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Best Things To Do in St. Louis

AOL PICK from our Editors
The Arch may be the gateway to the West, but it’s also the gateway to fun. There are scores of budget- and family-friendly activities that are also cited as the best things to do in St. Louis. With something for every interest, whether its art and architecture, science and history, or flora and fauna of every stripe and species, the Gateway city has something for you. The best things to do in St. Louis are concentrated in and around Forest Park, which means less time spent in the car and more time sightseeing. And, best of all, most of these St. Louis hot spots are free. Here are the essential St. Louis attractions you shouldn’t miss.

Anheuser-Busch Brewery

Neighborhood: Soulard
Anheuser-Busch is synonymous with St. Louis. The company was founded here in 1852, and the brewery remains one of best things to do in St. Louis. But just as A-B markets beer at different levels of quality, so, too, does the company offer tours of varying scope. Serious beer drinkers should pay $10 for the half-hour Beer School. Those desiring an in-depth look at the brewing process will benefit more from the Beermaster tour, which costs $10-$25. But most visitors are content with the free hour-long tour of the brewery’s highlights, including the soaring stained-glass accented Clydesdale Stables and the historic six-story Brew House. Bring a jacket and comfortable walking shoes; the tour covers several blocks outside before ending with a couple of complimentary pours at the hospitality center.

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Magic House

Neighborhood: Kirkwood
No sleight of hand here: The Magic House is considered one of the best children’s museums in the country, offering 50,000 square feet of sheer fun. It’s well worth the 20-minute drive from downtown St. Louis to southwest suburban Kirkwood. If you're traveling with kids, one of the top things to do in St. Louis is the Magic House. Allow kids two to four hours to explore the 50-plus hands-on galleries. Climb a two-story beanstalk that connects a replica Oval Office to a whodunit mystery manor. Make your hair stand on end at the Electrostatic Generator and your shadow dance to a psychedelic groove on the Shadow Wall. You might want to bring a change of clothes; the toddler-friendly Bubble Room, Sand Play and Waterworks, in particular, can get messy. Plan your visit for right after lunch; this non-profit museum reserves weekday mornings for school field trips. Entry: $8.75 (age 1 and up).

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The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis

Neighborhood: Central West End
The numbers are staggering: Nearly 42 million pieces of glass, in more than 7,000 colors, fashioned into 83,000 square feet of Byzantine mosaic art by 20 artists over 75 years. But even those incredible numbers can’t do justice to the awe-inspiring artistry that adorns the interior of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. You need not be a person of faith to be moved by this masterpiece in the Central West End. The Cathedral Basilica is, simply put, one of the best things to do in St. Louis, especially if you enjoy architectural beauty. It is one of the largest mosaic collections in the world and rivals the cathedrals of Europe. As you check out the Tiffany rose window at the rear of this Romanesque-style Roman Catholic church, gaze up, as well, at the rear dome, which depicts the history of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Reservations are required (call at least one day in advance) for the free daily guided tours, offered from 10am to 4pm, but you’re welcome to tour the cathedral on your own any time (except during mass times). And check the website for the schedule for the tremendous Cathedral Concerts series, which presents “great music in a great space” from October through June.  

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Gateway Arch

Neighborhood: Downtown
St. Louis’ most famous landmark, the Gateway Arch, represents the city’s historic role as the major gateway to the west for pioneers and explorers during the country’s Westward Expansion. Architect Eero Saarinen designed the 630-foot-tall stainless-steel arch, which opened in 1967 and remains the tallest man-made monument in the United States. A 4-minute tram ride to the observation deck in the arch’s apex offers views of downtown St. Louis to the west (and the decidedly less attractive blight of East St. Louis, Ill.). You can purchase your tram ticket online beforehand; plan to arrive 30 minutes before your ticketed time to pass through the mandatory security screening. The arch’s base houses the free (and worthwhile) Museum of Westward Expansion as well as two movies: a rotating IMAX show and the impressive Monument to the Dream documentary about the arch’s construction. National Park Service rangers offer educational (and entertaining) lectures in the museum, as well as bike tours of the memorial’s 91-acre grounds along the Mississippi River. Be sure to check out the city's history, as well as one of the top things to do in St. Louis. The museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Entry: tram ride $10 adults (16 and up); $5 (3-15).

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Grant's Farm

Neighborhood: Grantwood Village
Talk about a regal pedigree. Owned at one time by President Ulysses S. Grant (hence the name), this 281-acre estate 20 minutes southwest of St. Louis now belongs to the Busch “King of Beers” family, who runs it as a free, family-friendly animal park. Take the 20-minute tram ride through the Deer Park animal preserve, where the majority of the farm’s 1,000 animals (representing six continents) roam freely. Look for bison from North America, zebras from Africa and red deer from Asia. Kids love the two animals shows in the Tier Garten—Elephant Education and Animal Encounters—while adults like the free beer (or two) at the Anheuser-Busch Hospitality Center in the Bauernhof making it one of the best things to do in St. Louis. Be sure to follow the white horseshoe prints in the parking lot to the Clydesdale Stables in the rear, where you can stare nose-to-snout at these beautiful “gentle giants" that have been an Anheuser-Busch tradition since 1933. Open April through October. Entry: Free; parking $11.

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Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM)

Neighborhood: Forest Park
This beautiful Beaux Arts-style building stands atop Art Hill in Forest Park and was originally designed by architect Cass Gilbert as the Palace of Fine Arts for the 1904 World’s Fair. The museum remains true to the inscription above its main entry: “Dedicated to art and free to all.” The collection is a Cliff Notes of art history: Almost every major art movement is represented within its 30,000 works and three floors of galleries. The museum is best known, though, for its large collections of works by German painter Max Beckmann and American painter George Caleb Bingham. If you have kids, come on a Sunday afternoon, when Family Sunday activities include hands-on art projects and a lively half-hour family museum tour. Construction is currently under way on a 200,000-square-foot expansion—expected to open in 2013—but the museum will remain open throughout the project. Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

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Missouri Botanical Garden

Neighborhood: Shaw Neighborhood
Founded in 1859 by philanthropist Henry Shaw, the 79-acre Missouri Botanical Garden is the oldest in the country, but it’s far from dusty. Installations by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly and the fantastically fun Children’s Garden have added new cache to this St. Louis institution. Plan two to three hours to take in the garden’s amazing flowers and full mixed bouquet of sensory experiences. Stroll around the koi pond and raked sand beds in the tranquil Japanese garden. Catch the sunlight shimmering through the panes of the geodesic-domed Climatron. Breathe in the perfumed air from the 2,700 rose bushes growing in one of the nation’s 20 test gardens. And, once you find your way through the hedge maze, stop for a bite at Sassafras, Missouri’s first certified green restaurant. With such amazing and scented scenery, the Missouri Botanical Gardens should be on your list of top things to do in St. Louis. Closed Christmas Day. Entry: $8 (ages 13 and up); Children’s Garden an additional $5 for kids ages 3-12

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St. Louis Zoo

Neighborhood: Forest Park
Considered one of the country’s best zoos, the free St. Louis Zoo is a huge source of pride to the city. Brought to national attention by former director Marlin Perkins—longtime host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom—the zoo’s 90-acre grounds in Forest Park are home to 18,000 animals and 700 species. While you’ll never see all the animals in one visit, the wide paths and Zooline Railroad made it easy for the park’s three million visitors each year to hit the highlights in half a day (make it the first half, when it’s cooler and less crowded). Don’t miss the baby Asian elephants or the underwater view at Hippo Harbor in River’s Edge, feeding time at Penguin and Puffin Coast, the historic Bear Bluffs or the 1904 World’s Fair Flight Cage. The $10 Safari pass is a great value for the zoo’s five fee-charging attractions, including the Children’s Zoo and the can’t-miss Conservation Carousel. Closed Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

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St. Louis Science Center

Neighborhood: Forest Park
Ranked one of the top five science centers in the country, the St. Louis Science Center offers an engaging mix of high-tech and old-school science in its 700 exhibits. Catch an Omnimax 3-D film, then stop by the 10-minute “Brain Games” science fair-type demonstration of optical illusions. Create virtual fish in Cyberville, then build your own arch (and learn basic engineering principles in the process) in the Structures gallery in the sky bridge, itself an impressive feat of engineering straddling Interstate 64. Take in a panorama of 9,000 stars in the James S. McDonnell Planetarium show, then stretch your legs—and imagination—at the outside Science Park, with its giant kaleidoscope and color maze. The museum is free, but there’s a fee for the shows, the toddler Discovery Room and Lego Mindstorms program.

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City Museum

Neighborhood: Downtown
Cross Tim Burton with Tony Hawk, and you get the City Museum. In 1997, artist Bob Cassilly transformed the 600,000-square-foot former International Shoe Co. building into a surreal larger-than-life playground for all ages. From the Enchanted Caves that tower 135 feet up through the building’s spiral conveyer tunnels (with secret passages, to boot), to the five-story Slinky-like jungle gym of MonstroCity, this unforgettable museum lives up to its billing as a place “where the imagination runs wild.” The fact that kneepads are offered on a first-come first-served basis is a clue that some attractions can be rather rough and tumble at this museum, often cited as one of the best things to do in St. Louis. A toddler play area, circus performances and a (small) aquarium cater to the youngest visitors, while the 1am closing time on Friday and Saturday nights (along with the museum’s Cabin Inn bar) provide adults with late-night fun. It’s closed on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, as well as Mondays and Tuesdays between Labor Day and March 15.Entry: $12 (ages 3 and up); $5 extra for The Roof; $6 extra for World Aquarium.

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