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12 Best Zoos in the Midwest USA

by Kristen

When taking road trips with our kids, we always check out local zoos! When we are on a long road trip is nice to get out of the car for a few hours to stretch our legs. All three of our kids love animals, so visiting zoos is a family activity that we can all agree on. Our family has been to zoos all over the country, and going to zoos became a “social distance” travel activity for our family during Covid. Kids love learning and seeing animals when we travel. All of these zoos have local animals, plus a few exotic ones. If you’re searching for the best zoos for families in the Midwest, you’re in the right place! Here are my family’s top zoos and aquariums in the midwest! Whether you’re looking for a zoo close to home or looking to stop at a zoo while on a road trip around, I have compiled a list of tested and tried zoos across the midwest! 

Plan your zoo visit in advance

I like to check out the website ahead of time to know the hours of operation, price, and if the zoos require tickets for timed entry.  

Pack Snacks

Most zoos let you bring coolers in for lunch or snacks. Check out their website to see what their policy is before you go!

Remember to Check out the perks of becoming zoo members at each zoo.

In many cases, it makes sense to become members of these zoos even if you’re not local. In many cases, if you become a member at a zoo, it can give you free admission or discounts at other zoos around the country. You can get discounts on food or unique attractions within the zoo. And, if you take your family to a zoo just twice, your membership probably will have been paid for already.  

12 Best Zoos in the Midwest USA

St. Louis Zoo St. Louis, Mo

We visited the St Louis zoo last fall during Covid.  The St Louis Zoo gets hundreds of thousands of visitors each year! We had plenty of room to walk around outside and enjoy the exhibits, all while staying socially distant from others. St. Louis Zoo is one of the only Free Zoos in the Midwest, and it does not disappoint! Our family spent about 3 hours at the St. Louis zoo before seeing everything we wanted to see. The St Louis Zoo is rated one of the best free attractions in the entire country! A few of the St Louis zoo highlights for my family was the Bear exhibit, specifically the polar bears, and the penguins, and we were pleasantly surprised to see Elephants at the St. Louis Zoo! If you’re going to head down to St. Louis for a family weekend, a visit to the St. Louis zoo should be mandatory! 

Brookfield Zoo Brookfield, Illinois

I grew up just a few minutes away from Brookfield Zoo, so I happen to love everything about it. I have been to Brookfield zoo so many times, and It never gets old. I like to visit Brookfield zoo every few years to see what new exhibits they have. Brookfield Zoo is just a few minutes outside Chicago, and If you’re taking your family to Chicago for the weekend, I highly recommend you visit. If you live in the Chicagoland area, it is worth getting a season pass to the zoo. I also recommend going to Brookfield Zoo around Christmastime because the zoo lights are beautiful. Some exhibits highlighted for me are the Dolphins, the Deep underwater exhibit, and the Primate House. The conservation efforts at Brookfield Zoo are impressive! 

National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium Dubuque, Iowa

I know that the National River Museum and Aquarium technically isn’t a zoo. Still, suppose you happen to be in Dubuque, Iowa ( near the field of dreams) or passing by on highway 20. In that case, I highly recommend you stop at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. This is such an impressive museum for a small town, and it has so much to see! Some highlights at the National Mississippi River Museum are watching the river otters, petting the stingrays, and watching the water snakes. My kids also love watching the electric eel in the saltwater portion of the museum.   If you purchase a membership to the National Mississippi River Museum, you can get 50% off your admission to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago!  Make sure you check out the Otter habitat while you’re there! 


Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo Omaha, Nebraska

Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, is rated one of the best zoos in the entire world! Whether you’re looking to spend a weekend in Omaha or looking for an activity for your family on your way out west, I highly recommend checking out Henry Doorly Zoo. Henry Doorly zoo is massive, and you can easily spend an entire day there. This zoo is rated the top family fun activity to do in Omaha. My family visited Henry Doorly Zoo during the summer of 2020 when we were driving out to Colorado. A few highlights for us included the aquarium, the elephants, and the indoor rainforest!  My kids loved the tigers, cheetahs, zebras, and the snow leopards.  It was so neat seeing so many animals in their natural habitats. 

Henry Vilas Zoo  Madison, Wisconsin

Henry Vilas zoo is the second free zoo on this list! Trips to the zoo can add up, especially for larger families, so it’s nice to know there are some free zoos to visit! Henry Vilas Zoo is a 28-acre zoo that is free and has no parking fees! We often drive to Door County, Wisconsin, so when we stop in Madison to stretch our legs, this zoo is perfect for us! Some highlights of the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison include the seals, the otters, and the large cats! 

Blank Park Zoo  Des Moines, Iowa

Blank Park Zoo is a smaller zoo and excellent for younger children, but it has enough to hold the interest of older children. It is located in Des Moines, and it will take about 2 hours to go through the zoo. Des Moines is a very family-friendly mid-sized city with a lot of other activities for families as well. There are several hands-on activities for kids at this zoo. If you live within driving distance of Blank Park zoo, I highly recommend purchasing a membership.  If you purchase a membership to the Blank Park Zoo, you will get 50% off admission at the Henry Doorly Zoo, the Niabi Zoo, and the Mississippi River Museum ( all also on this list). Our family loves watching the sea lions and the red pandas! I

Bear Country Rapid City, South Dakota 

Bear Country USA is a drive-through zoo with a small, more traditional zoo you can walk through after the drive-through. A few years ago, my family took a trip to South Dakota, and our visit to Bear country was a highlight for my kids. Bear Country is open from Spring to late November, and the idea is that you drive – with the windows up, and you will have animals right outside your car, the majority of them bears. You will also see wolves, badgers, bobcats, reindeer, and river otters. If you are taking a top out to South Dakota, you will want to check out Bear Country! This is a really unique animal encounter, one of the best places in North America to see bears! 


Lincoln Children’s Zoo Lincoln, Nebraska

Last summer, we attended the Lincoln Children’s zoo while we were driving back to Iowa from Colorado, and because it was called a “Children’s Zoo,” I figured it would be more of a petting zoo. We were so pleasantly surprised with everything this zoo had to offer! A few highlights for us were feeding giraffes, lettuce leaves, the penguins, and flamingos! If you are planning a trip to Omaha, I highly recommend you also make the small trek over to Lincoln to check out the children’s zoo as well!

Topeka Zoo Topeka, Kansas

The Topeka Zoo is a medium-sized zoo located in Topeka, Kansas. Even though it is a smaller zoo, it has some neat exhibits. We enjoyed the Lion exhibit, the tropical birdhouse, The golden lion tamarins, and I should also note that this zoo does have elephants. If you are spending a weekend with your family in Kansas City, the trip over to Topeka zoo is worth it as it is much less crowded than the Kansas City zoo, and there are some neat animals to see there!

Niabi ZooCoal Valley, Illinois

If you ever find yourself passing through the Quad Cities, I highly suggest visiting the Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley, Illinois. Niabi Zoo is a mid-sized zoo that is delightful to walk around and has some excellent exhibits to see. If you are local to Iowa, I suggest becoming a member! Your membership to Niabi zoo will get you admission to several zoos across the country, including Blank Point Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa, The National River Museum (both on the list). Some highlights of this zoo that my kids’ love are being able to feed the giraffes, the rhinos, and the Meercats. There is also a carousel and a train that your kids will enjoy! 

Wonders of WildlifeSpringfield, MO

Last spring break, we were in Springfield, MO, and it was raining. At the last minute, my husband purchased tickets online to the Wonders of Wildlife. When we got there, and I saw that the aquarium and zoo were located inside a Bass Pro Shop, I thought it would be a fun little adventure, but I didn’t expect that there would be much there.  My family spent about 5 hours adventuring through this indoor museum, aquarium, and zoo. Wonders of Wildlife was so well done. I have been recommending it to anyone and everyone ever since we went there! We saw one fantastic exhibit after another! There was so much to see at the Wonders of Wildlife. A few highlights for us were the aquarium, the alligators, and the penguins!

Shedd Aquarium Chicago, Illinois

Because I grew up in Chicagoland, I have been to the Shedd Aquarium many times throughout my life and have watched it expand throughout the years.  In my opinion, the Shedd Aquarium is the one museum I always recommend to friends who are going to Chicago for the weekend. It is really well done.  Our favorite thing at the Shedd Aquarium is the sharks.

Have you visited any of the zoos on this list?  What is your favorite zoo in the midwest?

Runners Up 

Columbus Zoo

Cincinnati Zoo 

Indianapolis Zoo


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