I got splashed by a puffin and it was the greatest experience ever.
Last week I met a new friend to explore the St. Louis Zoo and could not have anticipated the amount of joy it brought. While I didn’t exactly feel like I kid again, I felt the same levity, wonder, and ability to just enjoy the moment that comes easier when you are a kid. I found myself giggling with glee when a penguin that swam less than a foot away splashed me and staring in awe as a hippo pressed his thick whiskers against the glass.
I’ve always enjoyed visiting zoo and actually grew up minutes from the Minnesota Zoo. Birthday parties and field trips at the zoo were common occurences and gave me a wonder and appreciation for wildlife. However, there have been other zoos made me feel sad when their animals’ habitats seemed too small or too bare. I have a vivid memory of visiting a free zoo where a lonely polar bear anxiously paced its bare concrete space on a hot summer’s day.
The St. Louis Zoo does amazingly offer free admission and its grounds are immaculately kept. Architecture and landscaping are gorgeous and walkways are litter-free. You can also get surprisingly close to the animals.
The animal’s habitats are spacious and they seem content. I am not well versed in zoology, but guess that animals arrive at zoos for a variety of reasons. The animals I saw did not seem anxious or demonstrate any behavior such as pacing or other repetitive behaviors.
Free street parking is located around the zoo’s entrances. Depending on how early you arrive and how busy the zoo is, you may have to walk a bit or parallel park. Zoo parking lots are closer to entrances and cost $15 for the whole day. While admission is free, extra activities including the sea lion show, merry-go-round, entrance to the children’s zoo, stingray cove and movies cost $4-5 per ticket (children under 2 are free).
I learned that admission to the stingray cove and children’s zoo is free between 8-9 a.m. on an early morning stroll.
There is so much to see that one could view indoor and outdoor exhibits all day without paying for the extras. My friend and I strolled around the zoo for two hours and saw many of the free exhibits including elephants, rhinos, seals, sun bears, and orangutans. I assumed we had seen most of the exhibits but was surprised when I learned we only saw about 1/4.
A really cool train track runs through the park. Train tickets cost $5, but allow you to exit to visit exhibits and re-board.
I love that the only trains in St. Louis that I’ve had to wait for to cross the tracks are the fun ones at the zoo.
The Penguin & Puffin Coast features Humboldt, Gentoo, Rockhopper and King penguins. According to the zoo’s website, the Lichenstein Penguin Cove is the nation’s first walk-though, sub-arctic penguin exhibit. You’ll feel a chilly blast of cold air upon entering the cove.
I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw how close we could get to the penguins. They are just inches away from you as they swim by or watch you from the cliffs.
I got a kick out of watching the penguins dive from the cliffs into the water. The one to the left is staring at me through the glass. All of the glass around the exhibits was really, really clean. Gaze upwards, and you will see penguins just feet from your head.
The puffin pond lies just beyond the penguins. I watched in delight as puffins bounced and bobbed and dive-bombed into the water from their little cliff coves.
I remember watching Anthony Bourdain hunt puffins with his hosts on the cliffs of Iceland on No Reservations but never expected to see them in person. They also watch zoo-goers above the walkway. I kept expecting the birds to jump on our heads.
Finally, you’ll meet Kali the polar bear who lives at the end of the penguin exhibit. He became the zoo’s newest resident in May 2015 and it’s obvious the city loves him. This two-year old bear was orphaned in Alaska when his mother was killed by hunters for food. Villagers cared for the cub before giving him to U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists. Read more about Kali’s story here.
Everyone wants to catch a glimpse of Kali. Wherever he goes, the crowds go too. The zoo staff monitored the exhibit and made announcements reminding people to take turns standing by the windows so that everyone could catch a moment with Kali.
When I strolled by Kali’s habitat at 8:30 a.m., groups of people were already waiting for him to make his morning appearance at 9 a.m.
Sea lions and seals are more animals I could spend hours watching. When you reach the underwater tunnel, they swim over and around you and pause in front of curious bystanders.
In addition to the penguin and puffin coves, the bug exhibit is also a cool place to take a break from the sun. This dome houses the butterfly garden (free admission) where you can learn about pollinators and admire plush plants as butterflies flap around you.
Usually I’m afraid of bugs. The bug exhibit helped turn fear into fascination. I was especially enthralled watching leaf cutter ants carry small pieces of leaves around this twisted branch.
Like I mentioned earlier in this post, I’ve only seen about 1/4 of the zoo. Jake hasn’t gotten to explore it yet, so we’re going back this weekend. Hopefully our trip will include snacks from the zoo’s concession stands, too. Whether or not you think you are excited about zoos, I’d highly recommend visiting ours (can I say ours, yet?) if you travel to St. Louis. I think you’ll find that it’s literally impossible to leave without feeling extremely enthusiastic about zoos.
My short STL-area bucket list includes visiting the haunted Lemp Mansion, Missouri History Museum, City Museum which others have described as a giant, adult playground, Cahokia Mounds, and Elephant Rocks State Park. Our list of bars and restaurants is staggering and we’re struggling to figure out where to start. It’s my turn to choose a date night restaurant and I’m thinking Thai or Vietnamese food.
Thank you to all who make this zoo free for all and to those who have offered us a warm welcome to STL! We appreciate all of your suggestions for your favorite places.
You can definitely say “ours” now. I love that you have found so many great places to go and those puffins! Oh they are amazing! I think you found a little bit of paradise in St. Louis already and it makes my heart happy. Enjoy each moment.
I love going to the zoo! Those puffins are adorable! I love all your pictures too 🙂
Looks like you had fun! The great part of the zoo being free, is that you don’t feel like you have to spend all day there to get your money’s worth. The inside houses are great when it is too cold or hot outside or even in the rain! I don’t mean to add to your list, but I have 3 suggestions for Vietnamese restaurants: Little Saigon (in the Central West End), Pho Grand (on Grand near Tower Grove Park, south city), and Dao Tien (just off Olive Blvd. in University City very close to 170). The last one is a very tiny,”mom and pop” sort of place. The owner cooks and her kids are the waiters. If you find a good Thai place, I want to know! We have been disappointed by each place we have tried except maybe the Blue Elephant Royal on Forsyth in Clayton. Fresh good food, but a very small menu. Have fun!
That’s a good point about the zoo-there’s no pressure to rush a visit or feel the need to stay until totally fatigued. Thank you for your suggestions. We did end up trying Blue Elephant take-out during our first week and loved how spicy they made it.
I love seeing your explore your new home. Our family has St. Louis on our vacation list, so keep the posts coming! I know other “free” attractions are going on an Anheuser Busch brewery tours, Grant’s Farm and the Science Center.
We’ll have to check out those other free attractions!