Inspiration

9 Best Zoos in the US to Visit in 2020

Narrowing down a list of the best zoos in the US is tricky, especially given that there are over 300 officially recognized zoos in the United States.

Instead of stirring up controversy by trying to label the best zoo out there, I’m instead going to show you a list of my favorites.

Some of these you may have heard of before, and others may be a total surprise to you. Either way, these are some of the best zoos you can find in the United States.

9 Best Zoos in the US

I’ve scrounged through dozens of travel blogs and took note of their most-recommended zoos in the US, adding some that I personally love. I hope this list inspires you to visit some of them.

1. Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium (Omaha, Nebraska)

The 170-acre Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium is hands-down one of the top zoos in America. There are trams and the Omaha Zoo Railroad to make your visit to this zoo double the fun.

Henry Doorly Zoo

Photo Credit: Ruiwei Qi

  • Popular for: The zoo’s work in taking care of many rare and endangered animals
  • Number of Animals: 17,000 animals across 962 species
  • Must-visit: Don’t miss the famous Desert Dome (where you’ll experience authentic desert ecosystem indoors under the most spectacular-looking dome), The Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium, and Kingdom of the Night (a massive indoor swamp).
  • For Kids: Aside from the Children’s Adventure Trails exhibit, your kids will talk about Henry Doorly Zoo for ages if you join the sleeping bag safaris and spend overnight at the zoo.
  • Animal Interaction: Feed lettuce to giraffes, or visit the separate petting zoo to hug some goats.
  • Tickets: Kids 2 years old and below go in free. Fees range from $9 to $21 depending on the season you wish to visit. Check here for updated Omaha zoo ticket prices.
  • Opening Hours: Open year-round from 9am to 5pm, including Thanksgiving Day but closed on Christmas Day.

2. San Diego Zoo (San Diego, California)

This world-famous 100-acre zoo used to house 3 giant pandas at its own bamboo forest, where you can walk through the Panda Trek and see them up close. But after 2 decades of stay in San Diego, the giant pandas had to go back to China. Gao Gao, a male giant panda returned to China in October 2018. His “baby mama” Bai Yun and their teenager-bear Xiao Liwu went home next in April 2019.

Fortunately, the Panda Trek is still there with the adorable red pandas.

San Diego Zoo

  • Popular for: Pioneered the concept of open-air, cage-less exhibits that re-create natural animal habitats, and a zoo that successfully bred Giant Pandas to prevent them from extinction.
  • Number of Animals: Over 3,500 animals across 800+ species
  • Must-visit: Koalas and kangaroos in Outback, Polar Bear Plunge in Northern Frontier, Elephant Odyssey, gorillas in Lost Forest, penguins at Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks, as well as pretty flamingos and otters in Lost Forest.
  • For Kids: Check out the outdoor playground called ‘Discovery Outpost’ and the Petting Paddock to be able to pet some sheep, goats, pigs and other farm animals.
  • Animal Interaction: Go to the Urban Jungle and feed some giraffes.
  • Tickets: Admission fees go from $48 to $60, depending on the type of passes. Packages with the double-decker bus tour or 4D theater are also available.
  • Opening Hours: The San Diego Zoo is open every day of the year, from 9am to 8pm, rain or shine, including all holidays.

3. Brookfield Zoo (Chicago, Illinois)

The 216-acre zoo is just one of 5 Chicago zoos, but it’s a favorite for housing many animals that you only see in national zoos.

Brookfield Zoo

  • Popular for: Being the first indoor, multi-species exhibit (the Tropic World), which houses animals from three continents.
  • Number of Animals: 2,300 animals
  • Must-visit: Check out the spider monkeys at the South American area, impressive variety of endangered snow leopards, African lions, Amur leopards at “Big Cats,” and free-flying Rodriques fruit bats, kangaroos and more at the Australia House.
  • For Kids:  If you have the time, let your kids spend the night at the zoo with the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sleepover Safari. It’s super worth it!
  • Animal Interaction: Hamill Family Wild Encountersis free from November 2019 to end of February 2020, so take advantage of hands-on feeding of animals like goats, parakeets, reindeer, alpacas, llamas, pandas, wallabies, and more.
  • Tickets: Admission fees range from $14 to $22 with fees for additional activities like joining the Motor Safari or a ride on The Carousel.
  • Opening Hours: Brookfield Zoo is open every day of the year, but hours vary depending on season so doublecheck on the official site to be sure.

4. Bronx Zoo (Bronx, New York)

Not only is this one of the best zoos in the US, this 265-acre attraction is also the country’s largest urban zoo and one of the oldest, having been open to the public since 1899.

Bronx Zoo

  • Popular for:  Having the world’s first in-house animal hospital in the zoo (since 1916), the first in the US to showcase okapi (since 1937), and the first in the world to keep James’ flamingo.
  • Number of Animals: Over 4,000 animals from 650 species
  • Must-visit: JungleWorldWorld of Reptiles, Mouse House, Congo Gorilla Forest and Tiger Mountain are a must-visit.
  • For Kids: The Nature Trek is a kid-friendly path with playground-like bridges and tunnels, giving kids a bird’s eye view of some of the animals.
  • Animal Interaction: The Children’s Zoo allows kids to pet some of the animals.
  • Tickets: Varies from $18 to $30, depending on season and type of passes. “Experiences” cost extra. Wednesdays are free-admission days.
  • Opening Hours: Generally opens 10am to 5pm, but may sometimes extend to 9pm. Check daily for updated park hours.

5. Philadelphia Zoo (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

It isn’t as big as other best zoos in the US, but this 42-acre zoo is considered the country’s “first true zoo.” It features a paddleboat lake, children’s petting zoo, a rainforest themed carousel, and WildWorks, a 10-meter high ropes course with bridges, ropes, and obstacles.

Philadelphia Zoo

  • Popular for: The Zoo360 Animal Exploration Trails, wherein tigers, apes, and other animals walk around the zoo high up in massive steel tube cages.
  • Number of Animals: 1,300 animals from 340+ species
  • Must-visit: Many endangered animals housed at The Rare Animal Conservation Center, birds from Africa and the Pacific at the McNeil Avian Center, wild cats like African lions, Siberian tigers, Amur leopards, and snow leopards at the Keybank Big Cat Falls, and Humboldt penguins at the Penguin Point.
  • For Kids: Indoors, the KidZooU has a lot of activities for kids that teach them about recycling, how this affects animals and so on. Outside, the KidZooU has a playground for kids to chill while adults get to rest. There’s also a play area (called Meerkat Mat Maze) at the wild hog section. For bigger kids, go on a scavenger hunt (Philadelphia zoo always has one ready).
  • Animal Interaction: The guided walking tour Behind-the-Scenes (BTS) lets you interact with giant tortoise, giant river otter, giraffes, the hippos, Humboldt penguins, white rhinos, and some big cats like lions, pumas, leopards, jaguars and tigers. This is an add-one, so prepare to shell out more cash for this experience.
  • Tickets: Kids 2 years old and below are free, bigger kids to adults are charged between $16 to $24 depending on season. Check here for discounts and up-to-date Philadelphia tickets.
  • Opening Hours: Open from 9:30 to 4pm

6. Columbus Zoo and Aquarium (Powell, Ohio)

Its ranking as the best zoos in the US may be debatable, but its title as the largest zoo in the country isn’t. The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is so massive (at 588 acres) that it features a 22-acre Zoombezi Bay water park, 18-hole Safari Golf Club, summer campgrounds, a theme park, and a ton of other activities.

And as I mentioned on my post about the best aquariums in the US, this place has many impressive features, such as the 100,000-gallon coral reef exhibit and massive outdoor tank  at the Shores & Aquarium.

Columbus Zoo

  • Popular for: Former zoo director “Jungle Jack” Hanna, who was a famous animal-expert guest on Letterman, Larry David, Good Morning America, and others news/talk show circuits. He was responsible for transforming the caged enclosures into habitat environments and conservation/preservation of many near-extinct animals during his tenure at the zoo (from 1978 to 1992). Hanna may not be zoo director anymore, but he is still around providing educational programs throughout the year.
  • Number of Animals: 9,000 animals representing over 800 species from around the globe
  • Must-visit: Congo Expedition African Forest, North America’s Bear Exhibit section and the newly-constructed Adventure Cove (where you’ll find the Life Support System building and new Animal Encounters Village).
  • For Kids: There’s a petting zoo, polar-themed playground, and train ride for smaller kids. The plane located at the Africa exhibit will also be a favorite for kids of all ages.
  • Animal Interaction: Walk up close to the kangaroos and koala bears when you visit the Australian section, or feed giraffes near the observation deck.
  • Tickets: Admission fees range from $11 to $22. Kids under 3 and Franklin County residents go in free.
  • Opening Hours: The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is open 9am until 4pm, 5pm or 7pm every day of the year, except on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

7. Disney’s Animal Kingdom (Orlando, Florida)

If you’re visiting Walt Disney World Resort for a multi-day vacation, include a day or two exploring  Disney’s Animal Kingdom. This 500-acre attraction is a zoological theme park divided into 7 areas, including Africa, Asia, Camp Minnie-Mickey and DinoLand USA. 

Disney's Animal Kingdom

  • Popular for: A mix of Disney musical shows, our favorite characters, exotic animals, and theme-park features in one.
  • Number of Animals: 1,700 animals representing 250 species
  • Must-visit: Don’t miss the Kilimanjaro Safaris (and many of its Africa-based animals), Maharajah Jungle, and Rafiki’s Planet Watch. If you’re still here by nighttime, be awe-inspired by the ‘Tree of Life Awakenings’ and ‘
  • Rivers of Light Dessert Party’.
  • For Kids: There’s an archaeological bone-digging activity at The Boneyard, but bigger kids would love the Expedition Everest — Legend of the Forbidden Mountain and a ride through the Kali River Rapids.
  • Animal Interaction: “Affection Section,” is where kids could pet goats, sheep, and other domesticated animals.
  • Tickets: You can buy tickets just for Animal Kingdom, after-hours passes, park-hopper passes, and other types of passes, from $100 and up.
  • Opening Hours: Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park is open daily from 9am to 9pm.

8. Smithsonian National Zoological Park (Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C.)

Known simply as “National Zoo,” this Smithsonian Institute-run zoo is one of the oldest in the country, having been open to the public since 1889. Half of the 163-acre zoo is open to the public, while the other half is saved for conservation and professional training.

National Zoo

  • Popular for: The zoo’s Giant Panda Habitat, which houses two adult Giant Pandas on loan from China, named Tian Tian (male) and Mei Xing (female). You can even check them out on the 24/7 panda-cam no matter where you are in the world.
  • Number of Animals: 1,800 animals of 300 different species
  • Must-visit: Great Cats on Lion and Tiger Hill, Amazonia, The Cheetah Conservation Station, The Reptile Discovery Center, The Great Ape House and Elephant Trails are some must-see exhibits.
  • For Kids: Me and the Bee Playground and the Tide Pool are free for everyone, but you have to pay $3.50/ride on the Speedwell Conservation Carousel and $3/ride on the National Zoo Choo Choo.
  • Animal Interaction: Interact with goats, donkeys, hogs, cows, and other farm animals at The Kids’ Farm.
  • Tickets: Always free of charge
  • Opening Hours: Open 364 days a year, from 8am to 5pm. For ZooLights during the Christmas holidays, the  grounds are open until 9pm.

9. Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden

Opened in 1875, Cincinnati Zoo is the second-oldest zoo in the country (after Philadelphia Zoo) and was appointed as a National Historic Landmark in 1987.

Although it didn’t make the best botanical gardens on my list, the garden exhibits and botanical education events are an attraction on their own.

USA Today named the Cincinnati Zoo the top zoo in North America for 2019, after hosting a poll for the nation’s best zoos.

Cincinnati Zoo

  • Popular for: Several breeding programs in its history, including the first to successfully breed California sea lions. It was also home to the largest Komodo dragon, the fastest cheetah in captivity, and the longest living American alligator in captivity at the time.
  • Number of Animals: 1900 animals from over 500 species
  • Must-visit: Aside from the Africa exhibit, the awesome historical structures around the zoo (like the Elephant House and Reptile House), don’t forget to pass by Fiona the hippopotamus, the first hippo born at the zoo in 75 years and went viral for being born premature and slowly grown healthier in front of the world’s eyes.
  • For Kids: If you have the time, spend overnight with the resident manatees or experience other overnight family activities.
  • Animal Interaction: Go to the Spaulding Children’s Zoo petting yard, animal nursery, and playground, where you can go near many of the zoo’s animals, including baby miniature cows, llamas and alpacas.
  • Tickets: Tickets range from $10 to $26, depending on date of visit.
  • Opening Hours: The Zoo is open January 1st – December 31st at 10am, but closing time varies between season. The Zoo is closed on December 25 only.

Which of the best zoos in the US have you been to?

Did I miss a more spectacular zoo?

How about you? What are some of the best zoos in the US you’ve visited? What puts them at the top of YOUR list?

I’d love to add more to my list of must-visit zoos, so feel free to sound off below if you disagree with these top zoos or just want to add some more…