In contrast to the more modest Lincoln Park Zoo, Brookfield, located in the western suburbs, is enormous, spreading out over 216 acres and housing thousands of animals—camels, dolphins, giraffes, baboons, wolves, tigers, green sea turtles, Siberian tigers, snow leopards, and more—in naturalistic environments that put them side by side with other inhabitants of their regions. These creative indoor and outdoor settings, filled with activities to keep kids interested, are what set Brookfield apart.

Start out at Habitat Africa!, a multiple-ecosystem exhibit that encompasses 30 acres—about the size of the entire Lincoln Park Zoo. Then wander through some of the buildings that allow you to see animals close up; my personal favorites are Tropic World, where you hang out at treetop level with monkeys, and Australia House, where fruit bats flit around your head. The Living Coast explores the west coast of Chile and Peru, and includes everything from a tank of plate-size moon jellies to a rocky shore where Humboldt penguins swim and nest as Inca terns and gray gulls fly freely overhead. The Swamp re-creates the bioregions of a southern cypress swamp and an Illinois river scene, and discusses what people can do to protect wetlands. The dolphins at the Seven Seas put on an amazing show that has been a Brookfield Zoo fixture for years. If you go on a weekend, buy tickets to the dolphin show at least a couple of hours before the one you plan to attend, because they tend to sell out quickly. Stop by the Hamill Family Play Zoo, where kids can pet animals, build habitats, learn how to plant a garden, and even play animal dress-up. The only catch: the separate admission fee (for ages 3 to adult, free from Nov 1 to Feb 28). Allow 3 hours.