Bye! You have logged out from ExperienceFirst.
Blog · Chicago · How To Spend a Day at the Lincoln Park Zoo

How To Spend a Day at the Lincoln Park Zoo

By Rita Mock-Pike
Lincoln Park Zoo

Of all the zoos in the world that I’ve visited, the Lincoln Park Zoo ranks in my top 10 — and it’s not because I live in Chicago and adore my city. The zoo has continually sought to improve its facilities and experiences for everyone over the years. It’s an accessible zoo, too, so hanging out with my mom who uses a wheelchair and friends pushing strollers is easy and stress-free.

Even if you’re on your last penny when you hit up Lincoln Park, you can still enjoy the zoo, park, and gardens. Entry is free for everyone!

Here’s everything you need to know to plan for your perfect day at Lincoln Park Zoo.

A little Lincoln Park Zoo history

Lincoln Park Zoo Manhole Cover

Lincoln Park Zoo is the second oldest zoo in the country, dating back to 1868, just 31 years after Chicago itself was founded. In some ways, the city has the Big Apple to thank for the zoo’s creation, because the larger city donated two pairs of mute swans to Chicago that year.

The swans were given a home in the South Pond of Lincoln Park, inspiring the city to formalize an animal collection. It took only two years for the original animal house to be built. Just 20 years after the founding of the zoo, Cyrus DeVry became the director of Lincoln Park Zoo and helped to decommercialize the transfer of animals.

Start with the lion house

Lincoln Park Zoo Lions

If you love big cats, you’re going to love the lion house at Lincoln Park Zoo. This amazing habitat was updated in 2021 and is even an official Chicago Landmark.

The savanna-style habitat includes more space, larger enclosures, more viewing areas, and loads of technology that make life better for these big kitties. Embedded heating (a must in the cold north!) and cooling elements keep the lions regulated year-round, while the new zip-line food delivery service simulates living prey.

If you really like these African lions, I’d recommend checking them out a couple of times throughout the day, especially if you miss feeding time or come to the structure in the heat of the day when the lions are least active. 

Local tip: Look for the lion cubs. There are three new rolly-polly balls of teeth and claws named Pesho, Sidai, Lomelok, who just debuted in January 2023.

Listen to the ape care and cognition talk

Lincoln Park Zoo Ape Care

Several species of apes and monkeys live at Lincoln Park Zoo. The institution uses this opportunity to study the care and cognition of apes, using a range of technologies that safely and gently check in with apes about their lives. Specifically, they study the ways that apes communicate and innovate.

You can stop by for one of the talks during the day and learn about the program and the apes themselves. Talks take place daily at 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Get up close and personal at the Farm-in-the-Zoo

While it’s particularly popular for families with kids, I love hitting up the Farm-in-the-Zoo, even on my solo adventures in the park. It’s always fun hanging with the goats, rabbits, and ponies.

Special features for little kids include play-based learning stations, edible gardens, and, of course, opportunities to pet and feed the critters.

Don’t miss the seal training

Lincoln Park Zoo Seals

Twice daily, you can enjoy seal training sessions at the Kovler Seal Pools. Here, you’ll find both gray seals and harbor seals, playing, splashing, jumping, and generally entertaining folks with their natural high spirits.

The sessions occur at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., benefiting the seals and audiences alike. The folks who give the talks explain why training helps the animals and helps you learn about the animals. Plus, it’s just plain fun to watch these goofy critters have some fun.

Check out your favorite animals

Lincoln Park Zoo Rhino

After my safari in South Africa where I learned black rhinos are almost extinct, I was super excited to see one up close at the Lincoln Park Zoo. The zoo has been part of the critically endangered animal breeding program for many years now and has welcomed new rhinos into the world, like Romeo, born in 2019.

The rhino is always one of my favorite exhibits to visit, but it’s different for everyone. Make sure you visit your favorite animals at the zoo. Here are some I recommend for your must-see list:

  • Kangaroos
  • Aardvarks
  • Bettongs
  • Sloths
  • Kookaburras
  • Meerkats
  • Naked mole rats
  • Hippos
  • Giraffe
  • Zebras
  • Lemurs
  • Red pandas
  • Snow leopards
  • Polar bears

Stroll the nature boardwalk

Lincoln Park nature boardwalk

Part of what makes Lincoln Park Zoo so absolutely amazing — and completely worthy of an entire day of your visit to Chicago — is that the zoo lives within the massive Lincoln Park. All around, you’ll find loads of beauty.

The zoo itself also boasts of a stunning nature boardwalk. You’ll find plenty of plants and animals along the path, as well as incredible views of the skyline, intriguing public art you can climb and photograph, and peaceful resting places.

Stop and smell the 850 flower species

The zoo isn’t just about animal conservation — they’re heavily involved in plant conservation as well. You could spend the entire day just walking through the conservatory and gardens.

I’d recommend at least an hour for smelling the flowers, enjoying the butterflies, visiting the beehives, and snapping some of your most gorgeous photos in the city.

Local tip: I also highly recommend using the garden explorer to find plants that might particularly intrigue or mean something to you.

Catch a live performance at the Lincoln Park Conservatory

Lincoln Park Conservatory

While technically not part of the zoo proper, I consider the conservatory a must when you visit.

If you’re in town at the right time, you could be lucky enough to catch a show at the Lincoln Park Conservatory. One of the most unique Shakespeare shows I’ve ever enjoyed here was “Twelfth Night,” surrounded by the lush greenery in winter.

Enjoy a picnic on the grounds

I always pack a sack lunch and snacks for my trip to Lincoln Park Zoo, especially when I’m hanging out with my friends who have kids. The grassy spots, benches, and tables all around make for the perfect quick break or even a nap and picnic combo under the trees.

Be sure to obey signage and skip feeding the local wildlife that might come in for a dive bomb. I haven’t seen seagulls too often, but robins, sparrows, and pigeons are always up for a human-made snack.

Another of my favorite things to do at the zoo is bring along a good book and curl up on a bench somewhere in the gardens or near the Flamingo Pond. The peaceful atmosphere, animal calls and bird songs, all add to the experience. Occasionally school groups disrupt the moment, but usually not for long.

Where to eat at (and around) Lincoln Park Zoo

Inside the zoo, you’ll find several snacks, ice cream, and food kiosks and carts to grab a quick bite. If you’re looking for something more substantial, there are four eateries available. All four offer both vegetarian and gluten-free options. You’ll need to ask which can be prepared gluten-free, though, as they don’t list these on the menus.

  • The Patio at Café Brauer opens seasonally and offers savory small plates and burgers, plus cocktails, craft-brewed ales, and wine. On weekdays, they’re open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and weekends from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Park Place Café stays open all year, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. They serve Mexican and Italian cuisine along with casual American staples like burgers, salads, and sandwiches. Enjoy beer or wine here as well.
  • Bird’s Eye Bar & Grill, open seasonally from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends, has some really nice open-air rooftop seating. You’ll find a variety of typical American café choices on the menu.
  • Eadie Levy’s Landmark Café, also open seasonally, offers a variety of Chicago-style foods, including hot dogs, snacks, and fries. They’re open on weekdays from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends.

Outside the zoo, you’ll find a host of restaurants within a 15-minute walk or 5-minute car ride. Some of my favorites include Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company, Mon Ami Gabi, R.J. Grunts, Riccardo Trattoria, Vanille Patisserie (they have amazing desserts!), and Angry Octopus.

Know before you go

Ready to head out to the zoo? Here’s the info you’ll need for getting there, costs, and accessibility.

How do you get to Lincoln Park Zoo?

Chicago CTA Train

Parking on-site at Lincoln Park Zoo is the only real cost you may incur visiting the zoo. However, if you’ve got disability plates, there is some parking available for free.

If you don’t mind the walk, there’s a lot of parking around the area, north of the zoo on Stockton Drive. I’ve made the trek many times with strollers, snacks, and a horde of children. The zoo is located north of the Magnificent Mile between Cannon Drive and Stockton Drive. Webster Avenue roughly intersects with Stockton where one of the main entry points lies.

Because of the parking issues, most folks walk in from other parts of the city or take an Uber. Public transit is pretty good, too, with buses running along Stockton and dropping you right near the entries. Depending on your starting point, you’ll want to catch the 22, 26, 151, or 156 bus. These come in from the Loop area of Chicago and beyond.

You could also choose the Purple Line to Armitage Station if you’re coming in from the North, or the Red Line at Fullerton Stop coming from either north or south in the city. I recommend downloading the Transit app while you’re in town to find the easiest and fastest ways to get around town.

How much is entry to Lincoln Park Zoo?

If you park on-site, you may have parking fees. However, entry to Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo itself is completely free. Certain areas may incur costs, like the conservatory, which asks for a $10 donation for adults and $5 for kids.

Rides, like the carousel or train, charge per ride, and there may be special events or exhibits while you’re there that may or may not seek an entry fee, but you don’t have to do those. Otherwise, everything is free to experience.

Is the Lincoln Park Zoo ADA-accessible?

The Lincoln Park Zoo aims to welcome visitors of all backgrounds and complies with ADA regulations. They offer wheelchairs to borrow on a first-come, first-served basis ($20 deposit required) and have ensured that every building has at least one wheelchair-accessible door and multiple wheelchair-accessible bathroom stalls throughout the zoo. 

Additionally, they have sensory bags, weighted lap pads, and an all-inclusive culture app you can use for your visit. Both paid and free parking exists for folks with disabilities.

Hit up Chicago’s zoo for an amazing day out

Hopefully, this guide provides you with more than enough to fill a day at Lincoln Park Zoo. The plants, animals, exhibits, special events, and public art truly make it worth the time while you’re visiting the city.If you’re looking for more to do in Chicago, head over to Navy Pier for excitement, beautiful views, and loads of shopping and fun. Just head south through Lincoln Park and keep going along the Lakefront Trail to get there.