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      Vacation values~St. Louis' family attractions for FREE!

      The Butterfly Wing at the St. Louis Zoo Insectarium
      Family vacations don't come cheap. Even if you're sticking close to home, with gas hovering somewhere around 4-bucks a gallon, just a day trip will run some serious bucks. If you're sticking to our tri-state region, you can get a heck of a deal in St. Louis.

      The Gateway Arch dominates the skyline and sucks up attention like a campfire consumes your night vision. Many tourists don't seem to have eyes for anything else. It is an astonishing sight as well as a marvel of engineering. Though it'll cost $10 to go to the top of the arch, it's free to stare at it from the ground and you won't get vertigo climbing into an egg-shaped elevator that looks like something out of Willie Wonka. You can also visit the Museum of Western Expansion under the Arch, and that's totally free.

      The Arch is at the top of a tourist's checklist, but Forest Park should rank a close second, especially for a family on a budget.

      Forest Park is just a few miles from downtown, but it's a world away from the skyscrapers and big-city feel of commercial St. Louis. The park is one of the largest in the United States. At just under 1,300 acres, it's 500 acres bigger than Cental Park in New York City. Every year, 12 million people find Forest Park worth a visit; and the beauty of it is that you can take it in for free.

      Naturally, the park has the jogging trails and picnic areas that most towns offer in their park systems. It's the â??extraâ?? freebies that make it the best value.

      The top attraction at Forest Park is the St. Louis Zoo . FREE! It's just astounding. A visit to other zoos can run as much as $50 dollars a person. In St. Louis, you just walk through the gates and go straight to the animals. Just like anything else, the zoo can gobble up your money like an elephant eats grass, but only if you want to spend the money (or you cave to the pressure of your little ones.) Extras like the train, the carousel and the petting zoo will cost you; however, you can explore all that's free at the zoo and not feel like you missed out on anything.

      One of the best features of the St. Louis Zoo is that you can pack a picnic. Bring in all the food and drink you wantâ??just don't feed the animals. If you don't plan ahead, you'll pay amusement park prices for a dry hamburger and rubbery fries. If you're willing to walk a bit, parking is free. A spot in the lot runs $15.

      Just across the road from the zoo sits the St. Louis Science Center . FREE! It's better than any science class you ever took in school. The center offers all kinds of interesting exhibits, hands-on experiences, and an overload of information. Again, some of the cool â??extrasâ?? will cost you moneyâ??like the IMAX theater and the Discovery Room for younger kids. All the same, you can take in all the free stuff and come away happy.

      Just up the street from the zoo is the remarkable St. Louis Art Museum . FREE! No kidding. All in one building, you can ponder contemporary works by artists like Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Georgia O'Keeffe. Hanging on the wall is Water Lilies by Claude Monet, joined by famous names like Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse and Gauguin. You can get lost in a painting by Renoir or sculptures by Rodin. The museum's collection is among the finest in the country and all you have to do is walk through the door.

      Another option at Forest Park: the Missouri History Museum . FREE! Or the Jewel Box, a massive greenhouse that's on the National Register of Historic Places. FREE on Mondays and Tuesdays. Otherwise you'll have to cough up a dollar for admission.

      St. Louis has plenty of other attractions that are worth checking out even though you'll have to pull out the credit cardâ??the Botanical Gardens , the City Museum , Busch Stadium just to name a few. Any major city has a long list of things to do, but few rival St. Louis in the number of things to do that are absolutely FREE!

      Take care ~Sarah D.