This past summer, I was in St. Louis for research reasons, but of course I took advantage of being there and acted as a tourist on weekends. While if all budgets were infinite I would still pick LA and OC every single time, I've concluded that St. Louis is probably the best place to be a tourist on a budget (ignoring airplane costs which would vary based on where you're coming from and when).
1. The absolutely free art museum actually has artists so famous you'll recognize their names.
To be frank, I could think of nothing more boring than art museums. Mostly because I have no idea what's going on. But for free? Eh, I'd consider going. And if you're going to let me see paintings from the very small list of artists I know, including Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, and Matisse, well then I'm much more interested. And of course anyone actually interested in art is going to have the time of their life since they can keep coming back for free to explore all the nooks and crannies of this large art museum.
2. The Gateway Arch is actually pretty cool.
At first glance, yeah you'd assume it's cool. But then everyone kept telling me that it wasn't as cool as it sounded. Yes, the viewing windows were incredibly small, but the views were still amazing, especially if you go at sunset. And all the warnings about construction making it ugly...you can't really see it when you're in the arch, just when you're entering it.
And if it's that important to you that you have a picture of you and the view, there is a way. Instead of taking a selfie or a normal photo of you from the front, have someone take a photo of you from the side of you gazing into the small windows. If you position the angle just right, you can get both you and the view in the photo.
The main downfall of the Arch is that it's not particularly accessible if you have any sort of special needs.
Tip: Order your tickets online. Depending on when you decide to go, the lines could get pretty long, and there's no fee (as of when I went), for ordering online. You have to order at least 3 hours before going, and if you don't have access to a printer, no problem, just pull it up on your phone. Second tip though, your reception while in the basement of the arch might not be the best, so be sure to pull it up before you start to go in the arch. Maybe take a picture of the mobile ticket too, just to be safe.
3. The zoo is free! And totally amazing!
I might be a bit old for zoos (as evidence by the fact that my group of college-aged students was completely surrounded by little kids), but for free, yeah it's worth your money. They had pretty much every animal you could think of there. I went twice and probably missed whole sections of the park. Parking looked like it might be a disaster, but the zoo itself is in a park, so might as well just walk there since it's a rather enjoyable walk (assuming a group of adults. Kids might not be so appreciative of a nice walk through nature).
4. Yes, this is the home of the Cardinals.
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For all you sports fans out there. And if you want to save money on the train, Uber, or taxi, time this visit to when you visit the Gateway Arch (yes, that is the weird half-oval thing popping up in the background) as the two are rather close. And as some bitter St. Louis natives pointed out, it "should be" the home of the rams. Although excuse me, they were in L.A. first. But the Cardinals are still there for the baseball fans. And if you go on a weekday for a less popular game and get the cheap seats, you can even get away with paying only $5 to go.
5. The Loop makes finding food choices easy, whether eating out or eating in.
The Delmar Loop has a variety of food choices, including Blueberry Hill where Chuck Berry used to perform regularly. And it's all just one small strip of street, so you absolutely can walk up and down the street a few times as you're trying to decide what looks go.
Or if you're not eating out but want to try some St. Louis specific items, the grocery store United Provisions has toasted ravioli, a popular St, Louis. Unfortunately, that does require access to an oven. Or if you're looking for a cheap dessert, they also sell frozen custard, an ice cream-like treat that's particularly popular in the Midwest.
The latter is of course going to be the much cheaper choice on a tight budget, but the restaurants are somewhat reasonable prices. Most of the places are definitely not a bargain, but you're not going to gasp in shock at the bill either (at least not at the places I went to).
6. Definitely check out the - also free! - Missouri History Museum.
Sometimes some exhibits might cost money, but there's a decent amount of other stuff to check out, particularly as how much do people really know about Missouri-specific history? I'd give it a 5/10, but since it was free, that still makes it worth dropping in. They've had a handful of interesting celebrities, most notably Chuck Berry. And they cover desegregation in the museum as well, which of course did not go smoothly. Currently, there's a free exhibit on Route 66 that's also pretty good, and as it's one of their temporary exhibits, yes they are covering the entire road, not just Missouri's section.
7. City Museum is well worth your money.
It's hard to sum up City Museum exactly, but if you're college aged, you'll love hanging out with your friends there. If you have children, you'll hate it but your children will absolutely love it. And they know who they're catering too since for parents of children old enough to play on their own for awhile, they have a few places that give parents a break and serve alcohol. The only group it's not good is for those with physical disabilities. There's some stuff you can still do (depending on exactly what the disability), but you might end up just watching from the sideline. Heck, even though I no longer consider myself disabled, my leg got me stuck in one of the caves as I couldn't crawl on it and had to back out and just meet my friends on the other side.
So what's there? There's caves to be explored, treehouses to climb, weird artifacts to jump, crawl, climb, etc on. The slides range from normal size to a whole ten stories tall. On the roof there's a Ferris Wheel which gives a great view of the city.
8. Forest Park is cool to just walk around and makes everything conveniently close.
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The almost 1300 acre park houses the History Museum, Art Museum, Science Center, Zoo, and more! Not to mention, just a cool place to walk around when you have the free time. Every time I visited, there were tons of people just hanging out, especially when the weather was relatively nice.
And since it's the home of many other tourist sites, you can easily hit up a few things all at once. If walking through the park isn't an option - or is a rather slow, whiny children-filled option - there's a bus that goes around the park that you can pick up to get from one to another.
Bonus: Pokémon for those who gotta catch 'em all!
There's already plenty to do, but if you feel the need to search for some Pokémon, the city is littered with them. Forest Park tends to have plenty of wild Pokémon running around. Delmar Loop in particular has Pokéstops every few feet and people like putting up lures. In fact, the stores have banded together multiple times to have a Pokémon day where all lures are up for a day. Seriously one of the best places to play Pokémon.