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Surprise, surprise -- at least to those of us with a New York City bias. St. Louis, city of about 332,000, the famous arch, a fabulous zoo, and some of the friendliest people in the Midwest, offers more than sixty free things to do, a number that's second only to Washington, D.C. We've culled the best of the free (and almost free) here but there are countless other churches, museums and historic sites too numerous to detail that are perfect for exploring.

If you are planning a trip to St. Louis, contact the Visitors and Convention Bureau of St. Louis (tel. 800/916-0040; www.explorestlouis.com). The city also has a fairly comprehensive bus and light rail system called MetroLink (tel. 314/ 982-1521; www.metrostlouis.org) that starts at the Lambert-St. Louis international airport and stretches for 38 miles, ending in suburban Belleville, IL. Many of the train stops take you right to, or near to, the attractions listed below. Additionally, there's a special shuttle called Zip2 that stops at many sites in "the Lou," including the Zoo and the Art Museum. It costs a paltry $3 to get downtown from the airport and one-way fare on the metro is $1.50; day passes are $4. Trains run about every ten minutes during the day and every half hour during off-peak hours.

Arts and Culture

There are countless opportunities to take in art and culture in St. Louis. First and foremost is the Saint Louis Museum of Art (tel. 314/721-0072; www.slam.org) which contains a sizeable collection of art from all time periods with particularly good collections of Oceanic art, Chinese bronzes as well as American and European art of the late 19th century, especially German painters. The museum also boasts the largest collection of work by Max Beckmann and George Caleb Bingham. Admission to the permanent collection is free, special exhibitions require admission every day except Friday. Artwork is on display at other venues, including the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts (tel. 314/754-1848; www.pulitzerarts.org), which is open to the public on Wednesdays and Saturdays and includes contemporary art and architecture, some of which is from the collection of Emily and Joseph Pulitzer. The nearby Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (tel. 314/535-4660; www.contemporarystl.org) is free for visitors on Thursdays, does not have a permanent collection but instead features six to eight exhibits a year, many focusing on visual art and multimedia. For an outdoor art experience, the Laumeier Sculpture Park (tel. 314/821-1209; www.laumeir.org), best accessible by car from downtown, boasts 98 acres of sculpture gardens and a museum with related sculpture, drawings, ceramics and photography.

For the Kids

The Saint Louis Zoo (tel. 314/781-0900; www.stlzoo.org), with over 6,000 animals, many of them rare and endangered, is recognized as one of the country's finest zoos. A ten-acre exhibit for jungle animals finds you strolling through elephants, hyenas and cheetahs. The recently opened penguin and puffin coast is a special cold-weather habitat area that houses these creatures. In mid-2006, the zoo will receive an amazing lifelike installation of figurative art by sculptor Albert Paley. The zoo is located six miles west of downtown, accessible by the MetroLink. If you want to build a mini-replica of the Gateway Arch, take the kids to the Saint Louis Science Center (tel. 800/456-7527; www.slcs.org), with over 700 hands-on exhibits, including one of an International Boeing Space Station.

Landmarks

The Gateway Arch (tel. 877/982-1410; www.gatewayarch.com), located on the riverfront, is not to be missed. The Arch, as it's commonly referred to, is a 630-foot expanse made of stainless steel and is 75 feet taller than the Washington Monument and twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty, just for starters. The arch commemorates the Louisiana Purchase and the city's role as the gateway to the west. But perhaps the coolest thing is the tram that climbs to the top for a panoramic view of the St. Louis skyline. The ride, however, will cost you $8. Admission is free to the Museum of Westward Expansion, located underneath the arch, and a documentary film about the arch's construction is available at the onsite Odyssey Theatre, for a fee.

To witness the city's history as working river port, stroll along Laclede's Landing (tel. 314/241-5860; www.lacledeslanding.org), an eight-block stretch along the riverfront named for the city's French founder, Pierre Laclede. The cobblestone pathway, which starts just north of the Arch, is chockablock with restaurants, music clubs and shops in the former warehouses that once shipped out cotton and tobacco along the river steamboats. The historic district's preserved facade dates back to before the Civil War. At the foot of the landing is the President Casino, the only casino downtown.

History

The famed explorers Meriwether Lewis & William Clark, subject of many History Channel and Ken Burns documentaries, get their own museum in St. Louis because they started and ended their journey here. There are a few ways for history buffs to learn more. The Lewis & Clark Center, in St. Charles (tel. 636/947-3199; www.lewisandclark.org) is just a dollar for adults and 50 cents for kids. With exhibits and educational programs, the museum's mission is interpreting the Louisiana Purchase. The Lewis & Clark State Historic Site (tel. 618/251-5811; www.campriverdubois.com), located just a few miles in Hartford, Illinois, is also free for visitors. The site commemorates the Camp River Dubois, where the explorers wintered before setting off on their voyage. The interpretive center here opened in 2002 and highlights their entire journey with special focus on this leg of their trip and includes a 55-foot cutaway replica of the keelboat used. And of course, where there's an historic site, there's a monument; The Corps of Discovery Monument, a circular, 11-panel structure chronicles the eleven states they passed through on their journey. Additionally, you can visit the Old Courthouse (tel. 314/655-1600; www.nps.gov/jeff) located downtown where the Dred Scott slavery trial was held and possibly witness a reenactment if your timing is right, or check out the Missouri History Museum (tel. 314/746-4599; www.mohistory.org), which has a new exhibit celebrating the 1904 World's Fair, held in St. Louis, admission is free for permanent exhibits while a fee is charged for special exhibitions. It's housed in the building that was formerly called the Jefferson Memorial.

Recreation

Route 66 National Park (tel. 636/938-7198; www.mostateparks.com/route66.htm) opened in 1999 and is the newest of Missouri's state parks. Spanning two states and the Mississippi River, the park's creation is a bittersweet triumph; it's located on over 400 acres of Times Beach, a popular swimming and picnicking site of yore which suffered a terrible poisonous chemical spill. A massive clean-up effort turned this into a destination once again. The park ran along side and through Route 66, the "mother road" and iconic highway that opened in 1926 and enabled thousands of travelers to head west to California. The neatest part? It contains one of the largest pedestrian bridges in the country, Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, Route 66's original crossing over the Mississippi River at St. Louis. You can either bike or walk across, and the city's skyline is visible from the span.

Food and Drink

Annheuser-Busch, the world's largest brewer, provides tours at its St. Louis headquarters on 12th and Lynch Streets (tel. 314/577-2626; www.budweisertours.com). Visitors tour several of the buildings (including the high-speed bottling plant), learn about the quintessential American beer and the famous Clydesdale horses which were used in the early days of beer making for delivering the goods to taverns and hotels. Top off the tour with a complimentary Bud. And here's an historical oddity for you. Though there is no food or drink per se at Grant's Farm (tel. 314/843-1700; www.grantsfarm.com), the former homestead of President Ulysses S. Grant, there is a direct beer connection. The farm is a 281-acre wildlife preserve with more than 1,000 animals from six continents, located about fifteen minutes from downtown, built on the same grounds as the Budweiser Clydesdale breeding and training facilities: the farm is the ancestral home to the Busch family. Grant's cabin, named Hardscrabble, was on display during the 1904 World's Fair -- it had been purchased at the time by a leading coffee company and was used as a promotional tool. August Busch, a longtime Grant admirer, was also an animal right's activist and decided to set it up as a free "farm" for visitors.

A short walk from the Budweiser facility in south St. Louis is Soulard Farmers' Market (tel. 314/622-4180; http://stlouis.missouri.org/citygov/soulardmarket), in continuous operation since 1779. The historic neighborhood is full of cafes, pubs and shops. But the public farmers' market, built like an open mall, is the centerpiece from Wednesday through Saturday, and a great way to get a feel for the people and food of St. Louis. Here you can see produce, meat, flowers and even spices on sale, but it is possible to be tempted by vendor stalls selling Asian food or bratwursts. It won't cost you a dime to soak in the sights and smells, but it may cost you a bit to taste something firsthand. Residents strongly suggest you walk through the entire market and take it all in before you purchase anything.

Interested in exploring the Gateway to the West? Check out the Missouri Message Boards to see what other travelers have to say about St. Louis.