In many ways, Forest Park is the heart of St. Louis, Missouri. The 1,300-acre park is home to the city's top cultural institutions and hosts many of the region's most popular annual events. 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 are wonderful year-round.
For serious art fans, the free 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). Maybe it's the museum's location inside Forest Park, or that it gazes down at paddle boats in the Grand Basin, but the museum never feels stuffy or sleepy. Plus, kid-oriented events and activities keep the museum fun for families.
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, and shops. 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. The zoo also plays an important role in conservation efforts around the globe. Its WildCare Institute is a world leader in saving endangered species and their habitats. Visitors can learn more about these efforts and how to support them at educational talks and events throughout the year.
The success of the St. Louis Science Center 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 four-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.
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 while away a summer night.
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 paddle boats 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.
Despite its name, the World's Fair Pavilion wasn't actually around when St. Louis hosted the World's Fair in 1904. Instead, the pavilion was built in 1909 with money earned from the fair. The building sits atop Government Hill between The Muny and the zoo. Just below the pavilion are a fountain and reflecting pool that were built in the 1930s. The World's Fair Pavilion is a popular choice for weddings, galas, and other special events.
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). During colder months, a large fireplace keep the restaurant popular among locals.
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. The Missouri History Museum also hosts popular annual events like the Twilight Tuesday concerts in the spring and fall.
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 is 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.
Forest Park is a city oasis for joggers, hikers, and cyclists. 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.
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 is a romantic 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 is turned into two sand volleyball courts, with an outdoor cafe and bar to give spectators the perfect place to watch the action.