One of the city’s treasures, this family-friendly attraction is not only open every day of the year, but it’s also free. Even if you don’t have time for a complete tour of the various habitats—there are 49 acres, after all—it’s worth at least a quick stop during a stroll through Lincoln Park. The term zoological gardens truly fits here: Landmark Georgian Revival brick buildings and modern structures sit among gently rolling pathways, verdant lawns, and a kaleidoscopic profusion of flower gardens. The late Marlon Perkins, legendary host of the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom TV series, got his start here as the zoo’s director and filmed a pioneering TV show called Zoo Parade (Wild Kingdom’s predecessor) in the basement of the old Reptile House.
Don’t miss the Regenstein African Journey, a series of linked indoor and outdoor habitats home to giraffes, rhinos, and other large mammals. Large glass-enclosed tanks allow visitors to go face-to-face with swimming pygmy hippos, meerkats, colobus monkeys, and other exotic species, including (not for the faint of heart) a rocky ledge filled with Madagascar hissing cockroaches.
Your second stop should be the Regenstein Center for African Apes. Lincoln Park Zoo has had remarkable success breeding gorillas and chimpanzees, and watching these ape families interact can be mesmerizing (and touching). One caveat: The building can get incredibly noisy when it’s crowded, so be prepared.
Other exhibits worth a visit are the Small Mammal–Reptile House, which features a glass-enclosed walk-through ecosystem simulating river, savanna, and forest habitats; and the popular Sea Lion Pool in the center of the zoo, which is home to harbor seals, gray seals, and California sea lions (walk down the ramp and take a look at the underwater viewing area). The zoo’s large carousel features beautifully rendered figures of endangered species. If you’re here for a while and need nourishment, there’s an indoor food court, as well as a cafe located on a terrace above the gift shop. And don’t let the winter weather stop you from going to the zoo. The annual holiday lights display, “Zoo Lights,” along with an ice skating rink and, of course, polar bears and other hearty animals, make the zoo a worthwhile stop year round. Allow 3 hours.