If you’re looking for a fun-filled family adventure in the US, you can never go wrong with any one of these 10 largest and best zoos in the United States.
Adults and children are always curious about the many different animal species in the world- especially those that are not native to America. Thanks to the over 2,800 zoos and aquariums spanning multiple landscapes and cities in the United States, you don’t really need to travel to every country where a specific species is found.
All you need to do is pay a reasonable fee and enjoy a wild and exotic adventure with your family and friends.
Given that the U.S. alone has over 2,800 zoos and aquariums and that over 300 of them are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), choosing the best zoo to visit can be a little bit complicated.
Lucky for you, we have scrounged through an extensive list of famous zoos and aquariums to provide you with the 10 best zoos that receive the largest number of visitors annually and provide a huge variety of species for an adventure-filled trip.
What is the Best Zoo in the US?
- San Diego Zoo
- Saint Louis Zoo
- Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium
- Disney’s Animal Kingdom
- Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
- Bronx Zoo
- Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden
- Woodland Park Zoo
- Smithsonian National Zoological Park
- Denver Zoo
1. San Diego Zoo
Best Zoo on the West Coast
|Location||San Diego, California|
|Hours||9 am – 8 pm every day of the year including the holidays|
|Admission||$50 for children between ages 3-11 and $60 for children and adults from age 12 upwards|
With over 4 million visitors annually, the San Diego Zoo is currently the most visited zoo in the United States. It has also been highly regarded as one of the best zoos of all time!
So what makes it a popular hotspot for tourists?
Situated in Balboa Park in San Diego, California, the 100-acre zoo is home to over 3500 animals of more than 800 species and an approximated 800 subspecies. As a matter of fact, the San Diego Zoo is reputed as one of the few zoos in the world that houses and successfully bred the Giant Panda. (they were sadly returned to their Chinese homeland in 2019).
As a visitor, there are so many exhibits to visit in the zoo, with some of the most popular ones including the Elephant Odyssey, the Outback which houses a huge number of Australian Koalas and Kangaroos, the Panda Canyon, and the African Rocks which was opened in 2017 and highlights the biodiversity of Africa. Other popular exhibits include the Polar Bear Plunge, the Monkey Trails and Forest Tales, Urban Jungle, Cougar, Clouded Leopard, Madagascar Forest, and so many more.
The San Diego zoo has for years been active in the conservation and species- preservation efforts. It hosts quite a large number of endangered species. From polar bears, orangutans, California condors, black rhinos, red pandas, Hawaiian crows, burrowing owls, Galapago tortoises, clouded leopards to the Southwestern pond turtles, there is so much to see.
If you’re planning to visit with the kids, don’t let them miss out on Petting Paddock where they’ll be able to pet a wide variety of farm animals like sheep, goats, cows, and pigs as well as the Discovery Outpost which is a fun outdoor playground. The Urban Jungle exhibit lets you interact with and even feed the animals. If you have a little extra time, drive the short distance over to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to experience the incredible 1,800 acres of animals in a more natural environment, which together make this the best zoo in California.
2. Saint Louis Zoo
Best Zoo in the Midwest
|Location||St. Louis, Missouri|
|Hours||9 am – 4 pm|
|Admission||FREE except for some specific park zones & attractions|
First opened in 1910, the Saint Louis Zoo is undoubtedly one of the oldest zoos in the US and the best zoo in the midwest. Also referred to as the Saint Louis Zoological Park, the zoo which is located in Forest Park, St. Louis Missouri is home to over 12,000 animals from over 500 species, making it one of the most recognized zoos in the US and the world. It lies in a huge tract of land spanning 90 acres.
The zoo is AZA-accredited and is also recognized as one of the leading zoos in animal management, conservation, research, and education.
Every single year, the zoo attracts over 3 million visitors and the best part is, it’s completely free! It’s thus considered as America’s Top Free Attraction.
What to Do and Where to Visit
The zoo has several zones where visitors can view a wide variety of animals. There is the River’s Edge which displays a huge variety of animals from four continents.
In the African exhibit, you’ll see animals like the African Wild Dogs, bat-eared foxes, black rhinoceros, tilapia, cheetahs, hippopotamus, and others. The South American exhibit displays animals like the scarlet macaws, capybaras, spectacled bears, and others. The Asia exhibit features sun bears and the Asian elephants while the North America exhibit showcases wildlife and fish from the Missouri and Mississippi river.
The Children’s Zoo has numerous education features for your kids and displays a variety of animals as well, including the Tasmanian devils which were placed in this particular section. This section requires an admission fee though, although it’s usually free during the first hour after the zoo opens.
Other adventurous park zones in the St. Louis Zoo include the Lakeside Crossing (requires admission fees as well), Historic Hill with a Bird Garden, Bird House, Sea Lion Sound, Primate House, and other as well as the Red Rocks zone which is home to a variety of big cats species.
The Saint Louis Zoo offers so much to see at no extra cost except for the special zones. It has an extensive selection of animals and with so many park zones to visit-you’re looking at a whole-day adventure!
3. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium
|Hours||10 am – 4 pm including every other holiday except Christmas Day|
|Admission||Fees range from $18.95 – $25.95. Entry is free for children of ages two and below|
The Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium is hands-down one of the best zoos in the United States and the world. The AZA-accredited zoo which is also a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums praised for its dedication to animal conservation and research.
Considered one of the largest zoos in the world, this 130 acres animal conservation which was established in 1894 (originally as Riverview Park Zoo) is packed with quite a good number of marvels.
Inside the zoo is the popular Lied Jungle which is one of the world’s largest indoor rainforests. It’s also home to the Desert Dome, which is once again one of the world’s largest indoor deserts as well as the biggest glazed geodesic dome in the entire world. The zoo is also home to the biggest cat complex in the US and also houses the Kingdom of the Night, which is considered the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit and indoor swamp.
The zoo, which sits on 130 acres, welcomes over 2 million visitors each year. This huge tract of land houses some of its most popular exhibits including the African Grasslands which is a whopping 28-acre exhibit that hosts a wide range of African species. Here, you’ll find the rare and endangered white rhinos, hoofstock, Meerkats, Lions, Cheetahs, Giraffes, and many more. There is a section called the Giraffe Encounter where visitors can actually feed the giraffes.
The Kingdom of the Seas Aquarium displays various aquatic habitats with a wide variety of aquatic species. There is even a massive 450,000 shark tank and other small tanks hosting various sea animals.
Other major exhibits found in Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium include the Asian Highlands, the Butterfly and Insect Pavillion, the Desert Dome, the Expedition Madagascar, the Hubbard Gorilla Valley, Garden of the Senses, and many others.
The zoo also offers various educational programs for kids. It would be a good idea to take the kids with you.
There is so much to see and so much to do in this massive adventurous zoo and aquarium. It’s an experience you’ll live to remember.
4. Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Best Zoo on the East Coast / Best Zoo in the South
|Location||Bay Lake, Florida|
|Hours||8 am – 5 pm|
|Admission||Tickets range from $109 upwards for children from the age of 10+|
If you’re planning a few days vacation at the Walt Disney World Resort, make sure you don’t miss out on all the fun and adventure provided by Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the best zoo in Florida.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a zoological theme park inside the Walt Disney World Resort. It’s currently the largest theme park in the world, sitting on a 580 acres piece of land. With such an expansive theme park, your expectations are high.
When it comes to showcasing a wide variety of exotic and endangered species, the Disney Animal Kingdom zoo does not disappoint.
The park was opened in 1988 and has since been dedicated to animal and natural environment conservation. The park currently houses over 1700 animals from over 250 different species.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom is divided into 7 themed areas which include the Oasis, Discovery Land, Pandora, Africa, Rafiki’s Planet Watch, Asia, and Dinoland USA.
Once you visit the park, you’ll be spoilt for choice because there is so much to see and so many things to do. Visit the Pandora- The World of Avatar which is themed to the fictional alien exoplanetary moon or take a short photo safari aboard a safari vehicle on Africa’s main attraction, the Kilimanjaro Safaris. And don’t even think about missing out on the thrilling DinoLand USA where you and the kids will learn more about the dinosaurs and other prehistoric life.
You might want to book a short vacation if you want to have a real-life adventure in this expansive theme park.
5. Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
|Hours||10am – 4pm|
|Admission||$16.99 to $21.99 (Franklin County Residents: $11.99 to $16.99). Under age 3 is free.|
Opened in 1927 as the Columbus Zoological Gardens, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium happens to be one of the largest zoos in the US. The zoo spans across a massive 580 acres of land where more than 7000 animals representing over 800 species call home. It is located in Ohio, north of the city of Columbus in the United States.
The zoo has repeatedly been ranked one of the best zoos in the United States with approximately 2.3 million visitors each year.
Inside the hundreds of acres of land are animal exhibits that are divided into a total of 8 regions of the world. They include North America, Heart of Africa, Polar Frontier, Adventure Cove, Asia Quest, Congo Expedition, Shores & Aquarium, and finally, Australia and the Islands.
Each region hosts a wide range of land animals as well as water animals. Inside the Shores & Aquarium is a massive 88,000-gallon saltwater aquarium known as the Discovery Reef which houses countless species of fish, sharks, seahorses, and many others.
Visit the newest exhibit, the Adventure Cove, and marvel at the huge pool containing harbor seals and countless California sea lions, not to mention the famous Jack Hanna’s Animal Encounter Village which is an indoor and outdoor habitat for different kinds of mammals, reptiles, birds, and the Stingray Bay.
And don’t even think about skipping the Congo Expedition which houses a large selection of Central African rainforest animals. Want to see the rare Australian animals? Why not take a walk to the Australia and the Island exhibit where you’ll also get the opportunity to feed the birds with nectar!
Other superb attractions in this zoo include the Zoombezi Bay, the Safari Golf Club, and the Mangels-ILLions Carousel.
6. Bronx Zoo
Best Zoo in New York
|Location||Bronx, New York|
|Hours||10 am – 5 pm (hours may be extended on various occasions)|
|Admission||$18-$30. Some of the premium exhibits requires additional fees|
Bronx Zoo opened its doors to the public in 1899, making it one of the oldest zoos in the US and the entire world. The zoo prides itself as not only one of the largest zoos in the United States by area, but also as one of the biggest metropolitan zoos in the US by area.
The massive zoo sits on 265 acres of land within Bronx Park in Bronx, New York. The zoo is also renowned for its diverse animal species and is one of the many zoos in the United States that is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The zoo is visited by over 2.15 million visitors per year, which is quite impressive.
If you’ve chosen the Bronx Zoo as your desired tourist attraction this year, you’re in for a big surprise! At the time of writing this, the zoo is home to over 4000 animals representing over 650 species. Get the chance to get up-close with some of the world’s most endangered animals and also interact with your favorite animals like sloths, penguins, cheetahs, and many others.
As you explore the massive city zoo, don’t forget to visit some of its most popular exhibits and attractions such as the Nature Trek, African Plains, the Aquatic Bird House and Sea Bird Aviary, and even take a leisurely walk at the Mitsubishi Riverwalk. If you’re bringing the kids with you, take them to the Children’s Zoo and let them have fun petting some of the farm animals.
The exhibits are so many I can’t list them all down. This of course means more fun!
One important thing you should know is that the Bronx Zoo actually has two main displays. One is the free exhibits that are accessible with their General Admission ticket and the other one is the premium exhibits which require additional fees.
At an affordable admission fee, you and the kids can have lots of fun at this famed city zoo.
7. Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden
|Hours||10am – 5pm (may vary depending on season and holidays)|
Our 7th best zoo in the US is the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.
The zoo first opened its doors to the US public in the year 1873, making it one of the oldest zoos in the US. Actually, it’s ranked as the 6th oldest zoo in the United States.
As far as size is concerned, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden is not the largest in the US. However, the zoo which spans across 75 acres of land in the Avondale neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio and is home to over 1896 animals representing over 500 species as well as over 3000 plant species.
It is best known for being home to Martha, the last known Passenger Pigeon (who died in 1914) as well as the last known Carolina parakeet called Incas (who died in 1918). The zoo is also reputed as the first zoo to successfully breed the California Sea Lions, not to mention it was also home to the world’s largest Komodo dragon, the longest living American alligator, and the fastest cheetah in captivity.
While visiting, take a walk/ride to their Elephant Reserve consisting of the Indian elephant and the African bush elephant. Move along to the P&G Discovery Forest and view the two-toed sloth, a scarlet macaw, a cane toad, and more. Their Wildlife Canyon houses the Sumatran rhinoceros, elk, emu, and other animals while the Gorilla World houses the endangered Western lowland Gorilla and many other gorilla species. The zoo is also home to a wide variety of dragons, insets, wolves, and many other animals.
Animals aside, take a walk in the beautiful and refreshing botanical garden that consists of over 3000 plant species.
The zoo offers numerous adventures for families and even offers outdoor as well as overnight adventures. There are also numerous educational programs for children and their Zoo Academy offers students a chance to learn about plants, animals, and science.
8. Woodland Park Zoo
|Hours||9:30 am – 4 pm (hours may vary depending on season)|
|Admission||Free for kids below 2 – General admission ranges from $11.50-$17.00|
The Woodland Park Zoo is an award-winning wildlife conservation and zoological garden in Seattle, Washington. The zoo is particularly recognized for being the world’s first immersion habitat exhibit for gorillas that opened its doors in the 1970s.
The 92 acres zoo which is home to approximately 1098 animals from over 300 species is also known for housing a western lowland Gorilla named Bobo, a baby giraffe born to a reticulated giraffe and a South African giraffe, and other notable animals.
The zoo is also home to various Australian species found in the Australian exhibit. Other major exhibits include Tropical Asia, Temperate Forest, African Savanna, and others. If visiting with kids, make sure they visit the Zoomazium, which is an indoor children’s play area where the young ones can learn while having fun exploring. At least 35 animal species in this zoo are endangered while 5 others are threatened.
In addition to the huge selection of animals, the zoo also has a wide selection of plant species, shrubs, herbs, trees, and a sensory garden.
The Woodland Park Zoo may not be the largest zoo in the US, but the huge selection of animal species and plants it offers is enough to amaze you. As a recipient of over 65 awards and with approximately 1.4 million visitors annually, the Woodland Park Zoo is a must-visit tourist attraction zoo.
9. Smithsonian National Zoological Park
|Hours||8 am – 4 pm (Closed on Christmas)|
Commonly known as the National Zoo, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park is one of the oldest zoos in the United States. It’s part of the Smithsonian Institution. Entry to this zoo is completely free.
The Smithsonian National Zoological Park first opened its doors to the public in the year 1889. Over the years, the zoo has accommodated more than 2000 animals representing over 400 species, 30-40 of which are endangered species. Receiving over 1.8 million visitors every year, it’s undoubtedly one of the best zoos in the US.
The zoo offers a wide variety of exhibits- you’ll be spoilt for a choice during your visit here. You’ll get to see giant pandas, sloth bears, Asian elephants, a clouded elephant, sea lions in the American Trail, and also take your kids to the Kid’s Farm where they can pet various domesticated animals.
The zoo also frequently partners with Friends of the National Zoo which is a non-profit organization to hold annual fundraisers. The proceeds go to conservation science, animal care, education, and sustainability of the zoo.
The zoo which sits on a 163-acre land is undoubtedly one of the largest zoos in the US.
Given the fact that it’s a free zoo, nothing should stop you from having the best time of your life! Your kids will enjoy the adventurous visit as well.
10. Denver Zoo
|Hours||10 am – 5 pm|
|Admission||Free for kids under the age of 2. Admission ranges from $10 – $15|
And last but not least, we have the Denver Zoo which is currently one of the most popular zoos in the US. The zoo covers up to 80 acres and is home to over 3500 animals representing over 550 species. So despite being smaller than most zoos, it has still managed to accommodate a huge variety of animals.
The zoological garden became the first zoo in the US to use naturalistic zoo enclosures instead of cages with bars. It’s an ISO 14001 certified zoo that was also named the “Greenest Zoo in the Country.”
There are countless exhibits to visit and enjoy wild encounters with thousands of animal species. The zoo’s Primate Panorama exhibit is home to apes and other large primates. There is also the Predator Ridge which represents the African Savanna and consists of African wild dogs, lions, spotted hyenas, and many other animals.
The zoo is also home to a variety of hoofed mammals, birds, and even includes a Stingray Covet that houses a wide variety of sea animals.
The zoo also provides educational programs for visitors and their Denver Zoo Audio Tour provides visitors with the ability to hear useful educational presentations about various animals in the zoo.
Special events like Boo at the Zoo are held on Halloween for kids while the Zoo Lights is usually opened during December evenings.
If you’re looking forward to your visit to the Denver Zoo, you can be sure that lots of fun-filled adventure is waiting for you.
What is the Best Zoo on the East Coast?
The best zoos on the East Coast are the Bronx Zoo (Bronx, NY) and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park (Washington, D.C.).
Wrapping it Up
There you have it! These are some of the best zoos you should consider visiting with your family and friends. If you don’t have the budget to take your entire family, you can always opt for free-entry zoos. Otherwise, go ahead and enjoy these fun and thrilling adventures.
Lydia King is a huge animal lover and has always been fascinated with learning about the animal kingdom. She enjoys writing about anything animal related from scientific information about rare species to animal references in pop culture.