What about a family-friendly, walkable city for a vacation? How much better would it be if I told you there are free activities everywhere? Meet me in St. Louis!
St. Louis is a great city to explore with the family and definitely fits the bill for my love of walking cities. There are so many free and inexpensive places to explore that it can be a very affordable family vacation as well! Prepare to pay to park once and walk around all day. Bring some good shoes, your backpack, a snack, and a water bottle. There are going to be some long days on this vacation – but so much goodness.
Let me show you why!
Gateway Arch National Park and Museum
That giant arch can be seen all over the town and as you cross into Missouri from the east. Can you get more St. Louis than the arch? For free, you can walk around the national park and spend time in the museum. But you need to consider how much time you have available to stay at Gateway Arch. If you choose to do the tram ride, you have to be prepared and buy tickets ahead of time as they may sell out. Each ride will be an hour in addition to waiting for your time. Make this a full day adventure and add on the steamboat ride.
Because of our limited time in the St. Louis, my family and I opted to not take the ride up into the arch. I did pay to watch the documentary about the building of the arch, and it really made the construction even more impressive. Although everyone I’ve talked to says I was ridiculous to not splurge, I think our time was well used because we spent so much time in the excellent museum that starts with early American history – including nearby Cahokia Mounds (go visit!) – and covers centuries. There is so much history to learn and review in this museum. It’s beautifully done.
- Walk around the arch outside and watch the paddle boats along the Mississippi River.
- Eat your picnic on the grassy area while letting the kids run around to burn some energy.
- Enter the National Park building and grab your junior ranger packets at the desk.
- Buy tickets for an extra activity: paddleboat ride, documentary movie, tram ride to the top.
- Work on your Junior Ranger packets and spend several hours in the museum.
- Shop the gift shop for souvenirs!
Even if you have no interest or time in going in to the museum, go hang out at the park and marvel at its size. This green area has different trails for walking and historical placards to find. It’s an excellent place to eat a picnic. If you’re ready to keep on moving, head into downtown away from the river to the Citygarden.
Cons: This whole area is such a busy place, and some parts of the museum aren’t very spaced out. There may be times that you feel very crowded, so aim for during the week!
Walking through downtown, take in the architecture of the surrounding buildings (check out this free app), but come back to ground level to follow the path of the twenty-four interactive sculptures along Citygarden. This isn’t just a collection of boring old sculptures. Let the kids peek out through some giant heads, scale the abstract metal creations, and look for some favorite characters. Along the path there are water play areas, a playground, water fountains, and even a waterfall. If your kids normally complain about “art”, this is a great way to see the city and see some fun creativity but to good use.
Download a map and follow the art. This is a great way to get between other sites or just to explore for several hours. Once the museums have closed at 5 PM, come back to the park when the lights have come on and the art looks even better. Come prepared to allow some dawdling and exploring! Keep on walking through downtown until you end up at the library – it’s right in the same area.
Downtown Central Library
With a family of book nerds, wandering old libraries has become a new favorite tourist attraction. They’re free and full of architecture and history. Bonus if they have a little museum or display as well.
While St. Louis has many beautiful downtown libraries, we visited the St. Louis Central Public Library. With soaring gold ceilings, this one is historic and beautiful. Libraries are more than just books – although my little book nerd enjoyed exploring the book shelves.
The St. Louis Union Station should have been researched by me before we approached it. Know what you’re doing, and don’t be like me. We parked across the street, admired the statues in the fountain across the street, and walked up to the doorman. Then, I asked where the train station was only to be met with a confused look. Embarrassing fact: There hasn’t been a train here for years.
This is a hotel in the historical building, and at the time of our visit, it was hosting a big conference so we didn’t get to wander around. We sat upstairs in the big lounge, acting as if we belonged as we did in Memphis with the Peabody Hotel. The original ceiling and architecture are beautiful with a soaring arched ceiling.
The pull for us to come to Union Station was to experience the free Grand Hall Light Show… Yes, it’s narrated by John Goodman. However, it lasted only minutes. Instead of waiting of the light show, just see the impressive building and call it done. Your kids may think the show is amazing; we were more impressed with the whispering arch next to the doors.
If you are willing to pay for a full Union Station adventure, plan to spend your evening exploring the world of restaurants, an aquarium, and even a Ferris wheel just past the hotel portion in the area that once housed the trains.
St. Louis Zoo and Forest Park
Forrest Park is the Central Park of St. Louis. Within the 1,300 acre park, there are multiple free places including the zoo, history and art museums, and science center. You could easily plan to spend a day in the Forest Park area; bring the scooters and a picnic to stay for awhile.
Name me another city that has a top-notch, free zoo? Don’t be turned off by the “free” part of the St. Louis Zoo; it’s huge and lovely. The size of this zoo is equal to any other zoo, and the animals have excellent spaces. As a warning, just because the zoo opens early, that doesn’t mean that the animals will be out to be seen. We arrived at opening time, so we would have time to go other places. However, when we arrived, many of the animals were still behind the scenes. Based on how crowded other places were during our visit, it might be a good idea waiting to do the zoo mid-day so you can spread out if it’s crowded.
Also in Forest Park, plan to check out:
Bonus Meal Suggestion
Drive over for supper in Little Italy. While this isn’t within walking distance, the fire hydrants are painted like the Italian flag. Those are fun in themselves. There are many authentic Italian restaurants and bakeries in this area. We ate at Anthonino’s Taverna under the smiling face of Guy Fieri. It was so good. If you want to see his other Food Network TV show recommendations, check out this list. Food adventures are a must on our family trips.