Think aquariums are just for kids? Think again. Skeptics may see aquariums as a school field trip destination, and while they are a great place to bring the grandkids, adults find plenty about them to love, too. Connecting people of all ages with marine animals, aquariums are a window to sea life and the wonders of the otherworldly ocean. We compiled data from top travel publications (including our own) and put them in order of ratings on Google to bring you the top aquariums in the country. Get ready to be transported to the magical world of underwater life!
1. Suzanne And Walter Scott Aquarium
Our readers voted Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium as one of the top three Best Zoos in the U.S. in 2021 and 2022. Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium is the largest aquarium in a zoo and is TravelAwaits writer SG Morgensen’s favorite part of the zoo. She especially enjoys watching the Antarctic penguins jump in the water as well as the 70-foot glass shark tunnel.
2. Monterey Bay Aquarium
Looking out over one of the most beautiful coastlines in California, the Monterey Bay Aquarium sits on the waterfront along Cannery Row in Monterey, California. Each year, over 2 million visitors come to view more than 200 exhibits and 35,000-plus creatures that represent more than 550 species. TravelAwaits writer Wendy Lee calls it “one of the best-known attractions in California” and says it is “among the most impressive aquariums in the world.”
Set aside at least half a day to see everything from scampering sea otters to pulsing jellyfish as you make your way through this former sardine cannery. In addition to the sea otter exhibit, other popular attractions include the African penguins and the giant Pacific octopus. Home to leopard sharks and wolf eels, the Kelp Forest is one of the tallest aquarium exhibits on the planet at 28 feet.
Pro Tip: While you’re in the area, TravelAwaits writer Sage Scott suggests exploring the shops along Cannery Row. “Grab a bite at Lalla Grill Oceanside or the Chart House,” she suggests, “and be sure to try the abalone if it’s available.”
3. Tennessee Aquarium
Situated on the banks of the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga, the Tennessee Aquarium features more than 10,000 animals as well as an IMAX theater. It is made up of two buildings. River Journey houses all freshwater animals, while Ocean Journey is home to saltwater animals. “It’s a guided journey through both buildings, so you’re not just looking at big tanks full of fish,” TravelAwaits writer Robert Rosenthal tells us, “You’re following a journey from creeks to streams to rivers to the ocean.” Visit the Alligator Bayou in the Delta Country exhibit to see American alligators and learn about species such as sea lions in 3D at the IMAX theater.
4. Adventure Aquarium
Camden, New Jersey
Located on The Camden Waterfront along the Delaware River, Adventure Aquarium used to be known as the Thomas H. Kean New Jersey State Aquarium. Over 15,000 aquatic animals call Adventure Aquarium home, including the largest collection of sharks in the Northeast.
One-of-a-kind exhibits include the Shark Bridge, where visitors can bravely walk across the longest v-shaped suspension bridge made of rope in the world, just inches above sand tiger, sandbar, nurse sharks, and more. There’s also a 40-foot shark tunnel and a Touch A Shark exhibit, where you get to — you guessed it — touch a shark.
Adventure Aquarium also claims to be the only aquarium in the world with hippos on exhibit. Head to Hippo Haven to watch two 3,000-plus pound Nile hippos, Genny and Button, frolic underwater through the viewing window.
5. Aquarium Of The Pacific
Long Beach, California
Southern California’s largest aquarium, Aquarium of the Pacific, takes up five acres on Rainbow Harbor in Long Beach. Focusing on the aquatic life of the Pacific Ocean, it features more than 12,000 animals and over 100 exhibits, including frogs, sea otters, sharks, and sea jellies. There are also galleries to explore that highlight major habitats. At the Northern Pacific Gallery, you can find adorable otters and the giant Pacific octopus, which is known for its color-changing abilities and intelligence.
Kids love the interactive exhibits, including touch pools where they can pet sharks and stingrays. In the Lorikeet Forest aviary, you can hold up a cup of nectar to see if any of the colorful birds will land on you. Housed in a stunning new glass building, Pacific Visions offers more interactive experiences via art installations, an immersive theater, and more.
A Harbor Breeze Cruise can be tacked on to admission, giving guests an opportunity to see marine animals such as sea birds, sea lions, and dolphins from the water.
6. Georgia Aquarium
With approximately 10 million gallons of water (both salt and fresh), the Georgia Aquarium is one of the largest in the world. Located in downtown Atlanta just north of Centennial Olympic Park, the aquarium is next to the World of Coca-Cola and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Seven major galleries offer a look at thousands of sea animals from beluga whales to manta rays.
Animal encounters are a big thing here. In addition to up-close-and-personal encounters with dolphins, sea lions, beluga whales, and penguins, visitors can also book a Shark Cage Dive. It’s also the only aquarium in the country that has whale sharks. As the largest fish in the world, it is only appropriate that the whale sharks are housed in the Ocean Voyager gallery, which is one of the largest single aquatic exhibits in the world. The exhibit features an acrylic tunnel that makes guests feel like they may be the ones in the tank!
7. National Aquarium
The largest paid tourist attraction in Maryland, the National Aquarium, overlooks Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Thousands of animals — not just fish — reside in dozens of habitats. For example, the Australian river gorge houses birds, crocodiles, lizards, snakes, and turtles. Amazon River Forest is a unique exhibit that shows how the rise of the river creates a seasonal habitat for all sorts of creatures. National Aquarium’s Tropical Rain Forest is home to birds, reptiles, monkeys, and sloths. Located in the heart of the aquarium, Blacktip Reef is a colorful Indo-Pacific reef where you can spot species such as zebra sharks from the underwater viewing area.
At the aquarium’s largest exhibit, Dolphin Discovery, guests can view the resident colony of six Atlantic bottlenose dolphins from the amphitheater or underwater viewing space. Interactive experiences are available here as well, including a chance to scuba dive in the Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit!
8. North Carolina Aquarium At Fort Fisher
Kure Beach, North Carolina
North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is by the beach just south of Wilmington. Exhibits include freshwater streams, coastline habitats, reefs, the open ocean, swamps, and even sea turtles. Habitats and animals are from North Carolina and around the world. TravelAwaits writer Peggy Cleveland tells us, “The highlight of my visit was seeing the Asian small-clawed otters in their expansive habitat in the aquarium’s conservatory. I could have watched these guys all day.” Cleveland says to make sure to tour the outdoor exhibits, which are a short hike on a boardwalk.
Visit during the holidays to catch Cape Fear’s Festival of Trees when “the aquarium transforms itself into a winter wonderland filled with glistening, glittering trees, decorated by local businesses and organizations, and art by local artists,” as TravelAwaits writer Betsi Hill describes.
9. Ripley’s Aquarium Of The Smokies
Gatlinburg is full of family-friendly attractions such as Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. More than 10,000 exotic sea creatures, including 12-foot sharks, giant sea turtles, colorful fish, and adorably playful penguins dwell in 10 galleries with different themes. Get an intimate look from the safety of a Glass Bottom Boat or collaborate with an African penguin on a painting.
10. Shedd Aquarium
Offering several educational experiences in one area, Chicago’s Museum Campus is a great place to visit and walk around. Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum, and Adler Planetarium are all located in this lakefront oasis. TravelAwaits’ Senior Vice President Missy Glassmaker tells us that the oceanarium looks out onto Lake Michigan and is home to beluga whales, dolphins, sea otters, and sea lions.
Shedd’s Great Lakes exhibit showcases species that are native to the region. Here, you can feel the leathery skin of a sturgeon, armored with bony plates, which have helped the “living fossils” dwell at the bottom of lakes for over 200 million years. Learn all about several species of seahorses and seadragons at various exhibits. For instance, did you know that these odd-looking, alien-like fish are one of the most effective predators of the sea?
Like some other museums and aquariums on this list, Shedd offers an overnight sleepover for kiddos. At Asleep with the Fishes, overnight guests can view exhibits after hours, participate in scavenger hunts, create crafts, and more!
11. Texas State Aquarium
Corpus Christi, Texas
Texas State Aquarium is in what’s known as the Tropical Trail region of Texas, which includes Corpus Christi. TravelAwaits writer Janie Pace listed it as one of her favorite aquariums to visit in Texas. In addition to marine life, the aquarium’s 400 species also consist of jungle animals. Its recent Caribbean Journey expansion features a jungle aviary and a 400,000-gallon shark exhibit.
“Visit the Coral Reef exhibit to see a Mesoamerican barrier reef as you’d see off the coast of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, near Tulum, Mexico,” says Pace, “You’ll see the fragile ecosystem and its colorful fish, like angelfish, parrotfish, grunts, and butterflyfish. Then see lionfish, nurse sharks, tarpon, and other marine species in the Blue Hole exhibit, which simulates a deep underwater cavern.”
H-E-B Caribbean Sea features the longest acrylic window in North America at 68 feet long, which lets you explore a Spanish galleon shipwreck without getting wet. It also features predators such as reef sharks, barracudas, and stingrays. Islands of Steel is the Gulf of Mexico’s largest indoor exhibit. Decommissioned oil platforms serve as a habitat for loggerhead sea turtles, nurse sharks, snapper, and more.
H-E-B Splash Park and Owen’s Paleo Park are included with admission and offer a spot for pint-sized visitors to cool off and/or dig for fossils.
On Texas Independence Day, March 2, 2023, the Texas State Aquarium’s campus opens Port of Corpus Christi Center for Wildlife Rescue, the largest coastal wildlife rescue facility in the state.
12. New England Aquarium
More than 1.3 million folks visit the New England Aquarium annually, making it one of Boston’s premier attractions. Interact with sharks and rays at The Trust Family Foundation Shark and Ray Touch Tank, one of the largest on the East Coast. Speaking of large, the Giant Ocean Tank is four stories tall! This Caribbean coral reef exhibit holds 200,000 gallons of salt water and is home to Caribbean sea creatures such as Myrtle the green sea turtle. The Edge of the Sea Touch Tank invites visitors to pet a sea star and meet a lobster.
New England Aquarium also offers an opportunity to spot whales at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, which is a short drive from Boston. In addition to marine mammals such as acrobatic humpback whales, finback whales, minke whales, pilot whales, and endangered right whales, the marine sanctuary is home to white-sided dolphins, sea birds, and more. Visitors are guaranteed to spot a whale on a Whale Watch or they receive a free ticket for future use.
View From Home
Can’t make it in person? Many aquariums have live cams set up so you can see what the marine life is up to from the comfort of your couch. Just check the aquarium’s website.
Purchase Tickets In Advance
It goes without saying, but as these are some of the best aquariums in the country, they are quite popular. Therefore, you will want to purchase tickets in advance, which can also save you time in line. Arriving early during the day can help your chances of getting an up-close look at the exhibits, especially on weekends.
Shopping And Dining
Most aquariums have onsite dining in case you work up an appetite and gift shops so you can purchase a souvenir to remember your visit. Some even have online gift shops so you can just pretend you went, haha!
Parents and grandparents with tiny tots in tow beware, some aquariums may not permit strollers in their exhibits. Review the aquarium’s Frequently Asked Question page to check for stroller policies.
Most major cities offer CityPass, which includes admission to major tourist attractions such as aquariums. Check into this option if you plan on seeing more sights during your getaway!