Which ZOO Is for You? Comparing Zoos Near Iowa City

Lions and tigers and bears, OH MY! If you have kids that are old enough to walk, you have kids that would enjoy the zoo! This is such a fun family adventure that summer weather just begs for a trip (or a few) to a one of the many zoos near us.  Here are a few of our favorite zoos within a reasonable driving distance from Iowa City. Pack a picnic, slather the kids in sunscreen, and load up the car… there is plenty of exploring to do in the Midwest!

zoo near iowa city zoos

Locations included in this guide:

  • Niabi Zoo
  • Henry Vilas Zoo
  • St Louis Zoo
  • Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo
  • Brookfield Zoo
  • Lincoln Park Zoo

Niabi Zoo

Coal Valley, IL (1 hour from Iowa City)


7 days a week: 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
Last entry at 4:00 p.m.



Niabi Zoo is home to over 140 different species from all over the world.  Some of the animals you’ll find at Niabi Zoo include lions, giraffes, zebras, meerkats, snow leopard, ostrich, camel.  There are also a few fun rides and extra activities including a carousel, trolly and the opportunity to ride ponies and feed the giraffes for a small extra fee.


$8.25 Adults
$7.25 Senior Citizens (62+ years)
$6.25 Kids (3 – 12 years old)
Kids 2 years old and under are Free

Free admission Tuesday-Friday September 12 through October 27, 2017

Rides and feedings are additional.

What local moms say…

This is a good starter zoo for young children, you can easily see everything in under 2 hours. Definitely feed the giraffes, the line gets long quickly but it moves fast and it worth the wait! They even let you snap your own photos. We also love that the family memberships are only $75 a year! But, pack a picnic and avoid the concession stand (the chicken strips are terrible).

Henry Vilas Zoo

Madison, WI (3 hours from Iowa City)


Open Daily 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.


Open 365 days of the year! Featuring over 800 animals and 200 species, including a new exhibit which houses grizzly bears and polar bears, as well as provides a new home for the zoo’s beloved harbor seals. The zoo also features a giant play area, nice picnic area and various renovations.


FREE admission and parking!
Donations are encouraged but not required.
The train and carousel are each $1.50 per ride per passenger.

What local moms say…

Small but mighty! This is an awesome FREE zoo.

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium

Omaha, NE (3.5 hours from Iowa City)


Open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Open year-round except Christmas day.


This is a BIG zoo with all the big animals you expect to see. With thousands of animals from around the globe, 130 acres of exhibits and gardens including 7 acres of indoor exhibits – the Zoo is a perfect place to escape! There are also a variety of impressive “animal encounters” featuring zoo keepers feeding and training animals such as bears, penguins, sharks, sea lions and more! Stingray Beach is an interactive exhibit allowing you to touch, feed and interact with these aquatic creatures.

(Admission fees vary per season, these are the summer fees)
Adults (ages 12 and over): $19.95
Children (ages 3-11): $13.95
Seniors (65 and over): $18.95
Children (2 and under): FREE
Military discounts available!

IMAX Theater, Stringray Beach, Skyfari, Tram, Carousel, Camel rides and feedings are all extra. Package deals available.

What local moms say…
This zoo is AMAZING. It takes a good two days to explore this zoo or you can pick and choose in one day. Even when weather is bad you can fill a day with just the inside stuff! It’s great for any age but it’s a lot of walking so bring a carrier, stroller or wagon.


Blank Park Zoo

Des Moines, IA (2 hours from Iowa City)

May – September: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
October – April: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Closed for select holidays

The Blank Park Zoo manages 49 acres of land. Of that, 22 acres have been developed into animal exhibits or facilities. Currently there are 104 different animal species and 1,484 animal specimens cared for at the Blank Park Zoo.

Children (2 years and under) – Free
Children (3 – 12 years) – $8.00
Adults (13 – 64 years) – $14.00
Senior Citizens (65+ years) – $11.00
Discounted Online Tickets!

Train, carousel, camel rides and animal feedings are extra. Bundle deals available!

What local moms say…
This is a pretty small zoo but they found really unique ways to display some of the animals and it’s nice that you can start in doors leading to the outside of the zoo. If you do the train and carousel ride and eat lunch there you could probably spend 3 to 4 hours exploring.

St. Louis Zoo

St. Louis, MO (4 hours from Iowa City)

Monday-Thursday: 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Friday-Sunday: 8 a.m.-7 p.m.
Check website for holiday hours and early closings.

This is a great place to see an impressive collection of about 18,700 animals in an attractive, family-friendly environment. Highlights include polar bears, sea lions, penguins, gorillas, zebras and giraffes.

Admission is FREE.
Parking is $15 per vehicle.

Attractions are extra ($2-8 each). Including Sea Lion show, Carousel, Train, 4-D Theater, Safari Tours, and more.  An “Adventure Pass” is available for $12.95 per person and includes all attractions (children under 2 are free).

What local moms say…
If you get there early you can park on the street for free. There is a lot to see at this zoo! You can pretty easily make an all-day trip out of it.

Brookfield Zoo

Brookfield, IL (3.5 hours from Iowa City)

Daily 9:30 a.m.-6:00 p.m.
Open 365 days of the year!

This zoo features lots of impressive exhibits including big cats, bears, dolphins, penguins, primates, bison, wolves, giraffes, rhinos, kangaroo, eagles, seals and zebra!

Adults $19.85
Seniors 65 and Over $14.50
Children (3 to 11) $14.50
Military Personnel are FREE!
Book online to save $1/each.
Parking is $12 per car.
Attractions are extra ($3-5).

What local moms say…
This is a great zoo but the expenses add up quickly if you want to enjoy the attractions, which are really neat. It is quite spread out so be prepared to walk. There are lots of nice shade trees though!  The Children’s Zoo is great for young toddlers too!


Lincoln Park Zoo

Chicago, IL (4 hours from Iowa City)

Weekdays 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. (gates open 7 a.m. – 6 p.m.)
Weekends 10 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. (gates open 7 a.m. – 7 p.m.)
*These are summer hours. Check the website for a list of dates they are closed early for special private events.

Lincoln Park Zoo is a world of wildlife in the shadow of skyscrapers, located within a verdant park just minutes north of Chicago!

Free admission!
Parking charges vary depending on location, date and time.

What local moms say…
This zoo will surprise you! It is a high-quality zoo with a lot to see.  The open concept is really great.  Expect crowds on especially nice days.

If you have anything to add to our list, let us know in the comments!



Jessi is a creative, organized and enthusiastic girl mom with a soft spot for country music and all that it entails. She's a single mom to two sassy little girls (born in 2014 & 2018). She's putting down roots in West Branch, Iowa, just a few miles from her hometown of West Liberty. Jessi works in fundraising, event coordination and community development and enjoys hiking, crafts, bargain hunting, party planning, and taking in the simple joys of life. She is admittedly addicted to funny memes, is passionate about philanthropy, and is completely smitten by the adventure of motherhood.


  1. The niabi zoo is NOT accredited by the American zoo association, and does NOT follow their recommended animal welfare guidelines. You wouldn’t go to an unaccredited hospital, please don’t give your money to an unaccredited zoo.

  2. Consider the family pass for the Omaha zoo. It is worth it and cheaper for a family (we are family of 5) even if you just go 2 x in a year. Pass is good for a full calendar year from when purchased. Great outdoor play area and ‘creek’ for kids to play in and cool off.
    Omaha is one of our favorite zoos and the st.louis zoo!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.