Inspiration

The 10 Best Zoos in the US to Visit in 2021

With around 470 zoological facilities licensed by the US Department of Agriculture, narrowing down a list of the best zoos in the US is tricky.

Nonetheless, I did my research, looked for the crowd favorites, added some of mine, and compiled a list.

Some of these zoos, you may have heard of or even been to, while others may sound totally new. Either way, I hope this inspires you to visit one of them soon.

Here are some of the best zoos in the US that you can visit.

10 Best Zoos in the US

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

The 170-acre Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and 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

Essential Information

  • 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 an authentic desert ecosystem inside the world’s largest indoor desert), the Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium (walk on the bottom of the ocean as sharks circle above you), and the Eugene T. Mahoney Kingdoms of the Night (the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit with various ecosystems from forests to swamps).
  • 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 a night at the zoo.
  • Animal Interaction: Feed lettuce to giraffes, feed koi in the lagoon, or visit the separate petting zoo to hug some goats.
  • Tickets: Adults (12 years old above): May to Sep: $25.95 per head; Oct to Nov: $20.95 per head; Dec to Feb: $16.95 per head; Mar to Apr: $20.95; discounts available for children (3 to 11 years old), seniors, military, and students; free for children under 2 years old. Check here for updated Omaha zoo ticket prices.
  • Opening Hours: Apr to Oct: Mon–Sun 9am–3pm; Nov to Mar: Mon–Sun 10am–4pm; open year-round except Christmas Day
  • Address: 3701 S 10th St, Omaha, NE 68107 | 402-733-8401

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 adorable red pandas are in the Asian Passage Zone.

San Diego Zoo

Essential Information

  • 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 Tasmanian devils in Outback, Polar Bear Plunge in Northern Frontier, Elephant Odyssey, gorillas and otters in Lost Forest, and penguins at Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks.
  • 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 $50 to $60, depending on the type of passes.
  • Opening Hours: The San Diego Zoo is open every day of the year, rain or shine, including all holidays. Hours vary, so check this page first.
  • Address: 2920 Zoo Dr, San Diego, CA 92101 | 619-231-1515

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 home to 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, orangutans, and gorillas at Tropic World, the impressive variety of endangered snow leopards, African lions, Amur leopards at Big Cats, and free-flying Rodrigues 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 Encounters allows visitors to participate in hands-on feeding of animals like goats, parakeets, reindeer, alpacas, llamas, pandas, wallabies, and more. Also, you can stop by Habitat Africa: The Savannah to feed the giraffes with delicious greens
  • Tickets: Adults (12 years old above): $24.95; discounts available for children (3 to 11 years old), seniors, military, and students; free for children under 2 years old; additional activities may require additional fees
  • Opening Hours: Brookfield Zoo is open every day of the year, but hours vary depending on the season so double-check on the official site to be sure.
  • Address: 8400 W 31st St, Brookfield, IL 60513 | 708-688-8000

4. Bronx Zoo (Bronx, New York)

Not only is this one of the best zoos in the US, but 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
Essential Information

  • 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 6,000 animals of 700 species
  • Must-visit: JungleWorldWorld of Reptiles, Mouse House, Congo Gorilla Forest, and Tiger Mountain are must-visit exhibits.
  • 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: Adults (13 years old above): $30.95 per head; discounts available for children (3 to 12 years old) and seniors; free for children under 2 years old; prices may vary depending on the season and type of passes. “Experiences” cost extra. Wednesdays are reduced-admission days.
  • Opening Hours: Nov to Mar: Mon–Sun 10am–4:30pm; Apr to Nov: Mon–Fri 10am–5pm, Weekends & Holidays 10am–5:30pm; open year-round except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Check daily for updated park hours.
  • Address: 2300 Southern Blvd, The Bronx, NY 10460 | 718-220-5100

5. Philadelphia Zoo (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

It isn’t as big as other best zoos in the U`S, 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

Essential Information

  • 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, KidZooU is a wildlife academy that offers dynamic displays and opportunities for hands-on learning. Outside, there is a playground for kids to chill while adults get to rest. There’s also a play area called Meerkat Maze. Bigger kids can 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 tortoises, giant river otters, giraffes,  hippos, Humboldt penguins, white rhinos, and big cats like lions, pumas, leopards, jaguars, and tigers. This is an add-on experience, so prepare to shell out more cash for it.
  • Tickets: Adults (12 years old above): $24 per head; discounts available for children (2 to 11 years old). Ticket prices may vary with the season. Check here for up-to-date ticket prices.
  • Opening Hours: Mar to Oct: Mon–Sun 9:30am–5pm; Nov to Feb: Mon–Sun 9:30am–4pm; open year-round except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day
  • Address: 3400 W Girard Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19104 | 215-243-5673

6. Columbus Zoo and Aquarium (Powell, Ohio)

Its place as one of the best zoos in the US may be debatable, but its place as one of the largest zoos in the country isn’t.

At 588 acres, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is so massive 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 in 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

Essential Information

  • 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: 10,000 animals representing over 575 species from around the globe
  • Must-visit: Congo Expedition African Forest, North America’s Bear Exhibit section, and Adventure Cove, where you’ll find the 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 Australia & The Islands, touch stingrays on Stingray Bay, or feed giraffes near the observation deck.
  • Tickets: Adults (10 to 59 years old above): $21.99 per head; discounts available for children (3 to 9 years old), seniors, and Franklin County residents; free for children under 3 years old; Check back for updated general admission fees and package prices.
  • Opening Hours: Jan to Feb: Mon–Sun 10am–4pm; Mar, Oct to Dec: Mon–Sun 10am–5pm; Apr to May, Sep: Mon–Sun 9am–5pm; Jun to Aug: Mon–Sun 9am–7pm; open year-round except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Check updated hours here.
  • Address: 4850 W Powell Rd, Powell, OH 43065 | 614-645-3400

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, Pandora – The World of Avatar, and DinoLand USA. 

Disney's Animal Kingdom

Essential Information

  • Popular for: A mix of Disney musical shows, our favorite characters, exotic animals, and theme-park features in one.
  • Number of Animals: 2,000 animals representing 300 species
  • Must-visit: Don’t miss the Kilimanjaro Safaris (and many of its Africa-based animals), Maharajah Jungle Trek, and Rafiki’s Planet Watch. If you’re still here by nighttime, be awe-inspired by the ‘Tree of Life Awakenings’ and walking through the bioluminescent forest in Pandora – The World of Avatar
  • 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.
  • Address: 2901 Osceola Pkwy, Bay Lake, FL 34747 | 407-939-5277

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

Essential Information

  • Popular for: The zoo’s Giant Panda Habitat, which houses two adult Giant Pandas on loan from China named Tian Tian (male) and Mei Xiang (female) who had a cub named Xiao Qi Ji (male) in August 2020. You can even check them out on the 24/7 Giant Panda Cam no matter where you are in the world.
  • Number of Animals: 2,700 animals of 400 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: Mar to Sep: Mon–Sun 8am–7pm (last admittance 6pm); Oct to Feb: Mon–Sun 8am–5pm (last admittance 4pm); open year-round. Exhibit buildings, restaurants, shops, and the visitor center may have different hours of operation. Check back here for updates. For ZooLights during the Christmas holidays, the grounds are open until 9pm.
  • Address: 3001 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008 | 202-633-4888

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
Essential Information

  • 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: The Africa exhibit has 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, experience overnight family activities at the zoo. Or if you live nearby, you can have your kids spend a few days in one of their Zoo Camps.
  • 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 (except Christmas Day) at 10am, but the closing time varies depending on the season.
  • Address: 3400 Vine St, Cincinnati, OH 45220 | 513-281-4700

10. Fort Worth Zoo (Fort Worth, Texas)

Fort Worth Zoo

Founded in 1909, Fort Worth Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the US. When it opened, they had one lion, two bear cubs, an alligator, a coyote, a peacock, and a few rabbits.

Now, more than a century later, Fort Worth Zoo has been named the best zoo in the US in 2020 by USA Today and the No. 5 zoo in the US by USA Travel Guide.

Essential Information

  • Popular for: Being the only zoo in the US where visitors can see animals from all four great ape species, including bonobos
  • Number of Animals: 7,000 animals 540 species
  • Must-visit: The Museum of Living Art exhibit featuring reptiles and amphibians, the African Savanna exhibit featuring giraffes, zebras, hippos, and black rhinos, and the Flamingo Bay featuring three of six flamingo species
  • For Kids: Younger kids can crawl, climb, and slide in the Playbarn or ride in the Country Carousel. Older kids will have a grand time in a laser target game in the Wild West Shooting Gallery.
  • Animal Interaction: The Toyota Children’s Ranch and Petting Corral features an area for children to get up close to goats, sheep, miniature donkeys, chickens, and more.
  • Tickets: Adults (13 years old above): $16 per head; discounts available for children (3 to 12 years old) and seniors; free for children under 2 years old.
  • Opening Hours: Mar to Jun: Mon–Fri 10am–5pm, Sat–Sun 10am–6pm; Jul to Aug: Mon–Sun 9am–4pm; Sep to Feb: Mon–Sun 10am–4pm; open year-round. Check back on this page for changes in hours during holidays.
  • Address:1989 Colonial Pkwy, Fort Worth, TX 76110 | 817-759-7555

Runners-up for Best Zoo in the US That Are Worth Checking Out

As I mentioned, there are hundreds of zoos in the US, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Here are some more zoos you might want to check out.

Visit one of these zoos soon!

Going to the best zoos in the country is a chance to spend time with family while learning about animals, but it’s so much more than that.

Keeping animals in captivity for the benefit and education of human spectators may be controversial, and so many US zoos have sought accreditation by independent organizations that they have shown a commitment toward conservation and research.

Choose from one of the zoos that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to ensure that animals are treated humanely and that the zoos are heavily involved in conservation efforts.

I’d love to know your thoughts and add to this list. What are some of the best zoos in the US that you’ve visited? Did I miss a more impressive zoo? Sound out in the comments below!

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