St. Louis with kids: Visiting the free St. Louis Zoo

Voted the #1 free attraction in the United States in 2016, the St. Louis Zoo is a “must-see” for anyone visiting the area. With no admission costs, well-kept grounds, beautiful sculptures and water fixtures, and the large collection of animals, this is a great place for cost-conscious families to visit. Did we mention it’s free?

What you get for your free admission:

st louis zoo

The zoo is housed in historic Forest Park, the site of the 1904 World’s Fair, and in fact you can still walk through the 1904 Flight Cage, which was built for the fair and is now home to many bird species.

The park is largely accessible to strollers and wheelchairs, and is divided into areas. The Red Rocks, home of the big cats as well as the zebras and giraffes, is a perennial favorite. On Historic Hill you’ll find primates, some of the indoor exhibits, and the 1904 Flight Cage. The Wild’s headliners are the polar bear, the penguin house, and the gorillas—the gorilla habitat is particularly impressive. Here, too, is the coming-soon Grizzly Ridge. Discovery Corner is the home of the children’s zoo (more on that below). At the Lakeside Crossing you’ll find Sea Lion Sound, where glassed-in tunnels allow you to see these animals play underwater. The River’s Edge offers visitors a mostly shady and beautifully landscaped walk through large habitats for cheetahs, elephants, and more. (Don’t miss Hippo Landing—another chance to see an animal underwater!)

Extra perks:

st louis zoo

Although the majority of the park is free, the zoo does offer some extras for a fee:

  • The Children’s Zoo ($4) has an indoor education center where kids can interact with guinea pigs as well as see some animals not on display in the main zoo. Goat brushing is always a fun activity for kids, too, and there’s a fabulous play area, including a plexiglass tunnel slide through the otter habitat, and an outdoor theater where more educational programming is offered. If there are programs going on, you can easily spend a couple of hours in this area alone.
  • What kid doesn’t like a zoo train ($7.95 for a full day)? The St. Louis Zoo is fairly hilly in places—pushing a stroller up the Historic Hill to get to the Red Rocks area, for instance, can be quite a workout, so the train is a good investment, especially with young children.
  • The Conservation Carousel ($3) is operated for free during the first hour of zoo operation every day.
  • Stingray petting pool ($4).
  • The Sea Lion show ($4) is a perennial favorite.
  • The 4D theater ($5) runs short programs continuously.

Food/Shopping at the St. Louis Zoo:

At the many kiosks and concession stands, families will find all the favorites, from popcorn to funnel cake and ice cream. We ate lunch at the Lakeside Cafe, which offers outdoor seating beside the swans’ home as well as plentiful indoor seating. They have an impressive system of composting and recycling which patrons are invited (but not forced) to make use of in disposing of their trash. Silverware is compostable, and lids and straws are not provided at all. As we were going meatless that day, we ordered a kids’ PB&J meal and two quesadillas, one with cheese only and one with vegetables. The quesadillas were very big and very tasty.
Several of the newer attractions, including the penguin house, the River’s Edge, and the bear exhibit, have dedicated gift shops, and kiosks around the zoo supplement the primary gift shops, so there are plenty of options for bringing home souvenirs.

Hours/Admission:

During the school year, the St. Louis Zoo is open daily 9-5; from Memorial Day to Labor Day, hours are Monday through Thursday 8-5 and Friday through Sunday 8 – 7. Admission is free, but the train, the sea lion show, the carousel and some other activities do require an admission fee. See details here. If you live close enough to visit even 2-3 times over the course of a year, it might be worth purchasing a family membership, since that provides passes for some of the most popular “extras” kids want. If you only plan to visit once, consider an adventure pass. For $12.95 per person, this gives you access to the top “extras.”

Location/Parking:

The St. Louis Zoo is located at the south edge of Forest Park, along I-64 in St. Louis, Missouri. On-site parking costs $15, but if you’re willing to walk, you can often find street parking for free along Forest Park’s roadways. And here’s a fun tidbit: if you have an electric car, the zoo offers two recharging stations in the South parking lot—for free!

The St. Louis zoo is free, but our family enjoyed adventure passes courtesy of Explore St. Louis in exchange for an honest review.

About the author

Kathleen Basi

Freelance writer Kathleen Basi has lived her entire life in “flyover country,” but she’s an old pro at road trips, having taken the first of many extended driving vacations at the tender age of five. She’s a huge proponent of letting kids see and experience the space between “here” and “there.” Find her at http://kathleenbasi.com/blog/.

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