There’s plenty to love about the Lincoln Park Zoo, from the fan-favorite farm outpost to its hidden bronze water fountains. Oh, and did we mention it’s free?
It’s full of creatures big and small, it has the perfect lakeside address with gobs of family activities and restaurants all around it, it’s got breathtakingly gorgeous views . . . and, it’s free. What’s not to love about Lincoln Park Zoo?
Founded in 1866, it is the fourth oldest zoo in North America and one of a just a few that don’t charge an admission fee to get an up close look at the many animals housed there. In fact, the zoo’s mission to connect people with nature—and to inspire communities to create environments where wildlife will thrive in our urbanizing worlds—is one that even the littlest of visitors can grasp. From its fan-favorite farm outpost to close encounters with penguins, there’s never a bad day to stop by.
Waddle with the penguins
Lincoln Park Zoo welcomed penguins to their crew several years ago and along with that addition came the opportunity for face-to-face Family Penguin Encounters. Enter the Pritzker Family Cove for a personal introduction to the African penguins and find out what their daily lives are like both at the zoo and on the southern African coast.
Head down to the farm
City kids get a little bit country at this rural pocket of Lincoln Park Zoo, Farm-in-the-Zoo.
The Main Barn consists of play stations designed for toddlers and young learners. You'll find a kid-sized chicken coop with newly hatched chicks that encourages that vital first connection to nature, a theater for kids to exercise their imaginations and sensory stations to promote hands-on activities. Meanwhile, the Dairy Barn is home to goats and cows and features demonstrations that teach kids about the milking process and the Livestock arena gets kids interested in caring for farm animals with pony grooming demonstrations.
Do the locomotion
Hop aboard the track-less Lionel Train Adventure as it chugs around a scenic loop, giving little legs a much-needed break. The Zoo collaborated with the iconic train company, Lionel, to create this 28-passenger train with piped-in engine noises and cheery music playing in the background. It's best suited for ages 2-6, but open to anyone who wants to pay $4 to take a seat.
Make it extra exciting for kids by buying a wooden train whistle in the pavilion next to the station. There is stroller parking at the station and the entire area is fenced off, so you can keep an eye on your child. Important to note: the train does not run during inclement weather.
Take a spin
You’re in for one truly wild ride when you climb aboard the Endangered Species Carousel. Rare and endangered species like frogs, ostriches, pandas, zebras, gorillas and seals, many of which you’ll find thriving in the zoo, are represented in the 48 artisan-crafted wooden animals and two chariots. Paying $4 per jockey to ride atop the exotic on this one-of-a-kind carousel helps keep a visit to Lincoln Park Zoo free year-round.
PRITZKER FAMILY CHILDREN’S ZOO
The Pritzker Family Children's Zoo introduces kids to the animals of North America, like red wolves, black bears, river otters and beavers, and provides an opportunity for you to put your feet up while they burn off energy. It's also a great spot to wait out an ill-timed drizzle courtesy of Mother Nature.
Treetop Canopy Climbing Adventure
Nearly sweeping the ceiling with a maze of sturdy ropes and tunnels, this oasis looks like something out of Swiss Family Robinson. Climbers go in one side and climb higher to the middle and back down to the other side, and the fun is figuring out which opening will lead them the way that they want to go. Stick around to see the small animal exhibits that make up the Children's Zoo.
Wild Sapling Play Forest
Tucked away in a secluded woodsy corner next to the black bear exhibit in the Children's Zoo, you'll find the Wild Sapling Play Forest. Kids can climb a log tower, burrow their way through an above-ground tunnel of metal vines and zig-zag their way around a balance beam interspersed with tree-stump platforms. They can make mud pies and use tools to dig in a large pit filled with finely grained dirt befitting a forested hideaway.
SPECIAL EVENTS & ACTIVITIES
Watch zoologists at work
The Zoo hosts a few daily activities that allow visitors a closer look at the care of animals. At 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. every day, head to the Kovler Seal Pool for seal training and feeding. Over at the Regenstein Center for African Apes at 1:30 p.m. on weekdays, you can discover the surprising methods the zoo team uses to understand ape cognition and to better support great apes. All of these activities last roughly 10 minutes and run like clockwork, aside from cancellations due to animal needs or inclement weather. Other programming may happen around the zoo at various times so be on the lookout.
Get your daily greens
The Edible Gardens at Farm-in-the-Zoo is a partnership between Green City Market and Lincoln Park Zoo with a mission to give kids hands-on lessons on the origins of food. Check the website for tour opportunities, April-October, when Green City Market staff members help visitors establish a deeper connection to the resources that sustain us all—food from the Earth.
Go on a guided arboretum tour
Did you know that in 2019, the Lincoln Park Zoo received arboretum accreditation from ArbNet? Find out more by joining a guided arboretum tour from local horticulturists, who often meet at Searle Visitor Center.
Walk the Nature Boardwalk
Look closely and you might just spot a giant frog . . . or native birds, fish, turtles and insects at this natural ecosystem and outdoor classroom.
Quench your thirst
Schlepping kids around the zoo can make you thirsty, so we've got a discreet option for hydrating that may otherwise go unnoticed.
Lincoln Park Zoo has a trio of sculptural drinking fountains that put the old-school drinking fountains to shame. Just west of the Kovler Lion House, you’ll find “Lion Fountain," which depicts a lion pride—an adult male, adult female and three small cubs mounted on a bronze podium where they appear to be sharing a drink with their human friends.
North of the Regenstein African Journey near Conservatory Gate is the home to “Elephant Fountain,” where a bronze mama and baby elephant wait patiently for visitors to supply them with a cool drink.
Lastly, “For the Young at Heart” at the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo features a rabbit, dear, raccoon and nut-carrying squirrel frolicking near its three spouts.
INSIDER TIPS FOR A FUN ZOO DAY
- Go during the week if at all possible. You're there to see animals, not humans, and there are fewer people during weekdays.
- Jockeying nap times may hamper your ability to do this, but the earlier you arrive the better. Mornings are a great time to visit because it's just as animals start their days! Just note that during these early hours, some habitats are also being cleaned, and animals always have the choice to be in a public or private area—so not all animals are guaranteed to be visible.
- Check the zoo's website for the 411 on daily activities, like learning about seal training and polar bear care.
- Make a list of must-dos that cater to the interests of the individuals in your group. If Timmy has a serious thing for kitties and Molly just must see the snakes, then it will benefit you to check out the online maps so you can get in the important stuff.
- Make a note of the interactive areas. While staring at the animals is tons of fun, the kids are going to want to do something. Make sure you're mixing in the rides, the treehouse they can actually climb and other fun features.
- Know your limits. And by that we mean, know their limits. Even the most determined child can tilt into full-scale meltdown when they're beyond exhausted, too hot or cold and too overwhelmed by the smell of the elephants. Incorporate the wisdom of Kenny Rogers into your zoo visit: "Know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run."
- Although Lincoln Park Zoo doesn’t have set times to bring kids who need special accommodations, they do have a great resource guide. Within it, you can find tips on the best times to come and which animal houses are the quietest, have lighting that’s comforting or are all-together sensory neutral.
HOW TO SUPPORT THE ZOO
Run for the Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo—in addition to collecting money from parking, the train and carousel—hosts several fundraisers throughout the year to keep their general admission free. One of the most popular, Run for the Zoo, is typically held in June and consists of a 10K run or 5K run/walk that's open to families and even strollers. If your sidekick doesn’t want to go the distance, she might be swayed to try the obstacle course challenge for those ages 8 and younger. Called Safari Stampede, it spurs kids to balance like a flamingo, hop like a toad, crawl like a grizzly and leap like a lion.
Become a member
Purchase a membership that guarantees you special invites to exclusive zoo events, free and reduced parking, discounts on zoo programs, and free or discounted admission to more than 100 zoos and aquariums through the reciprocal program. As a bonus, because this is a non-profit organization, a membership is a tax write-off.