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Like many other major metropolitan areas, Chicago is a contemporary city of towering skyscrapers and modern-day conveniences. But what sets this Midwestern town apart from the others is its unsurpassed natural beauty and conservation of precious outdoor space. Sprawling downtown recreation spots, acres of public commons and hundreds of neighborhood parks and playgrounds gives Chicago a unique identity unrivaled by any other city in world.
We didn't end up with such incredible fortune by accident, though. When Chicago was first built up, city officials and developers made a conscious effort to preserve the area's distinctive waterfront property for public use. This amazing 20-mile stretch of beach and parkland has become the city's pride and joy. Offering much appreciated breathing room and breathtaking views, it's easy to forget you're in a densely populated urban setting when walking along Lake Michigan's endless shoreline or playing a pickup game of football at Lincoln Park.
Out on the water, sailboats float across the horizon as crowds of sun-kissed bodies splash about in the shallows. Masses of joggers, bikers and stroller-pushers zoom past the scene, while the excited cries of softball players resonate in the background. Families barbecue and spread blankets out on the grass for picnics. Dog owners lead their four-legged friends through the grounds. Frisbees fly through the air and passersby stroll jovially along the paths.
A number of the city parks host events during the year. Lincoln Park is Chicago's largest public recreation area and is the location of many of the city's top outdoor attractions, like the annual Air and Water Show. Cycling races often come through here as well as some aquatic and marine activities. Most of Chicago's neighborhood parks also hold their own local festivals each summer and fall, and in the winter months several parks offer open air ice skating rinks.
One of the biggest annual outdoor events is the Chicago Marathon. Its 26.2-mile course takes participants across the entire city. There are a number of smaller runs as well and tons of recreational sport leagues that meet all over Chicago. Dozens of recreational clubs cater to a variety of interests like boxing, bowling, cycling, running, walking, dog enthusiasts, golf, gymnastics, skating, swimming, and tennis, to name a few.
Chicago's main parks house some of the Windy City's most popular sites. The Lincoln Park Zoo, for instance, draws a lot of interest throughout the year with wonderful animal habitat displays, exotic species, adorable creatures and-our favorite part-free admittance all the time! Downtown, the city's newest addition to the public parks system is Millennium Park. Its one-of-a-kind, giant reflective sculpture, state-of-the-art outdoor amphitheater, and interactive video fountain have quickly become a must-see attraction for residents and visitors alike. Further south, Grant Park is the go-to for annual fairs, holiday parades, summer music festivals and any other cultural event that celebrates Chicago's tremendous diversity.
In addition to exploring the city for yourself, check out the following for more information on fun Chicago recreation options and citywide events.
Brookfield Zoo - 3300 Golf Road, Brookfield (708) 688-8000
The Brookfield Zoo makes for a good excuse to step outside city limits for an afternoon and experience the wildlife of Chicago's suburbs. Situated in Brookfield, Illinois -a little over 14 miles southwest of the Chicago Loop-this multifaceted zoological complex is Animal Kingdom, SeaWorld, Splash City and Playland combined into one. Along with to the traditional lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), the Brookfield Zoo offers visitors a number of other diversions that make this Chicagoland attraction a great family destination.
Now, you've probably already deduced there are a bunch of different animals to see here-all the usual suspects: monkeys, elephants, giraffes, kangaroos, birds, the occasional ostrich running about-just your Average Joes of the animal kingdom. So what makes this zoo so special? Well, in amongst the yak, gorilla and lizard exhibits are international shopping markets and restaurants for the adults and playground stations and water play areas for the kids, providing a welcomed spin on the conventional menagerie. Scattered about the premises are an eclectic collection of quaint boutiques and souvenir stores that sell more than the typical proprietary T-shirts (although they do have those, too). Just as if you were taking a shopping spree while on vacation in an exotic land, you can pick up a selection of unique trinkets, jewelry, apparel, home accessories, toys and gifts imported from far-off countries in South America and Africa. Children are drawn to the designated play areas that house updated climbing equipment, slides and swings. And on those hot summer days, make a stop at the kiddie spray pool to let the little ones cool off and splash around with other tiny tots while moms and dads relax in the shade.
Whether you're checking out the animals, swinging on the jungle-gym, or shopping to your heart's content, the stomach is bound to start growling at some point-good thing the bill of fare at Brookfield Zoo presents a global tour of culinary delights. From pizza and hot dogs to stir-fry and veggie burgers to nachos and frozen yogurt, this premium park offers something to satisfy anyone's tastebuds. After a midday re-fueling your sightseeing crew should be ready to tackle the rest of zoo grounds, and you sure don't want to miss the Dolphinarium where sleek bottlenose dolphins amaze audiences with their incredible talents and loveable demeanors. Watch as these powerful sea mammals leap out of the water, do spins and tricks in the air, and speak with trainers-even giving a high-five here and there.
Directions, hours, and tickets for Chicagoland's Brookfield Zoo are available online, as are super cool interactive exhibits that give the public a comprehensive resource to additional information on zoo animals and their native habitats, endangered species and how we can help.
Grant Park, Congress Pkwy. and Columbus Drive
Operates spring through early fall.
300 N. McClurg Ct., at Chicago River
Operates May 1-October 1; 10 am-12 midnight.
300 North Central Park Avenue
Admission and parking are free.
875 N. Michigan Ave.
Open daily 9am-11pm
Lake Shore Drive
Miles of paved trail for biking, walking, inline skating, etc.
Lincoln Park Conservatory
Located next to Lincoln Park Zoo
2391 North Stockton Drive
Lincoln Park Zoo - 2001 N. Clark Street (312) 742-2000
The fact that the Lincoln Park Zoo is always free to visitors isn't what makes this family-friendly spot so popular-although it is a nice perk-instead, it's the state-of-the-art facilities and wide variety of fauna that give this treasured Chicago attraction its highly regarded reputation. Besides, who can resist the loveable interactions of nature's animal kingdom?
The zoo is tucked in among the rolling grass-covered knolls and towering shade-providing trees of the city's largest public park. Situated just minutes from the Chicago Loop, the zoo grounds blend seamlessly with the scenic Lincoln Park landscape and charming near north side appeal. With the city skyline in the distance, the Lincoln Park Zoo offers folks an escape from the hectic downtown scene and a chance to become familiar with exotic mammals, reptiles and birds from all corners of the globe. Take a tour through the arid savanna of Africa, the white-washed backdrop of the arctic, and the lush vegetation of South America's rain forest without ever leaving Chicago.
Near the zoo's front entrance zebras, gazelles and antelopes wander about, hardly batting an eye at the throng of two-legged spectators lining the outer edge of their habitat. Next door, inside the newly built primate house, gorillas and chimpanzees woo onlookers with captivatingly human characteristics and behaviors. Enter the lion's den and witness the deafening roar of Chicago's biggest felines-these aren't your typical Whiskas-eating lap cats-the carnivorous creatures dine on raw meat (bone and all) and can weigh up to 500 pounds. Other favorite animals at the Lincoln Park Zoo include the playful monkeys, gibbons and tamarins that gleefully swing about their interior enclosures, all equipped with ample climbing apparatus and toys.
While the animals are the zoo's highlight, the site offers guests a range of entertaining activities and tasty refreshments which, unfortunately, are not included in the free admission. Paddle around the park's South Lagoon with a friend in one of the swan-shaped boats (available for rent by the half-hour), or take a spin on the Endangered Species Carousel that twirls around with up to 50 people at a time. Kids will enjoy a ride in the miniature choo choo train and anyone is welcome to experience an African safari in the zoo's virtual simulator. If all this fun makes you hungry, stop in at the Park Place Caf? food court for a bite or grab a treat from the Landmark or Safari caf? stands. There's also an ice cream shop on hand for those hot summer days.
600 E. Grand Ave
Chicago's premier attraction
233 S. Wacker Dr. (enter at Jackson Blvd.)
Open daily: May-September 10 am-10 pm
Parks and Recreational Sports In Chicago
The Chicago Park District provides programs in health and physical activities, cultural enrichment, personal development and life skills, social enhancement, and outdoor and environmental education. This includes all sports facility locations.