For as long as I can remember, my family has taken at least a dozen mini-vacations every year, day trips that don’t require leaving town – or if so, just barely. We’re fortunate to live in St. Louis, a city that offers a host of attractions for tourists and locals, but what’s better still is that so many of these are free. In fact, there are more “freebies” available in the St. Louis region than anywhere else outside the nation’s capital.
You won’t find too many areas where you can visit a different family-oriented point of interest every day for more than two months and never pay a dime, other than for the fuel to get there. And many of these free attractions are within easy walking distance of others.
Here is a sampling of what this diverse area has to offer at no charge. It would be daunting to detail every attraction offered, so a more comprehensive list, minus the descriptions, follows.
In 1860, German immigrant Eberhard Anheuser bought a small brewery along the Mississippi River in St. Louis. Four years later he was joined in the business by another German immigrant, Adolphus Busch, who eventually married Anheuser’s daughter, Lilly. Busch’s dream of creating a universally popular brand came true when the company introduced Budweiser in 1876.
The Anheuser-Busch Brewery is a vast complex of brick buildings on 100 acres located in the historic Soulard region just south of downtown St. Louis. An enormous wall on the side of the lager cellars features a sign that is blazoned with an oversize team of Budweiser Clydesdales pulling the famous red beer wagon.
Ninety-minute tours take visitors through several buildings to learn about the Budweiser brewing and packaging process and the Clydesdale horses. At the Brew House, a National Historic Landmark where elegant brew kettles, wall murals, ornate wrought-iron railings and hop vine chandeliers are as they were a century ago, visitors learn about the famous Budweiser brewing process. At the Bevo Packaging Plant, you can watch as the beer is bottled and canned.
Tours also include a visit to the Clydesdale stables, which were once used to house the Busch family’s horses and carriages. Afterward, visitors over age 21 can enjoy two complimentary samples of Anheuser-Busch beers and minors can have soft drinks, and finish up, if they like, at the gift shop. Tours are ADA accessible.
BLACK MADONNA SHRINE AND GROTTOS
In 1927, Cardinal John Glennon, archbishop of St. Louis, invited several Franciscan Brothers from Poland to come to Eureka, Mo. (about 35 miles southwest of downtown St. Louis). Among those who came was Brother Bronislaus Luszcz, who as a young man had watched pilgrims en route to the shrine of Mary in Czestochowa, where the Black Madonna painting, allegedly by St. Luke, was displayed. Over the centuries the painting, so named for the dark complexions of Mary and Jesus, had been moved to Constantinople, then Kiev and finally to Poland.
To honor the pilgrims’ devotion to Mary, Brother Luszcz began in 1937 a 22-year labor of love building a series of grottos from Missouri tiff (which looks similar to sponge rock) and seashells. Walls of the nine grottos – the Stations of the Cross, Our Lady of Sorrows, the Assumption, the Nativity and others – are decorated with costume jewelry donated by visitors and foreign missions.
Paths wind among the grottos to the Chapel of the Hills, a lovely open-air chapel decorated with colorful mosaics and paintings of Our Lady of Czestochowa. The Shrine is partially ADA accessible; several of the grottos have stairs.
This former homestead of President Ulysses S. Grant is one of only two houses still standing that were hand-built and occupied by a U.S. president. Grant and his wife, Julia Dent, had received 80 acres of land as a wedding gift in 1848 (her family owned many more adjacent acres), and he built his cabin there seven years later. The Grant farmstead passed out of the family at his death in 1885, and was owned by various people until it was purchased by August A. Busch Sr. in 1907.
Busch had the Grant cabin moved to St. Louis from nearby Old Orchard, Mo., where it had been since being displayed at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. He also developed the land into a country estate, bringing in deer, horses and cattle.
Busch’s son, August A. Busch Jr., continued in the tradition, expanding the variety of species to include two African elephants, lemurs and parrots, and in 1954 opened Grant’s Farm to the public.
Today more than 1,000 animals from six continents live on the 281-acre wildlife preserve. A tram takes visitors through the Deer Park, then to the Tier Garten, where children can feed baby goats from small bottles of milk and watch animal exhibits and shows. The 19th-century styled Bauernhof Courtyard includes stables and a carriage building that houses a collection of more than a dozen vehicles dating from the 18th century. Grant’s Farm, operated by Anheuser-Busch, is also home to the Budweiser Clydesdales and serves as a breeding and training facility. The facility is ADA accessible and offers free admission, but there is a parking fee.
LAUMEIER SCULPTURE PARK
This 105-acre sculpture park, opened in 1976, is home to a collection of more than 80 sculptures by internationally acclaimed artists, plus a museum of art for contemporary sculpture, drawings, paintings, ceramics and photography. In 1968 Matilda Laumeier donated 72 acres to the St. Louis County Parks Department in memory of her husband, Henry. The former Laumeier residence has been remodeled to house the museum and gift shop. Hiking trails wind visitors through the park past the sculptures. The museum is ADA accessible, as are some of the trails. Braille texts are located near many of the sculptures.
MISSOURI HISTORY MUSEUM
Run by the Missouri Historical Society, the museum documents and interprets the history of the St. Louis area, with 2 million books, archival papers, photos and artifacts in the collection. Among the hundreds of items displayed here is the Louisiana Purchase transfer, which passed the Louisiana Territory from Spain to France on March 9, 1804, then to the United States the following day; Meriwether Lewis, co-captain of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, was among the signers. Personal artifacts from his co-captain William Clark are also here, as are items from some of St. Louis’ cultural icons, including Chuck Berry, Tina Turner, Miles Davis and composer Scott Joplin.
Founded in 1866, the museum was housed in various locations until 1913, when it moved to its current site in Forest Park; the Jefferson Memorial, as the museum originally was called, was built with funds from the 1904 World’s Fair. In 1989 the archives and library were moved to a former Jewish temple nearby, a Greco-Byzantine building new in 1925, and now in the National Register of Historic Places. The museum is ADA accessible.
NATIONAL GREAT RIVERS MUSEUM
This fine museum is located at the Melvin Price Locks and Dam No. 26 at Alton, Ill. (across the Mississippi just north of St. Louis). In dozens of exhibits the museum tells the story of the river, and of the people, wildlife and ecosystems along it. Other displays illustrate ways the river has been used by the people over the centuries, and how it has influenced their lives. Navigation exhibits play a major role here, and there is a towboat simulator (you’re at a computer but feel like you’re in the pilothouse maneuvering a tow). Nearly two dozen other interactive exhibits focus on such topics as barge traffic, nature and river cycles.
One of the museum’s particularly impressive displays is the towering rocky bluff, realistic in plaster, that appears to rise at a river’s edge (inside the building); it includes similarly realistic artificial plants, plus a dozen mounted birds and mammals. Also here is the half-hour film, “Power of the River,” as well as other movie offerings throughout the year. The museum and locks tours are ADA accessible.
OLD COURTHOUSE, JEFFERSON NATIONAL EXPANSION MEMORIAL
The stately Old Courthouse is best known as the place where the Dred Scott slavery trials began; mock trials are re-enacted here today in two restored historic courtrooms. Built between 1839 and 1862, the elegant old building was home to the civil courts of St. Louis County until 1876, when the county separated from the city. Afterward the city courts remained until 1930. A decade later it was deeded to the National Park Service.
The courthouse theater presents “Slavery on Trial: The Dred Scott Case,” a film that tells about the famous slave whose story helped spark the Civil War. An extensive new exhibit on Scott discusses what life was like for slaves in St. Louis. Elsewhere in the building St. Louis history is documented with artifacts, early photographs and dioramas. In the Rotunda, where art exhibits are often displayed, prominent orators once debated issues of the day, while spectators filled the balconies. The first floor of the courthouse is ADA accessible.
ST. LOUIS FIRE MUSEUM
The museum houses a large collection of historic fire-related items such as toy firetrucks, photos of St. Louis’ most famous fires, fire alarm boxes that once were common on city streets, glass hand-grenade fire extinguishers and fire helmets. On permanent loan here from the Missouri Historical Society are more than 700 artifacts, fire memorabilia collected by a local insurance agent, including leather water buckets and fire marks. Fire marks were plaques – some of those displayed date back more than two centuries – that were issued by early insurance companies to be posted on insured buildings.
St. LOUIS ZOO
The 90-acre zoo is home to more than 18,300 exotic animals, among them rare or endangered species, representing the major continents and habitats of the world. In 1904, for the World’s Fair in St. Louis, the Smithsonian Institution built a large walk-through bird cage, filled with hundreds of unusual birds, in Forest Park. After the fair ended, the city bought the cage, and in 1910 the zoo was established.
Among its attractions are Penguin and Puffin Coast, a walk-through habitat for oceangoing birds; an Insectarium with a geodesic dome where butterflies fly free, and other exhibits that provide a close-up look at an insect’s life; and River’s Edge with Hippo Harbor, an underwater hippo viewing area. River’s Edge, a winding waterway, is also home to the zoo’s elephant family, rhinos, cheetahs and other animals that live along the rivers of the world. Other fine exhibits in natural settings include Cypress Swamp, Big Cat Country, the Bear Pits and the Children’s Zoo. All major zoo facilities are ADA accessible.
SOLDIERS’ MEMORIAL MILITARY MUSEUM
The museum was begun in 1935 to commemorate the 1,075 St. Louisans who had lost their lives in World War I; since then the collection has expanded to include all of our country’s wars. Among the many items displayed are a bell dated 1906 from the USS St. Louis; a U.S. torpedo; WWI military uniform; spiked helmets from the German army; a model of the USS New Jersey; and photos, postcards and letters from the Great War. Outside the stately stone building are sculptures representing virtues in a soldier’s life: courage, vision, loyalty and sacrifice. The museum is ADA accessible.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Anheuser-Busch Brewery 314-577-2626, www.budweisertours.com.
Black Madonna Shrine and Grottos 636-938-5361, www.franciscancaring.org/ blackmadonnashri.html.
Grant’s Farm 314-843-1700, www.grantsfarm.com.
Laumeier Sculpture Park 314-821-1209, www.laumeier.org.
Missouri History Museum 314-746-4599, www.mohistory.org.
National Great Rivers Museum 618-462-6979, www.mvs.usace.army.mil/Rivers/museum.html.
Old Courthouse National Historic Site – Jefferson National Expansion Memorial 314-655-1600, www.nps.gov/jeff.
Soldiers’ Memorial Military Museum 314-622-4550, www.stlsoldiersmemorial.org.
St. Louis Fire Museum 314-289-1933.
St. Louis zoo 314-781-0900, www.stlzoo.org.