Lincoln Park in Chicago is not your average city park. Sure, it has trees, ponds, and large grassy spaces, but from its humble beginnings as a small public cemetery, it has grown to over 1,200 acres and has a number of fun activities besides playing frisbee. You can see a world-class zoo, a gorgeous sandy beach, a beautiful and tranquil conservatory, and an interesting nature museum.
Lincoln Park Zoo
Lincoln Park Zoo opens at 9 a.m. and savvy Chicagoans will tell you that it's best to start here early as the zoo crowds grow exponentially in the afternoon (the quality of the exhibits and the free admission draw upwards of 3 million people a year). Because the zoo is nestled in the heart of the park, it has an intimate setting that allows a much better view and proximity to the animals. Lincoln Park Zoo is unique in that it combines state-of-the-art facilities along with maintaining much of the original turn-of-the-century architecture.
The most recent addition is the Pritzker Family Children's Zoo. Certainly not your average children's zoo with goats to feed and cows to pet, this Children's Zoo offers a "walk in the woods," featuring a beautifully landscaped area showcasing native animals of North America, such as bears, wolves, beavers, and otters. The Tree Canopy Climbing Adventure lets kids climb into a forest canopy rising 20 feet into the air. Bird exhibits, terrariums filled with frogs, snakes, and turtles add to an experience kids are not soon to forget.
Other attractions at the zoo include the SBC Endangered Species Carousel ride, the LPZOO Express train ride, the 4-D Virtual Safari simulator and a Safari Audio Tour. A small fee is charged for each of these attractions.
Now that you've worked up an appetite, have an early lunch at Café Brauer. The café is housed in a wonderful Prairie-style building and sits on the edge of the zoo lagoon. During summer months, the outdoor beer garden is open for sipping on a refreshing brew and enjoying a bratwurst or kabob. After lunch, you can wander next door to the Ice Cream Shoppe and enjoy a drippy cone. Swan-shaped paddle boats are available for rent for zipping around the lagoon and getting a different perspective of several animal exhibits.
Make your way to the south end of the zoo parking lot, and you will see a footbridge that goes over Lake Shore Drive. The bridge is its own event; kids especially like standing and feeling the vibrations from the cars zipping closely under their feet. This bridge takes you to the next destination: North Avenue Beach.
North Avenue Beach
With more than 6.5 million visitors a year, North Avenue Beach is Chicago's busiest. It's no wonder why: the wide, sandy shore and outlook are perfect for gazing at the clear, blue waters of Lake Michigan. North Avenue Beach also plays host to professional beach volleyball tournaments, as well as the annual Chicago Air and Water Show. Even in the winter time, the beach is worth a visit, as its vantage point provides one of the best views of downtown Chicago.
Open during summer months, the 22,000 square foot North Avenue Beach House provides a number of amenities and services. Sports equipment rental, concession stands, a fitness center, outdoor showers, as well as Castaways Bar & Grill, the only place in Chicago you can sip on a frozen margarita on the Lake Michigan shore.
Lincoln Park Conservatory
After a busy day so far, it's time to slow down a bit and take a break, and there is nowhere better to do that than the Lincoln Park Conservatory. Located at the north end of the zoo, the free conservatory was built over the course of 5 years between 1890 and 1895 and features four serene greenhouses, including the Orchid House, the Fernery, the Palm House, and the Show House, all displaying fantastic arrays of flora.
Each greenhouse has its own unique features; the Orchid House is home to over 20,000 versions of the orchid species; the Fernery features ferns and other native plants that grow on the forest floor; the Palm House is a tall domed structure with a 100-year-old rubber tree that stands 50-feet tall; and the Show House has a constantly rotating display and hosts four flower shows throughout the year.
In summer months, venture outdoors and you'll find a lush French garden filled with a large variety of plants and flowers, and a beautiful fountain. Many Chicago residents utilize this space to sit and read, toss a football around, or let their kids run freely. The Lincoln Park Conservatory is a great place to stop, relax, and take in the beauty of nature.
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
Just across the street on the north side of Fullerton Avenue is the last stop on the day trip, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. The nature museum opened in 1999 with a clear mission to educate the public, especially urban dwellers, on the importance of maintaining the quality of nature that surrounds us and steps to take that can help the environment.
The museum practices what it preaches, as it is housed in an eco-friendly building that makes extensive use of solar power and water conservation systems. There is a 17,000-square-foot rooftop garden that helps insulate the building, and the museum has built many exhibits out of recycled materials.
Among its many exhibits are River Works, a look at how the waterways work around Chicago, the Hands-On Habitat, a play area that gives kids a chance to crawl through and experience animal homes, the Extreme Green House, a life-sized home that is fully equipped with environmentally friendly amenities, and the Butterfly Haven, one of the area's only year-round butterfly gardens, which allows visitors to get up close and personal with 75 different butterfly species. The museum also hosts traveling exhibits that change every few months.
There are several ways to get to Lincoln Park and the Lincoln Park Zoo from downtown:
- By bus: Take the #151 Sheridan Northbound to the Webster stop. The main gate to the zoo is directly across the street.
- By cab: The zoo is a short cab ride from most of downtown. Expect to pay approximately $10-12 each way. If you want to sound like a native, tell the cabbie you want to go to the main zoo entrance at Stockton and Webster.
- By car: Take Lake Shore Drive north to the Fullerton exit. Go west (away from the lake) on Fullerton, and you'll see the entrance to zoo parking on your left a short half-block down. Parking costs extra.