St. Louis' 1,300-acre Forest Park (bigger than NY's Central Park) is home to a lion's share of the city's top cultural institutions—Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis Zoo, Saint Louis Science Center and Missouri History Museum—and the wonder of it is that they're all free, the happy consequence of a civic ethos that finds value in making public assets accessible even to its least advantaged citizens. There's a day's worth (actually three or four) of activities afoot. Let's get started.
You can drive to the park if you like; there's parking at all the major attractions, some free, some not. Or you can arrive by MetroLink at the Forest Park Station, where you can hop on the Forest Park Trolley for a one-day pass of $2 ($1 for kids). The Trolley makes the rounds to all the park's attractions.
In summer (May 22-September 7), the Saint Louis Zoo opens at 8pm, making it the perfect first stop on the Forest Park cavalcade. Plenty of breakfast goodies on hand, and there's a reward for getting here early: several of the zoo's ticketed attractions, like the Children's Zoo (normally $4), are free the first hour of operation. So many great exhibits...be sure to check out Sea Lion Sound (free), Sea Lion Show ($4), River's Edge (free), Jungle of the Apes (free), Fragile Foresty (free), Penguin and Puffin Coast (free), Zooline Railroad ($5) and Stingrays at Caribbean Cove ($4). A Safari Pass gets you into most ticketed exhibits for the bargain price of $10.
Head right up the hill to the Saint Louis Art Museum, overlooking the Grand Basin, one of the city's best vistas. Admission is free, of course, and even the ticketed exhibit (the magnificent "Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River") is free on Fridays. This comprehensive museum includes works from every continent and epoch, with particularly rich holdings in pre-Columbian, German and early American art, including the most extensive collection of works by Max Beckmann in the world. A new addition, opened last summer, houses special exhibits and contemporary art, and the museum's signature restaurant, Panorama, provides just that.
Not only is the Missouri History Museum free, but even its special exhibits are free this summer, and there may be no better place to begin learning about St. Louis. One of the continuing exhibits, "The 1904 World's Fair: Looking back at Looking Forward," helps explain why the fair holds such a special place in the hearts and minds of St. Louisans more than a century after its spectacular but temporary buildings were razed. Although the museum focuses on regional history, it often hosts traveling exhibits with a wider point of view, such as "State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda," a frankly unsettling look at the way Nazi Germany used words and images to gain support for its unspeakable agenda. The museum's over-achieving second-floor dining room, Bixby's, offers an elegant lunchtime menu of artfully presented dishes, often themed to a current exhibit, at refreshingly reasonable prices.
Plan a least half a day to prowl the 700+ exhibits at the Saint Louis Science Center, an emporium of 'ologies that literally straddles I-64, and on whose bridge you can monitor traffic with a radar gun. There are loads of interactive exhibits on life sciences, astronomy, physics, structures, ecology, environment, technology, energy and much more. Catch an eye-popping IMax film ("Mysteries of the Unseen World," "Journey to Space" or "Humpback Whales") on the 4-story screen in the Omnimax Theater, spend some quality time with your young scientist in the Discovery Room, or let your budding paleontologist uncover dinosaur fossils at the Fossil Prep Lab and Dig Site. In the James S. McDonnell Planetarium (on the Forest side) you can check out the Boeing Space Station and watch a Planetarium show in the StarBay. You could easily spend an hour just watching the balls roll around the fantastic gizmo that occupies the Science Center's lobby like a steel grapevine gone wild.
If you're still looking for stuff to do, head over to the Boathouse and rent a paddleboat for a cruise on Post-Dispatch Lake and the Grand Basin. Or you could explore the park by bike on a City Cycling Tour, take a self-guided iPod Walking Tour from the Visitor Center, join a Bird Watching Tour, play a round of golf, get in some tennis, hike through Kennedy Forest...the possibilities are endless.
After dark, the thespians come out. In May and June, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis presents "Antony and Cleopatra" in Shakespeare Glen near the Saint Louis Art Museum. It's free; come early for a good seat. Later in the summer, The Muny presents Broadway shows under the stars in its grand, 12,000-seat outdoor theater, a beloved St. Louis tradition that features some 2,500 free seats. Free.