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St. Louis Missouri: A city of parks, gardens, museums, and zoos

A whisper of a late spring breeze and the scent of flowering plants add to the beauty of twilight in the Missouri Botanical Garden. As the evening grows darker, visitors excitedly line the paths in anticipation of the Lantern Festival that will illuminate the gardens in spectacular Chinese silk and steel lanterns. The towering temples and extraordinary steam-breathing dragons come to life under a starry sky and breathless crowd.

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St. Louis, Missouri, is a city of wonderful neighborhoods full of character and each one possessing a distinct personality. It is in this diverse city that visitors will find incredible gardens, such as the magnificent Botanical Garden and opulent performance theaters, a permanent circus, music, mosaic cathedrals and magical children's museums. And, if culinary adventures peak your interest, St. Louis will surpass your desires with luscious Italian cuisine, microbrew root beer and quaint French cafes. Moreover, visitors will discover that St. Louis has over 100 free attractions.

Missouri Botanical Garden

The Missouri Botanical Garden, located on Shaw Boulevard, is over 153 years old and is the nation's oldest botanical garden in continuous operation. The park's creator, Henry Shaw, was originally from Sheffield, England. His wealth in St. Louis derived from a high-quality cutlery business, which then allowed him to follow his botany and philanthropic pursuits.

The botanical gardens are exquisite with both botanical research and science education facilities on site as well. Situated on 79-acres, the gardens take on different themes, from a traditional Japanese landscape, to classical English gardens, all with ponds and water features laced throughout. Visitors come from around the globe to stroll through these magical gardens, especially when special events are added, such as the breath-taking Lantern Festival. The international exhibition runs until late August and begins at dusk with 26 luminous silk Chinese artworks that weave throughout the gardens. Delicious hot and spicy Chinese fare is available to dine on and artist kiosks line the paths, such as artists that make striking profile pictures from paper and scissors.

The Botanical Gardens are a must-visit while in St. Louis and with all of the numerous events that happen year-round, you will never miss an opportunity for a special visit.

St. Louis' Forest Park: The attractions are many

Many cities possess lovely downtown parks, yet St. Louis is home to the gorgeous Forest Park that spans over 1,300-acres and is double the size of New York's Central Park. This lush commons was the site of the famous 1904 Meet "Me in St. Louis" World's Fair and today is a major urban attraction.

For outdoor fun, the park features walking and biking trails, lakes with paddleboats, athletic fields, picnic grounds, a lovely public golf course and tennis court.

Explore the park's special events that range from the Forest Park Balloon Race, a Shakespeare Festival and an Indy music festival as well (check park schedule for list of events).

In addition, visitors with families will be thrilled to find that numerous attractions in the park are free, such as the Saint Louis Zoo, Science Center, Saint Louis Art Museum, the Missouri History Museum and select seats in the outdoor St. Louis Municipal Opera (Muny).

The amazing Saint Louis Zoo resides on 90 acres in Forest Park, and is home to 655 species of animals. This number-one rated zoo is also home to several rare and endangered animals as well, such as the gold-headed lion tamarin, Asian Elephants to the Amur leopard. Moreover, the zoo's natural and landscaped settings with beautiful greenery make a superb environment to explore the animals in their habitats. In fact, the penguins' and puffins' indoor habitat is a marvelous enclave to discover. The habitat is a bit on the chilly side (just as penguins like it), but the comical antics of the King Penguins, Rock Hopper and Gentoo Penguins' are great fun to watch. However, learning about their behaviors, interactions and sub-Antarctic environment is fascinating. Located past the penguins are the adorable Horned and Tufted Puffins (from the Northern Hemisphere). As they swim about underwater, they look a little like swimming bats. In addition, the zoo is excited to present their new Sea Lion Habitat with Sea Lion Sound features walk-through tunnel that is the first in North America.

One of the most enticing tours of the zoo is the Behind-the-Scenes Tours. These tours are a great way to see, learn and the experience animals with their keepers in a closer and more personal setting. The zoo offers numerous tours from penguins and lemurs to big cats and giraffes (with more animal tours to choose from). Although the zoo is free to the public, these specific tours do have a cost and must be booked in advance. However, there is nothing quite as exciting as seeing a pair of Magellanic Penguins waddle over next to you and tilt their heads up in curiosity. They are so cute and their feathers on their backs are extremely soft to the touch when dry. It is definitely an experience you and your family won't forget.

If history and art capture your interest, visit the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. The History Museum is intriguing with exhibits on the 1904 World's Fair and one of the largest Charles Lindbergh collections in the U.S. The museum's rotating exhibitions are equally interesting and sometimes amusing with Underneath It All, a showcase that features a history of women's underwear. In addition, located in the museum, is the award-winning restaurant Bixby's. A fantastic dining destination with locals and travelers alike, the restaurant has lovely views of the park and ultra fresh and inspired cuisine. Visit for lunch or if you're feeling decadent, there's nothing like a Sunday brunch to inspire a day's adventures.

The Saint Louis Art Museum is currently under expansion, yet an abundance of exhibits are sure to captivate the most ardent lovers of art. In the Asian art section, visitors will find eight galleries of amazing art including a bronze statue from the Ming dynasty to a divine seated Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) wooden statue from the Song dynasty. The Asian ceramics are also a must-see with extremely rare Northern Song Ru Ware and Caledon pieces.

St Louis Kids Stuff Adults will Love

St. Louis has not left kids out when it comes to cool museums. Two renowned museums that will engage and enchant you and your children are the City Museum and the Magic House St. Louis Children's Museum.

The City Museum is located on North 15th Street and was created by Bob Cassilly. You and your kids will have a blast in this highly creative interactive and action museum built entirely of recycled materials. This 10-story building was originally a shoe factory, but is now filled with unique slides, nooks and caves to explore, shoelace factory, not to mention a remarkable in-house circus and a ton of additional attractions. And, have you ever seen the world's largest underpants or the world's largest booger collection (We'll take their word on it)? Well, head up to Beatnick Bob's on the 3rd floor. There is even an old school bus anchored to the roof of the museum that hangs over the edge of the building you can explore, although it is a bit scary but exciting. Water fountains, a Ferris wheel and a whopping seven-story slide are also located on the rooftop! There is no other museum like it and be prepared, you and your kids will both need a nap after a hard day of playing in this awesome museum of play and learning experience.

The Magic House St. Louis Children's Museum is located on Kirkwood Road. In its 30th year, this marvelous museum and educational center is situated in an old Victorian home and has expanded through the years. The Magic House is truly geared to a learning but fun hands-on experience for your children. Orbitz, Nickelodeon and Family Fun Magazine have all endorsed the Magic House as a top family attraction. Moreover, your kids can sit in a replica of the White House's Oval Office and imagine themselves as President Of The United States. Or, explore the Hidden Messages room and decipher codes and crawl through a tunnel and find clues to solve a crime. With so many themed experience rooms to explore, you and your kids can easily spend two days playing and learning in the superb Magic House.

On the topic of play and entertainment, going to the circus has always captured the hearts and imagination of children and adults. St. Louis is home to Circus Flora, one of the few permanent classic circuses in the U.S. This big top features tightrope walkers that will have you holding your breath in suspension, jugglers, animals and a bevy of magical acts and clowns that will have you laughing or applauding loudly. Circus Flora not only trains top performers but they are a story of circus families and the tradition that thankfully, still lives on in our culture! In its 26th year, Circus Flora is a non-profit circus that produces a new story every year and performs the last weekend of May throughout the month of June.

That Iconic St. Louis Arch

What visit to St. Louis would be complete without a visit to the iconic Gateway Arch, (officially titled the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial)? It is fun and interesting to take a ride up in the small cylindrical trams to the top of this 630-foot high arch that overlooks the city and Mississippi River. On either side of the bottom of the memorial, there are videos that explain the history and engineering of the Arch, as well as a period food gift Levee Mercantile and museum store.

For additional information on St. Louis, visit or call 1-800-916-0040.

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Patrice Raplee is an experienced travel photojournalist and editor of Travel Excursion and Seattle Spotlight for Positively Entertainment magazine. In addition, she writes a monthly travel column for the award-wining site Offbeat Travel and is a regular guest on Travel radio talk shows. She is a member of North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA), International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) and the Recording Academy. Her photographs and articles have appeared in numerous international publications, as well as NW newspapers such as the Seattle Times, the Stranger and Seattle Weekly. Patrice travels the globe to cover destinations that feature fascinating culture, art, culinary, history and soft adventure. Photos courtesy of Patrice Raplee.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: August 7, 2016

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