The Chicago Zoo Wars: Lincoln Park Zoo vs. Brookfield Zoo

brookfield bison
The Lincoln Park Zoo has no answer for the Brookfield Zoo’s herd of bison. Point, Brookfield.

There’s a fierce war going on between Chicago’s two major zoos. The Lincoln Park Zoo and the Brookfield Zoo despise each other and they’re battling for your business.* Which one should you visit in the Windy City? Let’s see how they stack up. Get ready for the Brookfield vs. Lincoln Park battle!

(*Disclaimer: Reference to a “war” may have been completely made up for the sake of creating fictional drama. I’m sure the zoos get along just fine.)

giraffes zoo
The giraffes in Lincoln Park can wander indoors or outside depending on their mood.

Location Comparison

The Lincoln Park Zoo is the heart of Chicago, just off Lake Michigan in the happenin’ hood of Lincoln Park. Parking is a nightmare (crowded and expensive), so for the sake of your sanity, don’t drive there when you can take public transportation or Lyft/Uber. The closest train stops are the Armitage and Fullerton red and brown lines. The #22, 36, and 151 buses are also quite close.

brookfield zoo vs lincoln park zoo
Brookfield is the largest of the zoos in Chicago.

The Brookfield Zoo is way out in the burbs, which is inconvenient unless you happen to live in that area. At last check, the Brookfield Zoo charged $9 (yikes!) for parking.

UPDATE 2020: The Brookfield Zoo now charges $15 for parking. Holy @#$%^!

I would never advocate bending the law, but you could probably stealthily park for free at the nearby Brookfield Woods lot if you wanted. Alternately, you can reach the zoo via public transit by taking the Metra Burlington Northern Line. Given the high parking cost, Metra may be your best bet. You’ll want to use the Zoo Stop at Hollywood Station and walk two blocks northeast.

Edge: Lincoln Park Zoo

The muddy rhino is a great sight any time of year in Lincoln Park.

Variety of Animals at the Chicago Zoos

The Lincoln Park Zoo has pretty much all the animals you’d expect from a big zoo – lions, tigers, rhinos, bears, giraffes, penguins, gorillas. But usually just 1 or 2 of each. It’s like they’re re-creating Noah’s Ark or something.

The zoo’s “new arrivals” according to their website include a Madagascar hedgehog (exotic!), a river stingray, a female polar bear, new giraffes and zebras, African penguins, and African wild dogs. It sounds like they have just about everything I saw on my real-life African safari!

polar bear zoo
Getting an up-close look at the polar bear at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

The Brookfield Zoo is far bigger, with a massive primate room and a big outdoor field with bison. And a desert room with meerkats. Who doesn’t love meerkats? They have aardvarks, camels, alligators, bald eagles and lizards. Plus, they house a handful of endangered Mexican gray wolves, which you can see up close when they run past the observation window. The wolves put Brookfield over the top on this one.

Edge: Brookfield Zoo

brookfield zoo dolphins
Kids love the Brookfield Zoo dolphin shows.

Type of Crowd

Brookfield is totally made for kids. Every sign is colorful and cartoonish. It’s a really fun atmosphere. There’s a petting zoo and merry-go-round for the youngsters. And they have special dolphin shows. You can watch the trained dolphins perform tricks and fly out of the air to the tune of Van Halen’s “Jump.”

If you don’t have kids, though, stick with Lincoln Park, which has a slightly more mature crowd. Roughly once a month, Lincoln Park even has an “Adults Night Out,” which offers evening visitation hours after the gates close and a cash bar.

Edge: Depends on your scene. The Brookfield Zoo is better for kids, and the Lincoln Park Zoo is best for adults.

stroller parking
Brookfield has a busy “stroller parking” area for those who feel compelled to bring a newborn to a zoo.

Brookfield vs. Lincoln Park Zoo: Cost Comparison

The Lincoln Park Zoo is free, so you can’t beat that. The zoo has been around since 1868, and it gets its funding from the Chicago Parks Department, from concession sales, and visitor donations.

The Brookfield Zoo runs $25 for adults (that’s a $12 increase from just eight years ago!) and a whopping $18 per child. That’s almost $120 for a family of four, including parking. Ouch.

One thing to note: If you want to do any of the optional extras, such as giraffe feeding ($10) or penguin encounters ($40), you’ll need to pay even more. This zoo is definitely not budget-friendly.

On the plus side, you can sometimes find Groupons for the Brookfield Zoo, and on rare occasions in the winter, the zoo will have a free day. So if you really want to come here but money is an issue, keep your eyes open for those discounts.

Edge: Lincoln Park Zoo

lincoln park alligator
Seeing eye to eye with a small alligator at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Brookfield Zoo vs. Lincoln Park Zoo: The Verdict

Both are excellent. For wealthy families with kids, check out Brookfield. For everybody else, the Lincoln Park Zoo is where you want to be. It’s cool to be smack in the middle of an urban paradise and see animals from all over the world. If you’re into animals at all, you should plan to swing by while you’re in Chicago.

Here’s a brief glimpse of the Brookfield Zoo in moving pictures.

When it comes to zoos in Chicago, these are your options. Despite the fact that both of these facilities are partly outdoors, they make our list of the best things to do in Chicago in the winter. They do have indoor buildings where you can go inside and get warm from time to time.

So which do you believe is the best zoo in Illinois?

19 thoughts on “The Chicago Zoo Wars: Lincoln Park Zoo vs. Brookfield Zoo”

  1. I would not recommend using the Zoo Woods lot when visiting Brookfield. It is patrolled regularly and tickets are issued.

  2. Scott, your price comparison is correct, but also very incomplete, inaccurate and misleading at the same time. LP is free, and as you state parking is non-existent and you recommend Uber, etc. BZ requires payment for entrance, and parking is $15 for a one time visit. For a family of four, the fee, including parking, is $101 not the “almost $120” you state in your article.

    For BZ, the trick is to become a member. A one year membership (unlimited visits) is $130 and a two year membership is $240. That includes FREE parking in the spacious North parking lot, and $5 in the South parking lot, discounts at the zoo restaurants, education programs and special zoo attractions, etc., etc. Membership can be purchased at the entrance gates.

    We’re BZ members for 20 years on the Plus level ($158 annual or $292 for two years – the best deal), and get adult admissions, children/grandchildren admissions, a free guest every visit, six additional guest passes, the family play zoo admission, and 8 attraction admission tickets.

    Seriously, present all the facts for people to base their decisions on.

    1. You provide some good info about the membership. This article is written mainly for tourists or one-time visitors, who aren’t going to become members. For a family of four, the cost is $115 including parking, if the kids are 12+. Only if the kids are under 12 does the price drop to $101. Either way, it’s a large bill for a one-time visit. Locals may want to take your advice on the membership, if they’re interested in going back for repeat visit.

  3. Child zoo visit

    We I grew up in Chicago and have been to both as a child and adult.

    As a child I loved seeing the dolphin show but the walking was hard. The zoo is huge and spaced out. Very different encounters with the animals vs Lincoln zoo. The set ups are so different.

    Now as an adult I just bought a family pass to Brookfield due to being closer. We went a Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 6pm and still have not managed to see everything. We see the dolphin show both times. My 5 yr d loved it. Loved it more the second time due to his grandmother getting soaked by the dolphins. The second time we got on the train ride well bus ride and that took most of the time. The other part my 5 yr old loved to feed the birds.

    I have to taken him to Lincoln zoo yet but as a child I loved the farm in the zoo. The paddle boats are a great memory. The ape house was always fun but smelly. I will remember that smell for life..
    They use to have a great children’s zoo area that was hands on and you can see them care for baby animals. I miss that.

    They have some nice exhibit and you can see everything in one day.

    Another great attraction near Lincoln is the greenhouse right outside. I loved going in there as a child but now as an adult I realize it’s a great photo option place

  4. Which zoo has the best selection of snakes , mostly the giant pythons & anacondas ? Plus mambas & Cobras

  5. I was wondering what are the animals at brookfilde and what are the animals
    At lincone park. Zoo? Like are there houses at each one ?

  6. I have been to both and I must say I love Brookfield Zoo. The attention to detail is phenomenal and they have my favourite animal there-the alligator! I stood and took a few photos (was there 90mins but it honestly only felt like 10 mins) and I showed a few to the zookeeper that was stood nearby and she said ‘I have never seen anyone take such care when photographing an alligator but the pics are superb’. It was like the alligator knew I appreciated as he came right up against the window so I didn’t get any flash back glare from my camera. The restaurants were clean, tidy and servers very friendly. When I come over from the UK I always make sure I pay a visit. Well worth the money as money to feed all these wonderful animals doesn’t grow on trees. X

  7. Fun post! I assume that if I ever make it to Chicago (and I hope I will), it’ll be easier for me to get to the Lincoln Zoo – plus they have a polar bear. I would love to see the herd of bison, yet bears have hardly any competition in my opinion. AND they have penguins, and penguins…. Well, who can resist a penguin and go look elsewhere?

    1. Brookfield zoo has polar bears and penguins as well. More of them, actually.

      If you are visiting, you’ll be downtown, which requires a train ride and just under a mile walk to get to Lincoln Park Zoo. Brookfield zoo is a train ride (Metra – the suburb train) and a half mile walk.

      1. Thanks for the info on the polar bears and penguins.

        I’m not sure why you assume that visitors to Chicago would be staying downtown – a huge percentage of visitors stay at hostels or use Couchsurfing or AirBnb to stay in residential neighborhoods, from where it’s far easier to get to Lincoln Park than Brookfield.

        1. Wrong, most people outside of city limits near the airports, both of which require a car, which would make it much easier to get to Brookfield zoo. Lincoln Park zoo is a nice experience being in the city, but if you’re going for the zoo, Brookfield is far and away better.

  8. I would have to totally disagree with your assessment of the zoos. Brookfield Zoo is one of the best in the nation, maybe the world, while LIncoln Park Zoo is just a collection of animals located in a very nice part of Chicago. Granted, there are some things better at Lincoln Park Zoo like the gorillas have an outdoor yard and they do have chimpanzees which Brookfield does not. But Tropic World at BZ is heads and shoulders above anything Lincoln Park Zoo has to Offer. BZ the Dolphin show and LPZ has none. Even their Sea Lion pool pales in comparison to the naturalistic Sea Lion/Harbor Seal/Gray Seal pools that BZ has. Lincoln Park Zoo has a better Children’s Zoo while BZ’s is more a farm in the zoo but BZ has the Hamill Family Play Zoo which LPZ does not. Though the exhibit that houses the African animals is very nice, BZ’s Giraffe House and yard is great and the adjoining African Wild Dog yard is great with Klipspringers and small African mammals and reptiles inside. I could go on and on but I think you get the point, BZ has other wonderful exhibits like their Penguin exhibit, Great Bear Wilderness, Indian Lake, the Habitat Africa Forest with Okapis, Australia House the Pachyderm House, etc…. Even if I wasn’t a member, the admisison fee for BZ is well worth the price. Plus you can’t beat the summertime exhibits such as Butterflies, Stingrays an alternating Dinosaurs with Insect exhibits.Don’t forget about the Swamp!

    1. Thanks for pointing out some of the other highlights at the Brookfield Zoo. As I noted, Brookfield has the advantage when it comes to the animals. But location and price are important factors as well, which is where Lincoln Park comes out ahead.

      1. All extra money for stingrays, dolphin show , merry go round
        …..and extra money to pet the goats ….!!! Wtf… seriously a money pit…better food ,for less money at Lincoln Park zoo also
        Easy choice Lincoln park

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