large expense when traveling the world. Home to the Smithsonian Institute and towering monuments, Washington, D.C. offers the most free things to do in the United States. And in America’s heartland, St. Louis is only second to the nation’s capital in offering the same. From impressive museums to historic sites — including a UNESCO World Heritage site — stretch your travel budget to the max by checking out these fantastic free things to do in St. Louis.
Note: Some of my experiences were hosted by Explore St. Louis. All opinions are my own.
1. Saint Louis Art Museum
Behind a statue of the city’s patron saint, mounted on his horse with his sword raised toward the heavens, the city’s most prominent art museum is located in what was the Palace of Fine Arts during the 1904 World’s Fair. Perched on a green hill overlooking the grand basin in Forest Park, the Saint Louis Art Museum contains more than 34,000 works of art from a wide range of cultures spanning 5,000 years of human history. Admission to the museum’s main collection is always free, and visitors can enjoy free admission to special exhibits on Fridays.
Pro Tip: When you visit the Saint Louis Art Museum, be sure to check out these 22 new works of art, including two pieces from Pablo Picasso.
2. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum
Enjoy more amazing art in the Gateway City by venturing to the Kemper Art Museum on the Washington University campus. One of the oldest teaching museums in the country, this free attraction in St. Louis is filled with impressive works from American and European artists from the 19th to 21st centuries.
Pro Tip: If you love art museums, but regularly travel with someone who is less enthusiastic about them, check out these tips.
3. Missouri History Museum
In a stately building constructed with the proceeds from the 1904 World’s Fair, the Missouri History Museum shares the history of St. Louis from 1764 to today. Learn more about the Louisiana Purchase that essentially doubled the size of the nation, the 1904 World’s Fair, Charles Lindbergh’s historic transatlantic flight, and the Civil Rights Movement in St. Louis.
Pro Tip: Although entrance to the museums at Forest Park is free, expect to pay approximately $10–$15 per attraction to park in adjacent parking lots. Or, if you’re willing to walk a short distance, free curbside parking is often available.
4. Saint Louis Science Center
In the southeast corner of Forest Park, the Saint Louis Science Center is one of the largest science museums and planetariums in the United States and one of the only free science museums in the nation. More than a million people visit the domed, futuristic-looking building each year to explore everything from prehistoric life to the solar system.
Pro Tip: While admission to the Saint Louis Science Center is free, there is a fee for certain experiences, including planetarium shows, OMNIMAX movies, and flight simulators.
5. Saint Louis Zoo
Stretching along the southern part of the park in what was the World’s Fair Flight Cage, the St. Louis Zoo is one of the best zoos in the Midwest, exhibiting 500 species of fish, birds, mammals, and other animals in spacious, natural enclosures. Visitors can see everything from ants to zebras for free at the zoo but will have to pay to ride the carousel or attend the annual Wild Lights event.
Pro Tip: Here are several other U.S. zoos with free admission.
6. Forest Park
In addition to its museums and zoo, the 1,300-acre greenspace in the heart of St. Louis that once hosted the 1904 World’s Fair is larger than New York City’s Central Park and offers just as much to see and do. Take a self-guided audio tour, enjoy a bird walk led by the St. Louis Audubon Society, or rent a boat and paddle across the Post-Dispatch Lake.
Pro Tip: In addition to the free museums and outdoor adventures in Forest Park, here are several other things you have to do when you’re in St. Louis.
7. World Chess Hall Of Fame
A few blocks from the northeast corner of Forest Park, with the world’s largest chess piece marking the spot, the World Chess Hall of Fame celebrates one of the world’s oldest games. This free museum includes an impressive display of unique chess boards, including the chess pieces used in Bobby Fischer’s legendary win against Boris Spassky at the 1972 World Chess Championship.
Pro Tip: Although there is no admission fee, visitor donations help fund museum exhibits and educational programs.
8. Gateway Arch National Park
Covering 90 acres under the towering 630-foot-tall silver arch symbolizing the gateway to the western United States, the Gateway Arch National Park stretches from the Old Courthouse to the Mississippi River. And while you can expect to pay about $35 to visit America’s first national park, Yellowstone, there is no fee to explore one of the nation’s newest national parks.
9. Museum At The Gateway Arch
Built into the base of the Gateway Arch, the Museum at the Gateway Arch is another fantastic free thing to do in St. Louis. Recently updated, interactive galleries guide visitors through 200 years of American history about the important role that St. Louis played in America’s westward expansion.
Pro Tip: Even though there is a small fee to ride the tram to the top of St. Louis’s most famed attraction, it’s reasonably priced and delivers unparalleled views of the city.
10. Old Courthouse
The Gateway Arch National Park is more than a skyscraping stainless steel arch and museum. It also includes the Old Courthouse, home to two trials that helped advance civil rights in the United States. In the mid 1800s, an enslaved man, Dred Scott, sued for his freedom. And 20 years later, women’s suffragist Virginia Minor sued for the right to vote. Although both Scott and Minor lost their cases, the rulings helped spark the flames that would ultimately lead to the Civil War, the 13th Amendment in 1865 abolishing slavery, and the 19th Amendment in 1920 giving all American women the right to vote.
11. Basilica Of St. Louis
In the shadow of the city’s symbolic arch, the Basilica of St. Louis (also known as the Old Cathedral) was the first cathedral west of the Mississippi River. You can step inside and respectfully admire the historic church for free (just remember it is an active parish). You can also visit its museum for a small fee.
12. Soldiers Memorial Military Museum
Housed in an impressive art deco building about a half mile west of the Old Courthouse, the Soldiers Memorial Military Museum honors the nation’s brave military men and women. An engraved black marble monument lists the names of the St. Louisans who perished during World War I. And prominently displayed nearby is the bell from the USS St. Louis, a naval ship from World War I that brought troops home from Europe. A wide range of exhibits, featuring uniforms, hand-written notes, and other items, tells the personal stories of other men and women who gave their lives for the United States from World War I through the Vietnam War.
With water features and trees drowning out the hustle and bustle of the city that surrounds it, Citygarden is an oasis in the heart of downtown St. Louis. Just a short walk from the Old Courthouse, this lush square city block is filled with fragrant flowers, comfortable benches, and a variety of public art.
14. Grant’s Farm
If the first thing that comes to mind when you think about St. Louis is Budweiser, then the second thing might be the magnificent Clydesdale horses. Since Anheuser-Busch no longer offers complimentary tours that allow you to meet the iconic draft horses and sample the Bud, fellow animal (and beer) lovers will want to visit Grant’s Farm. Surrounding a log cabin built by President Ulysses S. Grant, this free attraction is an animal reserve with a beer garden full of history!
Pro Tip: Like many of the free things to do in St. Louis, there is no admission fee to visit Grant’s Farm. But expect to pay $15 for parking.
15. James S. McDonnell Prologue Room
Although this free attraction is only open to the public during the summer months of June, July, and August, the Prologue Room at Boeing’s St. Louis headquarters encompasses more than 100 years of aviation history and honors the pioneers of flight. See actual-size Mercury and Gemini capsules and large-scale models of several iconic planes, including Air Force One.
16. Cahokia Mounds
Just across the Mississippi River in Illinois, but still in the greater St. Louis metro area, Cahokia Mounds is one of just 24 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the United States. This impressive pre-Columbian Indigineous community designed complex mounds, raised crops, traded goods with other native cultures, and was more populous than London by the 13th century.
Pro Tip: To explore other UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Midwest, check out these Frank Lloyd Wright sites.
From art museums to animal encounters and from historic buildings to a World Heritage site, St. Louis is full of fantastic free things to do when you visit.
If you wish to learn more about the Midwest, explore the rest of our coverage: