Top Zoos and Aquariums in the United States

Scientists estimate that there are eight to nine million species on Earth. Varying in size and weight, and existing in an array of forms across the planet, zoos and aquariums provide a convenient opportunity to visit many of these species in their naturalistic habitats. With so many right at your fingertips in the United States, skip the expensive airfare and unrealistic safari costs and stick to visiting some of the best zoos and aquariums in the country. Here are some of our favorite for the next time your vacationing in these major cities.

Bronx Zoo (Bronx, NY)

Siberian Tiger cubs are pictured with an adult tiger.

Siberian Tiger cubs are pictured with an adult tiger.

The Bronx Zoo challenges you to find your inner animal while exploring its 265 acres of exhibits and attractions. Test your balance by standing on one leg like a flamingo or see if you can jump as high as a tiger can by following the zoo’s Animal Activity Trail, which teaches you how to move like an animal. When you need a break from practicing your balancing, jumping or crawling skills, take a ride on a camel and enjoy New York City’s most unique form of transit. If you’re there just to see the animals, plan on spending at least two hours and make sure to check out the most popular exhibits, like Tiger Mountain, Himalayan Highlands, Congo Gorilla Forest, and World of Reptiles. The Bronx Zoo is not only one of the best zoos in the United States, it’s also one of the largest metropolitan zoos in the entire world.

New England Aquarium (Boston, MA)

Rockhopper penguins can be seen at an exhibit at the New England Aquarium.

Rockhopper penguins can be seen at an exhibit at the New England Aquarium.

Before even entering the New England Aquarium, whet your appetite for marine life by visiting the 42,000-gallon harbor seal tank to the left of the entrance. The exhibit is exposed to the ever-changing New England weather, and here you can watch the seals swim, play and sleep in a naturalistic habitat. Once inside, say hello to penguins, turtles, seadragons and many other aquatic creatures. View an IMAX film, or embark on a whale watch to see whales, dolphins, sea birds and other marine life in their habitat – the Atlantic Ocean. You will receive a hand-stamp upon entering the Aquarium, which allows you to leave and return to the aquarium at any time that day so you don’t miss anything.

Zoo Miami (Miami, FL)

Visitors feed hungry giraffes at Zoo Miami.

Visitors feed hungry giraffes at Zoo Miami.

At Zoo Miami, you can come face-to-face with a variety of animals, including giraffes, elephants, rhinos, and more, during your trip here. Over 3,000 animals make the 740 acres of Zoo Miami their home, and visitors can easily spend days exploring the grounds. Walk the collective three miles of walkways, rent a safari cycle, ride the monorail, or take a tram tour to take advantage of all that the zoo has to offer. A can’t-miss activity is the daily feeding of Zoo Miami’s huge Greater one-horned Indian rhino. The rhino will eagerly step up to eat the fistfuls of food extended by visitors, and he’ll even allow them to rub his horn. Other sources of entertainment are the public parrot and giraffe feedings, the imaginative Playworld Playground for kids ages 12 and under, and Humpy’s Camel Rides. If you just can’t get enough of Zoo Miami, several different types of sleepover programs are offered, so you can sleep over in one of the buildings or camp out on the grounds for a truly unique experience. This zoo is open every day of the year, and costs less than $20 for admission. Next time you’re in Miami, a visit here is a must!

Monterey Bay Aquarium (Monterey, CA)

One of the tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium holds a giant octopus.

One of the tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium holds a giant octopus.

Psych yourself up for your visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium by watching any of their six live web cams set up to show penguins and sea otters, open-ocean animals, like sharks and tunas, as well as the calm of Monterey Bay. When you arrive, don’t miss out on seeing the world’s largest octopus and the world’s smallest squid shown in one of their dozen live exhibits of octopuses and their kin.  To avoid the crowds, try to visit in the fall and winter months or plan to arrive between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. during the middle of the week.

Smithsonian National Zoological Park (Washington, D.C.)

An orangutan makes its way across the O Line at the Smithsonian Zoo.

An orangutan makes its way across the O Line at the Smithsonian Zoo.

If you really want to feel like you are amidst the animals, visit the “O Line” at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Here, you will find orangutans swinging hand over hand from branch to branch or shuffling along cables traveling with total freedom of movement between their choice of location – right above your head! After traveling through the O Line, make sure to visit the rarest animal in the world, the giant panda, in its state-of-the-art panda habitat designed to mimic its natural habitat in China. Expect long lines when going to see the pandas, and make sure to smile for the camera since the public viewing area is also recorded on the live Panda Webcam. The best part about this zoo: the Smithsonian National Zoological Park is free to visit.

Saint Louis Zoo (Saint Louis, MO)

A green snake coils and stares from a branch at the Saint Louis Zoo.

A green snake coils and stares from a branch at the Saint Louis Zoo.

If you like sea lions then you will love the Saint Louis Zoo, which offers a magnificent 1.5 acre exhibit called Sea Lion Sound right in the heart of the zoo. It is the first in North America to offer visitors the experience of walking through an underwater tunnel right into the sea lions’ habitat as the animals swim all around them. Next, take a ride on the Emerson Zooline Railroad to quickly cover some of the remaining exhibits shown on this 1.5 mile narrated ride. Hop on and off the train when a particular exhibit piques your interest. Although admission to the zoo is free, there are fees for many of the attractions and buying a Safari Pass will give you full access to all of the amenities – including the Zooline Railroad.

Mystic Aquarium (Mystic, CT)

A little girl looks at a Beluga Whale in its tank at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut.

A little girl looks at a Beluga Whale in its tank at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut.

With many opportunities to get hands on with the aquatic life, the Mystic Aquarium is the place to be to see and actually feel a variety of marine creatures. Stroke a white-spotted bamboo shark, or let a sting ray glide alongside your hand in the touch pool, and feel the skin and scales of alligators and snakes in the Scales and Tails exhibit. The Mystic Aquarium is also home to the only beluga whale in New England where it swims in a one acre glacial habitat consisting of several interconnected pools, 20-foot-long underwater windows and more than 750,000 gallons of water.

Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago, IL)

A lion sits on a rock at an exhibit at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, IL.

A lion sits on a rock at an exhibit at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, IL.

Open 365 days a year and free to all visitors, the Lincoln Park Zoo is a lush oasis for animal lovers visiting and living in Chicago. The park is nestled amidst skyscrapers and apartment buildings, and it spans 35 acres of prime city real estate. The zoo grew out of a gift of two swans from the Central Park’s Board of Commissioners in New York City, and has expanded to include a range of 1,100 animals from more than 200 different species.

Georgia Aquarium (Atlanta, Georgia)

A whale shark swims in the aquarium tank.

A whale shark swims in the aquarium tank.

The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta tops many lists of the best aquariums in the country. With so many educational experiences, fascinating exhibits, and entertaining events it’s not difficult to understand why it’s made our list, too. When you visit the Georgia Museum, enjoy wandering amongst impressive tanks of marine life, and make sure to check out the illusive whale sharks. This aquarium is the only institution outside of Asia to house this particular shark species. In total, the Georgia Aquarium contains between 100,000 and 120,000 fish and other sea creatures.

San Diego Zoo (San Diego, CA)

Lunchtime for a Giant Panda at the San Diego Zoo.

Lunchtime for a Giant Panda at the San Diego Zoo.

Over 3,700 rare and endangered animals call the San Diego Zoo home, and the animal population there represents more than 650 species and subspecies. With naturalistic habitats that range from lush terrain to jungles to arctic settings, the zoo sits on 100 acres of land. Here you will find endangered animals, such as the Giant Panda and Malayan Tiger, and you can watch them in person or via the zoos many live web cams. If you’re worried about crowds, or want to see what the animals do outside of the zoo’s standard hours, register for a Twilight Trek or Sunrise Surprise Stroll for a glimpse into the nocturnal animals’ lives and early risers’ habits. While most animals can only be viewed at a safe distance, some are available to get up close and personal with in the Petting Paddock.