In many ways, St. Louis is an average mid-American city. But there is more to its story than the Gateway Arch and Budweiser. Plugged-in travelers know that there are more free activities available here than in any other city in the U.S. except Washington. St. Louis also has an impressive menu of environmentally friendly attractions and a history of conservation.

The city has the same environmental concerns as many other midsized metropolises. A car is all but necessary for getting around, and development has not always occurred with the environment in mind. However, public parks abound, and the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau promotes its long list of environmentally friendly attractions. The fact that such a green culture has a foothold in St. Louis makes it a good (albeit unexpected) choice for green-minded travelers.

Sleep green

The Millennium Hotel St. Louis looks to its “green committee” to implement eco-friendly practices adopted by the famous hotel chain’s corporate offices. Energy efficiency, recycling and nontoxic cleaning products are priorities. Perhaps more impressively, the hotel chooses suppliers with a similar commitment to low-impact business.

Another high-end chain, Doubletree, uses education to build its green cred. The hotel is involved with several nonprofits, including the Teaching Kids to CARE program, which educates school-aged children about environmental stewardship. Doubletree has been a longtime sponsor of the Arbor Day Foundation. The hotel backs the tree-loving nonprofit’s traveling museum exhibit: Exploring Trees Inside and Out.

Go green

The MetroLink light rail is useful for people traveling to central areas of the city. Though the service recently expanded (there are now two lines), rail travel is not a viable option for those who want to further explore the green features of St. Louis.

Like many of its midsized peers, St. Louis is a city of cars. Pollution-conscious travelers can be heartened by the fact that one of the country’s few LEED certified car rental centers is just outside the airport. Industry giant Enterprise used recycled materials to construct parts of the center and installed water conservation equipment, energy-saving lighting fixtures and filters and sealants that reduce the polluting emissions. St. Louis is one of the select cities where Enterprise’s fleet includes a large selection of hybrid vehicles.

Eat green

Terrene brings environmentally friendly buying practices to the high-end dining experience. The ever-changing menu features dishes made from food that was locally grown using sustainable farming practices. In addition, the restaurant uses recycled products in everything from its menus to its furnishings. Vegetable trimmings are sent to local farms for composting and excess oil used for frying is donated to local biofuel producers.

See green

For environmentally conscious travelers, the best aspect of St. Louis is its substantial menu of green attractions. The most noticeable of these is the City Museum . It was built in a renovated shoe factory. Local artists populated parts of the 600,000-square-foot facility with “found” items. The result takes the garbage-into-art idea to new heights.

Other museums take a less creative, but more educational, approach to entertaining visitors. The National Great Rivers Museum casts light on the dynamic ecosystems of the Mississippi River, while the St. Louis Science Center features exhibits on the impact of modern life on the environment.

Despite its urban image, St. Louis has more than its share of public green spaces. The Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT) is a lush oasis with a greenhouse that contains species from the world’s largest rain forests. The garden was praised by National Geopgraphic for its efforts to catalog rare tropical plant life. The Kemper Center for Home Gardening, located on the MOBOT grounds, has programs that educate gardening enthusiasts about organic and sustainable growing practices.

The education continues at the EarthWays Home , an 1880s house that has been skillfully converted into an energy-saving, low-impact dwelling. Classes on green renovation techniques are available, as are a host of other offerings. The St. Louis Zoo receives accolades for its efforts to protect endangered species. It boasts an impressive collection of animals, with more than 5,000 creatures representing 700 species.

With 300 varieties of trees on 289 acres, Tower Grove Park is one of the most diverse urban forests in the U.S. It has been in operation since the 1860s and its Victorian-era design earned it a designation as a National Historic Landmark.

Be green

The St. Louis Convention Center has taken both simple and high-tech steps to green its facilities. Low-tech measures like coreless toilet paper rolls, energy-efficient lighting, and carpeting made from 40 percent recycled material are a few of the more practical features. On the other end of the spectrum: Air curtains installed above entryways help save energy used for heating and cooling, and many rooms feature sensors that control lighting and climate depending on how many people are in the room.

The somewhat surprising slate of green attractions in St. Louis changes its image from that of a standard Midwestern metropolis to a regional leader in the green travel industry. Perhaps STL is not the ideal vacation destination for people looking for the ultimate urban experience, but the mix of free activities, green-themed venues, environmentally conscious businesses, and natural spaces is enough to impress the most hard-core environmentalist.

MNN homepage photo: Veni/iStockphoto

Destination of the week: St. Louis
Destination of the week: St. Louis. Plenty of free activities and a growing environmental consciousness make this city one to add to your list.