We weren’t sure what to do on our first day in Chicago, so after visiting Buckingham Fountain, we decided to get a birds-eye view of the city and start off our vacation with a trip to Skydeck Chicago at the top of Willis Tower. After that, we set out to explore Millennium Park, find the Crown Fountain and Cloud Gate, the iconic Chicago Bean sculpture, and grab some lunch.
While at lunch, we ran through all the different things to do in Chicago, and voted to hop a cab to the Lincoln Park Zoo because it was one of the only family activities that we couldn’t walk to from our hotel — the Hilton Downtown Chicago — and it’s free! Woohoo!
Visiting the Lincoln Park Zoo
The first thing we saw when we walked in the Lincoln Park Zoo West Gate was the Lionel Train Adventure, a kid-friendly locomotive. We love train rides and have rode several trains through zoos, so I snagged us all tickets and we hopped on board. It was only then that we realized the Lionel Train Adventure doesn’t take riders on a tour of the zoo, but instead drives slowly around a small loop. This isn’t a family train, it’s a toddler train!
After our silly and short $12 train ride, we set out to explore the Lincoln Park Zoo, a free, family-oriented wildlife experience. Founded in 1868, the 35 acre Lincoln Park Zoo is “a world of wildlife in the shadow of skyscrapers.” Located just minutes north of Chicago, the zoo has been a natural, free oasis for generations of animal lovers and around 200 species of animals.
We were blown away by the quality of the Lincoln Park Zoo, the animal enclosures, the surrounding landscaping, and the beauty of the historic buildings on the premises. During our afternoon visit, we stopped for ice cream cones, learned more about various animals and conservation, and saw a leopard, tiger, black bear, polar bear, black rhinoceros, jaguar, ostrich, and pygmy hippopotamus, as well as lemurs, tamarins, lynx, zebras, giraffes, gorillas, monkeys, birds, reptiles, and more!
All of us were extremely happy we decided to visit the zoo!
Lincoln Park Zoo Exhibits
When we discovered that Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo was free, Brian and I figured it would be a small community zoo, but when we arrived, it didn’t take long to realize just how wrong we were.
The Lincoln Park Zoo is HUGE!
The exhibits at the Lincoln Park Zoo rival the animal exhibits at some of the most renowned zoos we have visited. Some of the exhibits include:
- Robert and Mayari Pritzker Penguin Cove: With rocky shoreline and beaches similar to those of this endangered species’ native habitat along southern Africa’s temperate coasts, the Penguin Cove offers visitors views above and below water so you don’t miss a waddle, dive, or courtship bow from the African Penguins.
- Walter Family Arctic Tundra: Designed especially for Arctic polar bears, a carnivorous species threatened in the wild due to climate change and rapidly melting sea ice, the Arctic Tundra featured rolling terrain, ice caves, and cool pools. It can support a breeding pair of polar bears and their potential cubs.
- Antelope and Zebra Area: Home to an assortment of mammals, including camels, zebras, antelope, and red kangaroos, the Antelope and Zebra Area showcases many rare or endangered animals grazing in the shade of century-old trees.
- Regenstein Center for African Apes: With 29,000 square feet of living space — indoors and out — including a waterfall, a moat, heated logs, artificial vines for swinging, real and artificial bamboo, dozens of trees, and more, the Regenstein Center for African Apes is unlike any other in the country — maybe the world. The indoor exhibits are immediately adjacent to the outdoor exhibits so that they appear to be one.
- Kovler Lion House: Standing as a historic landmark at the heart of the zoo, the Lion House has a wide hall and vaulted ceiling, which richly amplify the roars of some of the world’s rarest and most beautiful big cats, including African lions, Amur tigers, a snow leopard from Asia, and a jaguar from South America.
- Helen Brach Primate House: Primates of all shapes, sizes and colors can be seen swinging and bounding through the trees inside the Primate House, which features eight, naturalistic exhibits that replicate the native habitats of the primates that make their home here. A large outdoor habitat provides additional play space for white-cheeked gibbons during warmer months.
- Regenstein African Journey: From giraffes to rhinoceroses to schools of colorful fish, the African Journey exhibit brings the awesome sights and sounds of Africa to visitors who stroll through four distinct habitats and experience the abundance of life that populates each.
- Regenstein Birds of Prey Exhibit: Birds of prey possess sharp, hooked bills and talons, essential tools for capturing small animals or feeding on carrion. In the Birds of Prey exhibit, cinereous vultures share a large section of the habitat with white storks. The stately bald eagle and snowy owl live in neighboring enclosures.
- Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House: While surrounded by 200 small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, and birds, visitors to the Small Mammal-Reptile House can experience the climates, conditions, and animals of four continents: South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia.
- Farm-in-the-Zoo: The Main Barn is filled with play stations specifically designed for toddlers and young learners. The Dairy Barn houses goats and cows. The Livestock arena provides pony grooming demonstrations. The seasonal Edible Gardens in the Zoo Farm invites kids to experience hands-on lessons on the origins of food.
In addition to the stunning animal exhibits, the zoo also invites visitors to explore a new, 14 acre, natural ecosystem of restored habitat and wetlands along the half-mile Nature Boardwalk, which meanders around the edges of the zoo’s south pond.
Know Before You Go
- The Lincoln Park Zoo is located off Lake Shore Drive at the Fullerton Parkway exit at 2001 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois 60614 next to the Lincoln Park Conservatory.
- Admission is free 365 days a year.
- Download the Lincoln Park Zoo brochure.
- The zoo’s parking lot entrance is located at Fullerton Parkway and Cannon Drive — 2400 North Cannon Drive, Chicago IL 60614. Parking fees are typically collected at the lot exit. The parking lot opens at 6:00 am and closes at 11:00 pm. Parking rates range from $20-35 per day and include applicable parking taxes.
- The Brown line and Purple line stop at the Armitage station, which is about one mile west of the zoo. Exit and walk east on Armitage, past Clark, to the Café Brauer Gate.
- We took a cab to the zoo from downtown Chicago and the fare was about $12.00.
- From Memorial Day through Labor Day, weekday hours are 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and weekend hours are 10:00 am to 6:30 pm. In September, October, April, and May, hours are 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. From November through March, hours are 10:00 am to 4:30 pm.
- There are several dining options to satisfy your hungry family at the Lincoln Park Zoo! Enjoy pasta, tacos, burgers, and sandwiches at Park Place Café. Combine breathtaking views with delicious organic fare at Café at Wild Things. Kick back with flatbread pizzas, fresh salads, kids’ meals and cocktails, beer, or wine at the Patio at Café Brauer. Eat Chicago-style hot dogs, fries, and snacks in one of the oldest historic buildings on zoo grounds at Eadie Levy’s Landmark Café. Grab an ice cream cone at the Safari Café or the Ice Cream Shoppe at Café Brauer.
- You may not bring pets into the zoo for the safety of our animals as well as yours. Service animals are allowed in most places in the Zoo. Pets, exotic species, therapy or emotional-support animals are not permitted at Lincoln Park Zoo.