Founded in 1868, Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago is one of the oldest zoos in the country, and one of the last zoos that offers free entry. The zoo's combination of outdoor and indoor exhibits, along with its location near lots of other things to do in Lincoln Park not far from the beach, make it a great destination for families looking for some easy entertainment.
Lincoln Park Zoo has recently received an exciting update: The zoo's original Lion House was opened in 1912, housing big cats in a beautifully designed and built building—one that became dated and less animal friendly over time. In December 2019, the zoo, with the help of donations from the Pepper Family, started construction on a new habitat for it cats—the Pepper Family Wildlife Center.
Read on for an introduction to the new Center, plus lots of other tips for visiting Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo with kids. And for more animal adventures, check out our Best Zoos and Aquariums in Chicago.
During this COVID January, when many of us are hesitant to go to the theater or a crowded museum, the zoo can be a welcome alternative for fun kids activities. Just remember that you must be vaccinated or have a negative COVID test to enter any public building in Cook County.
Animals to Check Out Indoors at Lincoln Park Zoo
Lions at the Pepper Family Wildlife Center
The center opened in October, giving families a unique perspective on lions that many have never seen before. Back in 5 B.C. (five years Before Children) I lived much closer to LPZ and would walk through the grounds almost weekly. The lions were always lounging in the same position on each of three raised rocks behind a moat. I don't think I ever saw them move, even after visiting dozens of times a year for three or four years. We visited with our six-year-old and four-year-old at the end of October, just after the Wildlife Center opened, and I was stunned. The new lion habitat has both indoor and outdoor features, allowing families to see the lions from multiples perspectives. We entered through the east gate of the zoo and the first thing we saw was the lions playing with a ball against the backdrop of the building, where two more lionesses were keeping lookout on what appeared to by the building's roof.
The new perspective lets you see just how big the lions really are. Photo courtesy of the author
The zoo's docent encouraged us to go inside the building and look up, telling us we might be surprised at what we saw. The main portion of the building has maintained its original historic architecture, with beautiful vaulted and tiled ceilings, but the impressive part is the newly built Lion Loop, a circle that extends past the wall of the original building into the outside habitat. Kids can look up through glass skylights to see the lions from below. You can also view the lions on top of the building through windows on the sides—we saw one watch as kids moved back and forth on our side of the glass before she jumped down to greet them face-to-face, with her paw just inches from our kids on the other side of the glass. This perspective lets you see just how big the lions really are, the texture of their fur, and how they are watching each other and the people in the exhibit.
In addition to being able to see the lions in a much closer and more active setting, we loved all of the information to read about the lions, presented in family-friendly short paragraphs on both the inside and outside of the buildings. Kids can touch a piece of the ball that the lions play with to see how it gets destroyed by their claws and teeth, or compare the size of their hand to a lion's paw. There were also plenty of volunteers around to tell us more about the lions and the structure. The lions, all new to the zoo, are two to four years old, and have been brought together to eventually breed new lion cubs. When that happens, the building will be divided for the lions to interact appropriately between cubs and mom. We're excited to see what happens in the next few years!
The Regensten Exhibit for African Apes, photo courtesy of the Lincoln Park Zoo
Gorillas and Chimpanzees at The Regensten Exhibit for African Apes
The Regensten Exhibit for African Apes is another must-see for kids and families at Lincoln Park Zoo. The gorillas and the chimpanzees are divided into family groups, and the best time to see them is mid-to-late morning, around when the zookeepers put food in their enclosures. Our kids loved to see how they ate some of the same foods as their ape cousins, who gathered up carrots, celery, and lettuce in their own favorite combinations. Like the lions, the apes are visible from indoors and outdoors, with the ability to view some animals from just inches away through the glass. Activity levels were high in the chimpanzee area, where one young male was tossing a barrel around the enclsoure while our kids watched through a log meant to look like an ape's nest. Some of the gorillas were more relaxed, finding favorite spots to relax, while others climbed, threw wood chips at each other and bickered the best pieces of food. Our kids liked the opportunity to see another animal up close and look at it's behavior compared to their own.
Reptiles and Small Mammals
From the outside, this building seems small and unimpressive, but it's much deeper and more diverse than you would imagine. It's dark when you first enter, giving you the chance to see some nocturnal animals with a little more motion. This, along with snakes as big as mommy, may be a little scary for some kids. Snakes, frogs, and small critters get you attention in the first room, along with a screening room that presents an interesting video about the zoo and its history. My kids liked learning about how the zoo has evolved from a more people-centric menagerie-like setting to a place to study science and create more natural habitats for animals. Beyond the darkened first room, my kids were thrilled to find exhibits about water and swamp animals, like the otter that my son chased back and forth for several minutes and the alligator that was stretched out to its full length—just a little bigger than my six-year-old.
Entrance to the Regenstein African Journey, photo courtesy of the Lincoln Park Zoo
Regenstein African Journey
This building features a wide variety of African animals, and is even more impressive than it sounds. The first room is mainly devoted to birds, which fly very close to kids as they explore the bright colors and interesting sounds. The following space houses pygmy hippos, who were just waking up from a nap and going for a swim as we arrived. My kids sat on the bench for underwater viewing for several minutes, hoping to see the hippos eat and pass gas. Meerkats and the indoor portion of the giraffe exhibit follow—both animals were playful and fun for little kids, who liked to see if the meerkats were looking at them and were inspired to "cuddle like meerkats" later. Don't miss the aardvark in this same room—she's tucked away in a bottom corner just past the meerkats.
McCormick Bird House
We've all seen robins, sparrows, and cardinals in our own yards, but kids looking to see birds of the tropical and seashore variety might like the free-flying areas in this enormous bird house. Trying to figure out the name of each bird in the room based on the signs can be fun for big kids, while little kids enjoy seeing how the bird fly or swim, and listening for their different calls. The free flight area in the final room can be intimidating for some little kids, but others get a great thrill out of being so close to the animals.
Indoor/Outdoor Areas at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo
Photo courtesy of the Lincoln Park Zoo
Pritzker Family Children's Zoo
Need a break from learning? The Pritzker Family Children's Zoo gives kids a chance to climb around on its tree-like play structure, while also viewing some fun animals like toads, turtles, and newts. Outside of the Children's Zoo's main building, kids can view North American animals that they might find in wilderness areas outside of the city, including black bears and red wolves. River otters and beavers are also fan favorites as kids often enjoy seemingly playful creatures that may live in their own backyard. The Children's Zoo, along with the adjacent Lionel train rides, are two parts of the zoo that are not free, so if you think your kids will get FOMO from not visiting those areas, plan a small extra amount into your zoo budget.
Kovler Seal Pool
This is pretty standard zoo fare—the Kovler Seal Pool has an above ground and and underground area for viewing the zoo's gray seals and harbor seals. On active days, they're fun to watch, and the viewing area can be a respite from the cold weather if you're not looking to spend too much time indoors. Visitors can also watch the zookeepers at positive reinforcement training sessions, where the seals show off their species-specific skills for a treat.
Walter Family Arctic Tundra and Pritzker Penguin Cove
Similar to the seal pool, the polar bear and penguin exhibit gives families a chance to duck in out of the cold or rain. A split view allows kids to see polar bears both above and under the water, and offers a prime opportunity to see animals up close. It's fun to watch the penguins waddle in and out of their nesting coves and see the polar bears swim through the water.
Outdoor Exhibits at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo
Dozens of flamingoes crowd the south pond near the reptile house, photo courtesy of the author
Duck Pond and Flamingoes
The sights and sounds of the duck pond can also be a highlight of the zoo trip for many kids. Dozens of flamingoes crowd the south pond near the reptile house and gorilla building, raising lots of questions from my kids about what they eat and why they stand on one leg. And if you thought you knew about ducks, think again. There's tons of different species of ducks and swans in the pond at Lincoln Park Zoo, and in addition to reading about them on the signs, you can ask one of the many informed docents in the area.
Hoofed Animals and Kangaroos
Along the south end of the zoo, you'll find a series of habitats for zebras, camels, kangaroos, and Sichuan Takin, an Asian goat-antelope. My son loves zebras and enjoyed watching them graze, even if the movement at that time of day was limited. The kangaroos, however, were very active and elicited a lot of laughs from my kids. We also liked reading more about the camels and how they are able to survive in Chicago's climate, even though it's different from where they usually live. This end of the zoo is quiet on less crowded days, and can be fun area to watch animals for kids who have a little more patience and don't need to move quickly from exhibit to exhibit.
Farm at the Zoo
Many city kids never get to see what a chicken or a cow looks like in real life, but Lincoln Park Zoo gives them a chance to see domesticated animals as well. The Farm at the Zoo is set a little south and west from the rest of the zoo, and you'll have to walk across the nature boardwalk to get there, so if it's a priority for your kids, make this the first or last stop on your trip. It's geared mainly toward little kids, with exhibits showing where your food comes from, including an edible garden, bee hive, and livestock from goats and pigs to rabbits and ponies. The Farm also offers special programs, like sing-alongs, play days, and gardening sessions, during certain times of the year.
We like Park Place Cafe near the center of the zoo, photo courtesy of the author
Directions, Food, Restrooms, and Gift Shop Best-Buys
-For public transit, bus is the way to go. CTA buses 22, 36, 151, and 156 drop off at the zoo's west gate. You can also walk from Armitage on the Brown and Purple Line or Fullerton on the Red Line, but that's a mile walk, so bring a stroller if you have little ones.
-Parking along the zoo's east edge is $20-$35 per day. Remember to go in from the north end of the lot on Fullerton—it's a one-way parking lot that takes you out to Lake Shore Drive or LaSalle Street on the south
- There are several restaurants within the zoo; we liked Park Place Cafe near the center of the zoo. It's a cafeteria-style restaurant with plenty of variety and meals ranging from $7-$15. Get the kids' meals instead of a slice of pizza—the extra sides and drinks end up being worth the money. While we love Cafe Brauer because we got married there, it involves sitting down and ordering from a waiter, which can often kill the momentum of the trip.
-Not every building has a restroom in it. Park Place Cafe and the new Pepper Family Wildlife Center were good pit stops for us, and there's a guide to restroom locations on the zoo's website, but if you've got a little one who can't make a run for it, plan tactical potty stops in advance.
- The gift shop is vast and overwhelming, and you pretty much have to pass it on the way out, unless you leave from the south end of the zoo. Once inside, look up—there are Lincoln Park Zoo coloring and activity books near the top of the book area. They're $2, and they're the most unique gift you'll get for a reasonable price. Plenty of other small items under $10 are in bins near the windows, including some binoculars that our kids liked, cars, and the ubiquitous collections of plastic animals.