Forest Park could be called the heart of St. Louis. The 1,300 acre park is home to the city's top cultural institutions and plays host to many of the region's favorite events and pastimes. In the summer there are free concerts, outdoor Shakespeare and a huge hot air balloon race
. Winter means sledding down Art Hill and ice skating. Forest Park also has a large network of trails that can be wonderful any season.
The park's worth a visit just to take in its natural beauty (especially after its $94 million renovation). But to really appreciate all the park has to offer, here are ten attractions that shouldn't be missed.
Photo by Michael Abbene, courtesy St. Louis Zoo
Considered one of the best zoos in the country, the St. Louis Zoo has more than 20,000 animals, its own railroad line, and scores of attractions, shows, shops and places to eat. Best of all, admission is completely free! Visitors love getting eye-to-eye with hippos, being splashed by penguins and sliding through an otter pool at the Children's Zoo. But the Zoo's not resting on its laurels. It's constantly improving its exhibits to offer new, up-close, fun and educational encounters with animals. Visit the Zoo soon to see what's new!
Photo by David O'Brien
Forbes Traveler lists the St. Louis Science Center among its 25 Most Visited Museums
in the country. The museum's success is its ability to make science fun for all ages. Preschoolers love learning about gravity, bugs and biology in the Discovery Room. For older kids there are animated dinosaurs and hundreds of fun experiments. And all ages are wowed watching movies on the 4-story, wrap-around screen of the OMNIMAX theater. There's also a bridge over Highway 40, where glass floor panels show the cars zooming below and radar guns display each car's speed. And of course there's the classic Planetarium, where you can gaze up at a simulated night sky, complete with 9,000 stars, but without interference from city lights.
Photo courtesy Jim Herren Photography
Few St. Louis traditions have deeper roots than summer nights at the Muny. The nation's oldest outdoor theater has been a favorite of locals since 1917. Every year, the Muny produces seven Broadway-quality musicals, ranging from classics like Oklahoma to newer shows like High School Musical. The productions are always high-end (Miss Saigon had a helicopter flyover) and most shows have big dance numbers and often big name actors. Plus, the back 1,500 seats are always free on a first-come, first-served basis. But it's the setting that makes the Muny so unique. With the sounds of Forest Park all around, a starry-sky overhead and two giant oaks growing right up through the stage, it's an ideal way to wile away a summer night.
Photo courtesy Forest Park Forever
In 1904, when Forest Park hosted the World's Fair, the Grand Basin was the fair's heart and soul. Today, after getting its share of a $94 million renovation, the basin is once again the park's shining jewel. The restored basin is lined with classical promenades and eight fountains that propel water 30 feet high. No wonder it's the top spot in St. Louis for wedding pictures, picnics and paddleboats from the nearby Boathouse. The area's also popular at night, when the lit fountains and shining Art Museum draw crowds to sit on the steps, sip wine and gaze out over the water. Regular patrols and the area's popularity keep it safe, although commonsense is still essential when spending time inside the park at night.
Photo courtesy the Boathouse
Years ago, Forest Park's boathouse was a place to rent boats first and a place to eat second. Now, after a major renovation, "the Boathouse" is a dining destination in its own right. Sure, boat rentals are more popular than ever, but now they seem to exist to round off the restaurant's idyllic atmosphere. Both the Boathouse's large patio and neighboring beer garden sit right on Post Dispatch Lake. Lunch and dinner are served daily, there's a popular brunch on Sundays and bands entertain the beer garden on Friday and Saturday evenings (weather permitting). And, during colder months, a large fireplace and boating decor keep the restaurant popular among locals.
St. Louis winters can be cold and bleak. Luckily, generations of St. Louisans have had Steinberg Ice Skating Rink. With the woods of Forest Park on one side, and the Central West End "skyline" on the other, Steinberg's the romantic's top choice for winter dates, and a great place to take kids to ease cabin fever. However, Steinberg also has something to offer St. Louis summers. Each May, the rink's turned into two sand volleyball courts, with an outdoor cafe and bar to give spectators the perfect place to watch the action.
Photo by 1036 Productions
Missouri has some good history claims-to-fame. There's the 1904 World's Fair, the Lewis and Clark expedition and Charles Lindbergh just for starters. The Missouri History Museum chronicles these and a host of other key events that shaped St. Louis over the centuries. But you don't have to be a local or a history buff to appreciate the museum. It has a way of making Missouri history relevant to natives and out-of-state visitors alike. For example, a past exhibit on St. Louis' role in the early auto industry was packed with more than a dozen rare and often unseen vintage automobiles.
Photo by Johannes Kroemer, courtesy Getty Images
Forest Park is a city oasis for joggers, hikers and folks on bicycles, skates and roller blades. A six-mile trail encircles the park, and the Missouri Department of Conservation maintains hiking trails throughout Kennedy Forest. The six-mile loop is actually a dual trail, offering an asphalt path designed with bicyclists and skaters in mind. Running parallel to it is a gravel path designed for joggers and walkers. The main loop weaves past lakes, streams, and savannas, as well as past most of the park's cultural institutions, giving joggers and bicyclists plenty of scenery to keep their work-out interesting. For those that just want to explore the park's history, check out the free self-guided audio tours available at the Visitor Center.
Photo by Robert Pettus, courtesy St. Louis Art Museum
For serious art fans, the St. Louis Art Museum has more than 30,000 works of art, including pieces by Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso. Galleries and exhibits range from ancient artifacts to 20th century modern art (and nearly everything in-between). For less serious art fans, the museum's just a relaxing place to spend a few hours. Maybe it's the museum's location inside Forest Park, or that it gazes down at paddleboats in the Grand Basin, but the museum never feels stuffy or sleepy. The energy level is kept high with visiting masterpieces and exhibits featuring storied treasures from around the world. At the same time, kid-oriented events and activities keep the museum fun for families. Admission to the museum is free.
The Jewel Box is much more than an ordinary greenhouse. Its 50 foot tall glass walls and art deco design wowed the 1930's architectural community. Today the structure's just one of two in Forest Park listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Inside you'll find a virtual Garden of Eden. Hundreds of flowers and exotic plants surround a central fountain. Seasonal flower and plant shows mean there's always something new blooming. The grounds outside the Jewel Box are also worth exploring. In warm months, visitors can stroll among rose gardens and lily ponds. In colder months, a walk through the statuary garden, which includes a statue of St. Francis of Assisi and a memorial to veterans of the Korean War, can be very peaceful.