St. Louis is a great place to live or travel on a budget. Many people are blown away that so many of the top attractions around town don’t charge a penny of admission.
Part of the reason we are able to adventure so often is because it costs so little to explore locally! While some places do have a charge for parking or extra activities, general admission to all of these attractions is completely free.
Gateway Arch National Park
The Gateway Arch is definitely the biggest and tallest attraction around town. The arch became a full National Park a few years back with extensive upgrades to the grounds and a museum beneath the arch.
While there is a fee to ride the tram the top of the arch or take in a movie about the arch construction, the park grounds and the Gateway Arch Museum are completely free! The museum is interactive and educational for all ages to learn about the history and culture of the area. Kids can even earn a junior ranger badge.
Bonus Tips: Allow extra time to go through security to enter the museum or tram. If you decide to ride the tram, book tickets in advance as they often sell out. Parking is available in several garages, along the streets downtown, or on Laclede’s Landing. We usually park in the street along Kiener Plaza or in one of the lots on the Landing. Metered parking downtown is free on Sundays and holidays. The Old Courthouse is also an amazing part of the national park, but is currently closed for renovations.
St. Louis Zoo
Every list of the best free things to do in St. Louis has to include the zoo. The St. Louis Zoo is often voted as the top zoo in the country and even the best free attraction in the U.S. with good reason. Over 14,000 animals represent 500 different species. 90 acres of attractions include popular exhibits such as Polar Bear Point, Sea Lion Sound, River’s Edge, and the new Primate Canopy Trails. It’s such a bargain you may have to visit several times to see it all!
While general admission is free, there is a charge for special attractions such as the train, Dinosaur exhibit, Stingrays, and Sea Lion show. Combo packages are available for purchase. There is also a charge for parking in the zoo lots. However, you can park along the streets next to the zoo in Forest Park for free!
Bonus Tips: Free online reservations are required, and can fill up fast on weekends and holidays. Free street parking is easy to find if you arrive early near the zoo’s opening time. Crowds are much smaller and the animals are often active. Note that some exhibits may not open or certain animals may not be out until 30-60 minutes after opening. Before COVID, certain special exhibits, carousel, etc. were free the first hour, but that is no longer the case. You can bring in your own food and drinks as refreshments are pricey.
St. Louis Science Center
St. Louis is filled with free museums and the Science Center is no exception. Families will love the interactive exhibits including learning about dinosaurs, energy, the weather, agriculture, structures, space, and more.
While admission to most exhibits is free, there is a charge for special shows and exhibit areas such as the Omnimax movies and Planetarium shows. Parking used to be available for free on the Planetarium side in Forest Park, but that entrance is currently closed. The only entrance open is the main entrance which has a charge of $12-$15 for parking.
Bonus Tips: Reservations are not required for general admission, but you can reserve tickets online in advance for special attractions/shows.
St. Louis History Museum
Another amazing and free museum, the St. Louis History Museum features permanent and changing exhibits on the history and culture of the area. The 1904 World’s Fair and Seeking St. Louis exhibits are favorites for our whole family. Don’t miss the free History Clubhouse area designed just for kids with areas of pretend play and education.
Bonus Tips: Parking is free. The Forest Park Wonderland Playground is located a short distance from the History Museum and is a great place to play.
St. Louis Art Museum
Yet another museum freebie in the city, the St. Louis Art Museum is historic and impressive. The museum features a large permanent collection along with visiting exhibitions. While most of the museum would be better suited for older children and adults, they do offer events designed just for the little ones.
Bonus Tips: Parking is free. The Art Museum is near the St. Louis Zoo so traffic and parking can be busier during peak weekends and holidays.
Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site
Another National Park site within St. Louis can be found at the Grant National Historic Site. This site preserves White Haven, the family home of Grant’s wife Julia. Grant and Julia lived on the property in the 1850s with their growing family. Kids can earn a junior ranger badge by learning about the Union Civil War general who went on to become the 18th President of the United States.
Bonus Tips: GPS can direct drivers to the wrong location. The entrance is located at 7400 Grant Rd, St. Louis, MO 63123. Parking is free.
Right across from the Ulysses S. Grant Historic Site is the location of Grant’s Farm. This site has been owned by the Busch family since 1903. The grounds include Grant’s original log cabin home as well as over 900 animals both big and small.
A visit includes an open-air tram around the grounds, animal shows, and the opportunity to visit the Clydesdales. Additional activities such as goat feeding or the carousel do have fees.
Bonus Tips: While admission is free, parking costs around $15. Discount coupons for parking can often be found online. Alternatively, you can bike or walk in from the Grant’s Trail bike trail to enter for free!
Frisco Train Store
If you have little train fans and need an indoor spot to play, check out the wonderful Frisco Train Store. The store features a HUGE wooden toy train layout with plenty of trains and accessories. Several other toy train tables and pretend play areas are also available. Wooden benches in this historic former hotel building provide a place for parents to relax and watch the fun.
While it is completely free for kids to play, please consider supporting this small local business with a purchase or donation. Even if your kids aren’t into trains, they also feature a large assortment of Melissa & Doug toys for sale.
Bonus Tips: Don’t miss the real caboose located at a small park just across the road.
While the aquarium, wheel, and other major attractions at Union Station are not free, there are two fun shows that are! The Fire and Light Show happens daily on the hour from 12-9 p.m. This show features a 100 foot long waterfall with 50 nozzles that spray water 40 feet down into the Union Station lake. Eight lotus shaped pods on the lake shoot flames 25 feet into the air. The whole things is set to lights and music.
The other free show is the light show on the ceiling of the Grand Hall. Each evening from 5-10 p.m., visitors can watch a 3D projection show of colors and animation on the ceiling of the hall. It’s quite beautiful to watch.
Old Chain of Rocks Bridge
If you want to have a chance to walk across the Mississippi River, check out the old and historic Chain of Rocks Bridge. This bridge once carried Route 66 travelers across the mighty river between Illinois and Missouri. The bridge is not open only to pedestrians and bicyclists for a great view of the river and the historic water intake towers.
Bonus Tips: The bridge is only accessible from the Illinois side at 4205 Chain of Rocks Rd, Granite City, IL Do not leave any valuables in your car.
Chocolate Factory Tour
If you have a sweet tooth and want to see just how those tasty treats are made, try taking a free chocolate factory tour. The ChocolateChocolate, Chocolate Company offers free tours every half hour. Just be sure to make a reservation in advance.
One of the best free things to do in St. Louis is to check out a local park. Forest Park is one of the biggest and most beautiful urban parks in the country. There is a lot to explore across its 1,300 acres. The park is the home of the zoo and several museums plus miles of trails and lush gardens and landscaping.
There are two playgrounds perfect for kids. The Wonder Variety playground is a hidden gem and accessible for kids off all abilities. The new Nature Playscape area provides endless exploration in a natural setting.
City Garden and Kiener Plaza
Kiener Plaza and City Garden are two parks located in downtown St. Louis just behind the Old Courthouse. Kiener Plaza boasts a playground and water features as well as various events throughout the year.
City Garden is a fun sculpture park that includes pathways and water features. In summer, this is a popular play area for kids with fountains and pools to splash in.
Bonus Tips: Metered street parking and parking garages are loacted all around the parks. Metered parking is free on Sundays and city holidays! Security and park attendants are on site at both places, with extra staff in summer. Sometimes there are portable restrooms, otherwise no public restrooms.
Laumeier Sculpture Park
Laumeier Sculpture Park is a quirky and budget friendly spot to explore. You can explore winding paved and earth trails past over 70 sculptures on 105 acres. While the park is kid friendly, review the interaction guidelines to know which sculptures can or cannot be touched, walk on, or climbed.
Bonus Tips: Parking is free in two different lots. Restrooms are located in several locations on the grounds. A map is helpful to determine which areas to explore.
Powder Valley Nature Center
Powder Valley is a great free nature attraction in St. Louis. The site consists of a conservation area with three different trails. All of the trails are short and paved, but two of them do have some steep hills that would be challenging with a stroller.
The Nature Center at Powder Valley is a real gem. The center has interactive and educational exhibits that all ages will enjoy. Don’t miss viewing the treehouse, beehive, aquarium, and Peanut the turtle.
Bonus Tips: While the grounds are open daily 8-6, the Nature Center is closed Sundays, Mondays, and major holidays.
Lone Elk Park
Lone Elk Park has an interesting history. The grounds were once used for the testing and storage of ammunition during WWII. Today, this county park is a wildlife management area, with bison, wild turkey, waterfowl, elk and deer.
Guests can view the wildlife safely from their vehicle. There is also a visitor’s center and two hiking trails. Just note that motorcycles are prohibited and pets are not allowed, even if confined in a vehicle.
Bonus Tips: The World Bird Sanctuary is located next to Lone Elk and also worth a visit to see dozens of bird species, watch a bird show, and explore the hiking trails. While admission is not free, it is only $8 per car.
Suson Park is one of the best St. Louis County Parks for kids. This working farm contains a large variety of farm animals for kids to visit and feed. Bring quarters for the feeding machines and don’t miss the great playground at the park.
Bonus Tips: The park is open 8 a.m. – 30 min. past sunset. The animal barn is officially open 10:30 a.m. – 3:00 p.m., but often opens earlier. Restrooms are available.
Fort Belle Fontaine Park
Fort Belle Fontaine is a unique park north of St. Louis. This county park was the site of the first military fort west of the Mississippi River. The fort was abandoned in 1828 before becoming a popular summer retreat. The Works Progress Administration built a number of stone structures at the site. The ruins of these structures can be seen today on a short walking trail.
Bonus Tips: The park is open 8 a.m. – 30 min. past sunset. The park is also a campus site for the Missouri Division of Youth Services. When entering the park, you must stop at the guard station. They will take your information and direct you where to park.
More Free Parks
Parks in St. Louis as well as Missouri State Parks are free. A few good city and county parks in the area to check out are Tower Grove, Jefferson Barracks, Cliff Cave, Bee Tree, Shaw, Tillis, Wildwood, and Faust Park.
Free Attractions Just Outside St. Louis
There are several more great attractions outside St. Louis city and county that are well worth the short drive to visit.
From April through October, guests can visit the Purina Farms site just west of St. Louis. The farm features an indoor exhibit on pets, adoptable cats and dogs in the pet center, farms animals to pet, and a fun kids play area in the barn loft. The Incredible Dog Show is a visit highlight. My kids love watching the dogs perform various tricks and agility courses.
Bonus Tips: Shaw Nature Reserve is a great place to hike and explore close to Purina Farms. An extension of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, the reserve features a variety of native wildflowers and gardens. Admission $5 for adults, free for children 12 & under.
Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park
If you want to get the best Arch view and photograph, head over to the Malcolm Martin Memorial Park in Illinois. An ADA accessible viewing ramp offers the best city skyline view. The tallest fountain in the U.S., the Gateway Geyser, is also found at the park and erupts at noon from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Bonus Tips: An Arch Cam is located at the viewing area. Check it out to find yourself on camera.
A short drive over the river into Illinois, you can find Cahokia Mounds . This state historic site preserves the site of the ancient city of Cahokia, the largest prehistoric Native American city north of Mexico. Over 10 miles of trails wind past 70 preserved mounds. Don’t miss a heart-pumping climb up Monk’s Mound for a view of the St. Louis skyline!
Bonus Tips: The interpretive center and adjacent parking area are currently closed for renovations. The parking lot next to Monk’s Mound and the trails and grounds remain open. There are no restrooms available when the interpretive center is closed.
Willoughby Farm is a Collinsville, Illinois public park. This former working farm has become a place where the history comes to life through historic structures, original tools, and gardens. Several types of animals call the farm home. Kids will love the nature play area and swings while all ages can explore the hills and hollers along 3 miles of hiking trails.
Bonus Tips: Admissions is free except for special events. Bring quarters to feed the goats. Restrooms and picnic pavilions are on site.
Lewis & Clark Historic Site
The Lewis and Clark Historic Site is another free attraction on the Illinois side. The interpretive site explains the preparation and journey of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. The site is located near the winter Camp River DuBois where the corps spent the winter before starting their expedition. A reconstructed camp and cabins can be found outdoors.
Bonus Tips: Kids can earn a Junior Ranger badge at the site. Another nearby attraction is the Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower. Take an elevator 150 up to see the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Admission is $6 adults, $4 for children.
Great Rivers Museum
Another free museum in the metro-east, the Great Rivers Museum in Alton is dedicated to telling the history of the people, nature, and wildlife that have shaped the Mississippi River. The museum is filled with interactive and animated exhibits that show the impact of the Mississippi River on people and the region.
If you time your visit right, you can also take a free tour of the adjacent river locks and dam. The tours are typically held Wednesdays – Sundays at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m.
Bonus Tips: Located a short drive from Alton over the nearby Clark Bridge to the Missouri side is the Audobon Center at Riverlands. This free center was designed to inspire conservation and provide education on the native birds and wildlife of the area. There are several paved and unpaved trails to explore.
I hope this gives you some ideas on how to explore and have an adventure without breaking the bank. Have you every visited St. Louis? If so, what was your favorite attraction?