ST. LOUIS – The French who founded this city in 1764 left instructions for having a good time. The Germans brought the beer, built the brick mansions and got things organized. Henry Shaw, inspired by the gardens of his native England, created a magnificent botanical garden. The Italians gave us The Hill neighborhood of tidy working-class homes and terrific restaurants, bakeries and specialty food shops.
Waves of immigrants who followed - and keep coming - have left their own cultural and epicurean footprints, most notably along South Grand Boulevard, where they transformed a dying urban neighborhood in the 1970s into a vibrant restaurant destination of Vietnamese, Persian, Afghan and Ethiopian cuisine.
The result is a city of bricks and beer, baseball and bowling, history and grand parks, with good eats and abundant cultural offerings. St. Louis is even listed as one of the "50 Fabulous Gay-Friendly Places" to travel and live.
The best part? Most of this can be savored on the tightest of travel budgets.
"People think we're a sleepy town with not much to do," city tourism spokeswoman Donna Andrews said. "When they get here, they rave about the destinations. So many of the cultural attractions are free and world-class. They can have a grand experience here without taking out a loan."
MUSEUM-ZOO TAX DISTRICT: Thanks to a tax approved in 1971 to support cultural attractions, visiting St. Louis' treasured Forest Park is free, including the zoo, art museum, science center and the Missouri History Museum. Depending on the season, Forest Park offers trails, boat rentals, bicycling, golf and tennis; hay rides; ice skating, tobogganing and cross-country skiing. For a buck, you can visit The Jewel Box, an Art Deco greenhouse.
From May 20 to June 14, bring a picnic for a free, outdoor performance (every night except Tuesday) of "The Merry Wives of Windsor," this season's edition of the annual Shakespeare Festival in Forest Park.
Hop over to the Muny Opera - the nation's oldest and largest outdoor musical theater - by 7 p.m. and get in line for some of the 1,500 free seats available at every summer performance (June 15-Aug. 9).
For more on Forest Park, go to http://stlouis.missouri.org/citygov/parks/forestpark/.
MISSOURI BOTANICAL GARDEN: Longtime St. Louisans still lovingly refer to this urban oasis of splendor and beauty as Shaw's Garden, for the British businessman Henry Shaw who recreated the English gardens of his youth in what was then the outskirts of St. Louis. This year, the Missouri Botanical Garden celebrates its 150th birthday. In addition to birthday activities, the garden offers 79 acres of display gardens, indoor conservatories and historic buildings. Admission is $8 (free, age 12 and under). From Memorial Day to Labor Day, it's free on Wednesdays, 5-9 p.m. The free Whitaker Music Festival concert series runs June 3-Aug. 5, 7:30 p.m. Details at http://www.mobot.org/default.asp.
A few blocks south of the garden is Tower Grove Park, an exquisite Victorian walking park that Shaw gave the city in 1868 with pavilions and sculptures, lily ponds, greenhouses, bird-watching trails and some of the 8,000 trees and shrubs he imported from around the world. Enjoy Sunday brunch at Cafe Madeleine in the park's Piper Palm House, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., $19.95 ($9.95 age 10 and under), 314-575-5658.
GATEWAY ARCH: No trip to St. Louis is complete without a visit to the Gateway Arch, Eero Saarinen's 630-foot architectural marvel that commemorates Thomas Jefferson and the nation's westward expansion. Tickets for tram rides to the top are $10 ($5 ages 3-15). Every July 4, the city is treated to a grand, and free, fireworks display under the Arch, http://www.gatewayarch.com/Arch/.
Don't miss the nearby Old Courthouse, where slaves Dred and Harriet Scott argued for their freedom in 1847 and 1850. Here also slaves were sold on the courthouse steps, and women's suffrage activist Virginia Minor petitioned for women's right to vote in the 1870s.
MUSIC: Former St. Louisans include Josephine Baker, Scott Joplin, blues guitarist Henry Townsend and Ike and Tina Turner. Hometown rock 'n roller Chuck Berry, now in his 80s, still lives near the city - and performs monthly at the popular Blueberry Hill club and restaurant, 6504 Delmar in The Loop. Call ahead; the $25 tickets go fast, 314-727-4444.
The Delmar Loop (named for the old streetcar turnaround) is a destination in itself and the fruit of music promoter, entrepreneur and all-around good citizen Joe Edwards, who almost single-handedly turned a sagging neighborhood 30 years ago into a cultural attraction. The Loop features ethnic restaurants and cafes; a root beer brewery; an ornate restored 1924 movie theater, the Tivoli; The Pageant night club; a combination bowling alley and martini lounge, The Pinup Bowl; and the 125-room boutique Moonrise Hotel, scheduled to open in April. All of it is near the Metro, St. Louis' light-rail train system, http://www.metrostlouis.org/.
The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, the nation's second-oldest, will celebrate its 130th birthday with a 2009-2010 season that includes a Beethoven Festival, Yo-Yo Ma and segments on the music of movies, including Hollywood great Bugs Bunny.
The symphony offers 50 free tickets for regular orchestral concerts as well as discounts for children, seniors and students. It also offers more than 250 free community concerts. Otherwise ticket prices range from $16 to $105. Details at http://www.slso.org/box/discounts.htm#fifty. and http://www.slso.org/cp/calendar.htm. The symphony kicks off the season each September with a free outdoor performance on Art Hill in Forest Park.
For $5 or $10, enjoy a night of blues at BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups in a mid-1800s building that once was a house of prostitution, http://www.bbsjazzbluessoups.com/index.html.
The Big Muddy Blues Festival is held every Labor Day weekend (this year Sept. 5-6) at Laclede's Landing on the Mississippi riverfront. The Landing's ornate architecture, cobblestone streets, clubs, shops and restaurants attract tourists year-round.
BOWLING: Delmar Loop entrepreneur Joe Edwards also opened the Flamingo Bowl, 1117 Washington Ave., in the gentrified loft district downtown. For a traditional bowling experience, sans martinis, check out the Saratoga Lanes, 2725 Sutton Blvd. in the inner ring suburb of Maplewood. It opened in 1916 and is one of the oldest bowling alleys west of the Mississippi (314-645-5308).
HISTORIC CEMETERIES: The Calvary and Bellefontaine cemeteries, next to each other in north St. Louis, opened to accommodate victims of the mid-1800s cholera outbreak but now include the graves of many notables. Those buried at Calvary include Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman; author Kate Chopin; playwright Tennessee Williams, who set "The Glass Menagerie" in a flat like the one he and his family shared at 4633 Westminster Place; Dred Scott, the slave who sued unsuccessfully for his freedom; and Madame Pelagie Aillotte Rutgers, a free woman of color and one of the early city's wealthiest property owners. It also has a monument to the memory of four Nez Perce warriors, two of whom died in St. Louis while visiting Gen. William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) after his expedition through the Louisiana Territory, http://www.confluencegreenway.org/locations/cc.php.
Clark is buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery, along with Beat Generation author William Burroughs; brewery magnate Adolphus Busch and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sara Teasdale, among others, http://www.bellefontainecemetery.org/.
THE WEIRD: The City Museum, housed in the 600,000 square-foot former International Shoe Company factory, is an eclectic mix of mosaics, sculpted caves to explore, slides to barrel down, even a massive outdoor playground where kids climb through tunnels, towers, suspended airplanes and a fire engine. You can make your own art, view old opera posters, and check out a collection of vintage shoelaces and the machines that made them. Admission is $12 ($10 after 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday). http://www.citymuseum.org/home.asp
The Museum of the Dog in suburban west St. Louis County houses art about dogs. Admission $5; http://www.museumofthedog.org/about-us.html.
CITY FLAVOR: Gus' Pretzels, 1820 Arsenal St., makes the soft, salty, hand-twisted staple. It's down the street from Anheuser-Busch-InBev's Pestalozzi Street plant, which offers free brewery tours, http://www.budweisertours.com/tours.htm.
Step back in time and get your ice cream and chocolate fix at Crown Candy Kitchen, 1401 St. Louis Ave., in Old North St. Louis. Founded in 1913, it features a vintage jukebox, cozy booths and a soda fountain, http://www.crowncandykitchen.net/.
Ted Drewe's two frozen custard stands in south St. Louis attract long lines, but the wait is worth it for sweet stuff so thick they call it concrete, http://www.teddrewes.com.