If you want a family adventure, a fun date, or just want to see some cool animals, going to the zoo is a great way to spend the day. Zoos now offer creative trails that make you feel like you are traveling the globe, wandering through lush gardens and exploring natural exhibits.
Our readers chose their favorites and they are all worth setting aside a day of your vacation to enjoy them. You can find all of your favorite animals and many new and unique ones that may just become your favorite. Join in on an animal feeding or brave a ropes course to add to the excitement. Run as quick as a cheetah and monkey around in these fabulous zoos.
1. San Diego Zoo
San Diego, California
If you have heard of one zoo in the United States, it is probably the San Diego Zoo. This year’s Best of Travel Award winner is a lush botanical garden housing over 4,000 interesting animals and 700,000 plants. You can usually count on pleasant weather as you stroll around the 100-acre park located in Balboa Park in the middle of San Diego.
View the spacious, naturalistic habitats as you walk along Treetops Way or through the Lost Forest. All of the favorites are represented, such as elephants, gorillas, koalas, and polar bears. The zoo also features many unique animals, like clouded leopards, bonobos, red pandas, and California condors. You can learn about conservation and see wildlife ambassadors close up in the encounters at the amphitheater. Dining options are diverse and sprinkled throughout the zoo.
Pro Tip: If you have limited time and still want to see the entire park, hop on the bus tour or brave the aerial tram.
2. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo And Aquarium
In the center of the country sits a surprisingly captivating zoo in Omaha, Nebraska. The Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium spreads over 160 acres with 12 amazing exhibits. It boasts the world’s largest indoor desert, largest nocturnal exhibit, largest indoor rattlesnake exhibit, largest indoor swamp, and largest indoor rainforest. Efforts to stimulate normal animal behavior include habitats with natural landscape elements to climb and explore, and behavioral training by zookeepers. Foggy Forest and other areas of the zoo provide play opportunities for human animals also.
Desert Dome highlights plants and animals from the Sonoran Desert of the American Southwest, the Namib Desert of southern Africa, and the Red Center of Australia. Asian Highlands brings visitors through a forest and past waterfalls. Unique species abound throughout the zoo including David’s deer, bongos, Amur tigers, and bush babies. Omaha ranges from snowy winter to humid summer and the zoo enables visitors to enjoy it in any weather.
3. Saint Louis Zoo
St. Louis, Missouri
The 14,000 animals representing almost 500 species at the St. Louis Zoo can all be seen at no charge. At one of the few free zoos in the United States, visitors can explore 90 acres at their leisure. Stroll through Rivers Edge to follow the riverbank of South America and see Andean Bears, cross the bridge onto the African savanna to watch rhinos, then continue on to watch the Asian elephants play in a waterfall.
The 1904 Flight Cage was created for the World’s Fair. It remained in St. Louis and became part of a new zoo. Another historic building, the Reptile House, dates back to 1927. It was renovated in 1977 and now houses 700 reptiles and amphibians in desert, temperate, and tropical sections. You can even go way back in history with the Emerson Dinoroarus animatronic creatures. Some more modern adventures include the Zooline Railroad, Conservation Carousel, and 4D theater.
4. Smithsonian National Zoological Park
The Smithsonian’s National Zoo has been caring for animals since 1889. It sits in the heart of Washington, D.C., and is easy to access by the metro subway. Their signature exhibit features the Giant Panda on the Asia Trail. The pandas can be seen munching on bamboo or playing in the snow in a large enclosure. The trail also includes two other beautiful species, the red panda and clouded leopard.
In the Small Mammal House, you can view 35 species of adorable animals like fennec foxes, naked mole rats, and sand cats. Some of the animals occupy mixed-species exhibits so you can see how they interact. Of course, our national zoo also has an American Trail, where you can observe and learn about animals such as the bald eagle, California sea lion, and the beaver. Then head to Amazonia to walk through a rainforest where the animals roam free.
5. Bronx Zoo
New York City
The Bronx Zoo is the Wildlife Conservation Society’s flagship park and it sits in the middle of New York City. Their conservation work benefits animals around the world. The zoo spreads over 265 acres and houses over 10,000 animals of more than 700 species.
At Tiger Mountain, you can watch Amur and Malayan tigers wander through foliage and play in the pool. In Jungleworld, you can find Malayan tapirs, Indian gharials, ebony langurs, and Matschie’s tree kangaroos. (If you don’t know what these are, you need to visit the zoo to see these amazing creatures.)
The kids will love the Children’s Zoo where they can pet some farmyard animals and become part of the prairie dog exhibit. Adults can join the fun at Treetop Adventures. You can don a harness and tackle the ropes course high in the trees and ride the zipline over the Bronx River.
6. Oklahoma City Zoo
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
At the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, you can wander the park through interesting exhibits and engage in many fun activities. In the Oklahoma Trails exhibit, you can find over 100 native species, including grizzly bears, black bears, and mountain lions. The Herpetarium and Wetlands Walkway showcase more than 60 reptile and amphibian habitats. Head to the Great Escape rainforest to watch gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees climb rocks and play in waterfalls.
The OKC Zoo offers many ways to get a closer view and interact with the animals. For an extra fee, you can enjoy giraffe or rhino feedings, or a camel ride. You can also reach into Stingray Bay and feel the smooth skin of the stingrays or watch the antics of the sea lions at the Noble Aquatic Center. Wild Encounters also offers a behind-the-scenes look at one of six animal enclosures.
7. Cincinnati Zoo (Tie)
Personally, I believe Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden should be higher on the list, but I may be a bit biased. During my senior year of veterinary school, I spent 6 weeks at the zoo for an externship and worked alongside the finest veterinarians and keepers the animals could find. Now a National Historic Landmark, the second oldest zoo in the U.S. opened in 1875 with over 400 birds but only 26 non-avian animals.
While smaller in area than most city zoos, the Cincinnati Zoo’s well-planned space contains more than 500 animal and 3,000 plant species. It recently welcomed a charismatic, and now very popular, baby hippo named Fiona. The Night Hunters exhibit includes some unique animals, such as the University of Cincinnati mascot, the bearcat. Another inhabitant, the black-footed cat, is one of five small cat species that is involved in research with the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW). I was lucky enough to witness the great work of CREW as a volunteer.
7. Brookfield Zoo (Tie)
The Brookfield Zoo covers over 200 acres with large exhibits in a wooded setting. Fortunately, its location in the western suburbs of Chicago means that it is on flat land and very easy to walk around. The Roosevelt Fountain centers grassy lanes and makes a good meeting spot. The many indoor and outdoor exhibits ensure a fun visit whatever the weather. As a certified arboretum, the zoo feels like a hike through a midwestern forest with wildlife easily on view.
With over 2,000 animals, you are sure to find all of your favorites. If you enjoy watching gorillas and many different types of monkeys, head to Tropic World. At Seven Seas, one of my favorite spots as a kid, the dolphins show off how intelligent and talented they are. You can even feed the parakeets and touch animal ambassadors at Hamill Family Wild Encounters.
9. Woodland Park Zoo
Woodland Park Zoo cares for 250 species, including 46 endangered and 15 threatened or vulnerable species. The lush environment of over 90,000 plants and trees provides a wonderful environment for animals and visitors. The various exhibits transport you to the African savanna, temperate forest, tropical rainforest, and its native northwest forest.
The Living Northwest Trail features animals native to the area in order to educate visitors and promote conservation of the land and wildlife. You can marvel at grizzlies, gray wolves, elk, and river otters. Then you can travel to the other side of the world and underwater to see Humboldt penguins swim.
The zoo also offers fun events, such as Brew at the Zoo and Whiskey and Wildbites. You can also wander among 200 varieties of roses in the Rose Garden. The plants are cultivated without pesticides so that they can share some with the gorillas and other animals.
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