Best Zoos and Aquariums in the United States

December 19, 2022

Zoos and aquariums are perfect for visitors of all ages, from toddlers to adults. No matter what age you are, these living museums will always evoke awe and wonder. There are dozens of zoos and aquariums all over the U.S. that offer the chance to see some of the most unique animals from across the world. In fact, many of the most well-known zoos and aquariums across the country are located in perfect summer destination spots. Check out this list of the best zoos and aquariums and plan a fun summer trip with help from The Parking Spot.

San Diego Zoo, San Diego, California

Maybe the most famous zoo in the country, the San Diego Zoo is home to animals from across the world. And better yet, it’s located in southern California, so you’ll likely be blessed with beautiful weather the day you decide to visit. Home to more than 3,700 animals, including three giant pandas, warthogs, lions, elephants, giraffes and more, the San Diego Zoo’s 100 acres are packed with fun and adventure. The zoo also owns the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which is only a short drive away.

Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta, Georgia

Bigger isn’t always better, but in Georgia Aquarium’s case, it is. Not only is the Georgia Aquarium one of the largest aquariums in the world with more than 500,000 square feet of exhibits, but the wildlife sets it apart as well. Outside of warm, tropical ocean water, the only other place that you can find whale sharks is in the Georgia Aquarium. You’ll also be able to see beluga whales, African penguins, sea otters and many other species. Don’t miss out on one of their regularly scheduled dolphin shows to see these intelligent animals perform tricks and learn more about the species.

St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis, Missouri

red panda at the saint louis zoo

In addition to more than 20,000 animals, 650 species, a ferris wheel, and a train, one of the best things about the St. Louis Zoo is that admission is free! Asian elephants, Chinese alligators, snow leopards, lemurs, penguins, Amur tigers, polar bears, red kangaroos and more, all call St. Louis Zoo home. There is even a 35-foot underwater tunnel that allows you to walk under eleven actual sea lions in their ‘Sea Lion Sound’ home. If you have extra time on your vacation in the “Gateway to the West,” you can also pay a visit to the St. Louis Aquarium, located in Union Station.

Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, Illinois

Opened in 1930, the Shedd Aquarium was the first inland aquarium to serve as a permanent home to saltwater species. The aquarium features belugas, dolphins, anacondas, piranhas, sharks, California sea lions and more. Children even have the chance to dress as penguins and go in the Polar Play Zone in a small submarine. A popular Chicago destination, The Shedd attracts more than 2 million visitors a year for its award-winning exhibits.

Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Washington, D.C.


Located in our nation’s capital, this zoo is home to more than 2,000 animals from 400 species, and is only 20 minutes away from the National Mall. It is one of only four zoos in the country with giant pandas and also features elephants, red pandas, lemurs, gorillas and more. The National Zoo is open every day of the year except for Christmas, and admission is always free.

National Aquarium, Baltimore, Maryland

As one of the most hands-on aquariums in the country, there are multiple opportunities to get up close to marine life at Baltimore’s National Aquarium. The aquarium serves as a home to more than 16,000 marine animals, and you may even spot land animals, including two-toed sloths, when you’re there. Other highlights include dolphin shows, sharks, tropical birds, and more.

Bronx Zoo, The Bronx, New York

toucan on a tree branch at bronx zoo

The Bronx Zoo is the largest metropolitan zoo in the United States, hosting an average of 2.15 million visitors a year. With hundreds of different species, an aerial ropes course, and award-winning exhibitions, this gem of a zoo is a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of New York City. You can even book an in-person Wild Encounter to see the animals up close and personal.

Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, California


The Monterey Bay Aquarium is situated, appropriately, right next to the Pacific Ocean. Many of its exhibits focus on the marine ecosystem of Monterey Bay, although you’ll see plenty of non-native species like penguins and sharks, too. Only a two-hour drive from San Francisco, this aquarium is well-worth a day trip if you’re vacationing in the Bay Area.

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, Cincinnati, Ohio

female lion at cincinnati zoo

If you and your family are interested not just in fauna, but flora as well, you have to pay a visit to this Ohio zoo. It’s home to over 500 animals and 3,000 plant species, and is a delight to plant and animal lovers alike. In 2019, readers of USA Today voted the Cincinnati Zoo as the top zoo in North America. It’s also the birthplace of a celebrity! Fiona, a hippo, became famous for being the first Nile hippo to be born at the Cincinnati Zoo in 75 years.

Mystic Aquarium, Mystic, Connecticut

aquarium visitors watch beluga trainers

As the only aquarium in New England with beluga whales, the Mystic Aquarium is definitely worth a visit. Like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, it sits right on the coast, although in this case it’s the Atlantic Ocean. Ever wanted to touch a beluga? You can book a one-on-one experience with these gallant creatures, or a visit with sharks or stingrays.

Will your next family vacation take you to one of these cities? Zoos and aquariums are an unforgettable experience for kids and adults alike. They bring you a little closer to the natural world, and bring wonder and awe to the forefront.

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