Fabulous and Free In St. Louis

We have just watched a hilarious afternoon feeding frenzy at the Sea Lion Sound exhibit down the bend. Ripping through the water fast as a bullet ... barking on cue for a fish snack-waving a flipper to the lady zookeepers -- those sweet-faced, clown-like pranksters delight the onlookers with their crazy antics. But what's truly amazing is that it is free, and even more amazing -- there's so much else to see and do in St. Louis that's also free.

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With my nose nearly pressed against the glass, I watch the viper slither imperceptibly in the confines of his vitreous cage. In the wild, I would have been repulsed by a poisonous snake "on the loose". But here in the herpetarium of the St. Louis Zoo, I ooh and aah, even squeal, alongside my husband Gustavo, son Nicolas, and all the other visitors to the massive reptile hutch. In fact, besides the giant aviary from the 1904 World's fair and the Jungle of the Apes sanctuary, the snake refuge is our personal favorite. Along with those mischievous monkeys from the primate house who really do enjoy slinging their own "poo" into the audience.

Our New Book

Animal Antics at St. Louis Zoo

That's what I enjoy most about this incredible zoological park (ranked in the nation's top five), here in my hometown -- the unexpected animal capers. And the free admission. No strings attached, completely gratuitous.

I ponder the charity of the St. Louis Park Commission as we meander along the winding paths, past the replicated African savannah at Big Cat Country, where lions and tigers thrive; past the black rhinos and hippopotami at the River's Edge expo; and past the grizzlies at the Bear Bluffs. In order to enable the expansion and construction of Polar Bear Point, the Penguin & Puffin Coast, always a crowd-pleaser, is temporarily off-limits, much to my dismay. Nothing better than tuxedoed Emperors waddling across artificial ice, except perhaps a bevy of black-and-white seabirds with bright orange bills splashing unabashedly in freezing arctic waters.

By midday, we retreat back to our automobile. "Where to now?" I ask. "I'm telling you, all the attractions in Forest Park are free. What do you want to see?" Unsure, we begin to circle through this 1,371-acre backyard community of meadowland, trees, lakes, and statuary.

1371-Acre Sanctuary of Free Attractions

Want to chronicle the past? Wheel up to the front doors of The Missouri History Museum. Want to admire paintings, three-dimensional carvings, and mummies? Follow the pathway around the Grand Basin to the lovely facade of the St. Louis Art Museum. Want to see a summer concert outdoors? Look for the multi-colored flags swaying outside The Muny opera, an amphitheater with 11,000-seating capacity. Fifteen hundred of those seats, consisting of the last nine rows, won't even require shelling out a dime -- they are permanently complimentary. Want to learn about ecology...fossils, dinosaurs, or the human body?

A final debate lands us at he St. Louis Science Center. What could be more fun than learning about the brain through a series of memory games, matching wits with your kids, or coming face to face with life-size animated T-Rex and Triceratops automatons in a prehistoric neverland?. Giggles and screams all for naught. You don't have to drop even a penny to get in.

We think about finishing off the afternoon with a brisk hike along one of the well-manicured trails, or a game of tennis. Instead, we opt for a picnic at the lake nearest the museums. We plunk down our basket of vittles and lounge on the marble steps leading right to the water's edge. Ducks paddle around the pool, while a pair of geese straddles a floating ledge of ice. We dispense with our snack and circle around to the Jewel Box (at Wells and McKinley) is an indoor greenhouse replete with ficus trees, flowering bushes, and poinsettias. Not free, but what's a buck for a glance at interesting horticulture? No rose bushes or lily ponds though, this time of year.

Beer and Pretzels Go Together Perfectly

On our second day in town, we plan to check out a couple of St. Louis' most renowned claims to fame -- the Anheuser Busch Brewery, and the Gateway Arch. With a detour at Arsenal Street, just a few miles from downtown, we head for the 1885 historic stables of the Clydesdale horses for our "freebie" tour of the beer manufacturing plant. What does it take to craft a tasty brew? Four main ingredients: yeast, malt, hops and water. Gigantic cauldrons. Beechwood aging cellars. Plus a never-ending parade of bottles and cans guaranteed to shatter your eardrums as they clatter down a state-of-the-art production line. At the end of our tour, there are free samples to the over-21 crowd; for the minors--soda and chips.

When we're done, we duck down the street to Gus' Pretzels, just across the highway overpass, for the perfect snack -- a $.55 pretzel twist, piping hot and golden brown, right out of the oven. It isn't quite free, but it doesn't get much cheaper. Peer through the glass windows for a bird's-eye-view of the bakery; check out the guy wrapping bratwurst and hot dogs in pretzel dough at breakneck speed. Ask nicely and you'll probably get a personal handshake from Gus himself (a third-generation baker).

Journey to the Top of the Arch

At last, we are ready to head to the most iconic symbol of St. Louis herself -- the world-famous Gateway Arch. Fashioned from steel, the monument sits alongside the mighty Mississippi, overlooking the Old Courthouse, the Cardinals' baseball stadium, and an impressive array of glistening high-rises and skyscrapers. After exhausting the (free) galleria of pioneer history at the Museum of Westward Expansion (located under the Arch), we reach into our pockets for $10 and splurge for the ride to the top.

Five of us wedge in like sardines, kneecap to kneecap, as we sit in the elevator capsule that sails us to the summit in four minutes, and after we take in the stupendous view from the windows of the observation deck, hurtles us back to the ground in less than three. Once back outside, we stroll the riverfront at dusk, by the ambience of old-timey streetlamps which cast strange shadows over the cobblestoned streets.

Quaint Kimmswick

At week's end, we venture about 25-30 minutes out of the city, to a tiny settlement also situated along the banks of the Mississippi -- Kimmswick, Missouri. A quaint antiques town, Kimmswick dates back to the days when paddle wheelers plied the mighty rivers. Browsing the cozy shops and posing for photographs outside the quirky storefronts won't cost you a dime, but if you're like us, you won't be able to resist some of the town's fabulous sweet treats.

Bask in that perpetual holiday spirit, while searching for the perfect nativity or Santa Claus at Christmas Haus. Sample fudge and/or get a hot chocolate for $1 as you peruse the kitschy jewelry and gag gifts at Kimmswick Korner Gift Shoppe. Sneak into The Blue Owl Sweet Shoppe, an old fashioned soda fountain, and be sure to taste a trio of truffles (3 for $2.79) on your way out.

For more substantial lunch fare, head next door to The Blue Owl Restaurant and Bakery for a delicious assortment of soups and sandwiches and award-winning desserts. Be sure to try their signature pie: Caramel Pecan Levee High Apple Pie, chock full of deliciously-spiced apples and blanketed in a mouth-watering coating of hardened caramel and nuts. It's DECADENT, absolutely DECADENT.

Stay for an entire week in St. Louis, and try to squeeze in as many of the quality attractions as you can. It will hardly set you back more than the price of an admission ticket to a 3D movie at the cinema for seven fabulous, fun-filled days of entertainment in my home town. Have a comment to share? Like us on Facebook - OffbeatTravelCom and post your comment.

Vickie Lillo is a Florida-based travel writer, multi-lingual, and an avid adventure traveler who appreciates meeting new people and experiencing new cultures from around the world. She is proud to say that she has already given the gift of the love for travel to her 13-year old son.

Photos by Gustavo Lillo

Published: May 1st, 2014

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